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Into the Archive

From the Archives

Into the Archive

Sarah Rovang

I've spent a good chunk of the last several months away on research travel and I am finally back home and in the process of sifting through all of the archival documents I've amassed as I write the first chapter of my dissertation. Much of the material I photographed and scanned over the past year and a half I only had the time to skim while I was physically at the archives, so I'm just now in the process of really combing through hundreds and hundreds of pages of digitized documents. This material is primarily comprised of memos, personal correspondence, and ephemera: the sort of one-of-a-kind items that will only be found in an archive. Sadly, only a fraction of these items will actually end up getting cited my dissertation. I'm starting this blog as a weekly (or whenever I feel like it) way to share some of my interesting, strange, and exciting archival finds. 

I felt the impetus to finally start writing this blog after a particularly interesting morning of research. Specifically, I just discovered that the first design consultant that REA attempted to hire in an official capacity was actually a woman. Sadly, she turned the job down, but it made me think that about the fact that while many of the men who are involved with rural electrification have their own Wikipedia pages, the heroines of the story seem to have fallen through the cracks of historical documentation. Why not give a voice to those whose achievements have been forgotten? 

As a kind of introduction to the work I do, I want to walk you through a typical morning of research. I would recommend reading my dissertation précis first before continuing to get a little context about what I'm working on. 

In the chapter section that I'm writing currently, I'm exploring the contribution of Roland Wank, who was the Chief Architect of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), to the Rural Electrification Administration's (REA) architecture program. 

I have about forty pages worth of correspondence between Wank and his collaborator at REA written in late 1938 that I collected this summer at the National Archives branch in Kansas City. In the first letter where W.B. Phillips, Wank's contact at REA, lays out a vision for a new architectural program, Phillips suggests that Wank "bear in mind the distinctive appearance of Swedish cooperative stores" in designing new power plants and headquarters buildings. Had I read this passage a few months ago, I might have glossed right over it. However, it really caught my eye this morning because while I was on a fellowship last month at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami, Florida, I came across a book on the architecture of Swedish cooperatives from 1925-1935, published in 1935. I had browsed through this book and noted the similarities between these cooperatives and the REA buildings I'm looking at from 1938-1945. However, what made me really excited was the fact that yesterday, I was flipping through some issues of the Rural Electrification News (REA's monthly periodical) from 1940 and glanced upon an article comparing a cooperative project in Minnesota to one in Sweden.  While the article itself was more concerned with the similarities between the cooperative principles, this idea was illustrated by juxtaposing a photo of one of Wank's early projects for REA with one of a Swedish cooperative (see below).

REACo-OpSwedishHistory1940.jpg

That amount of evidence right there is enough to make a speculative argument for the influence of Swedish cooperative architecture on Wank's work for the REA, but I would like to have a little proof before I make that claim. In order to do so, I'll look for the following pieces of evidence: 

  1. I am not 100% sure that the photo came from book on Swedish cooperatives, so I've requested this work from Interlibrary Loan so that I can double-check. If the same photo appears in the 1935 book, it is highly likely that REA employees had access to that book. 
  2. I will need to figure out whether the book of Swedish cooperatives was available in the United States and known to the architectural community. This could involve looking for references to this book or images from it in American periodicals at the time, such as Progressive Architecture and Architectural Forum.
  3. Ideally, I'll run across some reference to Swedish cooperatives again in Wank's correspondence, indicating that he heeded his collaborator's recommendation. 

The reason that this connection is so interesting is that I already have copious evidence that REA based its organization and cooperative principles on European precedents in England, Scandinavia, France, and Germany. If REA were also imitating European cooperative architecture, that could mean that the agency perceived a resonance between modern architecture and the cooperative mentality they were attempting to perpetuate. Once I've done some more digging and hopefully found some more answers, I'll give an update on this line of investigation. Stay tuned!