Friday, August 19, 2011

Russell’s Souvenir Building collection

SBCS’s DC convention in June also viewed Russell K’s collection displayed among his modern furniture. Much of his collection is usually stored, so we enjoyed a rare opportunity to see it in its entirety. Below are questions and answers to help us learn more about his collecting methodology:

Q: How did you get started collecting souvenir buildings?

A: The first domestic one was a gift in New York State. The first international ones were unique examples seen during an extended visit to the Soviet Union.

Q: Why do you collect souvenir buildings?

A: As an architect who has spent nearly all of my professional life working with historic buildings, structures and historic districts, together with having an ongoing interest in contemporary architecture, it was a natural extension to take note of miniature representations and begin collecting them. The hobby was greatly facilitated by my being able to do so much personally on an international scale.

Q: How many total souvenir buildings do you have in your collection?

A: With the entire collection being placed on display for the 2011 Souvenir Building Collectors Society (SBCS) National Convention, it totaled 853 pieces representing 61 countries.

Q: How long have you been collecting?

A: My domestic collecting began in 1974. My international collecting began the following year in 1975. I still am collecting from both sources.

Q: What was the first replica you acquired and how did you get it?

A: The first domestic replica was a presentation to me of a small, cast-iron, 19th century house in Rochester, New York by the Landmark Society of Western New York. The presentation was in recognition of my efforts as a representative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s support for the creation in 1974 of the Preservation League of New York State. My first international pieces were purchased while I served as a member of a seven-person, historic preservation delegation on a month long visit in 1975 to the then Soviet Union. I noted with interest in several official tourist shops the small, natural wood with burned decoration, representations of 18th and 19th century historic Russian churches and purchased a number of them. On that same trip I also acquired a number of small Russian commemorative/souvenir pins that featured historic Russian buildings.

Q: Which is your favorite and why?

A: I cannot say that I have “a favorite”. When I view individual pieces it is personally satisfying to reflect on where and when they were acquired. I also enjoy the diversity of materials represented in the buildings in my collection – cast metal, tin, wood, marble, glass, plaster of Paris, resin, paper, bamboo, stone, grass, etc. and the variety of the ways these materials have been used to create these miniature buildings. Those examples where I have personally met the artist that created them have an extra special association. Included in this group are: the series of large sculpted facades of demolished historic Chicago houses and commercial buildings created by a woman sculptor in Chicago; two historic multi-story houses in Sana’a, Yemen created by a young architect; and the model of a typical corrugated iron shanty house in South Africa created by a metal sculptor in Capetown, South Africa.

Q: How and where do you buy most of your items?

A: I buy nearly all of my items at antique malls, antique shows, flea markets, thrift stores and museum shops. International purchases are often made at such added places as tourist oriented shops, news/tobacco shops, artist’s cooperatives and department stores. A few unique pieces have been purchased directly from individual artist’s studios. My 50-year professional life as a preservation architect and historical agency administrator afforded me a unique opportunity to travel widely throughout the United States and internationally. As the Director of Field Services, Vice-President for Preservation Services and Senior Vice-President with the National Trust for Historic Preservation took me to all but two states and several foreign countries in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. As the Vice-President for Programs of the International Council on Monuments and Site, U.S. Committee, I traveled to a number of other foreign countries in Central and South America, the Middle East and Africa. As the Director of International Relations for the American Institute of Architects and the Co-Director of the Professional Practice Commission of the International Union of Architects I continued my international travels to a number of different countries throughout the world. Since joining the SBCS a number of pieces have been acquired at the annual convention swap meets. Being retired, my wife and I take both domestic and foreign trips and they always include stops at many of the aforementioned places. A number of pieces are gifts from my wife and son. As an architect, my son who works on many foreign commissions has added a number of international pieces to the collection that he has found on his international travels.

Q: How do you display your collection?

A: The portion of the collection on display is disbursed throughout our home with much of it being in wall mounted glass cases on our living room walls and on shelves in my office and guest room. Pieces that cannot be displayed are stored in boxes. All acquisitions are recorded on a self-designed inventory form at the time they are acquired. Having placed the entire collection on display for the 2011 SBCS National Convention, each item is now being recorded into a digital photographic archive.

Q: Any interesting stories about your collecting experience?

A: Domestically the most interesting aspect has been the discovery of and learning about the diversity of plaster models of domestic and foreign historic buildings created by the federal Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Since the school education program operated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was likely the largest source of such models, a number in my collection have been found at various locations in Pennsylvania. They tend to be large models and are somewhat problematic to store. Made of plaster of Paris and now nearly sixty-years old, they are very fragile. Patronage over the years of a number of regular vendors at flea markets has resulted in their knowing what I collect and their looking out for items I might be interested in buying the next time I see them at a market. Internationally I have learned to ask any and all professional colleagues and hosts met during the course of my visit to a country if they are aware of any sources of miniature buildings representing their country. Such inquiries have led to a number of unique acquisitions – such as the miniature models of church facades made of paper and tin foil found in Warsaw, Poland on the suggestion of the Cultural Attaché in the U.S. Embassy. I stay alert during walking tours of historic city areas, such as the World Heritage site of Old Sana’a in Yemen which led to the discovery of a small studio of an unemployed architect who was producing highly unique, handmade and painted plaster of Paris models of typical Yemeni multi-story houses.

Q: Anything additional you’d like to share about your collection?

The only “series” collection that I have made a concerted effort to assemble are the miniature, ceramic, Dutch houses given to Business and First Class passengers on KLM Airlines. My mother’s family was Dutch and with my extensive travels in the Netherlands, the 90 buildings in this collection have a special association. While serving at the Washington, DC headquarters of the American Institute of Architects I had a small portion of my collection on display in my office. It was a constant source of interest to my many domestic and international visitors. Having to organize and host a number of special dinners for international architects, I would often use selected items from the collection as elements of the table center pieces. They stimulated lively table conversation to identify what the individual pieces represented and where they were located. Regular visits to small and large flea markets revealed 19th and 20th century souvenir trays that featured nicely detailed representations of buildings and bridges. A 2008 first visit to the infamous Brimfield Antique Show, in Brimfield, Massachusetts resulted in finding a large box of such trays, both domestic and foreign, under a vendor’s table. The die was cast for another dimension to my collection! Currently at 75 pieces, it continues to expand. - Russell

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