History of the Historic Architects’ Roundtable

By James T. Wollon, Jr., AIA
Vice President/Research, Baltimore Architecture Foundation

The Historic Architects’ Roundtable, the research arm of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, began on 30 March, 1989, when Walter Schamu, FAIA, called together architects interested in architectural history and architectural historians whom he knew, to explore research possibilities.

Early in the Roundtable’s existence, it dubbed itself “The Dead Architects’ Society” after the popular movie Dead Poets’ Society, although the agendas have had no similarities.

Schamu’s original idea is still in progress, in a greatly expanded form: To research the early architects of Baltimore, particularly the 15 architects and three engineers who founded the Baltimore Chapter, AIA, in 1870-71. The Roundtable has met four to six times a year with no specific schedule, organization, dues, by-laws or membership requirements. It has had an agenda, however: research.

The Roundtable limits its research to architects based in Maryland (almost all 19th- and early 20th-century architects being in Baltimore), but does not ignore the identifications and attributions of out-of-town architects with Maryland work.

The Baltimore AIA Chapter has a large framed group of photographed portraits of members dating from early 1873, about two years after the founding. Many were known only by name and some were altogether unknown. Almost no biographical information about them was known. Only a few buildings could be attributed to them. Research soon gave life to these photographic images.

Schamu knew of Carlos Avery’s research on Baldwin and Pennington; he had invited Avery to give a slide presentation of his research, several years earlier, to many who eventually formed the Roundtable. Perhaps Avery’s most impressive success in this research was in showing how much could be learned about our founders and predecessors who were, until then, known in name only and by but a few buildings – or forgotten altogether. In researching Baldwin and Pennington, Avery noticed many other attributions. He has made these available and they have been incorporated into the various other architects’ project lists.

Participants in the Roundtable adopted specific architects among the 18 Chapter founders and, quickly, added other historic architects to the “core group” who particularly interested them; some predated the founding of the Baltimore Chapter and others postdated it.

Within a few years, the Roundtable had developed basic biographies on most of the core group, with rapidly growing lists of documented building attributions. To date, the Roundtable has compiled impressive biographical material and building lists for more than 30 professional architects of 19th-century Baltimore (but almost nothing on the three engineers counted among the founders, who apparently did not practice in Baltimore) and limited biographical material and building lists for more than 120 other 19th-century Baltimore architects and partnerships, most of whom were not full-time practitioners, as we understand the term. Some were builder-architects. Several were partners of the better-documented architects. We have identified over 130 architects and partnerships whose practices began in the first half of the 20th century.

The individual contribution of one Roundtable member, John McGrain, must be noted. He is systematically reading virtually all the Baltimore City and County newspapers, recording all information about buildings and their architects; 19th- and early 20th-century newspapers included much more information about new buildings than is found in newspapers today.