Exploration, Innovation, Regeneration: NEH grant to process SMWM Collection is underway!

Posted on by Emily Vigor
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Cathy Simon

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Karen Alschuler

The EDA is excited to begin our next National Endowment for the Humanities: Collections and Reference Resources Grant to organize, preserve, and make accessible materials generated by architect Cathy Simon and urban designer Karen Alschuler of the firm SMWM (Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris)! It is fortuitous to announce the start of this grant during Women’s History Month, as SMWM was the largest women-owned pioneering design firm when it was founded in 1985 by architect Cathy Simon. The firm’s focus included architecture, planning, and urban design, and included locations in San Francisco and New York. Karen Alschuler joined the firm in 1991 as an Urban Design Principal. The firm’s award-winning portfolio consists of educational projects including work for the University of California Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Cruz campuses, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Bard College; public projects including the San Francisco Ferry Building and Main Library; master plans for Stanford, Harvard, Brown, and NYU; and urban planning projects for San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point district, Boston’s Central Artery, and the Transbay Redevelopment in San Francisco. In 2008, SMWM joined the San Francisco office of Perkins + Will.

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Cathy, Karen, and the EDA team accessioning SMWM materials.

The EDA acquired this collection in 2013, and you can read more about the process of how we accessioned this material in Cailin Trimble’s blog post here. In a nutshell, Simon, Alschuler, and EDA staff reviewed 5000 items over the course of 15 months. The term ‘items’ includes cartons containing paper records (personal, office, and project), photographs, slides, CDs and floppy disks, and material samples; as well as presentation boards, framed works, rolled drawings, and models of all sizes. It was an extraordinary collection to acquire due to its sheer size and scope of collection materials, and we are thrilled that nearly a decade later we will be able to properly process and make these records available to the public.

While archival repositories have long been collecting architect’s records, there are few collections of significance that highlight the collaborative and innovative approach to design that is the trademark of Simon’s and Alschuler’s careers. Their work demonstrates that by championing user-centric design, environmental stewardship, and social equity, architecture and planning can bring people together, create communities, and nourish urbanity.

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San Francisco Ballet Pavillion, San Francisco, CA 1995

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Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant, San Francisco, CA 1990-1995

The SMWM collection is comprised of project files and drawings, photographs, firm portfolios, born-digital design files, and models. Of special concern are the 12 cartons full of born-digital records on obsolete or proprietary removable computer media, including CDs, DVDs, floppy disks and ZIP disks. These are the materials that I will be processing first as we continue to shelter in place. I’m looking forward to tackling the sheer size of this collection as it’s our largest born-digital holdings at the EDA. With the lessons learned while processing Walter Hood’s collection last year (also funded by the NEH), I look forward to continuing to expand our knowledge and experience at the EDA to ensure that we are active participants in the preservation of physical and digital records of the built environment for future generations!

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Born-digital materials currently being processed.