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Collection of Early Architectural Drawing Instruments Donated to Avery Library

Tortoise Shell Pocket Set

A pocket set housed in a silver-bound étui covered in tortoise shell. English, 3rd quarter 18th c., by Edward Nairne

An outstanding collection of early architectural drawing instruments has been donated to Columbia’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library by noted New York architectural historian Andrew Alpern.

The collection comprises 170 English, Continental, and American sets and individual pieces spanning over 250 years of exquisite craftsmanship in silver, ivory, steel and brass. Sets range from small portable sharkskin or tortoise-shell cases containing the architect's essential tools—pen, scales, dividers, compass and protractor—to large mahogany cases containing every aid imaginable for the aspiring draftsman.

Shalgreen Pocket Set

A pocket set of silver instruments with an ivory scale/protractor, housed in a silver-mounted case covered in shagreen, the skin of a sting ray. English, 2nd half 18th c.

Assembled over a 40-year span, the collection is fully functional. According to Alpern, “Preparing construction drawings (as I have) employing 18th-century solid silver instruments of superb quality is vastly more satisfying than using ordinary modern ones.”

“We are tremendously grateful to Andrew Alpern for his gift of these rare and precious instruments” said Avery Library Director Gerald Beasley, who added that “computer-aided design has entirely supplanted their manufacture and use, but this only increases their research value to historians of architectural design.”

The collection, which also includes numerous trade catalogues and other rare books about the instruments, is available to researchers by appointment at Avery's Department of Drawings and Archives. An exhibition and catalogue are in preparation.

Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library is one of the most comprehensive collections relating to architecture and the fine arts in the world. Avery collects a full range of primary and secondary sources for the advanced study of architecture, historic preservation, art history, decorative arts, city planning, real estate and archeology.

Metric Protractor

Metric protractor

The library contains more than 400,000 volumes, including 35,000 rare books, and receives approximately 1,000 periodicals. Avery’s Drawings and Archives collection includes one million architectural drawings and records. The library is also home to the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, an operating program of the Getty Research Institute, which is the only comprehensive American guide to current literature of architecture and design.

Published: Apr 04, 2007
Last modified: Apr 04, 2007