Cornell University Library site
A. D. White
Architectural Photographs
Troyes Cathedral Corbel
Gustave Lancelot, Troyes Cathedral—Corbel (Recto), ca. 1870-1886.


The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, is home to the Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photographs Collection of approximately 13,000 nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs of architecture, decorative arts and sculpture. White (1832-1918), the first president of Cornell University, established the collection by donating several thousand images from his personal architectural library. Approximately 1300 images have been digitized to-date.

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History of the Collection

Andrew Dickson White and The Instruction of Architecture at Cornell

Andrew Dickson White, Cornell University’s first president, had a lifelong passion for architecture. He spent many years amassing a sizeable library of architectural books, photographs, drawings, plaster casts and models—a collection he called his “pet extravagance.” Soon after the founding of Cornell University, White proposed to the university trustees the establishment of a program for the instruction of architecture. “Outside of the great metropolitan cities,” he maintained, “there are very few architects who are really instructed in their profession [in America].” The principal reason, he believed, was that Americans had few opportunities to develop a sophisticated taste for architecture: “No one who has observed at all closely the condition of our larger towns and villages, especially those remote from the greater centers, can have failed to observe the great lack, not merely of architectural beauty in residences and public buildings, but also waste in expenditure, inconvenience and often unhealthiness coming from careless plans or lack of plans.” White’s arguments for the founding of a college of architecture were persuasive, but his pledge to transfer his own library to the university proved to be the deciding incentive. The trustees happily agreed to his proposal, and in 1871, the Cornell University Department of Architecture was established as the first four-year course in architecture at an American university. Charles Babcock (1829-1913), who shared many of White’s opinions about architecture, was appointed the first professor of architecture in the United States. As promised, A. D. White donated his architectural library—then considered one of the finest in the country—to the Department of Architecture. During his lifetime, he saw the small Department with one professor and twenty-three students evolve in 1896 into the College of Architecture, which by the time of the First World War boasted twelve professors and nearly 200 students.

Andrew Dickson White, Collector

White particularly admired the theories of the critic John Ruskin, and acquired photographs that illustrate the edifices Ruskin had pronounced masterpieces. Like Ruskin, White preferred Classical, Romanesque and Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque architecture. He also purchased sets of photographs that depicted contemporaneous American architecture, including most of the work of Henry Hobson Richardson (see the A. D. White Architectural Photographs Collection’s H. H. Richardson Gallery for a selection).

A. D. White collected photographs of medieval British, French, German and Italian architecture as well as images of Near Eastern and Classical structures by important photographers and photographic studios. Two particularly large gifts came in 1880, while White was Minister to Berlin for the first time, and in 1886. After his retirement from the Cornell University Presidency in 1885, White continued to purchase photographs for student use, especially during his frequent trips abroad. In a letter to President Charles Kendall Adams (his successor as President of Cornell University) from Florence, Italy, dated May, 17, 1886, White states “I send you...about 300 photographs...of important public buildings in England, France and Italy. The same to be held as a gift to the University for the purposes of the department of architecture and the general instruction of the students, under the agreement already made that the entire collection shall be preserved in the galleries reserved for that purpose...”

In a subsequent letter to Adams, dated May 28, 1886, White instructed, “Have [the photographs] put instantly into the cases...I have a natural wish that all students and the friends of the University shall see in these an ‘outward & visible sign’ of my state of ‘inward & spiritual grace,’ which is a continual devotion to the University which time & distance & nominal separation only make stronger...I wish the returning students to see those empty cases filled with these beautiful new things.” The photographs White so carefully selected as pedagogical tools serve today as historical documents. In many cases, they illustrate buildings and urban spaces now destroyed or significantly altered.

Transfer to Cornell Library

A. D. White's Architectural Photographs were transferred to Cornell University Library from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning in 1998. Prior to coming to the Library, the collection had a long history of use as an educational tool. The collection fell out of active use, however, once color slides took over the role of visual aids in classroom lectures. It was then placed in storage in a series of College buildings: first in the attic of Tjaden Hall, then later in the basement of Sibley Hall, and then finally in the basement of Rand Hall.