Unintentional Preservation

Alongside documenting the activities of its creator, a fonds (a collection of records that originate from the same creator or source) will unintentionally preserve artifacts from another time. This is fascinating because an artifact can also provide a history of the particular period of time in which it was made and used. Today’s post reveals how the Tafel archive documents a piece of the history of the New York City subway.

In this case, I found a New York City subway token – fascinating to me because as I am not a native New Yorker, I have never seen one. Every city’s subway system is different however, some still even using tokens to this day. And having lived in a few different urban cities and being able to compare their subway systems, opinionated conversations about which subway system is the most efficient intrigue and amuse me.

The token is glued to a card made by Tafel’s employees on the occasion when Tafel became a Fellow of the AIA in 1986. Perhaps in the context of Tafel’s elevation to being a Fellow including the token in the card was to evoke the line: ‘that and a subway token will get you downtown’?

This particular type of subway token was in use from 1980-86 (see others here). Subway tokens in New York went out of commission in 2003. An interesting piece of subway memorabilia in the archive!

An Exceptional Childhood

Is greatness and genius bred in childhood or acquired with age? Does an unusual upbringing make for a creative person? Edgar Tafel had quite a colored past which seemed to lead him on a path of creativity and activism.

Tafel’s parents were born in Russia and immigrated to New York where they owned and operated Tafel Wholesale Gowns. They soon purchased a home on the Ferrer Colony in Stelton, New Jersey. The seeds of the Ferrer Colony began with Francisco Ferrer, a Spanish educator and radical thinker who was executed in Barcelona in 1909. Soon after, American anarchists began opening Ferrer Modern Schools in his honor across the United States. Tafel attended the Modern School in Stelton, the longest-running school which lasted 1915-1953.

The above article shows Tafel as conductor of the Modern School orchestra. The Modern School taught progressive education, where often the teachers were parents of children attending the school. The School’s mandate was to teach from example and experience and not from instruction and memorization. If a colony member had a particular talent, such as typesetting or carpentry, the children were taught that skill, as well as being free to study whatever interested them. It was at the Modern School where Tafel began constructing a model city; perhaps his first foray into architecture. Growing up in a progressive colony, and later attending high school in Manhattan, Tafel experienced both challenging big-city life and radical free-thinking, a foreshadowing of his future education as an apprentice at Taliesin and opening his own architectural practice in New York City.


*The picture is from an article in The New York Times, by Joseph Deitch, March 8 1981.

Miscellanea, Comedy, and Archivists

This letterhead of Tafel's with a cartoon by Gary Zamchick reads "Edgar can't come to the phone right now... He's busy making our home our castle"

Archivists tend to swerve away from creating the dreaded ‘Miscellaneous’ folder, but there are usually odds and ends that one finds in an archive that just do not seem to fit. Even more feared is the folder labeled “Miscellaneous” by its own creator!

Such was the case in Tafel’s archive, where I found dispersed throughout his files humorous and satirical writings or drawings done by Tafel poking fun at architecture, such as letterhead with custom, cut-and-pasted designs by Tafel, chain emails, comics, and mocking phrases (“The flogging will continue until morale improves” was used on one version of Tafel’s letterhead!).

Gradually, however, while gaining knowledge of an architect through their archive, an archivist can sense an overall theme to seemingly ‘miscellaneous’ files. In Tafel’s case, his satirical writings and drawings are proof of his engaging, charming personality. As if the countless letters of praise for Tafel’s lectures also found in the archive were not proof enough! Once the Tafel archive finding aid is published online, examples of his letterhead and other humorous files can be found under his Personal Papers.




Frank Lloyd Wright Week!

In 1978, June 2-9 was proclaimed as Frank Lloyd Wright Week in Los Angeles! Clearly his influence spreads all over North America. This document was found among Tafel’s papers, although there are no surrounding documents (so far!) to suggest who influenced the creation of Frank Lloyd Wright Week. Have a great one and do, as the proclamation states, ‘re-acquaint’ yourselves with Wright’s many contributions to modern day lifestyle.

Life at Taliesin

1934 Feb 24 letter from Edgar Tafel to Bob Goodall reads “Movies movies all the time – FLW’s new fad. The theatre is now being heated by steam for the first time.”

During the time when Edgar Tafel was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesin was a hub of creativity that accepted students and apprentices with a wide variety of talent in other arts besides architecture. Included in the archive is Tafel’s correspondence around this time to his family and friends, including Robert (Bob) Goodall, a draftsman from Chicago who stayed at Taliesin in 1932. Reading this correspondence really gives an insider impression of what Taliesin was like in the 1930s. You can watch an original film taken at Taliesin by Alden Dow at Taliesin in 1933 here on Youtube: Part I and Part II.

Frank Lloyd Wright was not unknown to the arts. He designed a house for Arthur Miller, prominent playwright, at the request of his wife at the time, Marilyn Monroe (more anecdotes of this story can be found in Tafel’s book, About Wright: An Album of Recollections by Those Who Knew Frank Lloyd Wright). Taliesin had a theatre as well, the Taliesin Playhouse, where films chosen by Wright were screened every Sunday. The public was also invited to the Playhouse; Tafel and other apprentices frequently wrote short pieces for Madison, Wisconsin newspapers announcing the Playhouse repertoire and other happenings at Taliesin.

Joining Tafel and the other apprentices in 1933 was Nicholas Ray, the director who would later become famous for his film Rebel Without A Cause which was released in 1955. Ray is mentioned numerous times in Tafel’s letters to Goodall; Tafel refers to Ray as the “fellow who came out with ‘No More Utopias’ last summer [1933].” Further perusal of the letters did not give any more hints as to what ‘No More Utopias’ was, whether it be a film or otherwise, but a biography of Ray does state that he “spent a few months with Wright, participating in the Playhouse’s activities.”ⁱ Therefore, it’s possible that the Taliesin Fellowship could have seen a special Sunday screening of an early Nicholas Ray film!

ⁱ Susan Ray (editor),  I was interrupted: Nicholas Ray on making movies, ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, c1993) xli.



Welcome to the About the Edgar A. Tafel Archive! This blog will document the processing of the archive until its eventual publication in an online finding aid.  Being an apprentice at Taliesin from 1932-1941 and a lively, traveling lecturer as well as an architect led Tafel to meet interesting people and collect unique things. I also intend to highlight some of these fascinating findings and facts.

The Edgar A. Tafel Archive was acquired by the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library in 2011 (see the whole story here). The archive contains textual records, audio-visual material, and architectural drawings. The textual records are now in the process of organization and description and contain files about Tafel’s personal and professional life.

I find that processing an architect’s archive always leads to many discoveries. It is intriguing how one can begin to understand how architects lived and worked through their archive. I hope that this blog can be a dialogue between other archivists and researchers.

Until next time!