This year, we celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH). In the summer of 1940, a group of scholars founded the American Society of Architectural Historians “with the aim of providing a useful forum and of facilitating enjoyable contacts for all those whose special interest is the history of architecture.”1 The impetus for the society’s founding emerged during a series of lectures and “inspection trips” held at the Harvard University summer session, in which over twenty teachers and students of architectural history participated, according to President Turpin Bannister’s report in the first issue of the JASAH (the predecessor to JSAH).2 The society’s purpose soon extended beyond the useful and enjoyable to encompass research and its dissemination, teaching, exchange of ideas about architectural history, historic preservation of important architecture, visits to significant architectural sites, and cooperation with other learned societies.3 From its start, SAH has been a forum for architectural history defined broadly. One of the first papers given at an SAH meeting, and the first article published in JASAH, was not a study of a singular monument or a great architect, but an investigation of the effect of the Roman brick industry on Roman architecture.4 When the society was founded, its membership was projected to include teachers in professional schools of architecture and collegiate or university departments of art or archaeology, advanced students in the history of architecture, architects, those interested in the preservation of historic architectural monuments, local historians and antiquaries, and laypersons interested in architectural history.5 For its time, the society’s mission was inclusive and diverse (Figure 1).

Figure 1

American Society of Architectural Historians tour to Providence, Rhode Island, July 1941 (photo: University of Florida Archives).

Figure 1

American Society of Architectural Historians tour to Providence, Rhode Island, July 1941 (photo: University of Florida Archives).

The society’s origins at an elite university located in New England and the founders’ interests in American and European architecture were not determinate, but these initial conditions set precedents and priorities for the nascent institution. According to Osmund Overby, surveys in the 1950s and 1960s found that a large majority of papers presented at the annual meeting and articles published in JSAH concerned North American and nineteenth-century topics, indicating the persistence of a narrow scope for architectural history scholarship.6

In his 1969 study of 461 articles and book reviews published in JSAH from 1958 to 1967, John Maass found “enormous gaps and serious deficiencies in the writing of architectural history.” Maass’s witty dissection of the discipline’s shortcomings upbraided the field for its neglect of anonymous architecture, its racial bias, its tendency to follow the beaten path of previous scholarship, the lack of articles on industrial architecture, structure, or construction, the focus on isolated buildings, and the tendency to see architectural history as separate from other arts. He ended by calling architectural historians to break out of the “boxlike concepts” that constricted the field, to see social science, political history, economics, literature, psychology, and other disciplines as relevant to their work, and to “consistently link architecture to wider concerns.”7 We can add to Maass’s critique the gender bias of the field that the society institutionalized at its founding; while many of the participants in the 1940 summer session were women, for example, all the founding directors of SAH were men.8

A year after Maass’s article appeared, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, one of the society’s most consistent participants and critics, published another assessment of SAH’s deficiencies, “Maass for Measure.” After thanking Maass “for his exposure of irrelevance and professional esoterics in the Journal of the SAH,” Moholy-Nagy wondered at his hesitation to examine the causes of the “stagnation of a potentially creative and contemporary profession.” Identifying what she characterized as “the three worst hangups that have cut off our profession from architecture as a living reality of the past,” she lambasted the field’s obsolete curriculum, conventions, and publications. She called for the field to make a priority of “new materials and new hypotheses” and for the formation of a “new guard” of experts to delve into “unexplored regions and aspects of architectural history” and search for new challenges.9

Forty-five years later, architectural history has not become Maass’s paragon of interdisciplinarity and inclusiveness nor met Moholy-Nagy’s challenge entirely, but their criticisms might be less blunt today. The field’s engagement with “wider concerns” and “unexplored regions and aspects of architectural history” is evident in the recent programs of the SAH annual meeting and the tables of contents of JSAH, which indicate a shift away from the narrow practice of architectural history that they criticized so roundly. On the occasion of the society’s fiftieth anniversary in 1990, JSAH editor Tod Marder noted that its membership could count “archaeologists, archivists, art historians, critics, bibliographers, geographers, preservationists, and historians of culture, economy, education, literature, music, religion, science and technology, society, urbanism, and so forth” among those who write histories of architecture.10 The geographic, historiographical, methodological, and discursive range of research in architectural history has changed, such that the 2015 SAH annual meeting will feature sessions on topics as varied as migration, infrastructure, replicas, materiality, and emotions.11 The discredited dichotomy of “Western” and “non-Western” architecture has fragmented into new geographies, and the study of architecture produced in colonial, transnational, and regional contexts has become mainstream.

SAH has played a central role in establishing architectural history as a discipline and in disseminating the history of architecture globally. From a learned society with an American orientation, SAH has become increasingly cosmopolitan and has spun off several partner organizations: the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain (originally an SAH chapter), the Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand, and the European Architectural Historians Network. Today, the society’s self-presentation on its website indicates the degree to which its mission has shifted away from what might have been presumed about architectural history in 1940: “The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) promotes the study, interpretation, and conservation of architecture, design, landscapes, and urbanism worldwide for the benefit of all. SAH serves a network of local, national, and international institutions and individuals who, by vocation or avocation, focus on the built environment and its role in shaping contemporary life.”12

JSAH welcomes submissions across this broad, evolving spectrum of research, particularly work that engages political, social, and cultural issues and the built environment. During the three years of my editorship, JSAH will take up the challenges posed by Maass and Moholy-Nagy, as well as address contemporary questions about the nature of architectural history in a digital age. Still a forum for all those interested in architecture, SAH and JSAH remain true to their original purpose even as the notion of who and what is included in the field expands. In John Maass’s words, “Architectural historians are fortunate because they are working in a field where the surface has hardly been scratched.”13

To celebrate SAH’s anniversary, JSAH in 2015 will feature short essays reflecting on the past, present, and future of the society and its journal. In this issue, Gabrielle Esperdy, editor of SAH Archipedia,14 takes a retrospective look at SAH in its early years as a learned society, the nature of its engagements with the public, and its contested relation to current architecture. Appropriating the phrase “a parley of historians,” coined by a New York Times reporter in 1960, Esperdy examines the evolution of the SAH in an age of mass media and mass consumption, as it attempted to balance the sometimes contradictory imperatives of scholarly research and public programming, of preserving the past and addressing contemporary issues.

This issue introduces an updated cover and interior design for JSAH, which has not had a redesign since 1994. While JSAH remains similar in appearance to the previous design, readers will notice a modified cover template, a simplified interior page layout, and other subtle adjustments as a result of rigorous specifications for text and image placement. Many thanks are due to designer Sandy Drooker and UC Press coordinator Holly Irish for the refreshed JSAH design. I would also like to acknowledge the outstanding contributions of the review editors, my editorial assistant Danielle Peltakian, and managing editor Mary Byers.

Swati Chattopadhyay’s term as editor of JSAH and JSAH Online ended with the December 2014 issue. I would like to thank her for exceptional leadership and service to the profession as editor, and for her generous advice during the period when I was editor designate. In the course of her term, she has opened JSAH to “wider concerns” and “unexplored regions and aspects of architectural history,” and she has set the intellectual bar high indeed.



“Introducing A.S.A.H.,” Journal of the American Society of Architectural Historians (  JASAH) 1, no. 1 (  Jan. 1941), 1. In 1947, the board of directors removed “American” from the society’s name. Osmund Overby, “From 1947: The Society of Architectural Historians,” JSAH 49, no. 1 (Mar. 1990), 9.


“A.S.A.H. Beginnings: A Report,” JASAH 1, no. 1 (  Jan. 1941), 20.


See front matter, JASAH 2, no. 1 (  Jan. 1942), 2.


Herbert Bloch, “The Roman Brick Industry and Its Relationship to Roman Architecture,” JASAH 1, no. 1 (  Jan. 1941), 3–8.


“Next Steps,” JASAH 1, no. 2 (Apr. 1941), 42.


Overby, “From 1947,” 10.


John Maass, “Where Architectural Historians Fear to Tread,” JSAH 28, no. 1 (Mar. 1969), 3–8.


“Announcement of A.S.A.H. Directors,” JASAH 1, nos. 3/4 (  Jul.–Oct. 1941), 4. The founding members included Ruth V. Cook, librarian of the architectural library at Harvard University.


Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, “Maass for Measure,” JSAH 29, no. 1 (Mar. 1970), 60–61.


Tod Marder, JSAH 49, no. 1 (Mar. 1990), 5.


Maass, “Where Architectural Historians Fear to Tread,” 8.