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National Building Museum announces The Gfeller Collection: Main Street USA

Categories: Articles, Press

Approximately 50,000 photographs of main streets a promised gift to the Museum

San Francisco, California; August 1978. Photograph by Barry L. Gfeller.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today the National Building Museum announced the promised gift of over 50,000 images of Main Street USA, all taken by photographer Barry L. Gfeller between 1976 and 1996. Made up of mostly 4” x 6” color photos and negatives, the Gfeller Collection: Main Street USA portrays roughly 250,000 buildings and 3,750 communities in 44 states and six Canadian provinces. Taken together, the images are a rare snapshot of late 20th-century North America.

Mike O’Neill and Suzanne Morel will donate the entire collection at the end of the year. The couple purchased the collection from The Silver Birch Centre, a Canadian charity, in 2017.

“Gfeller’s drive and ambition were extraordinary,” said Morel. “He told his family he was ‘documenting history.’ His legacy is not only an irreplaceable record of American vernacular architecture, but a record of the nature of main street commerce before the era of big box stores and the internet. You can see the economic cycles playing out in the photographs.”

Barry L. Gfeller was born in 1933 and lived his life in Camus, Washington. He worked in the local paper mill. When he was in his 40s, he took up photography and embarked on a series of expeditions, during which he drove thousands of miles, visiting every town along his path and photographing their buildings. While much of Gfeller’s motivations are unknown—he died in 1999—his style remained unchanged throughout the 20 years he made his road trips. He wrote the name of the town, the state, month, and year on the back of each developed image, which are almost all 4” x 6” color photographs.

The Gfeller Collection joins the National Building Museum’s holdings of over 100,000 photographic images and negatives, 130,000 architectural prints and drawings, 100 linear feet of documents, and over 25,000 objects, including material samples, architectural fragments, historic building toys, and paper models. After it is processed, the entire collection will be digitized and available on the Museum’s website, providing visitors the opportunity to find specific locations and dates, and perhaps the Main Street of their memories.

“We are delighted that the Collection has a permanent home at the National Building Museum, where it will be available to researchers and the public,” said O’Neill.

Selected images are available at go.nbm.org/gfellercollection. All photos courtesy National Building Museum.

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