It should come as a surprise to no one that I’m a Samuel Hannaford fan. An English immigrant before the age of ten, he grew up in Cincinnati in the mid-1800’s and went on to design hundreds of brilliant buildings throughout the turn of the century, the majority of which still stand to this day and define our iconic urban landscape. He built our City Hall, the Elsinore Arch, the Cincinnati Observatory, Music Hall, the Emery Theatre, Memorial Hall, Nast German Methodist Episcopal Church, the Citadel, the Phoenix Club, the Eden Park Water Tower and pump station, countless apartment buildings and houses, and so many more. He was the architect you wanted if you desired something grandiose and beautiful that would stand the test of time. His work transcends the ages and still remains relevant to this day despite having lived until only 1911. If you have any appreciation for architecture in Cincinnati, Samuel Hannaford should be number one on your list of people to know.
Because I’m so interested in architecture and photographing buildings in the area, I wanted to learn more about the man behind them. History is extremely important to me, especially Cincinnati history, so I wanted to digest as much Hannaford material as I possibly could. I would google his name and try to find as many details as I could about who he was and what he did during his time, going so far as to read his personal diaries on Selfcraft.net (thanks, ES) and create my own Hannaford family tree to understand who he was related to and when everyone lived and died. Sure, this may be a tad obsessive, but when I get interested in someone historical this severely, I embrace it passionately.
My efforts to seek greater understanding of the man behind the buildings reached a new level when I got on the Cincinnati Library’s database and learned they had some of his original sketches in their Cincinnati Room, a climate controlled archive of rare local artifacts. The description for “Architectural Drawings” on their website mentioned the 1873-1884 drawings were in ink and pencil and had been placed in two old railroad binders and encapsulated in plastic in the order they were originally arranged. I quickly realized I was within walking distance of seeing Hannaford’s own hand-drawn work and started vibrating with excitement. Embarrassment then wafted over me as I realized it took me this long to discover such an important historical relic was within reach and offered to the public. I closed my laptop, hopped on Red Bike, and rode straight to the library to see it.
I didn't realize the Cincinnati Room had different hours than the library, so I wasn’t able to get in that day and had to wait until Saturday to find time to visit. It was an unbearable week of struggling to maintain patience; I hadn’t been so excited for anything in awhile, to be frank. I largely kept it to myself as few others would understand why I was so eager to see a book of old sketches. Saturday came around and I was up at the library as soon as I could be. I walked into the Cincinnati Room and was presented the two massive binders after I filled out a form, gave them my ID, and placed my bag in a locker. A single camera pointed directly at me from the corner across from my table and I realized this was serious business. Something as precious as this was carefully guarded and I would be wise to appreciate the opportunity I was given to even have access to it (seriously, thank you Cincy Library for allowing the public to look at it).
I opened the binders and was surprised at first to see something not traditionally associated with a great architect. The beginning of the first binder featured a comical doodle of a house with little cartoon crows and buzzards eating “dead dogs” while getting sick. Caricatures of people in various states of distress and inexplicable actions dotted the landscape. He labeled everything in the cartoon to avoid character confusion, too (I especially liked how he labeled the buzzard carrying the cat). Little B’s with lined wings flutter around the top of the picture and I couldn’t help but appreciate the joke; too lazy to draw more birds and over-emphasizing the ridiculousness of labelled everything, the B with wings is hilariously self-referential when compared to the rest of the scene. I loved everything about the picture. A man skilled in the art of sketching architecture also found time to doodle. The next page also had a set of doodles, but to a much smaller degree. One was even scratched out, showing even he made mistakes. This display of humanity and comedy endeared me to him greatly and it was the perfect introduction.
I spent the next few hours poring over every detail of each sketch while continuously stopping myself from gasping in adoration with every page turn. Meticulously drawn floor plans with his handwriting outlining the title of each room, properly shaded finished designs at flat angles, and finalized perspective pieces replete with surrounding shrubbery and (sometimes) people in both watercolor and without any color at all filled the binders from front to back. I was amazed at how small and precise each drawing was and how he was able to render intricate detail by hand. His lines were so clean and deliberate as they all came together to form a picture of a stunning home or church or office building. The way he drew faint little guidelines before adding text to each drawing blew me away. We take for granted how easy it is to print words in today’s age; every letter of every word was thought out and painstakingly done by his own hand with staggering precision. Impressive doesn’t even begin to accurately describe it.
Then, after several pages of top-down floor plans, I paused and reflected for a moment while processing the lines. I imagined him huddled over a drafting table, pencils and dip pens and rulers strewn about him, sunlight streaming through a pane of glass onto his paper as he finished a sketch and started labeling every negative space left to represent the area in which a soul will soon make their home. His ideas would become the space where an infant would discover the sweet taste of a grape for the first time, or where a nervous couple would share a first kiss, or where someone would find meaning to their life through their religion, or where someone would pass away in their bed. With these drawings, he was not only the architect of a building, but of the expanse in which life would inevitably happen. His designs would direct the flow of life into compartments he created, thus granting him the incredible privilege of being passively involved in their lives indefinitely.
I realized I needed to document what I was seeing so I could see them again and again without going back to the Cincinnati Room every day. Due to the size of the binders, I wasn’t able to scan any of the drawings myself so I started taking pictures of my favorite pages with my DSLR as best I could through the rippled plastic coverings. After I was finished, I gave back the binders, picked up my bag and ID, and walked out of the Cincinnati Room, I headed down the hall and back out into the main library where people were quietly sitting. I was in a daze. I’d seen some of the neatest artifacts our city has to offer and added another layered chapter of Hannaford’s life into the growing file of information I had been building on him up to that point. Everything in those binders was magnificent and I was energized by seeing them. I couldn’t wait to get home and relive my experience through the pictures I’d taken, even if they didn’t give me the exact same feeling as being there did when my eyes were four inches away from them. I was content with just having a souvenir from my adventure at that point.
As I walked through the library to make my way home, I noticed the afternoon sun was coming in through the windowed ceiling above. I passed a young man who was huddled over a table writing something on a piece of paper, his keys and wallet and phone strewn about him as the sunlight spilled onto his paper. I entertained the thought of him being the next Hannaford of the modern age and it made me smile. History has a way of repeating itself, after all.
Below are my favorite sketches from the two binders. I’ve edited and cleaned them up as best I could without ruining the integrity of the images since scanning them wasn’t an option. All of these photos could never have been taken without the Cincinnati Library, so I want to thank them for preserving these pages for so many years. If you have comments about the sketches or Hannaford in general, I'd love to read them.