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Architectural Record’s first Editor-in-Chief, Henry W. Desmond: a Polymath in publishing.

Architectural Record’s founding editor, Henry (Harry) W. Desmond, was a 28-year-old journalist editing the New York weekly, Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide when he was named Record’s first editor-in-chief. The real estate weekly had been started up in 1868 by Clinton Sweet, who decided he wanted to publish an architectural journal to take advantage of the mounting public interest in this topic that occurred during the planning process of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago of 1893. Record made its debut as a quarterly–very much like the literary publications of the time—before becoming a monthly magazine in 1902.

    Harry Desmond was not an architect: born in 1863 in Kingstown, Ireland, he had studied at the University of Dublin before visiting the United States in the 1880s. He decided to stay, taking on various reporting jobs, including ones with The New York Evening Post and The New York Times. Then in the late 1880s David Croly, the editor of Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide, hired Desmond to write for the weekly. By 1889, when Croly died, Desmond assumed the position as the real estate weekly’s editor. He was only 26.

   While Desmond had aspired to be a poet, he responded well to his new life in construction and architecture journalism. Subsequently as editor of Architectural Record he was determined to make it a force in criticism. In his editorial in the inaugural issue (July 1891) of Record, Desmond expressed a disdain for America’s cultural vulgarity, and argued that architecture could have a transformative effect on the still somewhat crass society.

 During the course of his editorship at Architectural Record, from 1891 to 1912, Desmond made a concerted effort to publish discerning articles about architecture that would appeal to a lay audience, and enlisted senior critics such as Montgomery Schuyler and Russell Sturgis (who wrote for general and professional audiences) to write for the journal. Like Schuyler and Sturgis, Desmond sought a rational architecture that expressed structure and function, without foregoing aesthetics.

   Some of Desmond’s non-architectural writings also appeared in the new magazine. For example, he published his own novel, Raymond Lee, in a number of installments during Record’s first years. The contents had little to do with architecture: the novel chronicled the adventures of a man who came to America and worked for a newspaper.

    While serving as Record editor, Desmond undertook technical innovations in the areas of publishing, printing, and expanding the use of printed photographs. His interests in photo-engraving and chemistry ultimately led to Desmond’s teaming up with three scientists to adapt these advanced techniques in printing for commercial use by the Atkin Engraving Company.

     Desmond’s business acumen also led to his becoming one of the incorporated partners in the merger between Sweet and Dodge companies in 1896. Later in 1906, he helped found Sweet’s Indexed Catalogue of Building Construction, which remains a major reference source of materials and supplies to architects.

   Between 1907 and 1911, Desmond acted not only acting as the editor, secretary and treasurer of Architectural Record, but as the editor and general manager of Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide.  In that same period, Desmond also held the positions of vice-president and director of the Dodge Publishing Company.  By 1911, it appears Desmond’s health was failing: he remained Record’s v.p. and editor until mid-1912 when he gave up these posts. Desmond died at the age of 50 in 1913.

[This material, like that of my previous blog, History of Architectural Record I, has been excerpted and abbreviated from my Ph.D. dissertation “Tenacious Beauty: The Shifting Role of Aesthetic Criteria in Architecture Criticism  1850-1915”   (Cornell University, 2002)]




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The first issue of Architectural Record (click to enlarge)