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Ken Breisch serves as architectural historian in chief

Assistant professor pens a comprehensive book on American libraries and leads national historians group

Allison Engelby Allison Engel
asst professor Ken Breisch
Ken Breisch holds a textile block in the 1923 Samuel Freeman House in the Hollywood Hills. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it was bequeathed to USC and damaged in the Northridge earthquake. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

When the Library of Congress was searching for an architectural historian to write the definitive book on libraries in America, it tapped USC School of Architecture Assistant Professor Ken Breisch.

The book, which will feature prints and photographs of U.S. libraries culled from various Library of Congress collections, is due to be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 2015.

The rehab of existing buildings is good green practice.

Ken Breisch

Breisch, who founded USC’s graduate Historic Preservation Program (now called Heritage Conservation), also teaches popular courses on the modern tradition in Southern California and on the history of American architecture and urbanism. The Southern California course, which covers Native Americans to the present, is a real challenge to fit into one semester.

“The more I know, the more it’s difficult to get through it all,” Breisch said. “Los Angeles is such a great city for architecture.”

This week, he finished the manuscript for a book on the city’s public library, tentatively titled Building the Los Angeles Public Library: An Architectural and Cultural History, 1872-1940.

Society to celebrate its 75th anniversary

And the ever-busy Breisch recently added another highlight to his résumé when he was installed as president of the Society of Architectural Historians, an international organization of academics, preservationists, architects and members of the public interested in studying the built environment.

The society has 2,500 individual members and 689 institutional members arrayed across 56 countries. It publishes a journal, creates curricula for K-12 education and just received a $1.5 million National Endowment for the Arts grant to document the 100 most iconic buildings in each state. Images and information on these 5,000 sites will be freely available to the public on the society’s website.

Founded at Harvard University in 1940, the society is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Its annual conference will be held in Pasadena in 2016, the final year of Breisch’s presidency.

The society is active and growing, Breisch said.

“The study of architecture opens up so many areas: construction, history, patronage, politics and the lives of architects themselves,” he said. “And there is a continually growing interest in architecture and the built environment from an environmental point of view. The rehab of existing buildings is good green practice.”

The Southern California chapter is the most active chapter of the society, Breisch noted, with a well-subscribed tour program that gets people into buildings that normally are not accessible.

The public policy arena

Breisch received his undergraduate degree, M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and he taught at the University of Delaware, University of Texas and the Southern California Institute of Architecture before coming to USC in 1999. In addition to his upcoming Library of Congress book and the Los Angeles Public Library history, he wrote a book in 1997 on influential architect H.H. Richardson and small public libraries and co-edited two books on vernacular architecture for The Vernacular Architecture Forum, where he has served on the board of directors.

Over the years, his research has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Michigan.

In another noteworthy accomplishment, Breisch volunteers in the messy, realistic arena of public policy. He has served as a member of the Santa Monica Planning Commission and currently sits on that city’s library board.

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