Catherine W. Zipf

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Email: Catherine.W.Zipf [at] gmail.com

Website: www.catherinezipf.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CatherineZipf

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherine-zipf/

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Short Bio

Award-winning architectural historian Catherine W. Zipf studies the underdogs (and the elites when they were underdogs) of American architectural history. With an interest in race and gender, Zipf reconstructs lost or overlooked histories, providing a new, often surprising, viewpoint on the traditional narrative. Recent projects include Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, a book that examines Wright's career before the construction of Fallingwater, and The Architecture of the Negro Travelers' Green Book, a public catalogue of Green Book sites.

Medium Bio

Award-winning architectural historian Catherine W. Zipf studies the underdogs (and the elites when they were underdogs) of American architectural history. With an interest in race and gender, Zipf reconstructs lost or overlooked histories, providing a new, often surprising, viewpoint on the traditional narrative. Recent projects include Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, a book that examines Wright's career before the construction of Fallingwater, and The Architecture of the Negro Travelers' Green Book, a public catalogue of Green Book sites.

Zipf serves as the Executive Director of The Bristol Historical & Preservation Society, in Bristol, RI, a Colonial-era Norman Rockwell-esque town built by money generated from the slave trade. Her current projects examine Gilded Age women who built houses in Newport, RI, enslaved people who lived in Bristol, and Cuban sugar plantations owned by prominent Bristolians during the 19th century. Follow her on Twitter to see which one she finishes first.

Long Bio

Award-winning architectural historian Catherine W. Zipf studies the underdogs (and the elites when they were underdogs) of American architectural history. With an interest in race and gender, Zipf reconstructs lost or overlooked histories, providing a new, often surprising, viewpoint on the traditional narrative. Recent projects include Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, a book that examines Wright's career before the construction of Fallingwater, and The Architecture of the Negro Travelers' Green Book, a public catalogue of Green Book sites.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater picks up the story of America's greatest architect at his absolute lowest point, when his career seemed finished and before he became the architect we know him as today. Zipf examines what Wright did during the Great Depression that led to one of the greatest career comebacks of all times--and the construction of that American icon, Fallingwater.

The Architecture of the Negro Travelers' Green Book is a public architectural history project that studies the sites listed in The Negro Motorist's Green Book to discover their history and support their preservation. Zipf, along with partners Anne Bruder and Susan Hellman, has co-lead this project since 2016. Sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, Zipf and her colleagues work with scholars across the nation to create and maintain this database.

A graduate of Harvard University and the University of Virginia, Zipf is a prolific author. In addition to her monthly column for The Providence Journal, she has written for The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Buildings and Landscapes, Arris, DoCoMoMo, Early American Studies, American Periodicals, Radical Teacher, The Journal of City, Culture and Architecture, and Architexx.org. She has also published essays on Maya Lin, architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith, and Lucy Van Pelt's psychiatric booth (as a gendered space). Her first book, Professional Pursuits: Women and the American Arts and Crafts Movement, was named Outstanding Academic Book by ChoiceMagazine. A complete list of Zipf's work is available catherinezipf.com.

Zipf serves as the Executive Director of The Bristol Historical & Preservation Society, in Bristol, RI, a Colonial-era Norman Rockwell-esque town built by money generated from the slave trade. Her current projects examine Gilded Age women who built houses in Newport, RI, enslaved people who lived in Bristol, and Cuban sugar plantations owned by prominent Bristolians during the 19th century.

Follow her on Twitter to see which one she finishes first.


FAQs

An architectural historian--that's different. What do you like about architecture?

I'm not the traditional architectural historian. I study how architecture (or space, if you prefer) shapes our reality--so really, I'm about the social function of architecture more than the forms. In Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, I spend a lot of time on the ideas behind Wright's buildings. I'm interested in the factors that allow certain buildings to be built and certain voices to be heard over others--and then what those others do when they're not heard. Whether we are aware of it or not, how we organize our environment deeply affects how we live.

You work in a jail?

A historic jail, yes. I am the Executive Director of the Bristol Historical & Preservation Society, which occupies the former Bristol County Jail (or Gaol, as my historian likes to spell it). The building consists of the 1828 Keeper's Cottage, which originally had four cells, including two literally called "dungeons", and a 1859 addition, which was built to a standardized plan and contains eight cells. It operated as a jail until, no kidding, 1957, which is when Rhode Island's Adult Correctional Institutions were opened. As we've researched the jail's history, we're learned a lot about how jails were used to help those on the fringes of society. So yes, we had people who broke the law stay in the jail, but the building also housed people who were mentally ill, hungry, running from abuse, or just needed a place to sleep. It's one of the most fascinating places I've ever worked. And yes, there are ghosts.

Any relation to Zipf's Law?

Yes, George Kingsley Zipf was my grandfather, but he died when my father was a young man, so I never knew him. Growing up, we joked all the time about Zipf's Principle of Least Effort--that you use 20% of your vocabulary 80% of the time. We used to apply that to, say, the mess on my Dad's desk or how much homework my brother and I really needed to do. As an adult, I see him differently now, and recognize how groundbreaking his work really was. And, he did it all without computers. I definitely wonder what he could have achieved had he lived longer. A helpful video explaining his work is here.

What's next for you?

It drives my family crazy, but I work on several projects at the same time--I tend to get bored (or stuck) and doing it this way helps. Right now, I'm researching houses built by women clients in Gilded Age Newport, and I think that's going to move to the forefront. I'm also working with a group of local community researchers to study the history of enslaved people in Bristol, RI. Which will I finish first? Who knows--I'll be just as surprised as anyone to find out!