The Burden Archives

Featured Project
Western Addition sign, photo Sheila Stover/Erni Burden circa 1960

A 1949 US Federal law set the stage for crisis-level upheaval. Cities across the country used the money it provided to launch “urban renewal” projects that often only added misery to the communities they professed to be helping. In San Francisco, a largely Black neighborhood in Western Addition was targeted on the premise that the vibrant ‘Harlem of the West’ was blighted. This misconception has gone unchallenged until now, thanks to the photographic documentation Ernest Burden III exposed in his late father’s immense photograph archive.

Tell us more about your father’s documentation project.

My father, who was an architect and a writer, was distressed at the loss of the landmark architecture and ornament, as well as the community. He decided to document the destruction and use the photographs in his first book, Facades, a work never realized. Among the details captured in the Archive is a sign posted by destroyed homes that explains the political hierarchy behind the initiative. The sign seems so proud of tearing down a minority neighborhood. 1960 was an election year; in other photos, we see political posters on abandoned houses waiting their turn to be torn down as if any voters would be left to approve of their leadership. My father’s archive includes 4000 negatives documenting the destruction of the Fillmore District beginning in 1959.

Ernest Burden III looking at photographs and negatives of his farthers in his studio at his home in Ossining,NY. The architect Ernest Burden Junior created 5,000 images of the “Urban Renewal” of the Fillmore District, what amounted to the destruction of likely the most racially integrated neighborhood in the country and the razing of landmark Victorian homes. Photo courtesy of Jack Sorokin @jackflamesorokin

You promised your father you would get these images shown in San Francisco and ultimately find a place for them in a museum. How did that evolve? 

Initially, I was focused on the artistic value of the photographs. Having the boxes of negatives and looking at shots with a loupe on my light table, I recognized the work as Art. Knowing that it had never been published or exhibited, I wanted to bring it forward. It was also a way to let my father know I respected him as an artist, giving us positive things to talk about in his final days.

I could see the raw, dramatic elements in photos with active ripping of walls with bits and boards falling towards the photographer—my own parent. This body of work had not been fully explored in any of his twenty-some books on architecture and illustration, so I wanted to make sure it was preserved.

Only after his passing, as I was working with the images, did I dig deeper into the locations and who had lived there. Searching online was a break from the subject matter’s emotional weight. I learned about the problematic history they captured and realized I could use the images to help inform and heal the community I was seeing attacked, image after image.

Western Addition home, photo Sheila Stover/Erni Burden circa 1960

What will we see in an exhibition of these images?

When the images from the Archive are exhibited, they will show a disturbing progression from viable, beautiful Victorian wooden houses that had been homes for a diverse population to total devastation. These photographs provide visual evidence of systemic racism underlying policy.

The neighborhood is depopulated, residents moved out with or without their consent. The images hold reminders of the lives lived within their walls, revealed as they are torn open to expose decoration and a few abandoned personal items. Even that is fleeting, as the following images reveal the former warm home reduced to sticks and then a cleared lot. But along the way, we will see a few children playing in the rubble of what was their neighborhood, and the viewer is challenged to imagine the effect on them.

Contrasting the willful destruction of the Black community will be a smaller offering of photographs of what was presented in 1960 as the ‘romantic ruin’ a few miles away. The Palace of Fine Arts was selected for salvation for its appeal to the population segment for whom an object of beauty is worthy of investment and preservation.

Additional photographs and drawings will present architectural proposals for San Francisco from 1960 to the present, some realized, some not, to examine the visual aspect of a community envisioning their future environment.

The proposed exhibition what is LOST, what is SAVED and what is NEXT will question the city’s choices, a tale told with buildings.

What is LOST, Western Addition, photo Sheila Stover circa 1960
What is SAVED, Palace of Fine Arts, photo Erni Burden circa 1963
What is NEXT, Architectural proposal, Erni Burden circa 1959

 You are an artist who works closely with architecture. How has your father’s documentation project impacted your thinking? 

Working with the destruction photographs as documentation of impactful events has taught me to see the broader value of architectural imagery. Such works pre-date the camera by centuries. At one time, images of grand architecture served to inspire with what was possible but also to intimidate to put common people in their place by demonstrating the wealth and power of those who built castles and cathedrals. Initially offered in drawing, painting, and tapestries, there was a transition to photography in the mid to late 1800’s. But the purpose was similar.

With the imagery in the Burden Archive, things took a dark turn. Here were views of lives interrupted. It went from ‘what you could have’ to ‘what was taken from you.’ Now architectural imagery was witness. In my own work, I have approached drawings of architecture as portraits and structures as entities, but now I see more clearly the link to the life within.

Ernest Burden III, Anchorage, 12×18 in. graphite on paper, 2019 from As-Built: Architectural Portraits

This sounds like a substantial emotional journey on all levels—art, history, and personal. What can you share about that?

 It has been a very emotional journey for me working with the artifacts of my father’s early career. I was often involved in his work when I was a young adult, contributing artwork and design, and later, I even gave advice on how to adapt his techniques into modern digital versions. Engaging his early work from the vantage point of my years in architectural visualization was a fresh challenge in integrating the various tracks of his creative output. They seemed separate, but then I saw the connecting themes and wrote the narrative that brought it all together. Now, it is a true collaboration, his work with added meaning through my framing and advocacy.

Another difficulty working with my father’s early work is that I wasn’t there when he did it. Some was from just before I was born, and then I was separated from him from the age of one. At twelve, I moved from California to join him in New York City. Who was he then, and why were we apart? He was very busy working on so many things, and I learned about them from his books. Looking at the 1960 photographs of little boys playing where solid homes used to stand brings me back to my early sense of loss of stability.

My father wanted his art to make a difference. He wanted to build, preserve, and present beauty through architecture. He was equally adept at imagined space or a construction site and saw every aspect of his creative output as simply making his art. Understanding his creative unity is helping me integrate my own artistic drives.

About Ernest Burden III: A San Francisco, CA native, Burden III is an internationally recognized artist specializing in architectural imagery. A leader in the New York City illustration market for more than forty years, he has worked with influential architects, engineers, and civil authorities to provide visual works that advance the understanding of proposed structures in the public sphere—his rendering career and illustration work bridge traditional and digital media. Burden ushered in new imaging standards for the digital age by bringing aspects of the softness and nuance of hand-applied media into precise digital images and animations. His new works are again focusing on traditional methods, depicting real and imagined spaces. Ernest lives and works in New York’s Hudson Valley just north of NYC, always scanning the skies for interesting planes and resident Bald Eagles.

About Ernest Burden II: Ernest Edward Burden (August 22, 1934 – February 9, 2022) was an architect and author. He studied under Bruce Goff at the University of Oklahoma, moving to San Francisco and then New York City, where he became a notable architectural illustrator. Burden authored over fifty works, including the influential ARCHITECTURAL DELINEATION and significant contributions to historic preservation. His comprehensive study on Bruce Goff, published in 2019, highlights his lasting impact on architecture and preservation.