The Henry Glassie Award, first given in 1999, is named for the renowned vernacular architecture scholar and folklorist, and recognizes special achievements in and contributions to the field of vernacular architecture studies. It is awarded intermittently, as deemed appropriate by the VAF Board of Directors.
Edited remarks by John Larson, Old Salem, on the presentation of the Henry Glassie Award to Catherine Bishir, 4 June 2016
It is fitting that tonight, in Durham, we present this award to the voice of North Carolina architecture, Catherine W. Bishir. Although a native of Kentucky, after studying English at the University of Kentucky and then at Duke University, North Carolina became Catherine’s beloved Old North State, her “valley of humility between two mountains of conceit.” The architecture, landscapes and people quickly merged with her down home personality, temperament and intellectual inquisitiveness. By 1971 she was employed by the North Carolina Division of Archives and History where she spent the better part of the next thirty years. In 1973, she became Head of the Survey and Planning Branch and it is from that bully pulpit that she profoundly altered traditional perceptions of North Carolina architecture. She recruited a cadre of architectural historians and, although the frugal State of North Carolina would pay no benefits, the opportunity to work with Catherine was benefit enough. She brought a new way of looking at traditional buildings (initially called the “Bishir Braille” method, because staff swore that she could identify any North Carolina building with her eyes closed!). She was a quick study, a voracious reader and an exacting editor, eager to listen and ever willing to share. Openness and high energy define years of her coordinated survey work in North Carolina.
Catherine builds partnerships. Her relationship with the North Carolina State University began in 1978 with the publication of Carolina Dwellings, where Catherine’s article “A Study of High-Style Vernacular Architecture in the Roanoke Valley” added the term “vernacular” to the North Carolina architectural lexicon. She has now come full circle, returning to NC State as Curator in Architectural Special Collections and creating an expansive digital biographical library of North Carolina Architects and Builders.
In 1980, Catherine was encouraged by Carl Lounsbury to become a founding member of Board of Directors of the VAF – and she has never missed a conference, tonight surpassing the thirty-seven year mark. No one has held more VAF offices, served on more committees, been on more tours, edited more articles, or encouraged more members than Catherine W. Bishir. She is the Ms. Never Met a Stranger; Aren’t We Having Fun? and Rotate Your Seat on the Tour Bus! queen of the VAF. This tsunami of enthusiasm rained down on me, as a newly appointed Director of Restoration at Old Salem, when we hosted the third annual meeting of the VAF in 1982. I can personally testify that Catherine has changed my life—as she has for so many of us here tonight.
Her colleagues say that Catherine Bishir has a natural head for architecture, and that is surely true, but it is also her literary skill that will leave a lasting mark not only in North Carolina but in the field of vernacular architectural studies as a whole. She often publicly exhibits her love of letters and it is an enthusiasm that she has sought to instill in so many of us over the years. This talent has allowed her to write in a scholarly style that is crisp and accessible to a wide audience.
In 1990, Catherine co-authored Architects and Builders in North Carolina and published North Carolina Architecture, clearly establishing herself as the state’s leading architectural historian. Catherine immediately took on celebrity status which she accepted with the typical grace and humility that has defined her over the years as she lectured widely, authored and co-authored many books and articles, and won many awards, including the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by the Governor of North Carolina, an honorary membership in the AIA, and the Robert Stipe Award as a leading North Carolina preservationist. Her intellectual reach seems unlimited—what a fertile mind that can move so freely from Women, Politics, and Confederate Memorial Associations to Yuppies, Bubbas and the Politics of Culture!
Catherine has reflected, “It has been an extraordinary privilege to travel the state and meet its history, its buildings and its landscape and the people who love them.” It has been our privilege to travel with her. And so, our dearest colleague, our friend, our very own Queen of Bubba, our champion of all things vernacular and of the VAF that gathers here tonight, with heartfelt gratitude and affection, we present the 2016 Henry Glassie Award to you, Catherine W. Bishir.