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50K photos of main street North America are headed to the National Building Museum

Photographer Barry L. Gfeller took the photos between 1976 and 1996

The National Building Museum, a three-and-a-half story Renaissance Revival-style building in Penn Quarter.
The National Building Museum

By the end of 2019, the National Building Museum expects to receive about 50,000 photos depicting 20th-century main streets across the U.S. and Canada. The photos were captured by American photographer Barry L. Gfeller and are being given to the museum by Suzanne Morel and Mike O’Neill, the couple who bought them from a Canada-based charity in 2017.

“Made up of mostly 4 [inch by] 6 [inch] color photos and negatives, the Gfeller Collection: Main Street USA portrays roughly 250,000 buildings and 3,750 communities in 44 states and six Canadian provinces,” the museum notes in a release. “Taken together, the images are a rare snapshot of late 20th-century North America.” The photos, which Gfeller shot between 1976 and 1996, illustrate economic cycles in the towns, according to a statement from Morel.

Born in Camus, Washington, in 1933, Gfeller was a prolific traveler, the museum says. “When he was in his 40s, he took up photography and embarked on a series of expeditions, during which he drove thousands of miles, visiting every town along his path and photographing their buildings,” per the release. “While much of Gfeller’s motivations are unknown—he died in 1999—his style remained unchanged throughout the 20 years he made his road trips.” He wrote town names, plus the months and years he took the photos, on the back of the images.

The collection will be accessible to the public and researchers. Several samples follow below.

A 1978 photo of a street in San Francisco, California, showing palm trees, a drug store, and a bar.
San Francisco, California (August 1978)
National Building Museum
A 1987 photo of a four-story, castle-like building in Brady, Texas.
Brady, Texas (May 1987)
National Building Museum
A 1980 photo of a meat store in Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Bellows Falls, Vermont (May 1980)
National Building Museum
A 1978 photo of a department store and a corner brick building in Milbank, South Dakota.
Milbank, South Dakota (May 1978)
National Building Museum
A 1993 photo of a pharmacy, a fudge store, and a grocery store in Carstairs, Alberta.
Carstairs, Alberta (June 1993)
National Building Museum
A 1981 photo of a department store and other stores in Blairmore, Alberta.
Blairmore, Alberta (May 1981)
National Building Museum
A 1981 photo of a market store in Swanton, Vermont.
Swanton, Vermont (May 1981)
National Building Museum

National Building Museum

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