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Name:    van Ravenswaay, Charles
Category:  Cultural Life
Born/Started:     Aug. 10, 1911
Died/Ended:     Mar. 20, 1990
Description:    Charles van Ravenswaay is best known for his documentation of Missouri´s historic buildings, as well as for his service as the first paid director of the Missouri Historical Society. In 1938 he wrote the guidebook, Missouri: A guide to the "Show Me" State, which was highly regarded.

Charles van Ravenswaay was born in Boonville, MO in 1911. He attended Boonville public schools, the Kemper Military Academy and Washington University. He received his B.A. in 1933 and M.A. the following year. Surrounded by the artifacts of Boonville´s Civil War history, van Ravenswaay called himself a "serious collector" from the age of 14.

In 1933 van Ravenswaay joined with St. Louis photographer Auguste Piaget (and after Auguste´s death in 1937, with his brother Paul Piaget) to make a photographic survey of early Missouri buildings. This collaboration continued into the 1970s and eventually totaled more than 8,000 research notes and photographs of buildings, regional art, cemetery markers, and household items. This collection of photographs was donated to the Historic American Buildings Survey (H.A.B.S.)/Library of Congress in 1984.

From 1938 to 1941 van Ravenswaay acted as state supervisor of the U.S. Work Projects Administration´s Federal Writers Project and co-authored Missouri: A Guide to the "Show Me" State. In 1942 he entered the U.S. Navy and served four years in the North Atlantic and the South Pacific, achieving the rank of lieutenant commander. During this time he became the leading authority on Missouri Creole decorative arts.

After his release from the service van Ravenswaay was offered the post of director of the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, where he remained until January 1962. He expanded the society´s museum holdings and its public outreach programs, while continuing his study of regional architecture, art, and the decorative arts. At the same time he became active in encouraging, and often assisting in, the preservation and restoration of historic buildings, particularly in the St. Louis area. Among these accomplishments were the restoration of the Louis Bolduc House in Ste. Genevieve, MO, and the formation of the St. Louis County Historic Building Commission.

In 1962 van Ravenswaay accepted the post of president of Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA, a position he held until 1966. He was then named director of the Henry Francis Dupont Winterthur Museum and Gardens, in Wilmington, DE, where he remained until his retirement in 1976. He also served was also president of the American Association of Museums from 1961 to 1968 and served on national historical and horticultural committees, including the University of Delaware Library Associates; the National Trust for Historic Preservation; the advisory committee of the Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation; and the Carostead Foundation (Tudor Place) in Washington.

During his “retirement,” van Ravenswaay published three books: The Arts and Architecture of German Settlements in Missouri: A Survey of a Vanishing Culture (University of Missouri Press, 1977); A Nineteenth Century Garden (Main Street Press/Universe Books, 1977); and Drawn from Nature: The Botanical Art of Joseph Prestele and His Sons (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984). Two books were published posthumously in 1991 and 1992: St. Louis: An Informal History of the City and its People, 1764-1865 (Missouri Historical Society); and Old Missouri, a collection of photographs from the Piaget-van Ravenswaay Collection donated to the Library of Congress, with text by architectural historian Frank L. Peters, Jr. (Patrice Press).

He died in 1990 after battling lung and eye ailments for several years.

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