In the 19th century, several museums assembled collections of full-size plaster casts of architectural details, such as doorways and choir stalls. The philosophy was that "a replica of a masterpiece was superior to a mediocre original."
I made these pencil studies in the 1985 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. At left is an ornate Celtic wood-carved ornament. On the right is a 15th century Spanish cloister doorway.
In an age when travel to Europe was a rarity for average Americans, cast collections gave everyone a chance to see masterpieces of architecture. They also provided architecture students with fine examples to study, especially when the original detail is high up or otherwise inaccessible.
According to the Carnegie Museum, which has a fine collection, "In the 19th century, the demand for plaster casts skyrocketed. As centerpieces of the great international fairs, casts nourished nationalistic pride, while independent cast galleries served the Victorian fervor for education by providing instruction to both the amateur and the art student. Also, the dominance of historical styles in premodern architecture required that the architecture student study the outstanding buildings of the past; in this pursuit, plaster casts played an essential role."
Unfortunately, twentieth century trends conspired against architectural cast collections. Making casts from fragile originals is no longer possible. The study of ornament fell out of favor in architecture schools. Museums came to prefer originals over reproductions. And casts take up a lot of space in museums.
In 1949, the Art Institute of Chicago intentionally destroyed their cast collection, and many other museums and universities followed suit. In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum dispersed its architectural cast collection. Two of the lucky recipients were the architecture school of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and the Institute of Classical Architecture in New York.
If you live near London, Edinburgh, Pittsburgh, South Bend, or New York, visit their collections with a sketchbook, and make sure you let the museums know that you appreciate them keeping their collection on view.
More info and links:
I just finished writing an article on plein-air studies of architecture for ImagineFX magazine, so that will be out in a couple of months.
Victoria and Albert architecture collection/ History of the Cast Courts
Carnegie Hall of Architecture
University of Notre Dame Cast Collection
View the UND collection online via gigapan technology
Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in NYC
Edinburgh Cast Collection
George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts
Previous GJ post on figural plaster casts