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Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation records

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: AC-0302

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Scope and Contents of the Collection

This collection includes correspondence, reports, manuscripts of published works, notes, financial and personnel records, publicity material, course information, index cards, bibliographies, blueprints, plans, photographs, and printed material about housing, especially prefabricated housing from the period 1926 to 1954, with the bulk of the material dating from 1940 to 1954.

Reports in series 1 and some material in series 2 actually predate the beginnings of the foundation. These early records describe housing research done for Bemis Industries, Inc., which was similar in nature to the later studies that the foundation sponsored. For example, Eugene Mirabelli, an MIT civil engineering professor, completed two studies for Bemis Industries and the MIT Building Research Council which compared state housing sanitation laws and studied trends in construction material. In 1935, Prentice Bradley, a 1931 MIT graduate, toured Europe and surveyed housing projects, including cooperative and prefabricated developments. Bradley sent John Burchard written reports which included a completed questionnaire and printed material describing each housing development.

Preliminary planning of the foundation started soon after Albert Farwell Bemis’s death in 1936. The administrative records in series 2 include information on these plans as well as biographical material on Bemis.

Planning of the foundation: In 1937, John Burchard wrote to housing industry leaders and architectural educators requesting suggestions for the proposed building research foundation. Burchard also visited many of the housing industry’s leaders in order to see first-hand their problems and requirements and to gather more research suggestions. Burchard’s reports and correspondence from these investigations formed the basis for the establishment of the foundation. (See series 2.)

Administrative records: The foundation was established in June 1938. Its formal administrative records include the foundation budgets from 1939 to 1955, as well as other financial and personnel records. Also included are foundation Advisory Committee correspondence, agendas, and reports. These records in series 2 span the sixteen years of the foundation’s existence, yet they form only a small part of the foundation collection.

Prefabrication survey: The bulk of the collection deals with the various research activities and services of the foundation. The largest project—a prefabrication survey—was formally started in 1947 when the foundation distributed questionnaires to manufacturers throughout the United States. Before that time, the foundation had requested prefabrication information but had not attempted a comprehensive study. As early as 1935, before the foundation started, Bemis Industries had begun gathering information from manufacturers. These early records were updated and interfiled with the survey files.

Most of the survey files are from manufacturers involved with some aspect of prefabrication, but the files also contain information from organizations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Farm Security Administration. The survey files include photographs, plans, and blueprints of prefabricated houses; correspondence and completed questionnaires about the companies; advertising material; and cross reference sheets with citations to articles about the companies. (See series 5, subseries B.)

In all, the foundation surveyed almost 900 firms. For about 200 firms, separate files of confidential records were also maintained. These confidential files contain financial reports from Dunn and Bradstreet, reports and interviews done by the foundation staff, legal information, and correspondence the foundation staff considered sensitive. These files also contain some information on the Federal Housing Association’s confidential rulings.

A much smaller section of the prefabrication survey contains general information (series 5, subseries A) such as correspondence, statistics based upon the survey, and detailed reports about a few of the firms. The foundation maintained an address list of prefabricators and kept an updated list which gave geographical and alphabetical access to firms. Information from the Housing and Home Finance Agency, the Prefabricated Home Manufacturers’ Institute, and the Modular Service Association are also included in the general files.

A few years after the prefabrication survey formally started, the foundation expanded their area of inquiry by surveying prefabricators in foreign countries. They gathered information from over thirty countries in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, but most reports are from Europe. (See series 6, subseries E.)

Index card files: An index to all the participants in the survey is in series 7. The index cards carry the names of the manufacturers in the US and abroad, the file number, and occasionally the manufacturer’s address and other notes. The cards are in alphabetical order and indicate which firms are in both the general and confidential sections. Two other sets of cards in the series also relate to the prefabrication study. One serves as a guide to the geographical location of prefabricators, and another lists bibliographical information about prefabrication.

Other research projects: While no other project was as extensive as the prefabrication survey, a variety of housing concerns were studied under the auspices of the foundation. Records concerning many of these projects are in series 2. A number of outside researchers conducted projects in association with the foundation. Eric Carlson, the associate editor of The American City, studied cooperative housing, and the collection contains his report as well as correspondence and printed material. Harold Horowitz studied the mechanical facilities of houses; his extensive report to the foundation Advisory Board is also in the collection. Herbert Heavenrich’s correspondence and reports on British housing and the Research Center for Group Dynamics’ correspondence, notes, and graphs from their study of Westgate are further examples of foundation research records.

Educational program: Part of the foundation’s research efforts benefited MIT’s educational program. From 1949 until 1953 the foundation gave an Industrialized House Course in conjunction with MIT’s School of Architecture. Material from this course includes correspondence, assignments, schedules, and reports. An Industrialized House Conference was held at the end of each course and the collection includes information on conference arrangements, publicity, participants, and programs. The foundation summarized each conference in a report, and the collection contains transcripts of the conference proceedings and drafts of reports for the 1950, 1951, and 1952 conferences. There is little information on the 1953 conference. These Industrialized House Conferences presented prominent speakers from industry, academe, and government, such as Buckminster Fuller, Foster Gunnison, and Major General J.S. Bragdon. Requests for the reports show that the conferences received a great deal of interest from the housing community. (See series 3.)

Publications and other activities: The foundation did not limit their educational efforts to MIT. They published books and pamphlets of their own studies in an effort to reach a wider audience. Records concerning their publications, including Burnham Kelly’s The Prefabrication of Houses, appear in series 3, along with program proposals, foundation publicity, and information about visitors. Educational outreach was one of the purposes of the foundation, and the housing and building community used the foundation as a resource for inquiries about prefabrication, low-cost housing, and other building concerns. Examples of this interchange can be found in series 3.

Information file: In order to deal with housing questions and concerns, the foundation gathered data from other research and educational programs that were conducting housing research. This information file (series 4) contains material on US government research agencies (subseries A) and non-governmental research facilities (subseries B). The Housing and Home Finance Agency conducted most of the federal projects, many in conjunction with MIT. The more general research file contains information from industries, universities, and other organizations. For example, the Building Research Advisory Group had a Building Research Institute that conducted a housing survey and held conferences, with advice from the foundation. The major part of the information file contains information from universities’ research activities. Both the federal and the non-federal files document the research work through correspondence, reports, bulletins, photographs, and printed matter. The foundation staff included clippings and cross-references to pertinent articles in their information files.

International files: The foundation’s International Housing Information File is similar to the information in the file on housing research (series 3) and the prefabrication survey (series 5). The international section contains information on the research activities of foreign government departments and agencies, housing organizations, universities, and industrial concerns. As already mentioned, the foundation expanded their prefabrication survey to provide global information. While the international information and survey files are on a much smaller scale than their US equivalents, these files also contain correspondence, reports, publicity information, photographs, clippings, and other printed material. An index file on exports is also in the collection (series 6).


  • Creation: 1926 - 1954


Access note

This collection is open.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.

Historical note

Albert Farwell Bemis (1870-1936) studied civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received his SB degree in 1893. He spent most of his business career in Boston with the Bemis Brothers Bag Company, serving as president (1909-1925) and then chair (1925-1934). He founded the Angus Company, Ltd., a jute mill and jute machinery works, in India in 1912. For many years he served as a director of various Massachusetts mills and two Boston banks. Bemis was a member of MIT’s governing body, the Corporation, and of several Institute visiting committees.

Bemis was primarily a businessman; he specialized in housing after World War I. He established a personal holding company, Bemis Industries, Inc., which included The Housing Company, Atlantic Gypsum Co., Penn Metal Co., Fiber Products, Inc., an architectural partnership, and several other endeavors in the housing field. Building and construction research led to his development of the Cubical Module Method of design, also known as Dimensional Coordination. Bemis Industries supported low-cost housing research. Just before his death, Bemis completed the third volume of his in-depth study of the house, The Evolving House. These books described in detail his conception of the history, economics, and rationalization of shelter.

Bemis’s will established the Albert Farwell Bemis Charity Trust in 1936 to fund research on housing. On behalf of the trust, John Ely Burchard, a vice-president of Bemis Industries, Inc., and MIT class of 1923, conducted a study of existing agencies that supported research in housing. Burchard met with directors of research from the building industry, directors of governmental bureaus and housing agencies, and individual experts and associations. His study provided guidelines for the proposed foundation and assured cooperation between other facilities and the foundation.

As trustees, Bemis’s sons, F. Gregg Bemis, Alan C. Bemis, and Judson Bemis, decided to establish the foundation at MIT because of their father’s involvement with the Institute. The Albert Farwell Bemis Charity Trust’s Deed of Gift, submitted to the Institute’s Executive Committee on June 14, 1938, gave funds to be “…allocated annually to the search for and dissemination of knowledge pertaining to more adequate economical and abundant shelter for mankind for such a time as the usefulness of the aforementioned purposes shall exist, but in no event for less than twenty years; after such a time, to the aid of students by scholarships, student loans or otherwise.”

The Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation became a separate division within MIT, with its director reporting to the president of MIT or his representative. The Institute furnished space for offices and research activities and assumed the administrative and incidental overhead of the foundation’s activities. An advisory committee consisting of prominent architectural and building professionals and a member of the Bemis family provided guidance for the foundation.

John E. Burchard was the first director of the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation. He was also professor and later dean of humanities. As director of the Bemis Foundation he was succeeded by Burnham Kelly in 1948; Kelly had been the assistant director. The foundation remained a separate division of MIT until MIT’s dean of architecture assumed its direct administration in 1948. The foundation’s major research activities ceased in 1954, with only educational support continuing.

Research program

The Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation’s research aims were:

a) to coordinate existing knowledge and research in material, construction methods, and economics of shelter

b) to stimulate and plan research in various phases of the building industry

c) to provide information for pertinent MIT research projects to the building industry, and to help define the industry’s research requirements for pertinent MIT departments

d) to participate in the Institute’s educational programs.

The foundation’s research projects evolved over the years. Some of these projects are summarized below. (See also the annotated bibliography.)


a) The broad aspects of housing were analyzed, including the development of proposals for planning and housing studies. Specific studies included “A method of analysing the economic distribution of shelter.”

b) A more detailed analysis was conducted on specific housing problems, such as windows, ventilation, plumbing, resins, and effects on construction costs of new methods and materials.

c) The foundation tried to evaluate problems sent to them by other groups. For example, the American Public Health Association asked the foundation to publish a field study of thermal conditions, illumination, and sound control in occupied dwellings.

d) The foundation provided general information and advice to visitors and correspondents. As a result, they established and maintained an information file on building materials and construction systems. The foundation also assisted with the MIT teaching program and public lectures and helped to bring leading building designers, such as Alvar Aalto, Paul Nelson, Antonin Raymond, and Siegfried Giedion, to the Institute.


During this period the foundation was largely inactive, except to maintain minimal administrative operations. They financed the organization of an Urban Redevelopment Field Station in MIT’s Department of City and Regional Planning in 1942.


a) Prefabrication became popular in the US in the 1930s and had a resurgence of popularity after World War II because of grave housing shortages. As a result, the foundation conducted a survey of the prefabrication industry in the US. In part, this survey illustrated the problems inherent in creating mass-produced housing units. This comprehensive prefabrication survey was the best-known project undertaken by the foundation. Through their survey and other sources, the foundation established and maintained extensive files on construction and prefabrication methods used in the US and abroad. At that time, these files were one of the largest information sources available on this topic. Besides written information, the foundation staff interviewed major producers. In an effort to supplement their information on prefabrication in the US, the foundation later conducted a similar survey on an international scale.

b) The foundation commissioned a study of ways to determine long-range changes in housing requirements through social science techniques. The University of Michigan’s Research Center for Group Dynamics studied Westgate, MIT’s married students’ dorm. They conducted a survey of social factors in the home and in the neighborhood when families were obliged to live in close quarters.

c) Eric Carlson conducted a study of the possibilities for mass-production in the cooperative housing field.

d) Herbert Heavenrich investigated the state of housing research in Great Britain.

e) During the 1949-1950 school year, the foundation helped to formulate and to teach the School of Architecture’s Industrialized House course. A special conference on industrial aspects of housing followed the course. This combination of course and conference continued until 1953.

The 1951 conference concerned housing as a national security resource and the program in 1952 dealt with mass-produced housing. The final conference was on the topic of economic development and foreign housing. Conference reports were prepared and distributed by the foundation.

f) The Bemis Fellowship in Housing was instituted in 1951 to attract students of varied backgrounds to the housing field.

g) The foundation helped to establish the Building Research Advisory Board of the National Research Council and the Housing Research Division of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA) as well as assisting several legislative bodies on building code improvements.

h) The foundation sponsored research for the development of a heat-operated heat pump in combination with a solar energy conductor and assisted the MIT Committee on Space Heating and Solar Energy.

i) Harold Horowitz conducted technical research on the mechanical facilities of the house, including the rationalization of kitchen facilities, the simplification of waste treatment and disposal methods, and other sanitation concerns that would be beneficial for conservation.

j) Victor and Aladar Olgyay worked on a climate and housing research project for the HHFA under the auspices of the foundation.

k) A study of heating and air conditioning systems for housing was conducted by Tamas Vretorisz.

The MIT School of Architecture completed two research projects that were not finished when the foundation’s research activities ceased in 1954:

a) Monsanto Chemical Company commissioned a study of the use of plastics in housing. The report came out in 1955.

b) Retirement Homes, Inc., sponsored a design study of houses for elderly couples.

Termination of the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation

After the foundation ceased its administrative and research functions, the files were transferred to MIT’s Rotch Library which assumed the responsibility for answering inquiries from the building and housing community that were once addressed to the foundation. MIT’s students and faculty used the remaining foundation funds for research activities in architecture and planning.


27.3 Cubic Feet (27 record cartons, 1 manuscript box)

Language of Materials



Albert Farwell Bemis, 1870-1936, SB in civil engineering, 1893, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was a businessman and authority on housing. He was a member of the MIT Corporation and was on several Institute visiting committees. Provisions in his will established the Albert Farwell Bemis Charity Trust in 1936 to fund research on housing. In 1938 the trust gave funds to establish the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation at MIT. The foundation became a separate division within MIT, with its director reporting to the president. An advisory committee of architectural and building professionals and a member of the Bemis family guided the foundation, which remained a separate division of MIT until the dean of architecture assumed its direct administration in 1948. The Department of Civil Engineering and also the School of Architecture were the units of MIT most closely allied with the work of the foundation. The collection includes correspondence, reports, manuscripts of published works, notes, financial and personnel records, publicity material, course information, index cards, bibliographies, blueprints, plans, photographs, and printed material about housing, especially prefabricated housing. The foundation ceased in 1954; the bulk of the records span the period 1939 to 1953.

Arrangement note

For the most part, the foundation files have been kept in their original order. The seven series were not in any discernible order when received and have been placed in their sequence during processing. The foundation staff’s arrangement of individual files within each series has been retained. The series are as follows: Series 1, Reports from Bemis Industries, Inc.; Series 2, Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation Administrative Records; Series 3, Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation Research Project Files; Series 4, Information File on Housing Research; Series 5, Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation Prefabriction Survey File; Series 6, International Housing Information File; Series 7, Index Cards; Series 8, American Houses, Inc. Series 4, 5, and 6 are divided into subseries.


Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Source of Acquisiton

The Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation records were transferred to the Department of Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections) from Rotch Library in 1978. The records had been stored in the Rotch Library since the foundation ceased activities in 1954.

In 1995 a small collection of records of American Houses, Inc., a company manufacturing prefabricated building components, was added to the collection.

Related Materials in the MIT Archives

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Architecture and Planning, Office of the Dean, Records, 1934-1992 (AC 400)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Office of the President, Records, 1930-1959 (AC 4)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries, Records, 1889-2009 (AC 47)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Humanities and Social Science, Office of the Dean, Records, 1934-1964 (AC 20)

Annotated Bibliography

  • "A Method for Analyzing the Economic Distribution of Shelter."Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1940. [Pamphlet about the broad aspects of housing.]
  • "Housing and Economic Development." Edited by Burnham Kelly. Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation and School of Architecture and Planning, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1955. [Report on conference sponsored at MIT by the foundation in 1953.]
  • "Housing - A National Security Resource." Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation and School of Architecture and Planning, MIT, Cambridge, MA., January 19 and 20, 1951. [Report on a conference and exhibition held at the conclusion of the industrialized housing course given for the second consecutive year in the Department of Architecture at MIT.]
  • Housing Bulletins, Nos. 1-3. Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, MIT, Cambridge, MA. [Three bulletins that give information on the research projects that the foundation and MIT are conducting in housing.]
  • "Housing - Mass Produced." Edited by Phyllis M. Kelly and Richard W. Hamilton. Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, MIT, Cambridge, MA, January 14, 1953. [Report on conference held for the third year in succession at the end of a special course on mass production techniques and their future importance to the building industry for undergraduate and graduate architects in the Department of Architecture at MIT.]
  • "Industrialized House Forum," Proceedings of Course Conference, January 6 and 7, 1950. School of Architecture, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1950. [Proceedings of a conference held at the end of a course on industrialized housing for graduate students in architecture.]
  • "Plastics in Housing." MIT Department of Architecture, Cambridge, MA, 1955. [Report sponsored by Monsanto Chemical Company.]
  • "Space Heating with Solar Energy," Proceedings of Course-Symposium held at MIT August 21-26, 1950. Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation and MIT Committee on Space Heating with Solar Energy, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1953. [Papers were given by experts in the field of solar heating, including its mechanical and architectural aspects. Text is illustrated with many diagrams and photographs.]
  • Bemis, Albert Farwell, and John Burchard. The History of the Home. Vol. I, The Evolving House. Cambridge, MA: The Technology Press, 1933.
  • Bemis, Albert Farwell. The Economics of Shelter. Vol. II, The Evolving House. Cambridge, MA: The Technology Press, 1934.
  • Bemis, Albert Farwell. Rational Design. Vol. III, The Evolving House. Cambridge, MA: The Technology Press, 1936.
  • Burchard, John E. "A Method for Analyzing the Economic Distribution of Shelter." Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, MIT, Cambridge, MA, June 1940. [Presents a graphical method for analyzing the shelter purchasing power of a population based on any specific income distribution.]
  • Festinger, Schachter and Back. Social Pressures in Informal Groups. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950. [A sociological study of MIT’s housing project for married veterans undertaken by the Research Center for Group Dynamics (since moved from MIT to the University of Michigan), and financed in part by the Bemis Foundation. Relationships are explored between physical location in the project and social structure. Included are chapters on the relationship between social and design factors by Catherine Bauer and Robert Woods Kennedy.]
  • Festinger, Leon, and H. Kelley, "Changing Attitudes Through Social Contact." Research Center for Group Dynamics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, September 1951. [This study was also undertaken while the Research Center for Group Dynamics was located at MIT. Relationships are explored between communication within a group in a defense housing project in the Boston area and the existence of a hostile attitude toward that group.]
  • Heavenrich, Herbert S., Jr. "Housing in Great Britain." Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, Cambridge, MA, April 1952. [An informal research report, compiled after a period of study in Great Britain, intended for distribution only to those with a special interest in this field. Includes notes on the British home building industry, non-traditional housing, the Temporary Housing Programme, the Aircraft Industries Research on Housing, and on housing research in Great Britain.]
  • Horowitz, Harold. "A Report on a Survey of Current Research on the Application of the Heat Pump for Domestic Heating." Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, MIT, Cambridge, MA, April 11, 1952. [Appendix B to a report prepared specifically for the Bemis Advisory Committee. Surveys current activity in the field.]
  • Horowitz, Harold. "An Analysis of Utilities Supplies for Housing." MA thesis, MIT Department of Architecture, 1951.
  • Kelly, Burnham. The Prefabrication of Houses. New York: The Technology Press of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; London: Chapman and Hall Ltd., 1951. [A comprehensive study of the prefabricated housing industry in the United States, divided into three parts: 1) an assessment by the Foundation of the history, present status, and future of the industry; 2) a detailed reporting of the products and procedures of the outstanding companies in the field; and 3) an appendix which includes a detailed an annotated bibliography.]
  • Kelly, Phyllis M., and Caroline Shillaber. "International Bibliography of Prefabricated Houses." Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1954.
  • Kelly, Phyllis M. "Notes on the Export Trade in Prefabricated Houses." Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, MIT, Cambridge, MA, April 1953. [An informal research report intended for distribution only to those with a special interest in this field. Contains brief summaries for countries which carry on an export trade, and technical descriptions of types of prefabricated houses which are exported.]
  • Olgyay, Aladar, and Victor Olgyay. "Application of Climatic Data to House Design." Washington, DC, HHFA, Office of the Administrator, Division of Housing Research, 1954. [Report of a research project done for the Housing and Home Finance Agency.]
  • Vietorisz, Tamas. "Design of Residences for Climatic Comfort." Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1954. [Review study of mechanical and economic factors of importance in the development of rationalized heating and air-conditioning systems for housing.]

Processing Information

Box 28 of this collection was initially designated as a separate collection, the American Houses, Inc. papers (MC-0319). In 1995, materials from the former MC-0139 were merged into the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation records (AC-0302).

Guide to the Records of the Albert Farwell Bemis Foundation, 1926-1954
Mary Jane McCavitt
copyright 1981
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Processing of the collection was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Revision Statements

  • 2021 July 12: Edited by Lana Mason to remove aggrandizing terms in the historical note description.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

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