Linus Burr Smith, FAIA: Heritage and Architecture Education at UNL


Linus Burr Smith, FAIA, undated photo

Linus Burr Smith, FAIA, undated photo

Linus Burr Smith in the classroom, FAIA, undated photo

Linus Burr Smith in the classroom, FAIA, undated photo

With the pending restructuring of the College of Architecture and the Hixson-Lied College of Fine & Performing Arts, it’s worth stepping back and reflecting on a significant segment of the College of Architecture’s heritage – the tenure of Linus Burr Smith, FAIA – Chairman of the Department of Architecture for 30 years (1934-1964).

At the age of 35, Linus Burr Smith was appointed Chairman of the Department of Architecture at the University of Nebraska. His curriculum vita was impressive – educated at Kansas State University, Harvard University and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He taught and practiced in Kansas for 10 years before joining the faculty at the University of Nebraska in 1934.

Burr was a man of many talents – an accomplished design architect, a renowned artist particularly in watercolor, a commanding knowledge of architecture history and design styles, a philosopher and a respected administrator. Between 1948 and the mid 50’s he was at least partially responsible for the design of five major buildings on the University campus. His affability and quick wit made him one of the most colorful characters on campus. But for those who experienced Burr during his 30-plus year tenure, it was his passion for teaching and his lectures on architectural history and design that inspired a whole generation of young architects at UNL.

Burr’s lectures and conversations were much more than facts and theories on architecture. Using his personal experiences from years of world travel, he would share the processes of how technology and humanity have shaped architecture and planning over the centuries and its relevance to the world we live in today.

Burr’s tenure as Chairman started with just a handful of students in the depths of the Great Depression, but by the end of WWII, there was significant market demand for architects and the department grew exponentially. By the early 1960‘s enrollments exceeded 200 students and it would continue a strong growth pattern well after Burr’s retirement. Burr Smith set the standard for design excellence and leadership in the architectural education profession. For those of us who had the benefit of knowing Burr personally, he was a father figure and one who we viewed in the highest esteem.

It was in the attic of Lincoln filmographer John Spence (who was a student under Burr in the early ‘60’s) that a heritage quest began. Were it not for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981 to produce a series of filmed interviews and lectures of Linus Burr Smith, this whole legacy initiative would be nothing more than vapor. Spence’s 16mm film resided in his attic for 30 years because there was no funding to transfer that film to digital format. Thanks to numerous donors, John Spence carefully edited the video segments and added images to help tell the story of Burr’s life and most importantly, the “Last Lecture” that was filmed only months before Professor’s Smith’s death in 1982.

In collaboration with the Architectural Foundation of Nebraska (AFN), DVD’s the “Last Lecture” and other segments have been produced and are on sale with proceeds going to scholarships for graduating high school students entering UNL’s architecture program.

Copies of the DVD can be purchased via the Architectural Foundation of Nebraska website: