Avery Drawings & Archives Collections

Clyde Dorsett papers, 1940-1991, bulk 1952-1982

Summary Information


Clyde H. Dorsett (1925-2007) was an architectural consultant dedicated to mental healthcare design becoming the nation's leading authority in the design and construction of such facilities. Working as lead architectural consultant for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 1965 to 1982, he oversaw the federal government's ambitious program to transform the nation's monolithic state mental hospital structure into a wider variety of local and state facilities to address a spectrum of medical and social needs through more precisely tailored, yet humane and informal design approaches. Underpinning the work was the growing conviction that the built environment played a significant role in the healing process, and that such 'scientifically' derived design could be applied to social problems. Based at the institute's offices in Washington D.C., he both advised on individual projects through drawings submitted by architects nation-wide, as well as developing guidelines and standards for the accreditation, certification and funding of construction projects by the federal government. It is of these documents that the present collection largely comprises. He continued advising in the field long after his early retirement from the institute in 1982.

At a Glance

Bib ID 9439962 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Dorsett, Clyde, 1925-2007
Title Clyde Dorsett papers, 1940-1991, bulk 1952-1982
Physical Description 20 document boxes; 1 print box; 8 rolls; 1 folder (flat-file)
Language(s) English .

This collection is available for use by appointment in the Department of Drawings & Archives, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University. For further information and to make an appointment, please email avery-drawings@library.columbia.edu.

Unique time-based media items have been reformatted and are available onsite via links in the container list. All original copies of audio / moving image media are closed. Email avery-drawings@columbia.edu for more information.



This collection is made up of four series: Project Records, Professional Papers, Reference Files, and Personal Papers.


Scope and Content

This collection is composed primarily of project drawings, reports, letters and some photographs of general medical and specifically CMHC (Community Mental Health Centers) projects from across the United States received and commented upon by Dorsett while at the NIMH from 1963 to 1982. It also includes projects received and/or discussed by Dorsett after that date while acting as a private design consultant. The other, somewhat smaller portions of the collection, his reference material, professional and personal papers, comprise of studies, notes, articles, guidelines, private architectural projects, student design work, and various ephemera.

  • Series I: Project Records

    By far the largest component of the collection, this principally covers the 'raw material' received by Clyde Dorsett throughout his architectural consultation work: projects undertaken by various architects for their medical authority clients across the United States, and sent to the NIMH for comment. These date from 1963 to 1982 – the period of Dorsett's administration. There are also a number of further documents after that date sent to Dorsett during his extensive later period as a private consultant. Most work is related either directly or indirectly to hospital or CMHC design. A few of these contain hand-drawn or written comments by Dorsett, while a number contain letters of correspondence between the NIMH and other participants. The series comprises of drawings, files (written material) and photographs. The working and presentation drawings are mostly reproductions (blueprints, diazotypes, photostats) occasionally marked up by Dorsett or others. The files includes reports, correspondence letters, notes, often with their counterpart drawings. The project photographs form only a very small part of Series I. The Project Records Series is catalogued alphabetically first by state and within each, by project name – with drawings, files and/or photographs pertaining to each project kept in sequence. A few projects are unidentifiable by either title or state and have been placed at the end of the series.

  • Series II: Professional Papers

    This series comprises of his professional work outside of particular projects, including historical research, case studies, reports, guidelines, lecture notes, articles, and papers. The series is arranged alphabetically by title.

  • Series III: Reference Files

    This series comprises of miscellaneous reference materials by others (or by Dorsett and others) gathered by Dorsett over the course of his career, with most in some way relating to his professional life at the NIMH and beyond. These include books, journal articles, pamphlets, case studies, guidelines, legal documents, and standards. The series is arranged alphabetically by title.

  • Series IV: Personal Papers

    This series, the shortest, comprise generally of work and personal miscellany conducted outside of his life at the NIMH and later consulting life. It includes student work, referral letters, certificates, awards, and various ephemera. The series is arranged alphabetically by title.

Publication Date


Using the Collection

Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library

Restrictions on Access

This collection is available for use by appointment in the Department of Drawings & Archives, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University. For further information and to make an appointment, please email avery-drawings@library.columbia.edu.

Unique time-based media items have been reformatted and are available onsite via links in the container list. All original copies of audio / moving image media are closed. Email avery-drawings@columbia.edu for more information.

Restrictions on Use

Columbia University is providing access to the materials in the Library's collections solely for noncommercial educational and research purposes. The unauthorized use, including, but not limited to, publication of the materials without the prior written permission of Columbia University is strictly prohibited. All inquiries regarding permission to publish should be submitted in writing to the Director, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University. For additional guidance, see Columbia University Libraries' publication policy.

In addition to permission from Columbia University, permission of the copyright owner (if not Columbia University) and/or any holder of other rights (such as publicity and/or privacy rights) may also be required for reproduction, publication, distributions, and other uses. Responsibility for making an independent legal assessment of any item and securing any necessary permissions rests with the persons desiring to publish the item. Columbia University makes no warranties as to the accuracy of the materials or their fitness for a particular purpose.

Preferred Citation

Clyde Dorsett papers, 1940-1991, (bulk 1952-1982), Department of Drawings & Archives, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Source of acquisition--Roni McCarty. Method of acquisition--Donated;; Date of acquisition--2010. Accession number--2010.008.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library

Processing Information

Processed; Christopher Cowell 2012.

Revision Description

2012-05-18 File created.

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

2020-11-30 Links added to digitized content. kws

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Sound recordings Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Alexander, Christopher, 1936- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Architecture -- Human factors Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Architecture -- Psychological aspects Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Architecture -- United States -- Designs and plans Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Environment Design Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Environmental psychology Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Facility Design and Construction Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Fuller, R. Buckminster (Richard Buckminster), 1895-1983 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Hawaii State Hospital Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Health facilities Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Hospital architecture -- Psychological aspects Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Mental health facilities -- Design and construction Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
National Institute of Mental Health (U.S.) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Psychiatric clinics -- Design and construction Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Psychiatric hospitals -- Design and construction Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Washington Hospital Center Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note


Clyde H. Dorsett was born in Burlington, North Carolina in 1925. While still in his teens, he took part in the Allied Invasion of Normandy in 1944 receiving the Bronze Star Medal.[1] Clyde Dorsett's first experience in medical design began soon after his return, in 1946: an apprentice at the offices of Louis Jallade in New York City where he worked on a 200-bed hospital project. Dorsett went on to receive his bachelor's degree in architecture from the School of Design, North Carolina State University in 1953, part of which time he studied under Buckminster Fuller. He was noted for his unusual skill in mastering detail design both in terms of construction and program – later put to good use in his diagnostic work at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 1965. Between this period he co-established the short-lived partnership Dorsett & Smyre Architects. Though working on a number of project types, Dorsett again found himself engaged in hospital design and construction, this time for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Washington D.C., when he began to realize that there were growing design opportunities in the field.[2]

He studied at Columbia University from 1962-63 where he completed his master's degree in architecture majoring in hospital and public health facilities planning and design. The timing could not have been more fortunate. Following the passing of the Community Mental Health Centers (CMHC) Act of 1963, the NIMH suddenly found itself responsible for overseeing the wholesale transformation of the nation's medical health built infrastructure. To achieve this, Dorsett was brought in to establish its architectural consultation section of which he became chief. He would go on to develop most of the regulations, policies and programs related to architectural aspects of the Act. The new section was staffed by architects with backgrounds as diverse as anthropology, psychology, management, programming, mental health, and general hospital planning, while Dorsett foresaw this expanding into other related expertise such as in corrective services, children's programs and total health services.

During his time at the NIMH Dorsett also worked closely with a team of medical experts, believing that the medical program and the actual facility should be inseparable, that "they are the same thing."[3] Together they helped develop national policy and provided project-by-project consultation across each state for the relevant health care bodies and their private architects – with each project given a unique code comprising of state, project type and number. Site visits across the country were frequent, regional workshops not infrequent, with a constant stream of planning drawings and written advice flowing through the NIMH offices.[4] Dorsett's overriding belief was that good healthcare design should provide a humane, welcoming environment as opposed to the institutional character that normally felt with such building types. To this aim he sponsored a large body of research in environmental psychology. Among his early collaborators were Sim Van der Ryn and Christopher Alexander, the latter for whom he contributed some sections to his "pattern language." By 1978 Dorsett was finally able to take his theories to their ultimate conclusion – the total breaking down of monolithic institutional design and the re-empowering of patients in the healing process – with his consultation work for the Hawaii State Hospital. Here the "village system" approach was adopted: clustered buildings broken down into discreet housing units in a semi-urban setting. This and others like it at the time, reflected new ideas of the needs of patients and of medical support staff to be cognizant of their interactions and social relations across various scales: from the individual to the group, to the multiple, to the neighborhood or village – a direct influence of Alexander's thinking.

Dorsett often fussed over both the details and the wider aims of a project, yet was described as having a "smooth, low key approach."[5] Indeed so well-known was his technical support in linking facilities to programs that the process was once dubbed as "Dorsetting."[6] His frequent travel across the various states and the personal sacrifices this entailed also earned him the praise of his director, Dr. Frank M. Ochberg, who described him as "my ambassador-at-large."[7]

Dorsett took early retirement from the institute in 1982, possibly as a consequence of cutbacks in consultation services by the NIMH that Dorsett was beginning to forewarn his clients of as early as 1979.[8] He was now working in a partnership with Constantine Karalis, as senior partner to the practice Dorsett and Karalis, Associates. Dorsett's old projects continued to be utilized by him as pattern touchstones for his new and existing clients right up until the 1990s. His expertise now earned him a wider international audience, consulting for health authorities in the West Indies, and advising the World Health Organization and the State Department. He died at his home at Queenstown, Maryland, in 2007.


1. Adam Bernstein, Clyde H. Dorsett; Architectural Consultant, The Washington Post, Aug. 11, 2007.

2. Sam A. Kimble [Department of Health, Education and Welfare] to Dorsett, March 23, 1962.

3. "Community Mental Health Centers Team: Everyone's in a Different Game," Phs World, May 1966, p.25.

4. Clyde H. Dorsett, "Broader Goals for the Architect and Government in Community Planning," AIA Governmental Affairs Review (undated, c. 1970).

5. Thomas W. Carey (Department of Health & Human Services) to Dorsett, Nov. 7, 1980.

6. Jack A. Bartleson (ADAMH Branch) to Steven Sharfstein, M.D. (DMHSB), July 27, 1976.

7. Frank M. Ochberg [Division of Mental Health Services Program, NIMH] to Dorsett, May 30, 1975.

8. Ian Osborn [Pennsylvania State Hospital] to Dorsett, Oct. 24, 1979.