Division of Archives and Records Service
Museum Director Annie Bommer rediscovered Allen’s lost documents in this trunk in 2021.

The Lost Treasure Chest of the Heritage Museum of Layton

Each year, the Utah State Historical Records Advisory Board (USHRAB) awards grants to organizations throughout the state to assist with the preservation and public access of our state’s history. These grants are made possible by funding from the National Historical Records and Publications Commission at the National Archives. As we get ready for the USHRAB’s 2023 funding season, we’re going to spend the next couple weeks taking a look at some past and current projects and the work the Board does to make Utah history more accessible.

Have you ever tucked away an important document with the intention of dealing with it later, only to lose track of time and stumble across that document months later? Most of us have had this happen to us around the house at some point. This happens at archives, libraries, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations too, especially if that donation or purchase was made before electronic record keeping was widespread and user-friendly. For one reason or another items can get lost in the shuffle of daily office life. In the archiving world these forgotten documents are called “hidden collections,” since the items are uninventoried, uncatalogued, and unfindable.

Over twenty years ago, the Heritage Museum of Layton received a donation of documents related to the architectural work of William Allen. As the curator of the museum told the USHRAB in their application: 

William Robert Allen was born in London, England on January 1, 1850. His family moved to Omaha, Nebraska when he was twelve and left for Kaysville, Utah by ox cart a year later. At the age of sixteen, he began to follow in his father’s footsteps and learn the trade of masonry. By 1870, he was listed as a mason on the town census. During the 1880s, Allen took up architectural drafting in addition to his work as a mason and contractor. He received formal education in 1895 from the International Correspondence School in the architecture curriculum. He completed nineteen of twenty-five courses but did not receive a diploma. In the 1890s, he was listed as both an architect and contractor in several commercial directories. The 1900 census listed him as an architect. Allen’s advertisements indicate that he was the only architect in the county, therefore many communities from Bountiful to Syracuse relied on his skills for projects ranging from bungalows to mansions and commercial buildings to religious centers. Allen even built his own home, which he resided in until his death in 1928. William Allen’s architectural legacy is evident throughout Layton and Kaysville, as well as other parts of Davis County. Many of his buildings are still standing, an attest to his competence and craftsmanship.

Excerpt from the Heritage Museum of Layton’s USHRAB application
Examples of William Allen’s architecture drawings.
Examples of William Allen’s architecture drawings.

What a life, and what a fascinating collection that informs the architectural history of Layton and Kaysville! Some of the items from the donation, including historical photographs, are available for viewing in the museum’s catalog and are included in the William Allen online story map digital exhibit. There was just one problem: part of this donation, including original architectural drawings, contracts, and supply lists of iconic buildings around Kaysville and Layton designed by Allen, were somehow separated from the rest of the collection. These documents were rolled together (a process which can damage documents) and placed inside an unrelated trunk that was used as a display cabinet. In 2021, Annie Bommer, the current director of the museum, was moving exhibits around and rediscovered the Allen drawings inside. The Museum’s Board was unaware of the drawings’ existence, and wanted to immediately get to work inventorying, cataloging, housing, creating finding aids, and reuniting these documents with the rest of the William Allen collection.

Thomas Stuart flattens Allen’s rolled drawings so that they can be stored unrolled in large flat cabinet drawers.
Thomas Stuart flattens Allen’s rolled drawings so that they can be stored unrolled in large flat cabinet drawers.

The Heritage Museum of Layton successfully applied for a USHRAB grant of $2,765 to flatten the rolled vellum drawings and house the drawings in archival-quality housing to prevent any further damage. Research assistants would provide full descriptions and documentation of the drawings in order to minimize handling of these delicate items. These items will be incorporated into the rest of the William Allen collection’s finding aid and integrated into the existing William Allen online story map digital exhibit. You can learn more about Allen, the architectural history of Layton and Kaysville, and take a digital walking tour of the local buildings he designed. The story map is an on-going project which will be updated as more of Allen’s documents are processed. Be sure to revisit their digital exhibit in June 2023 at the end of the USHRAB grant period and see the results of the Museum’s hard work and celebrate the completion of their grant project.

If your organization has deteriorating, unprocessed, uncataloged or undiscoverable records, consider applying for a USHRAB grant to help turn those hidden treasures into a treasure trove of researchable public history.

The USHRAB’s grant program is funded by a State Board Programming Grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives. The USHRAB assists public and private non-profits, as well as non-Federal government entities throughout the State of Utah in the preservation and use of historical records.