Architect, painter, and archaeologist, John Henry Scarff was born in Baltimore on October 23, 1887. He completed two degrees in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before studying European architecture for two years at the American Academy in Rome. Following service with the U.S. Army during World War I, he began a successful career as a partner in the Baltimore architectural firm, Wyatt & Nolting. He participated in the design and construction of such notable Baltimore landmarks as the Keyser Building, the Federal Land Bank Building, and the Capitol Theatre. Upon dissolution of Wyatt & Nolting in 1940, Scarff opened his own firm.
During the 1930s, Scarff applied his knowledge of historic buildings to local preservation efforts. He held appointments as the first President of the Citizens Planning and Redevelopment Commission, Secretary of the Society for the Preservation of Maryland Antiquities, member of the Board of Managers of the Maryland Institute of Art and Design, and member of the Historic American Buildings Survey in Maryland. In 1931 Scarff was invited by the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore to supervise renovations at the Rembrandt Peale Museum (today, the Peale Museum). He planned the reorganization of the museum, selected a director, and outlined new museum policies. His success attracted the notice of administrators at the Baltimore Museum of Art, who hired Scarff as temporary Acting Director in 1937.
In August 1944 Scarff was appointed Special Assistant to Huntington Cairns, the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (commonly referred to as the Roberts Commission for its Chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts). Scarff acted as an official representative of the Roberts Commission in Europe, consulting with government agencies and high-ranking Monuments Men regarding logistics confronting MFAA officials. He began by creating policies regarding looted art, forced transfers, damaged monuments, and restitution procedures for displaced collections. Scarff closely observed the work of Monuments Men in the field, analyzing their methods and submitting highly detailed recommendations for improvement to Cairns and other members of the Roberts Commission in Washington, D.C. In November 1945 he was transferred to the MFAA Branch of the Office of Military Government for Germany in Berlin.
Upon his return to Baltimore in August 1946, Scarff chose not to resume his career in architecture. Rather, he expanded his involvement in Baltimore civil affairs, particularly in regard to local architectural history. He served as Director of the historical marker division of the Maryland State Roads Commission, writing the text for a number of informative plaques lining Maryland highways. Scarff also contributed numerous articles to The Baltimore Sun that were inspired by his world travels. In 1952 he was part of a twenty-man excavation team at Mareb, Yemen, the suspected site of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. The trip did not end well, for the entire party was unceremoniously chased from the area by locals, abandoning their research findings and expensive equipment. Undaunted, he returned to the region in subsequent years, participating in a trip to the Protectorate of Aden sponsored by the American Foundation for the Study of Man, and an expedition in search of Himyaritic and Pre-Islamic ruins in the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman.
In addition to many articles detailing his adventures, Scarff published Some Houses of Colonial Maryland (1930) and William Buckland, 1734-1774; architect of Virginia and Maryland (with Rosamund R. Bairne, 1958). He remained an ardent supporter of local history for the rest of his life. Scarff was Fellow Emeritus of the American Institute of Architects, member of the Baltimore Art Commission, member of the board of trustees at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and an active member of the Maryland Historical Society. Just one month before his sudden death from a heart attack, he was appointed by the mayor of Baltimore to a leadership position on the city’s Civic Design Commission.
John Scarff died in his beloved Baltimore on October 31, 1964.