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03/2006 At 50, the AIA Conceives the Gold Medal, Receives Roosevelt’s Gratitude

by Tony Wrenn

The AIA, born on February 23, would be 50 in 1907, and there would be a party. The engraved invitations read “The American Institute of Architects, founded in the year 1857, will commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of this date, in the City of Washington, on the eighth of January 1907, and will esteem it an honor if the _______can be represented on this occasion.” To confuse one a bit, the actual “commemorative exercises” were on January 9, beginning at the New Willard Hotel at 14th and Pennsylvania at 2:30 p.m., with greetings from architecture societies, art groups, and universities around the world, and featured “addresses, reminiscent and historical.”

The festivities concluded at the Octagon at 4:30 p.m., with a reception and tea prepared by “patronesses” who were the wives of members, or, in the case of AIA President Robert S. Peabody, his daughter, Miss Peabody. An exhibition of the works of Sir Aston Webb, who had the night before received the AIA’s first Gold Medal, was on view, and Webb was present to talk with birthday celebrants. During the evening, President Peabody unveiled a bronze tablet “in honor of its founders and of those who joined with them to Frame its Constitution and By-Laws.” There were 13 names on the list of founders; 18 on the list of those who joined with them. The birthday dinner followed “on the 10th floor, New Willard, at 7:30 p.m.”

An early commemoration
Glenn Brown, the AIA secretary and treasurer, had penned a short history of the AIA’s first 50 years in which he described “noted” conventions and events and praised those who had served as president. There had been but 10 presidents in those 50 years. He noted especially the successes of the Institute “in the past seven years,” 1899–1907. “It initiated the movement for systematic improvement of cities in this country; secured the appointment of a Park Commission to report on the development of Washington City; prevented the remodeling of the White House and extension of the Capitol on lines which would have destroyed their beauty; preserved the Mall, by demonstrating that an improper location of the Agricultural Building would destroy the future artistic development of the city . . . aided in the establishment of the American Academy in Rome, a post-graduate school in architecture painting, sculpture and music. . . gave in 1907 its first Gold Medal for distinguished merit in Architecture. . . thus establishing a precedent which will be followed of honoring those who have distinguished themselves in our Art.”

Indeed, the Gold Medal was the first award approved by the AIA, and it, and the School Medal, authorized in 1914 and designed by Victor D. Brenner, have stood the test of time, for both are still awarded.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) had given its Gold Medal both to AIA members Richard Morris Hunt and Charles F. McKim. McKim, anxious to return the favor, suggested an AIA Gold Medal, with Sir Aston Webb as the recipient. Webb had been president of RIBA, and it was he who had awarded the medal to McKim in London. The American Gold would be the highest honor the Institute could award an architect.

The design of an American Gold Medal was given to sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, whose work on the Wisconsin State Capitol and Pennsylvania Station in New York, among others, was internationally known. His design featured, on the obverse, the profiles of Polygnotus, Ictinus, and Phidias, the architects and chief sculptor of the Parthenon, and their tools: a brush, a sculptor’s modeling tool, a compass, and a triangle. On the reverse an eagle with upraised wings as if just landed or ready to fly away, plucks a laurel branch from a rock. “AIA” and “A.A. Weinman, M.C.M.VII.” are etched into the rock. The recipient’s name, and the date awarded would, as is still the custom, be engraved on the rim.

The 1907 and first such medal was awarded to Webb at a reception in the Corcoran Gallery of Art on the evening of January 8. Since the RIBA medal was awarded by the Crown, McKim initially suggested that the AIA medal be awarded by the American president, but that idea was vetoed by Theodore Roosevelt. He did not rule out his participation in the award though, and, during Webb’s stay in Washington, invited Webb to lunch at the White House.

In the Gold Medal presentation to Webb, AIA President Frank Miles Day noted: “Matthew Arnold’s dictum that not only is good work needed to put a poet in secure place, but a great body of good work, is no less true of other arts than it is of poetry. On the score of amplitude, your achievement lacks nothing, for no architect in England, save Sir Christopher himself, has been entrusted with the conduct of so many and such vast works.”

Webb responded, “I have come over here personally to say ‘Thank you’ in the sincerest and the directest and the simplest way I can. And to assure you that all architects on the other side of the water will deeply appreciate the fact that on this, the jubilee day of your Institute, and the institution of this gold medal, you should send it over to the other side ... It has always been one of my happiest recollections that it fell to my lot to have the privilege to hand our medal to Mr. McKim. (Applause) He came over personally to receive it, and I need hardly tell you that directly he arrived he entered into our hearts and affections and has remained there ever since. (Applause).”

Later, Webb would win the hearts of the Americans when, in responding to a toast, he said “As we are all making architectural similes tonight, I compare myself, and have done so all the evening, to a little house in New York surrounded by skyscrapers. I hope these gentlemen will not mind this comparison, but, of course, in speaking of skyscrapers, I refer only to the good ones.”

Roosevelt assists in a grand exposition
There would be another convention in 1907, the 41st, held in November, in which Day suggested, “It is in the service of the people and not of its own members that the Institute finds, and will find, its widest and best field. It is by unconsciously stimulating in its members a desire and ability to be of public service that it will find its greatest usefulness.” Noting that there was opposition to location of the Grant Memorial at the foot of the West Front of the Capitol on the Mall, the AIA reiterated its firm support for that location, as suggested by the Park Commission Plan, and proposed a memorial to artist and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens who, in 1907, had “died as one of the acknowledged masters of his time.”

After approval of the undertaking, AIA President Gilbert and Secretary Brown undertook the planning of the memorial meeting. Mrs. Saint-Gaudens participation was secured, space at the Corcoran Gallery was set aside, and Brown and Gilbert began collecting Saint-Gaudens’ works for the exhibition.

The pieces, from the Saint-Gaudens studio, loaned from museums, institutions, and private collections, were carefully installed by Brown and his coworkers, often working late into the night. One piece that Brown felt was important for the exhibition was a bust of General Sherman, which was at West Point, but West Point would not part with it. Brown appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt, who told his secretary to direct West Point to send the bust. “A few days before the exhibition opened, Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt came into the gallery, inspecting the pieces of sculpture that were in place. Seeing me [Brown] he said: ‘Have you gotten the bust of General Sherman?’ I replied, ‘No, Mr. President, I’ve not even heard that we could get it.’ Roosevelt walked toward the office. In a few minutes Mrs. Roosevelt came back and said ‘The President wants to see you.’ I followed her back to the office where we found the President. He then dictated the following telegram: ‘Col. Scott, see to it personally that the Bust of General Sherman is at the Corcoran Gallery within twenty-four hours.’ ‘That will bring it,’ said Theodore Roosevelt, bringing his fist down with a bang upon the desk. It was delivered at the Corcoran Gallery within twenty-four hours, brought by a special messenger.”

In the atrium at the Corcoran, Saint-Gaudens’ Victory-Peace, “laurel crowned, right arm extended and holding in her left hand an olive branch,” was placed on the landing of the great marble stair. “She appeared to move forward gracefully,” Brown wrote, “as she welcomed the guest[s].” A speaker’s stand, in keeping with the style of the hall, was erected in front of Victory-Peace. There, on December 15, 1908, at 9 p.m. before 156 of Saint-Gaudens’ works, the AIA paid its tribute.

Roosevelt spoke: “He worked among his own people, and his work was of his own time; but yet it was of all time, for in his subjects he ever seized and portrayed that which was undying.”

Roosevelt praised the coinage Saint-Gaudens had designed for the United States: “I believe, more beautiful than any coins since the days of the Greeks,” and of art in America. “In any nation those citizens who possess the pride in their nationality, without which they cannot claim to be good citizens, must feel a particular satisfaction in the deeds of every man who adds to the sum of worthy national achievement . . . Particularly should this be so with us in America. As is natural we have won our successes in the field of an abounding material achievements; we have conquered a continent; we have laced it with railways, we have dotted it with cities. Quite unconsciously, and as a mere incident to this industrial growth, we have produced some really marvelous artistic effects. Take for instance, the sight offered the man who travels on the railroad from Pittsburgh through the line of iron and steel towns which stretch along the Monongahela. I shall never forget a journey I thus made a year or so ago. The morning was misty, with showers of rain. The flames from the pipes and doors of the blast furnaces flickered red through the haze. The huge chimneys and machinery were of strange and monstrous shapes. From the funnels the smoke came saffron, orange, green, and blue, like a landscape of Turner. What a chance for an artist of real genius! Again, some day people will realize that one effect of the ‘skyscrapers’ of New York, of the massing of buildings of enormous size and height on an island surrounded by waterways, has been to produce a city of singularly imposing type and of unexampled picturesqueness. A great artist will yet arise to bring before our eyes that powerful irregular skyline of the great city at sunset, or in the noonday brightness, and, above all, at night, when the lights flash from the dark mountainous mass of buildings, from the stately bridges that span the East River, and from the myriad craft that blaze as they ply to and fro across the waters.”

And of Saint-Gaudens and his statue of Lincoln: “We look . . . stirred to awe and wonder and devotion for the great man who, in strength and sorrow, bore the people’s burdens through the four years of our direst need, and then, standing as a high priest between the horns of the altar, poured out his lifeblood for the nation whose life he had saved. In this quality of showing the soul, Saint-Gaudens’ figures are more impressive than the most beautiful figures that have come down from the art of ancient Greece; for their unequaled beauty is of form merely, and Saint-Gaudens’ is of the spirit within.” The guests, an astounding number near 2,000, were, Brown noted “an imposing sight as they passed by the receiving line.” The membership of the Institute then was just 868. Clearly events such as the Saint-Gaudens exhibition reached a press and public considerably larger than the AIA membership.

The AIA shapes its adopted capital city
AIA President Cass Gilbert noted in his address in 1908 that President Roosevelt, “in calling together the notable conference of the governors for consideration of the conservation of the natural resources of our country, invited the American Institute of Architects, as one of a few organizations of national scope, to take part therein, and we have now an Institute Committee acting with the Conservation Commission, which grew out of that conference. This commission will, I believe, become one of the greatest powers for national good that has ever been created.” The convention voiced support for construction of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall site recommended by the Park Commission, and the awarding of a Gold Medal to Charles McKim was authorized. The Board reported that “The remains of Peter [sic] Charles L’Enfant, which were interred on the Digg’s Farm in Maryland, are to be removed to Arlington.” The removal and reburial could be reported at the next convention, in 1909, but the public celebration was not to come until 1911 with the unveiling of a memorial designed by AIA member Welles Bosworth, in a ceremony planned by Brown.

As Brown and Gilbert talked with President Roosevelt, Roosevelt began to talk about leaving a “legacy” to the AIA. The idea was never fully defined, but a letter from the White House, signed by Roosevelt and dated Dec. 19, 1908, arrived at the Octagon on December 21. The President had evidently kept the letter before him for a while, making changes in his own hand, before he was satisfied and sent it. “My dear Mr. Gilbert: Now that I am about to leave office there is something I should like to say thru you to the American Institute of Architects. During my incumbency of the Presidency the White House, under Mr. McKim’s direction, was restored to the beauty, dignity and simplicity of its original plan. It is now, without and within, literally the ideal house for the head of a great democratic republic. It should be a matter of pride and honorable obligation to the whole Nation to prevent its being in any way marred. If I had it in my power as I leave office, I should like to leave as a legacy to you, and to the American Institute of Architects, the duty of preserving a perpetual ‘eye of guardianship’ over the White House to see that it is kept unchanged and unmarred from this time on. Sincerely yours, [signed] Theodore Roosevelt.

Gilbert responded “I have no hesitation in assuring you, Mr. President, that the American Institute of Architects will accept all the honorable obligation which your letter implies and will lend its influence always to the preservation of the White House as it now stands unchanged and unmarred for future generations of the American people.”

Copyright 2005 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved. Home Page Home Page

AIA150 Rolling History
 A Beginning, 1857-1866
 The Second Decade, 1867-1876
 1877-1886: Westward and Upward
 1887-1896: A Decade of Outreach, Inclusiveness, and Internationalism
 Women and Women Architects in the 1890s
 1897-1906: The AIA Moves to and Changes Washington
 The Institute's Influence on Legislative Policy
 At 50, the AIA Conceives the Gold Medal, Receives Roosevelt's Gratitude
 Spinning a Golden Webb
 1909-1917: The Institute Comes of Age in the Nation's Capital
 1917-1926: A New Power Structure: World War I, Pageantry, and the Power of the Press
 1927-1936: A Decade of Depression and Perseverance
 The AIA in Its Ninth Decade: 1937-1946
 1947-1956: Wright Recognition, White House Renovation, AIA Closes on 100
 The Tenth Decade: 1957-1966
 1967-1976: New HQ and a New Age Take Center Stage
 A New Home for the AIA in 1973; A Greener Home in 2007
 Diversity and the Profession: Take II
 'The Vietnam Situation Is Hell': The AIA's Internal Struggle over the War in Southeast Asia
 1977-1986: Activism and Capital-A Architecture Are Alive at the AIA
 1987-1996 Technology, Diversity, and Expansion

Image 1: Sir Aston Webb received the first AIA Gold Medal in 1907, which also marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the AIA.

Image 2: Because of the lack of a quorum of members, in 10 of its first 50 years the Institute did not hold a convention.

Image 3: A lapel pin from the 1907 AIA Convention.

Image 4: An invitation to the 40th AIA Convention features the original Institute seal.

Image 5: The program cover for the 50th anniversary banquet had a patriotic theme of Lady Liberty fronted by the newly designed AIA Gold Medal.

Image 6: The AIA 50th anniversary dinner, attended by President Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII, featured Gold Medalist Sir Aston Webb, and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge.

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