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05/2006 A Decade of Depression and Perseverance

by Tony P. Wrenn, Hon. AIA

“Architecture as an Art” was the theme in Washington, on May 11, 1927, as AIA President Milton Medary opened the 60th AIA Convention:

“The architect hears everywhere, ‘Let us have a new architecture, an American architecture; let us have done with the dealers in classic and medieval forms; let us try something truly American!’ . . . This is plain sophistry. Just as well say: ‘Let us have an entirely new written language, as well as the physical one; let us stop using the words used by Shakespeare and express our thoughts by sounds never heard before; and let us be entirely individual and no two of us use the same sounds!’ . . . This sophistry is due to the confusion which fails to differentiate between using the soul and mind of Shakespeare as our own and using the words with which he expressed the thing born in his own spirit; words which have become exquisite with every delicate shade of meaning only because men have long used them and understand them. Without them the power of beautiful expression would disappear. The written language is a living changing thing, however, and slowly and surely, as Doric architecture became Ionic, and Roman Romanesque, and Romanesque Gothic, the English of Chaucer became that of the sixteenth century, of the eighteenth century, and of the present day.

“Let us, then, in looking to the future close our eyes to the changing multitude of surface manifestations and look below the surface for the roots out of which they spring, and let us search among the roots for those which are universal and have abiding character.”

And back home, a tough client
Medary’s office was in The Octagon, which was purchased by the AIA in 1902, four years after it leased the house and moved its headquarters there. The complex of mansion, stable, smokehouse, and garden gave the AIA enormous prestige, for many considered it to have architectural and historical importance second only to the White House as a Washington residence. It had to be preserved, and its open space not trespassed upon.

By 1926, The Octagon was suffering from AIA use, which generated the weight of staff, visitors, library, and files the former residence had not been constructed to support. The AIA had begun studying possible construction of offices behind the historic building even before it purchased the property. In 1906, it asked Charles F. McKim to design such a building, and Glen Brown had produced drawings for one in 1907. By 1914, as Brown made measured drawings of The Octagon, published as a monograph in 1915, a building committee was seeking new plans. Brown and Bedford Brown, his son, did drawings for a new building in 1912. Henry Bacon, Charles Platt, and Howard Van Doren Shaw all did plans in 1922, as did George Nimmons and Dan Everett Waid in 1924.

In 1927, Waid, then chair of The Octagon Building Committee, came to the AIA convention prepared. A handsomely designed 55-page book detailing the history of designs for The Octagon property had been printed, and models of two schemes recommended by the Building Committee were ready. When the “Development of The Octagon Property” theme was introduced, Waid chastised, “You are fine and I love you all, but you are very bad. You are one of the worst clients I ever saw. I have in the course of my short experience had to do with all kinds of clients, as you have, and the next time I hear you, any of you, complaining about some … client who has given you a lot of trouble by changing her mind or being slow in making up her mind, you will not get so much sympathy as I would have given you some time ago.”

Dozens of architects, score of opinions
A lengthy discussion followed. How much of the property could be built upon? How high should the new building be, and of what design? Should it contain offices and auditorium? Could the stable, which had housed several horses, house more than the Institute secretary’s car? And which would be more disruptive to life in The Octagon and adjacent offices, the sounds of horses or of automobiles? New Yorkers found the sounds of automobiles more soothing and less disruptive. Others were less certain they wanted to see a garage “in the midst of The Octagon property.”

All agreed though that “The Octagon ... including the smoke house and stable, be preserved as far as possible intact,” and that the garden was included in the untouchable complex. A scheme was finally approved to build offices and library, but with the Depression at hand, construction was once more delayed.

One immediate result of the 1927 convention, which voted to sell the AIA Press and Journal, was the loss of the beauty, popularity, and innovative design of the Journal and of publications of the Press. Neither had been a moneymaker, but the Journal had proven so popular and useful to the membership, and to others interested in architecture, that having no publication was not even considered. The Journal was replaced by The Octagon, “A Journal of The American Institute of Architects,” a no-nonsense publication, without illustrations or advertisements, which carried news of the profession. In 1932, it became the sole publication of the Institute, replacing even the convention proceedings, which had been published annually since 1867.

Even while backing away from an illustrated publication, conventioneers still found time to discuss the importance of design. In 1928, honor awards were discussed, and several chapters reported honor-award programs. The idea that developed was to award at the chapter level and, from local winners, select recipients of the national honor awards. It would be another two decades, though, before a national Honor Awards Program began. The need to impress the importance of the Institute on new members was also discussed, and an Admission Ceremony considered. The Washington State Chapter, it was reported, found such a ceremony beneficial, in which a public reading of The Principles of Professional Practice was central. Such a ceremony, easily arranged on the local level, was not as simple to adopt on the national level.

Hard times create good leaders
Even before the Depression, finding work for architects was a major topic of conversation—and community leadership was the suggested solution to overcome the perception that one actually needed doctors and lawyers, but one could build without an architect. In 1928, the Board of Directors suggested in “The Architect and the Community—A Criticism” that this perception was being fostered by architects themselves. The Board believed, the paper stated “that the architect is guilty of neglecting his community. As a professional group, organized or unorganized, he seems to give little or no attention to the civic progress of his own town or city. A charge of disregard of community welfare cannot be made against the doctors. They are active in their field, as it affects the health of the people. They do not hesitate to assume the leadership which is rightfully theirs. The same principle of conduct is true of the lawyers, whose control in making the laws is proverbial. But the architects seem to assume an over-modest attitude when planning, zoning, and civic developments are under way or should be under way.”

Contrary to this charge, we see in the example of the Washington (D.C.) Chapter of the AIA that architects of the day were indeed passionate and involved in community life, even as the country hit its Great Depression nadir in 1932. Washington Chapter members, who had been instrumental in convincing the Institute to move from New York to the District of Columbia, were consistent supporters of the 1901 McMillan Commission Plan, and of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, established in 1910. That commission had review authority over government buildings and open space in the core city, but no oversight over the rest of the city. Working through the office of the engineer commissioner of the District of Columbia, through which permits for construction were obtained, the chapter formed, in July 1922, the “Architects Advisory Council” to review proposed construction professionally. Applications and plans, which the commission office required, were sent to the Washington Chapter’s Advisory Council, whose volunteers met weekly, rated the applications, and suggested changes or improvements. The applications were returned to the engineer’s office, which passed the council recommendations to the applicant as official city findings. The council met in architect Horace Peaslee’s office, but in time seemed more and more an official government body.

A 1932 form letter addressed “To Architects, Designers, Home Builders, Promoters and Civic Associations,” noted “The Architects Advisory Council, which is now entering upon its tenth consecutive year of service to Washington, needs no introduction; but deserves a word of commendation ... This work is made possible by the freely given service of the representative architects of the city. Each week a jury of three architects under an able chairman examines the current plans filed for building permits, and classifies them as ‘approved,’ ‘average,’ or ‘disapproved.’ In each case, suggestions are made for improvements, and opportunity is given for reclassification.” The letter, signed by the assistant engineer commissioner for the District, noted that the council meets “every Thursday at two P.M., in the Zoning Office, Room 2, ground floor of the District Building.”

During its more than a decade of work, thousands of building plans were considered by the council and construction in the nation’s capital was measurably improved by its findings. It is possible that chapters performed the same service in other cities, but no study of the Architects Advisory Council, or any similar body, has been located. The records of the Washington group provide a sound base for any number of theses or dissertations in city planning, design review, architectural history, and similar subjects. These records show clearly that Washington architects were involved in civic development.

The Institute also sponsored architectural studies by chapters and students. In 1929, these included design of a “Washington Airport,” by a graduate student of the Yale School of Fine Arts, and a study of the development of the “north side of Pennsylvania Avenue,” by a special committee of the Chicago Chapter and students of the Lake Forest Foundation of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Parkway development and the control of billboards were the subject of other studies.

Historic celebrations of architectural history
As the construction industry came to a screeching halt after 1929, people turned their attention to the existing building stock and its historic value. In 1930, Library of Congress employee Leicester B. Holland, FAIA, established the Library’s “Pictorial Archive of Early American Architecture” to collect photographs, negatives, and books on American architecture, an initial effort at the Library to document American architecture. As 1932 chair of the AIA Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings, Holland reported the establishment of a special zoning and planning district in Charleston, S.C., called “The Old and Historic Charleston district, within which building permits are not to be issued until plans have been approved by a board of architectural review to prevent developments obviously out of place. Similar zoning regulations,” he continued, “are in effect in New Orleans. It is pointed out that while such regulations afford protection from disfigurement they cannot prevent demolition.” Designated historic districts such as these first two, developed with the assistance of architects, with review boards that require architects as members, are today the major means of design review in older American communities.

No program that came out of the Depression brought as much work to architects, drafters, and architecture students, however, as did the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), patterned after similar work by the Royal Institute of British Architects and adapted to American use by AIA member Charles E. Peterson. In late 1933, he sought the advice of the AIA in forming a suitable program for professionally recording historic buildings for permanent retention in the collections of the Library of Congress. “On November 13, 1933, a memorandum proposing the relief employment under the Civil Works Administration of a substantial number of the architectural profession in a program recording interesting and significant specimens of American architecture’ was submitted to the National Park Service.” The plan proposed the employment of 1,200 persons, of whom nearly 1,100 were to be architects, supported by a total expenditure of $448,000.

Within four days, it had been approved by the secretary of the Interior. It was then submitted to the Civil Works Administration, and, on November 29—less than three weeks after it was written, Peterson reported, the plan was approved in its original form. “The project was immediately set in motion by ... the National Park Service,” he wrote, adding: “The proven feasibility of the whole idea encouraged the National Parks Service, the American Institute of Architects, and the Library of Congress to effect, on July 23, 1934, an agreement to carry on the work as a permanent activity.” That tripartite agreement continues, and HABS is now one of the largest collections in the world of records of existing buildings.

Other activities for raising money for the relief of out-of-work architects were less grand. One was the 1933 production and sale of a Colonial Tea Set by the Women’s Division of the Architects’ Emergency Committee of New York. Produced by Lennox in an edition not to exceed 5,000, and made available at cost to the committee, the china was gold rimmed and contained drawings of historic American buildings, Independence Hall, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Westover, and the Santa Barbara Mission among them. Interest was national, and the merits and beauty of the set, regardless of the money it may have raised for architectural relief, make the tea set a poignant reminder of how devastating the Depression was for architects and a valuable collectible today.

A French connection . . . and Swedish
Still, there were architects with time on their hands who had money in their pockets. The French Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris had been a major source of training for many of them, and, in 1931, a group of Ecole graduates decided to repay the school by design and presentation of a flag pole, which they would deliver. Kenneth Murchison, who originated the idea, was challenged to take “fifty . . . Beaux-Arts boys, lodge them, bring them back, include the expense of the flagpole, arrange for a little light drinking, all for the ridiculous sum of Three Hundred Dollars! And he did,” Henry Saylor wrote, “believe it or not!” A steamer was chartered, renamed “American Architect,” and 53 Beaux-Arts alumni left New York on May 21, 1931, bound for France. They would reboard to return to the U.S. on June 13th. Between those days they sailed to Europe, toured France where they were welcomed with parades and parties, and erected and dedicated the flagpole. “It was a big success. Thousands of students, the most distinguished French officials, movietone men, enthusiasm beyond bounds.”

On the return trip, they were unable, despite parties and special events, to use all the supplies they had brought on board; supplies they could not bring into the U.S. where prohibition was public policy. On the last day of the voyage a “burial ceremony without parallel was held. And when the ‘remains,’ interred in fifteen wooden boxes, were slipped overboard, strong men broke down and wept and the captain repaired to his stateroom and cried bitterly.” The story of that voyage, published in an edition of 100 entitled The Beaux-Arts Boys on the Boulevards or The Invasion of Paris in 1931, is much more than architectural humor, for it encapsulates the spirit and energy of the era and, perhaps as important, contains full-page Tony Sarg caricatures of those who took the voyage.

At least one era Gold Medal ceremony was memorable. Ragnar Ostberg, of Sweden was voted the AIA Gold Medal in 1932 but was unable to travel to America, and the 1933 AIA Convention was cancelled as an austerity measure. Ostberg was able to come in 1934 and was feted at an AIA convention banquet and at the White House where President Franklin Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt received the Ostbergs and the officers and directors of the Institute in the East Room and posed for photographs by White House photographers. The actual award ceremony was in the East Room “in which was gathered the delegates to the Sixty-sixth Convention, and many representatives of official Washington . . . President Roosevelt placed the medal in the hands of Ragnar Ostberg, at the conclusion of an informal address intimately spoken in terms which showed the sympathetic understanding which the president has for architecture and the architect. In fact, he said that were he starting over again he would seriously consider the profession of architecture as a life work.”

The decade ended in 1936 with an AIA Convention in Colonial Williamsburg, which, though still in its infancy, was providing work for hundreds of architects, draftsmen, architectural historians and craftsmen. President Roosevelt wrote lamenting his inability to attend, but the profession, on the road to economic recovery, came to see what they had wrought and gather ideas to take home. Across America, new gasoline stations, city halls, schools, banks, dime stores, and houses subsequently incorporated design elements from Colonial Williamsburg. Important historically and architecturally, Colonial Williamsburg also succeeded economically, becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations of the 20th century.

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

1. AIA President Milton Medary presided over the 60th AIA Convention in Washington, D.C.

2. A no-frills publication, The Octagon, replaced the AIA Journal in 1927.

3. No program that came out of the Depression brought as much work to architects, drafters, and architecture students, as did the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).

4. Adapted to American use by AIA member Charles E. Peterson, HABS brought work to many architects during the Depression, such as the Three Sisiters Hotel in New Orleans, recorded in the 1930s by A. Boyd Cruise.

5. This 1933 Architects Tea Set, of gold-rimmed Lenox china, was produced by the Women’s Division of the Architects’ Emergency Committee of New York to aid out-of-work architects. Image, courtesy of the Prints and Drawings Collection, The Octagon, The Museum of The American Architectural Foundation, Washington, D.C., may not be reproduced for any reason without permission.

6. Some 50 American alumni of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, sailed to Paris in 1931 to present a flagpole to their alma mater, illustrating that for some, “no work” did not translate to “no money.”

7. From the 1931 The Beaux-Arts Boys on the Boulevards or The Invasion of Paris in 1931, a full-page Tony Sarg caricatures of Kenneth M. Murchison.

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