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06/2006 The AIA in Its Ninth Decade: 1937-1946
Dealing with the Depression, war, rescuing cities, and contemporary architecture

by Tony P. Wrenn, Hon. AIA

No previous decade in AIA history evidences the changing years as does 1937-1946. In January 1937, a halt was called to a meeting in the Octagon, so that a “radio machine” could be brought into the room, the work table be covered with linen, and drinks served. The directors awaited a broadcast from England, and “what more fitting place to hear this broadcast than The Octagon, teeming with historical associations.” It was, after all, the very room and the very table, where President James Madison had in 1815 signed the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812 between Britain and America. There the directors sat, “all listening to the firm, strong voice of a young King, a thousand leagues away, renouncing the throne of a great empire.”

Then, off with tablecloth and back with ashtrays, papers, and discussion of AIA issues. The Fifth Edition of the Standard Documents was approved, and housing was discussed. Would the construction industry pattern itself after the automobile industry and produce more trailers than houses? Frederick Ackerman was afraid that was in our future and wrote, “Lower income groups are continually on the move from one area of decay and obsolescence to another.” If trailers did indeed become a predominant method of housing, he asked, “Precisely what problem is solved ...?”

Taking a stand
It was in 1937 that a decades-long battle of the AIA began. “A Bill to revise the central part of the Capitol building at Washington has again been presented in the Senate,” the Board noted. It had been presented before, but tabled. The AIA had taken no stand. Now that would change, but AIA committees were not of one opinion. Edgerton Swartwout, of the AIA Committee on the National Capital, stated that “The proposed extension is to provide needed legislative accommodations, to give proper visual support to the dome, and to replace the crumbling and defective sandstone of the older portions with enduring material, white marble....This extension and restoration will be of incontestable benefit to the Capitol, to Washington and to the nation.” Officially the Committee noted “it is not the function of the American Institute of Architects to act as arbiter of such disputed questions.”

Leicester B. Holland, chair of the AIA Committee on Preservation of Historic Buildings, strongly disagreed. “To sacrifice the present very beautiful composition which embodies the history of American architecture, simply to make it more academically correct, or just for a love of marble, seems to be frankly a piece of parvenue vandalism. If this be Architecture, then Architecture in America is not the goddess I have thought her, but a hussy who would swap her honor for a new spring hat.”

The Institute, meeting in Boston in June, decided that taking stands was one of its functions, and stood with the preservationists. “Resolved: That the American Institute of Architects in convention assembled, expresses itself as opposed to any material alteration of the central portion of the Capitol, either in form or material.” Perhaps the report of the Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings influenced some. Its Historic American Buildings Survey, began in 1934, had seen employed, with federal funds, hundreds of architects and draftsmen who had recorded a total of 2,700 structures “recorded in 13,700 sheets of measured drawings and 3,550 structures photographed in 16,150 negatives. In addition, cards for some 2,700 structures still to be recorded are on file.” HABS employed, it reported in 1939, a “continuous average of 200 men.”

Federal architecture and the employment of private architects for its design and construction remained an aim. President Franklin Roosevelt noted, in dedicating a Post Office in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in October, “All over the United States there are scattered the most terrible monstrosities of architecture perpetrated by the Government on the people of the United States.” The AIA was quick to applaud. President Charles D. Maginnis wrote “The deplorable failure of ... this country to avail itself of the artistic resources that have been at its command has long been a source of regret and concern” to the Institute. He offered the services of the AIA and Roosevelt responded acknowledging AIA efforts, saying “We are of one mind that the architecture of the United States Government should express the highest standards of design and construction, be an influence on the cultural life of America, and elevate the general standards of good taste.”

Ask not …
In 1938, Francis P. Sullivan introduced an idea that President John Kennedy later would make famous. “I believe that it is our duty when these men ask The Institute what it has done for them or what it will do for them, to tell them frankly, ‘You are missing the whole point of The Institute’s purpose’. The real question is, ‘What can You and what will You, through The Institute, do for the public good and for the good of your profession?’”

In New Orleans, the AIA gave its Gold Medal to Paul Cret and argued the future of architecture. In presenting the award to Cret, Ralph Walker echoed the idea suggesting that “symbols are evidently more important than bread. Long after a people and their means of sustenance is gone, stone rests upon stone and tells a story more enduring than last year’s harvest or today’s sowing.” At the same time he lauded Cret for being no copyist. “His work ... is remarkable for three things—good planning, individuality and good proportions. There are no loose ends. The character of each building is complete within itself.”

By 1939, the Board reported architectural registration laws in 40 states and in the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, the Philippine Islands, and Puerto Rico, with Arkansas and Alaska having adopted laws that year, and seven of the remaining eight states attempting to pass them.

Preparing for war
Even as the Depression lingered, conditions in Europe added to the anxiety felt by architects. Outgoing President Maginnis told the convention that “we should hold our course in the belief that man has not lost his soul and that his world will presently come again to sanity.” Incoming President Edwin Bergstrom hoped “our country will not be involved by untoward events beyond its borders,” but announced he would appoint a preparedness committee to determine how to make the profession of immediate service to the government.

Steps the Institute might take to meet the coming emergency were discussed, among them a survey of some 14,000 architects and offices, requesting “each to indicate the extent and character of its practice, its personnel, equipment and facilities and the type of work it knows it can best perform.” Still housed in the Institute archives, the survey responses offer a mirror, reflecting how architects viewed themselves and their work. The Institute agreed to suggest representatives who might be asked to work with the government on carrying out defense programs. It would shortly appoint a special representative, with offices in The Octagon, to report to the membership on government plans and programs undertaken as the nation moved toward war.

Ever prescient, AIA Washington’s Air Raid Protection Committee suggested to those who said it can’t happen here, “for the sake of argument let us suppose that some day a far-flown plane drops something more substantial than leaflets in the neighborhood of one of our seaports, or on some inland industrial city.” What then? Committee Chair Horace Peaslee suggested studying how buildings “can be evacuated, safely and quickly,” and how a bomb-proof shelter should be constructed, ventilated, and serviced. In a series of roundtable discussions, the committee had dealt, he reported, with adapting parking garages for shelters, the type of shelters required, evacuation of citizens to camps in the country, and the possibility of legislation requiring protection of tenants and employees, with severe penalties for not providing safe buildings.

In a bit of good news in 1940, the AIA Board announced awarding of a contract to construct a new headquarters building behind The Octagon, something approved in 1926. Dan Everett Waid, Dwight James Baum, and Otto R. Eggers were the architects. Most of the money would come from a trust fund established in 1936 by Waid, whose “gifts aggregate almost four-fifths of its cost.” The L-shaped brick building, two stories over a basement, would wrap around the Octagon, not infringe on the existing garden, and give the Institute not just the feel of an academic village, but, in time, rental income as well.

“War has been declared…”
With his first report, Washington representative Edmund R. Purves confirmed that “The country is engaged in a program of astronomical proportions and incidentally we are involved in a shooting war.” In his second report, in December of 1941, he wrote, “Since the last report was made to you, war has been declared.” Purves said his office “is in a position to help others avoid those embarrassing situations which may result from action based upon inaccurate information,” but warned, “We do what we can for the profession and we try to open as many doors as possible through which the architects may enter. However, it is not within our province to select architects for jobs and we wish to emphatically call to your attention that on no accord do we select or aid in the selection of architects.” Later, before receiving his military commission, Purves wrote in one of his last reports “This office is always ready to guide those who come to Washington and can point the way and give you the benefit of the contacts it has made and the relations it has established. But very definitely your future lies in you own hands.”

For a lack of “pithiness, ... aptness, ... freshness” in his last reports, he apologized. “A sort of pall or a thin but effective smoke screen appears to have been drawn across the news. It is not the fault of the authors of the columns. The damp paw of censorship is at work and those of us who are here in Washington are driven to draw our own conclusions and make our own surmises.” D. K. Fisher Jr., followed Purves as Washington representative.

At its 1942 Convention in Detroit the Institute gave a special award to Albert Kahn, who made even Ford and Chryslers assembly plants handsome. “Exponent of organized efficiency, of disciplined energy, of broad visioned planning ... Master of concrete and of steel, master of space and of time, he stands today at the forefront of our profession in meeting the colossal demands of a government in its hour of need.” During the presentation, in the Hotel Statler’s Grand Ballroom, when General William S. Knudsen was praising Kahn’s contributions to the war effort, “Sirens wailed—a practice blackout had begun in Detroit, the brilliant lights of the Ballroom were gradually dimmed making an unforgettable picture of the heroic figure of General Knudsen in the reflected light of the shaded lamp before him.”

Setting the Foundation
The Detroit award was probably the preliminary to an AIA Gold Medal, but Kahn died a short time later. Just before his death he had written the AIA “I cannot help but think that The Institute would do a tremendous good to the profession if more frequent recognition were given members for outstanding work ...” He offered $10,000 to begin such a program, funds which led to the 1943 formation of The American Architectural Foundation, still active today, though chances are today few know Kahn made it possible.

That same year, 1943, the Board of Directors sought a monthly publication “which would be a more effective instrument of expression than is possible within the limitations of the annual appropriations ... The present Octagon was established in 1929 as a bulletin of the Institute to transmit official notices to members, to report activities of the Board and of the committees and in other ways to advise on the activities of the organization.” The Board asked the membership what it would like the new magazine, which would take advertisements, to be. One question was “Would you favor a change in form of The Octagon to, say, Readers Digest or some other size?” Obviously Readers Digest won, for the Journal of The American Institute of Architects was that size when it began publication in January 1944, with Henry Saylor as its editor.

The Washington representative continued his reports, noting the need of the nation to deal with “those men who return to the United States, like wreckage cast upon the shore ... That problem was severe during World War I. Following World War II, gentlemen, it is going to be a problem that you can’t even conceive of.” He reported problems commissioned architects had to deal with in the field: men who could not read or had never used a telephone, and almost no one knew what an architect was, or what one did.

The Washington representative proposed to deal with the problems, and did so in print, “under the following headings: education; what we choose to call the aesthetic phases of architecture; lack of publicity and public recognition; and lack of professional leadership.”

Soldiering on
In 1944, the Institute was asked to abandon its convention, and “that request was promptly and patriotically met.” Even Board meetings were difficult, for “war activities and military personnel have so crowded our principal cities.” In April, 1945, at the 77th Convention in Atlantic City, “in strict conformity with the requirements of the Office of Defense Transportation ... [attendees] were limited to fifty.”

Still, the Institute continued. Lively and provocative articles appeared in The Journal, as diverse as Edwin Bateman Morris on “What Next for Architecture”: “While no one can make predictions with accuracy, it is almost a certainty that the argumentative phase of the Modern style is at an end”; Henry Churchill on “What Shall We Do With Our Cities?”: “A city exists for two things only; it is a place in which people earn a living, and it is a place in which people live and play. If a city fails in either...”; and Guy Study on “Louis H. Sullivan—Fifty Years Afterwards”: “His was a personal triumph mixed with futility; he was indeed a brilliant meteor which shot across the firmament of art, but not a planet by which American architecture may chart its course.”

And in a gutsy move, the AIA Committee on Education asked Turpin C. Bannister to compile a list, often reprinted, of “One Hundred Books on Architecture.” It was suggested all libraries should have these books. Twenty-five books were identified with asterisks as a core collection for small libraries.

Striving for the future
In 1946, breaking with precedent, the AIA awarded the Gold Medal to a deceased architect, Louis Sullivan, in, of all places, Miami Beach. “He fought almost alone in his generation, lived unhappily, and died in poverty,” the citation read. “But because he fought, we today have a more valiant conception of our art. He helped to renew for all architects the freedom to originate and the responsibility to create.” The Sullivan Gold Medal, Saylor would write in The Journal “brought assurance, at a later session, that the Institute would strive in the future to honor the living, year by year.” Some 600 attended, and the convention ran overtime. There was peace, and the question of what to do with it. Saylor concluded his report “And in six early-morning flights of the big Douglas and Lockheed planes, well over a hundred soared across to Havana to see what that city and Cuba in general could offer to top off the Convention of 1946.”

At the beginning of the decade, the Board listened to Edward abdicate. At the end of the decade, they discussed the atom bomb and Oak Ridge, Tenn. There, “starting with 10,000 acres of farmland, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, architects of Chicago and New York, designed and built the city in less than a year, at a cost of something less than $500,000,000. Oak Ridge now [October 1945] has a population of over 60,000—the fifth largest city in its state. The architects laid out the plan as a group of 12 neighborhood communities, each with its school, shopping center, church, and amusements. Centrally located, to serve the 12 neighborhood groups are the city hall, two large high schools and a business district.”

Had the 20th Century finally arrived?

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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: Rendering of the AIA headquarters annex proposed in the 1930s as it would appear looking east from the back door of The Octagon.

Image 2: The headquarters annex as built, looking north from New York Avenue.

Image 3: The January 1941 edition of The Octagon—later that year, the AIA would join the war effort.

Image 4: Albert Kahn’s donation of $10,000 shortly before his death made possible the establishment of the American Architectural Foundation.

Image 5: The July issue of the Journal of the AIA in its first year of existence, 1944.

Image 6: A door plate from the Wainwright Building in Chicago designed by Louis Sullivan, the first posthumous recipient of the AIA Gold Medal.

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