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07/2006 1947-1956: Wright Recognition, White House Renovation, AIA Closes on 100

by Tony P. Wrenn, Hon. AIA

The decade following World War II did not begin easily for the AIA. Although it had let the contract for construction of a new Administration Building in 1940, and construction was completed, the war intervened, and the Institute did not gain occupancy for another eight years. The federal government had taken over the two-story brick building—which wrapped around the rear of the Octagon garden, stretching from New York Avenue to the Octagon stable—at an annual rental of $12,000. A fence separated the Administration Building from the Octagon garden. In the meantime, the stable along the north part of the property, which the District government had condemned, was stabilized and the cornice of the new building wrapped around it. In 1947, the government agreed to return the building to the AIA in June of 1948.

The Octagon itself then changed from an office building to a museum, taking on again its intended “role as a gentleman’s town house of 1800.” Office functions moved to the Administration Building, and the two structures were joined by a garden intended to serve as “a Memorial to Institute men who made the supreme sacrifice in World Wars I and II.” Gilmore Clarke, landscape architect and then chair of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts would design the garden, and sculptor Lee Lawrie would create a stele to be erected against the Octagon’s rear wall. Ultimately, the AIA argued with Gilmore, who was donating his services, and fired him, forcing an apology from AIA President Ralph Walker. Lawrie did finish his stele. Although a handsome work by a major American sculptor, it remains largely unknown, its setting never completed.

Also in the spirit of consolidation, in 1947 the Institute brought together all announcements and bulletins into one publication, aptly named the Bulletin, and adopted a new AIA lapel pin—Octagon shaped, with a gold border. “The American Institute of Architects 1857" appeared on a maroon background, intended to announce immediately to all that the wearer was an architect.

“So must architecture be understood”
In 1947, Eliel Saarinen was given the AIA Gold Medal in ceremonies at the 79th AIA Convention in Grand Rapids, Mich. He noted in his acceptance speech that “the problem of architecture is to house man, and that holds true whether we consider the room, the home, the neighborhood, the town, or the city. In short, the provision of all the spaces where human life and work goes on belongs to the realm of architecture. So must architecture be understood. And because architecture has not been so understood, is the reason why things have gone astray.”

It was also in 1947 that the competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis was announced, a competition won by Eliel Saarinen’s son, Eero. The resulting Gateway Arch has become one of the nation’s best known architectural landmarks. (Eero joined his father as an AIA Gold Medalist in 1962.)

The Journal of the AIA for July 1947 carried two articles on what might be labeled the public’s interest in the visual side of architecture. In measuring such interest, Edwin Bateman Morris, a Fellow of the Institute, clocked some 1,870 persons as they passed two Washington buildings. “I do not like to think of an art without an audience. If I were a playwright, I should not like to have the seats unoccupied. If a writer of books, I should not like to have my books unread. If a musician, my music unheard,” he wrote. As they passed the chosen buildings he would count how many actually looked at the buildings, using that as a gauge of their interest in architecture. Only two people actually stopped and looked. “Active disapproval by the public we could cope with. But inattention, boredom! It is hard to talk to them; they are not listening,” he concluded. In another case, the magazine reported that the builders of an addition to the John Hancock building in Boston erected a grandstand from which passersby could stop and watch the “bulldozers, steam shovels and pile drivers in action.” In 11 months some 135,000 people actually stopped to take in the show. “Are people,” the magazine asked, “as deeply interested in architecture as they are in construction?”

Morris could not give up his quest to determine whether architecture visually interested the public and sent a questionnaire to 500 architects asking “What buildings give you a thrill?” No matter how he rated the results, four buildings came out on top: The Folger Library, the Lincoln Memorial, Rockefeller Center, and the Nebraska State Capitol. Morris, in reporting the results of his survey, noted that a poll done by the Federal Architect in the 1930s had listed the Empire State Building first, Lincoln Memorial second, and the Nebraska State Capitol third.

The AIA continues White House stewardship
In April 1947, President Harry Truman asked the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to approve a second level balcony on the South Portico of the White House, opening a potential fight with the AIA. The Commission advised against it, but noted that it had no veto power and requested that if the president were determined to proceed, “he ask some architect of reputation to advise.” Truman asked William Adams Delano, a Fellow of the Institute who, in 1927 had, during the Coolidge administration “put a new and higher roof on the main building to gain needed bedrooms.” Delano was well known to both the Commission and the AIA and accepted the challenge. The AIA, which had initially opposed the balcony idea, later publicly praised the “skill and good taste” with which the work was accomplished.

The White House soon became a greater concern when its condition was reported to be unsafe. In February 1948, President Harry Truman asked a committee that included AIA President Douglas Orr to investigate and make recommendations. From the first meeting it was clear that the White House was suffering from both age and misuse and was a safety and fire hazard. In September, the Commission concluded that “The conditions were of so serious a nature that it was considered necessary to evacuate the building.” Early in 1949, Congress adopted Public Law No. 40, “The Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion.” The president was allowed to appoint two members of the six-member commission, and one of his appointees was AIA President Orr. President Truman and his family moved across Pennsylvania Avenue to the president’s guest quarters, Blair House, and the work began under White House architect Lorenzo Winslow. “A complete record set of photographs of the entire building was made, and Mr. Winslow had prepared an exact record set of drawings of the entire building and its details.

“After a diligent and thorough study of the whole matter, the Commission announced its decision to retain the outer walls, third floor and roof and put a new steel frame within the building and reconstruct the interiors.” President Truman ensured support of the architects by granting them access to his office and involving them in the rebuilding process.

Gold Medalist Wright: “A long time coming”
One unforgettable event of 1949 was the awarding of the AIA Gold Medal to Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright had never become a member of the AIA and his route to the Gold Medal was not an easy one. He had received the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold in 1941 and in accepting the AIA gold commented: “It’s been a long time coming from home. But here it is at last.

“I have heard myself referred to as a great architect,” Wright said. “I have heard myself referred to as the greatest living architect. I have heard myself referred to as the greatest architect who ever lived. Now, wouldn’t you think that ought to move you? Well it doesn’t.” The architect, he said, “must be a creator. He must perceive beyond the present. He must see pretty far ahead ... Now, I have been right about a good many things—that’s the basis of a good deal of my errors ... Now I want to call your attention to one thing. I have built it. I have built it. [sic] Therein lies the source of my errors. Why I can stand here tonight, look you in the face and insult you—because well, I don’t think many of you realize what it is that has happened, or is happening in the world that is now coming toward us.”

Later, Journal editor Henry Saylor reported “one of those moments worthy of being recorded in history.” It occurred at the AIA President’s reception when J. Ernest Fender, past-president of the Structural Clay Products Institute was being guided through the room by one of his staff. “Coming suddenly upon Frank Lloyd Wright, the guide seized the opportunity of presenting his past-president to the architect. Whether premeditated or unthinking, we shall never know, but Mr. Fender’s words across the handshake were, ‘The name, please?’”

In an arms race, houses lose
Two wars were going on in the early 1950s. As atom bomb testing continued and the Cold War between Western nations and the Soviet bloc got colder, fighting erupted in Korea. Architects talked of “realistic policies of industrial and government location that would tend to prevent further overcrowding of target areas,” and asked Congress to restore cuts made in defense housing, they urged that something be done about civil defense. They worried, not just about the actual fighting but about “the long range implications of A-bombs ... in enemy hands.”

Even as the architect was being shown sympathetically by Hollywood in “Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House,” the Soviets portrayed him in another guise altogether. In one bit of radio propaganda, Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit was “resurrected and pressed into service for a return visit to the United States.” In the Radio Moscow broadcast “Chuzzlewit arrives in present day Manhattan as, of all things, AN ARCHITECT SEEKING WORK.” In the Soviet propaganda piece “he is laughed to scorn, told that thousands of American architects are unemployed because the nation is engaged solely in producing arms, not houses.”

The AIA’s own saw the 1950s with little kindness. AIA President Ralph Walker noted in his convention speech in Chicago, May 8, 1951, “Our urban way of living here in America has resulted to date in an extremely ugly civilization. On my way out here I stood on a platform of the Harmon Station of the New York Central Railroad and looked about in a radius roughly of a mile. Everywhere were the manifestations of the engineer world—not a building, not a lamp post, not a structure of any kind, including equipment, that could be seen had been designed by an architect—the result was an appalling and frightful ugliness ... The architect,” he said, “must be interested in the social and economic implications of modern life. He must realize that he is the designer of cities—that the modern ugliness developed when he lost control—when utility took the place of beauty ... Even in times of crisis we must do better than replace the dirt of the slum with the monotony of the housing project; of replacing the obsolete city with the unplanned sprawl.”

A gift to Chartres
Though the memorial garden at the Octagon had not been brought to the happiest end, the idea of a memorial in Europe was. The gift to Chartres of a stained glass window was conceived in 1951, and in 1954 the window was installed. It replaced a window destroyed during the French Revolution. Its opening, which had been filled, was reopened to receive the AIA gift. Dedicated to St. Fulbert who founded Chartres and built the first church there, it was designed by Francois Lorin whose family had cared for the glass of the cathedral for three generations, assisted by Cathedral architect Jean Masunoury, “another third generation guardian of the Cathedral.”

Restoring beauty to public space
The AIA Board had called for participation of the architect in local government in its 1951 report, noting “One does not have to look very far to realize that the face of our land is scarcely attractive except in those places where nature has not been molested. There is no gainsaying that this unfortunate aspect is attributable to the lack of participation of the architect in the over-all and individual planning of the community as it spreads increasingly over the landscape.”

With the end of the Korean War in 1953, the AIA intensified its decades-long push for the removal of temporary buildings from the Mall. “The erection of these temporary buildings, which began at the time of World War I, was thought a practical necessity. Some of these building are anything but temporary in construction being of reinforced concrete.” Some argued that since the government was renting space in Washington the elimination of these temporary buildings would interfere with government economy. The AIA countered by pointing out that dispersal of government departments was a vital factor in making the nation safe from enemy attack. It sought, as it had in 1901, to again return the Mall to the original intent of a grand ceremonial space. Still, many of the buildings would remain another 30 or more years before the Mall would be cleared of them.

The Octagon stables become a repository of knowledge
Other issues were not ignored during the era. Hospital design trends, school design trends, and new ideas in lighting, structure, materials, and education were covered at convention seminars and in special meeting in the AIA regions, and on January 8, 1954, the AIA opened and marked with an Octagon exhibition on the theme “From Stable to Library,” its first space devoted solely to library use. Within the envelope of the Octagon stable, architects Howe, Foster & Snyder fashioned a two-story library with all the amenities of research library, from fireplace to comfortable reading chairs. It quickly became a favorite venue for intimate meetings of AIA committees and boards, and a must stop for students and scholars. Books from the former AIA library, started in 1857, which had been sent to George Washington University in 1916, were retrieved, and book cases from Richard Morris Hunt’s Library were installed in the new stable/library. An oil portrait of Richard Upjohn hung over the fireplace of black Tennessee marble, and a marble bust of Thomas U. Walter stood nearby. For the first time, the libraries of Richard Morris Hunt, Frank Conger Baldwin, Donn Barber, Arnold Brunner, Guy Kirkham, and Henry H. Saylor had a proper home.

In preparation for a centennial
A multi-year study of the AIA Commission for the Survey of Education and Registration was finally published in 1954. Volume One, weighing in at some 558 pages, and edited by Turpin C. Bannister, was titled The Architect at Mid-Century. Volume Two, at 270 pages, edited by Francis R. Bellamy, published Conversations Across the Nation. Reviewer Richard M. Bennett wrote that “the books stand as prerequisite reading for those who demand reform and new form in the various phases of our profession—the schools, registration boards, The Institute, canons of practice, and relations to the building industry as a whole,” and of Volume One “the book is not meant for casual reading but as a landmark in the dissection of a great profession.” No better or more accurate look at either architectural education or registration has yet been published, and the commission’s recommendations, contained at the end of Volume One, are worth revisiting. Volume Two makes no claim to factual information, but, in a series of conversations with architects in major American cities, gives a compelling picture of how they thought about themselves and the practice of architecture at the mid-point in the 20th Century.

One major gift to the AIA in 1955 should be mentioned, the Weyerhaeuser Company donation of the photographs, drawings and publications of the White Pine Architectural Monograph Series. Publication of the series, created and produced by Russell Whitehead, began in 1915 and continued in one form or another until 1950. In announcing the gift, purchased from Mrs. Whitehead by Weyerhaeuser for presentation to the AIA, it was described as consisting “largely or solely of working drawings, measured scale drawings of mill work and trim in our old colonial buildings. During the course of the preparation of these monographs, they were photographed or illustrated, probably the finest example of colonial architecture that has been known in this country.” The intent of the series was to show that Colonial detail could be exactly reproduced in white pine lumber, the result was to record, in photographs, drawings and publications, architecture of pre-Civil War America. Though not all the drawings survive in the AIA Archives, the photographs are one of the finest photographic collections of its type in existence.

In 1956, as the Institute prepared to celebrate its centennial, President George Bain Cummings could report that the membership of the AIA had finally reached 10,972. John Burchard gave the keynote address and it was announced that he had been commissioned to write a Centennial History of the AIA “for the average American tell what Architecture means to them and what architects have meant to them.” A photographic exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, the unveiling of a plaque in New York, issue of a US postage stamp, and a celebration in Washington were promised. Alexander Robinson, Chancellor of the College of Fellows and Chair of the Centennial Committee reported all these and more. Slocum Kingsbury, of the Washington Chapter of the AIA, delivered the official invitation to Washington, which Robinson had said “belongs to everyone.” Kingsbury said “he could have qualified that, that is, it belongs to everyone except the people that live there. We don’t have a vote in Washington. We are merely residents there. The city is run by your representatives. But it is a lovely city.” And, it proved to be a lovely place to celebrate a centennial, and a lovely celebration.

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: Eero Saarinen won the competition for the St. Louis Arch in 1947, the same year his father Eliel won the AIA Gold Medal.

Image 2: Wright accepts the Gold Medal in Houston in 1949. “It’s about time,” he said.

Image 3: The Octagon stables before the Administration Building was added in 1949.

Image 4: The stables as converted to the AIA Library. The cornice and parapet were added during construction of the Administration Building, designed by Howe, Foster and Snyder Architects.

Image 5: The 1950 White House reconstruction included clearing the South portico of vines and adding the Truman Balcony (upper photo). The AIA’s approval of the changes was sought and given.

Image 6: Cable chases below the White House floors were only one of the reasons the venerable structure had been weakened beyond historic restoration.

Image 7: The Octagon garden plan for the 1950 War Memorial, directed by James Edmund Jr., AIA.

Image 8: The War Memorial stele sculpted by Lee Lawrie, Hon. AIA.

Image 9: AIA President Ralph Walker, FAIA, presents Sir Patrick Abercrombie with the 1950 Gold Medal. Walker joined the Gold Medal list in 1957.

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