AIArchitectInstititute News
08/2006 The Tenth Decade: 1957-1966
A new century beckons

by Tony Wrenn, Hon. AIA

AIA President Leon Chatelain Jr., a Washingtonian, presided over the AIA during its Centennial Year in 1957, with a clear message to the membership: “All that the architects of America have come to know in the hundred years since 1857, all of the ingredients and technology and craft that is architecture in 1957, can barely answer the need of our times. Of the future we know only this: that its pressures and the sum of the daily hungers of its people will pull us into a frenzy of coordinated creativity. The hundred years that have crowded in behind us have pushed us into another century of professional evolution. We have neither time nor balance to stand still, to contemplate our past. In the year of our centennial, let us look with care where we are going—into the future. We are needed there.”

The centennial celebration began in New York City, the AIA’s birthplace, with unveiling of a plaque at 111 Broadway, the site of the first AIA meeting. Simultaneously, the U.S. Postal officials issued a commemorative stamp marking the centennial. Featuring a classical column with a superimposed Wrightian column, it cost just 3 cents and was heavily used by the Institute and members.

The centennial convention, held May 13–17 in Washington, D.C., played like a great pipe organ with all stops out. Agnes E. Meyer, David Finley, Paul Tillich, Bennett Cerf, Howard Mitchell, Leo Friedlander, Henry F. Luce, Walter P. Reuther, and Lilian Gish were speakers and participants. Gish argued for architects signing their buildings, and blamed the architects for the public’s lack of knowledge of what architects produced. “You remind me of my own family, who believe a lady should have her name in the public print just three times—when she is born, when she is married and when she dies. In my lifetime I have heard of only two architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, God bless him for what he has done to make even the word ‘Architecture’ known to us; and the other is a memory of my childhood, Stanford White who got shot. (Laughter) A prize fighter gets more publicity and in some instances a truck driver is better paid. It would seem that our system of values has reached an Alice in Wonderland absurdity, worthy only of satire.”

Sculptor Sidney Waugh designed a bronze Centennial Medal, for convention attendees. One medal was cast in Gold and presented to President Eisenhower, who “was very gracious and received this in his private chambers after which he appeared before the reporters.” Film of the presentation was shown at the convention and a message from Eisenhower was read: “From the earliest days of our Republic the profession of architecture has contributed to the growing industry of our land, to the development of our public buildings and to raising in form and fabric the aspirations of our people.”

Recording the past—in 90 days
Henry H. Saylor, Fellow of the Institute and longtime editor of its Journal “recognized the anomaly of celebrating a history that had never been recorded. Although the emphasis of the celebration was rightly put on the future rather than the past—a new century beckons—it seemed advisable to make at least a gesture toward the road over which we have traveled,” and Saylor did something which perhaps no other member could have done.

“With but ninety days available for the reading of one hundred years of proceedings, minutes, documents, and doing the supporting research, the writing of a definitive history of the Institute’s first hundred years was out of the question....This hasty sketch is the alternative....Perhaps, however, with a frank admission of its shortcomings, this little volume will give an occasional glimpse, as through a glass darkly, of the way The Institute has come to a maturity which enables us to look with confidence to the century that beckons,” Saylor wrote. He penned that preface in March, and his The A.I.A.’s First Hundred Years, was published as the May issue of the AIA Journal, ready to be rebound as a book for all who desired. It has served the Institute well, with its topical presentation, a time line and a useful index.

Celebratory activities abound
The National Gallery of Arts’ “One Hundred Years of Architecture in America” exhibition and accompanying catalog prepared by Fritz Gutheim featured, in addition to buildings from the Institute’s century, a listing of 10 contemporary buildings that would influence America’s future. The organizers were not above doctoring photographs to make a point. The Connecticut Life Insurance Company Building appeared in a dramatic photograph across a snowy field with a fence in the foreground. It had everything but scale, which they provided by placing a cutout of a hunter with rifle in the foreground

The AIA awarded two Gold Medals during the Centennial celebration. One went to Louis Skidmore with a citation that noted that previous medals had been given largely upon individual service, while “you have built an organization with the name of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.” The other Gold Medal, labeled the “Centennial Gold Medal of Honor,” was given to Ralph Walker, essentially for service to the profession, a reason for recognition as different as was that of Skidmore. Walker would not disappoint, even in his acceptance. He insisted that America’s cities and her environment were the AIA’s responsibility and must be protected and preserved. Indeed, if one follows the trail of words before Institute boards, committees, and chapters that Walker left us, it is clear that for years he had been the AIA’s guide and conscience.

A capital win, a Capitol loss
One action in the AIA’s centennial year seemed out of place: the Institute’s Douglas Orr, former AIA president and member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Presidential Office Space, argued in an article on “New Offices for the White House,” which appeared in the December 1957 Journal, for the advantages of replacing the Alfred B. Mullett’s 1888 State, War and Navy Building (the former OEOB, or Old Executive Office Building, today known as the Eisenhower Building) and noted that “because the White House has been one of the prime concerns of the Institute, whatever develops in providing the President with adequate quarters is of great import.”

A giant French Second Empire pile, the building may have had few vocal friends, but that would change quickly. It has been said that President Eisenhower’s horror at the cost of demolishing the vast stone and iron building actually saved it, but assessments of the building’s architectural value also played a part. The Journal carried in its May 1959 issue, an article titled “Architecture Worth Saving,” which included, with illustration, the State, War and Navy Building. It today serves the purpose Orr and his committee envisioned for the site, but through retrofitting, not through demolition and new construction.

Across the city, the extension of the East Front of the Capitol loomed close to becoming a reality in 1958, as the Congress refused to budge. The AIA Board asked the convention to reaffirm its opposition. Ralph Walker again emerged as a powerful spokesperson, writing about it in the January and June 1958 Journals and speaking at convention. Although AIA members were involved in the proposed work to extend the East Front, Walker believed “there are times when the Institute has to take the position, in regard to the public welfare, that it is bigger than any of its members; otherwise, it, The Institute, will degenerate into a trade association having no other ambition than that of merely obtaining jobs for its members.” Marcellus Wright labeled the extension a “disastrous move to toy with the East Front of our National Capitol.”

The Convention resolution, publicized widely and made known to the members of Congress, did not carry the necessary weight, and work on the “much debated project commenced. The new front is scheduled for completion in time for the 1960 inauguration.” The Journal reported in its April 1959 issue that the “columns from the portico lay wearily on the ground...Sad sight.”

Fighting “urban removal”
The 1961 Board noted the growing importance of The Octagon, the AIA’ s “Embassy in Washington,” where visitors from around the world came to see and talk about architecture, and applauded President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s new view of Lafayette Square across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The AIA Committee on the National Capital was involved and “after reviewing proposals for the development...the committee issued a statement expressing its confidence ‘that through skillful design,' Lafayette Square can become an area of great architectural importance to future generations...The committee believes it is quite possible to restore the integrity of the square from its present cluttered appearance. Carefully designed new buildings framing the park can complement the White House rather than overwhelm it if kept in proper scale.”

Prior plans had called for demolition of everything on the Jackson Place side of the Square, except Blair House, the President’s Guest House, and Decatur House, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. On the Madison Place side, nothing would be saved. The new plan called for the retention of historic buildings on both sides of the square, new buildings of like scale as fill around the Park’s perimeter, and the construction of tall buildings in the center of the blocks.

That plan would change architecture in the inner city. Facades would be saved (even when whole buildings could not be), and infill buildings would be compatible in scale and materials with the existing historic material. Contemporary buildings in historic settings became the norm. The positive effects of this—in preservation, beauty, urban scale, and development costs—were substantial. Simultaneous planning of the AIA’s new headquarters buttressed the Lafayette Square plan; even as the Institute reorganized its staff and goals, it planned for “a new headquarters to serve as a national center for the advancement of the environment arts and sciences.”

Growing interest in urbanism
President Kennedy sent greetings to the 1961 convention, recognizing that ”your role and work in urban renewal is a major one, and I am glad to send you personal greetings for your convention and its timely theme of redesigning urban America. Your current influence and work can reshape the urban life of this country, and is a challenge that no other generation of architects has yet had. I deeply appreciate your support on the Housing Bill and the Department of Urban Affairs legislation.”

Discussion of the new AIA headquarters building, “adequate to the growing needs of the Institute and worthy of the importance and dignity of the architectural profession,” continued in 1962. Still, its larger setting was of concern as the AIA Board and its Committee on the National Capitol deplored “ the way the visual appearance of streets and avenues is being spoiled by cutting down of trees, narrowing of sidewalks, etc., and on such places as the Mall and other park areas by the thousands of parked cars. It notes that this generation has a responsibility to preserve the parks, malls and open spaces that are our heritage and they must not be frittered away to accommodate traffic or commercial uses.”

The concern included support of the “Fine Arts urging that further construction on the proposed inner loop be stopped, believing that a comprehensive and effective mass transit program, now under study, may well eliminate the need for big highways into and around the downtown area.” It was too late in some cases, and major highways passed beneath the Mall and surfaced within sight of the Capitol’s west front, and crossed the Potomac over Theodore Roosevelt Island, in sight of the Lincoln Memorial, chiseling away at the relationship of Edward Durrell Stone’s National Cultural Center [now the Kennedy Center] to the city. Interstate 66 was finally interrupted there however, and its open gash across the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial never materialized.

Honoring Kennedy
The 1963 Board “cited with honor John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States, in a unanimous resolution, which comes within no established award and is given for the first time.” When AIA President J. Roy Carroll Jr. presented Kennedy with the award at the White House on May 22, he said, “But you, sir, are the first President of the United States—except possibly the first and third ones—who has had a vision of what architecture and its allied arts can mean to the people of the nation, and of what the careful nurturing of the architecture of the city of Washington can mean to those millions who come here to pay homage to the heart of their country.”

In the same year, AIA President Henry L. Wright lauded the AIA for its difference from other professional and trade associations. “It is actually operated under the direction of the members....The forty-five committees, and 350 architects, members who serve on them, are working committees.” He took note of the aging population and its increased leisure time. “Our plans for the future must consider the leisure time of tomorrow’s citizen. If our urban design encompasses thoughts for recreation facilities, for increased learning of all things, at all ages, and if our plans include facilities for the development and expression of the arts as well as the sciences, our civilization may experience a renaissance of culture beyond our most fervent hopes.”

Meeting in St. Louis in 1964, members watched and marveled at the construction of Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch. It served as the symbol for that year’s convention and its theme: “The City—Visible and Invisible.”

Toward a new headquarters
Work toward construction of the new National Headquarters Building behind the Octagon began with a competition brochure issued on January 22, 1964 that established the rules, not just for the AIA building, but, it could be argued, for future contemporary buildings in historic settings. “The object of the competition is the creation of a design for a new National Headquarters Building that will satisfy both physical and spiritual functions—a building of special architectural significance, establishing a symbol of the creative genius of our time yet complimenting, protecting and preserving a cherished symbol of another time, the historic Octagon House,” it said. In suggesting the “Character of Building” the announcement was specific: “The character of the new building must not only be compatible with the Octagon, it must preserve, compliment and enhance the historic residence. However, this should not be interpreted as suggesting the copying of the form or detailing of William Thornton’s design, nor any stylistic re-creation of colonial architecture. What is wanted is a more thoughtful, more sensitive and more meaningful solution; an exciting demonstration that fresh and contemporary architecture can live in harmony with fine architecture of another period; each statement giving the other more meaning and contributing to the delight of the entire building complex.”

Registration for the competition ended on March 15, 1964 with 625 registrants, 221 of whom actually submitted entries. Seven first stage winners, selected on May 18, were asked to prepare final drawings. The final stage ended on October 1, and on November 2 the competition winner, the firm of Mitchell/Giurgola, was announced. “The winning design envisages a five-story, red-brick structure featuring a semi-circular glazed wall which will embrace the gardens and Octagon House. It will enclose about 50,000 square feet of usable floor space and its estimated cost is $1,450,000. An additional $30,000 has been allocated for sculpture or other fine arts....tentative plans indicate working drawings should be completed by March 1966. The Octagon House, which will be closed during the construction period, will also undergo some renovation.”

The new building was driving the AIA. Institute President Morris Ketchum told the convention in Denver in late June 1966: “The total objective will be to create on an enlarged site a new headquarters building adequate for our growth, a complete restoration of The Octagon as a beautiful landmark of our architectural heritage and a garden which states our principles of open space and contribute to the scale and harmony of the two buildings. In short, the design of the entire complex must exemplify what our profession urges our clients to do.”

It would not be an easy task.

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

Tony Wrenn, Hon. AIA, who retired as the AIA’s archivist in 1998 after 18 years of service, is now a researcher/writer based in Danville, Va.

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