AIArchitectInstititute News
10/2005 A Beginning, 1857-1866
A fledgling profession survives the Civil War by forming a community of architects

by Tony P. Wrenn, Hon. AIA

They shared a passion for architecture, those 49 men who founded The American Institute of Architects. All were architects, learned, successful, and well known. For decades they had talked about an organization of architects and had tried twice to organize.

In 1857 they tried again when Richard Upjohn invited architects to meet in his New York office, on Tuesday February 23. Thirteen were present to consider “the propriety of organizing a Society of Architects.” They agreed “that, with as little delay as possible, an Association of Architects should be formed ... and that this meeting take the necessary steps.”

Richard Morris Hunt noted that many distinguished members of the profession were ignorant of this meeting and “it was advisable to obtain their support.” Of men suggested, 11 were endorsed and elected, beginning a process formalized on March 13 when it was resolved that “The Institute shall consist of professional architects, who shall be proposed, and elected.”

Full steam ahead
They wasted no time. A committee on a constitution was appointed and produced a draft. A name was chosen, The American Institute of Architects, and the constitution adopted. Article 2 read: “The object of this Institute is to promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members and elevate the standing of the Profession.”

On April 13, three weeks after the initial meeting, the group sought legal recognition and, after lunch at Delmonicos, went to City Hall “to secure the consent and approbation” of the courts. Judge Roosevelt, for whom the minutes give no first name, received them, and, after the papers were filed, remarked that “he feared not our Institute would fall (sic) for we were above all others, aware of the necessity for a solid foundation whereupon to construct an edifice & that consequently he felt assured that we had laid our cornerstone as on a rock.”

The fledgling AIA had, in less than seven weeks, moved from the meeting to “consider the propriety of organizing” to election of its first members, adoption of a constitution, and legal recognition. On April 15 the constitution was formally signed. Eventually there were 49 signers, the AIA founders. Upjohn was elected president and Thomas U. Walter first vice president. Walter, in accepting, suggested that rather than seeking members, the Institute “should accomplish something” for it “had the materials, the means and the talent” to do so. Others, he suggested, would then seek it out.

Value of community
For the rest of the 1850s and into the 1860s a recurring theme was the value of individual architects to the community of architects. On March 1, 1859, Leopold Eidlitz “enumerated the advantages ... derived since the Institute had been established ... & entreated the members individually to put their shoulders to the wheel. Almost all that had been accomplished thus far, came merely from the fact of our being associated.”

Early members had to overcome their disinclination to share and the public lack of knowledge of what an architect did. “The profession was not appreciated by the public, the fine arts were thought of little importance, and construction [workers] and carpenters, as practical men, were thought far superior to the architect,” Glenn Brown later wrote.

From the beginning, members discussed how to deal with clients, suppliers, and material testing, while deploring the lack of an available library on architecture and the absence of any school teaching architecture. Almost everything we have talked about in the past 150 years was discussed by members in that first decade.

On November 16, 1861, as the nation descended into the Civil War, AIA meetings, due to the “present stress” were suspended. It was not until March 1864 that regular meetings resumed. A letter to members announced “The regular meeting of the Institute, having been intermitted in consequence of the War, recent measures have been taken to revive them.” Upjohn would write “The civil war has intervened, deranging every branch of commercial and professional pursuit; but though a moiety of our existence as a body, has thus, as it were, been cut away, we feel that we are not too self-complacent in asserting that we have, by a discreet handling of the opportunities left us, accomplished for the profession and the public an amount of benefit which could in no way have been accomplished without our action.”

A symbol of faith for the country
AIA founders may have fought in the Civil War, though none has been identified. For one founder though, the war was devastating, for the practice of Alexander Jackson Davis, who had many projects in the South, never recovered. Conversely, it catapulted another founder, Thomas U. Walter, into national prominence. Walter had been working on the U.S. Capitol for a decade when the war began. He had designed new Senate and House wings and a new dome, which would soar above Capitol Hill and be topped by a statue of “Freedom.”

Though Capitol construction was halted at the beginning of the War, Abraham Lincoln signed, in April 1862, legislation authorizing resumption of construction, which Walter would control. James Goode wrote in his 1995 dissertation on Walter, Architecture and Politics, “The resumption of construction ... had a profound and unexpected and subtle effect on the faith in the ultimate success of the Union … The new dome had been widely publicized, and the Capitol became an American icon. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, for instance, used Walter’s new Capitol as part of its title page on every issue in the late 1850s and the Civil War years. The image of the Capitol, with its impressive new iron dome, became an elegant and powerful symbol of the Union ... thousands of Union soldiers used the image of Walter’s Capitol on their stationery.”

The dome rose as millions of pounds of iron were delivered and hoisted into place, and the public looked on. On December 2, 1863, the dome was ready to receive the last section of the statue, its head. With thousands watching, it was raised into place taking 20 minutes to ascend. There, atop the dome, the head of “Freedom” was bolted in and an American flag raised. At its raising, Union artillery on the Capitol’s east lawn fired 35 times, once for each of the states in the Union. The 11 forts which surrounded Washington echoed with 35 salutes each. The hours long ceremony had special meaning for many for it followed closely President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the rebellious states. The dome and Capitol have become an internationally known icon of America, among the worlds best known and most recognized buildings. It has parented state capitols, city halls, and scores of other domed buildings nationwide.

The architecture community builds
Regular AIA meetings resumed in March 1864, with discussions of fees, competitions, and the ownership of architectural drawings along with discussion of publishing a journal to be the organ of the AIA “and a means of communication with distant members.” Members discussed, on February 6, 1866, the “architectural etiquette of advertising and to what extent it may be done consistently with the dignity of the profession,” while discussion of the formation of “ancillary branches of the Institute,” chapters, was ongoing, as were qualifications for membership, the establishment of a central library or research facility, and establishing schools to teach architecture.

As the Institute’s first decade ended, Leopold Eidlitz noted on December 6, 1866, “that one-half of the business of the city was in the hands of outside architects—nine tenths of it because the public was not aware of the existence of the Institute ... or that its members were superior to other architects.” How the Institute could change that situation and give the city, and country the quality of architecture Walter had given it with his U.S. Capitol, was a debate that continued in the next decade.

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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