When William Le Baron Jenney settled in Chicago in May 1867, he brought with him a worldwide-ranging set of interests, talents, and experiences. Born in Fairhaven, MA, he had begun his engineering studies at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School in 1851 but found that his interests were broader than its curriculum and decided to apply to the study in France at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufacturers.  At this moment he had his choice from among three excellent French schools, their ideas and curricula reflected the diversity of the fractured body politic wrought by the French Revolution, and what had followed since (see Europe Blog):

-the École des Beaux-Arts, that had just recently dropped “Royale” from its name, following the 1848 June Days uprising and the institution of the Second Republic that itself was about to be ended in November 1852 with the ascent of Louis-Napoléon as Emperor Napoléon III;

-the École Polytechnique, founded in the early years of the First Republic by renown mathematician Gaspard Monge as a replacement for the monarchy’s École Royale des Ponts et Chaussées (School of Bridges and Roads) that had prepared students for the country’s professional military schools.  Interestingly, architecture was included among the scientific foundation subjects of math, chemistry, and physics in French engineering schools.  Jean-Nicholas-Louis Durand, a former draftsman of the visionary architect Étienne-Louis Boullée, had been appointed as the new school’s first professor of architecture.  Durand believed the revolution had wiped France’s political and architectural slates clean, with the corresponding opportunity to approach architecture with a post-monarchist theory.  He saw no reason for architects to imitate either the mythological Roman past or the more recent French aristocratic past;

Jean-Nicholas-Louis Durand, Precis des leçons d’architecture données à l’École royale Polytechnique, “Whole Buildings,” 1802. (Online)

-the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, a private engineering school founded in 1829 to educate multi-disciplinary engineers for France’s growing private industrial concerns, as the Government’s écoles were focused primarily on educating engineers for public service. (This had been the model for Peter Cooper’s Cooper Union.);

-a fourth school, the private École Centrale d’Architecture, would be founded in 1864 with the encouragement of Viollet-le-Duc as a modern, politically contemporary alternative to the École des Beaux-Arts;

-a fifth institution, the École d’Arts et Métiers had been founded in 1780, that had evolved into a school dedicated to mechanical and industrial engineering (i.e., no construction/architecture).

I have consciously listed these five schools first to clarify their names and identities, as they are often confused with one another (especially the two École Centrales), and second, to dispel the idea that architecture and architectural education was a monolithic enterprise in France during the period 1850-1890 (as best witnessed during the intense political/aesthetic debate over whether or not to build Gustave Eiffel’s, an 1855 graduate from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, tower), and, lastly, to show that the monarchist-influenced program at the École des Beaux-Arts was not the only choice available at this time to architecture students from the United States.

Jenney had chosen the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures over the École Polytechnique as it was well-known that its entrance requirements were not as stringent as those of the École Polytechnique.  He taught himself French as he studied for the entrance exams that he passed and entered the three-year program in September 1853.  The school’s founding purpose and curriculum was to educate well-trained engineers in three years for employment in private industry.  Its founders, led by Alphonse Lavallée, wanted to improve France’s industrial economy by creating a private school, free of all government influence, that combined intellectual theory and practical knowledge.  In essence, as far as “architecture” was concerned, it was to bridge the gap between the “architects” from the École des Beaux-Arts and the “technicians” trained by the École d’Arts et Métiers.  The school’s students were meant to be experts in building bridges, in more than one way.

The École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures had four curricular paths: mechanical engineering, civil engineering, metal engineering, and chemical engineering (the program Gustave Eiffel graduated from in 1855, a year before Jenney).  Civil Engineering in France, especially during this period, included the design and construction of buildings, as a logical extension of the problem-solving process for an industrial product/process.  Jenney chose the Civil Engineering program in which he was taught the fundamentals of designing a building, albeit it from a very functional, deterministic (and occupant comfort) standpoint.  Nonetheless, these students did receive training in all aspects of the design and construction of a building (“architecture”).

Louis Charles Mary, Cours d’architecture, 1852. Iron work and hollow tile construction, c. 1835. (Turak, Jenney)

Jenney’s architecture classes were taught by professor Louis Charles Mary, a graduate of the École Polytechnique.  We know the theory he taught from his textbook, Cours d’architecture, published only the year before Jenney entered the program.  In essence, his lectures focused on construction types and the analysis of existing buildings and structures.  He taught how to plan basic buildings, such as lower-class housing, middle-class country villas, and factories.  He focused on practical solutions and planning with the use of grid paper (papier quadrilléà la J-L-N. Durand), and not artistic concepts.  

Louis Charles Mary, Cours d’architecture, 1852. Examples of geometric planning and Papier Quadrillé planning. (Graffiti added by student.) (Turak, Jenney)

Jenney was only one of the 38 of the original 176 students with whom he had entered the program, that were awarded the prestigious diplôme, having successfully completed the program in September 1856, only a year after Hunt had completed his studies. They had been contemporaries in Paris and one wonders if the paths of these two Americans ever crossed. Nonetheless, Jenney was the second American architect, after Richard Morris Hunt, to have graduated from a French school having studied architecture, a point seldom mentioned, let alone appreciated, in histories of architecture. These two French-trained American architects brought back to the U.S. the architectural bias of their respective institution, hence one might conclude that France’s Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes might eventually ignite across the Atlantic, which it eventually did.  In 1889, Jenney stated his opinion of the École des Beaux-Arts in an article in Inland Architect:

“The best detail drawings I have even seen are those of French architects.  I do not mean those from the students of the École des Beaux-Arts, who have little or no practice.  Far from it, for that is essentially an art school, of which I once heard an old French engineer remark, ‘The students of the École des Beaux-Arts make beautiful drawings, but chances are they are entirely unconstructable.’  I refer to details of French architects in successful practice.  Everything is thereon shown or explained by elevations, sections and bits of perspective.”


Jenney had spent his “coming into manhood” years in Paris during the start of the Second Empire, the art capital of the Western World, and after graduating and a stint in Mexico helping to engineer a railroad, had returned to Paris in early 1858 with the promise of another engineering position.  This turned out to be rather mundane, for the twenty-six year-old aspiring bon vivant, however, and Jenney turned to improving his life-drawing skills at the Luxembourg Palace, where he apparently fell in with a small group of bohemian Americans that included the twenty-five year-old painter James McNeil Whistler (who also hailed from Massachusetts). 

James Abbott McNeill Whister, Portrait of Whistler with Hat, 1858. (Online)

This group traveled in a circle that was unofficially led by the avant-garde painter Gustav Courbet.  By this time Courbet had adopted a “realistic” painting philosophy, eschewing both the traditions of academic classicism as well as the fantasies of romanticism, preferring instead to paint life as he saw and experienced it.  When Jenney first joined this group of Parisian artists, Courbet had just finished organizing his own exhibition of his paintings, that had been rejected by the Académie for the 1855 Exposition Universelle.  To protest this action, he erected a temporary gallery next to the official Salon, the Pavilion du Réalisme, in which he displayed forty of his paintings.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50, oil on canvas. (Online)


Turak, Theodore. William Le Baron Jenney. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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