3.18. ATKINSON VS. WIGHT: HEAVY TIMBER VS. FIREPROOFED IRON CONSTRUCTION

A more conciliatory tone was initially taken by Wight in a talk that he gave to the New York State Association of Supervising and Adjusting Insurance Agents in Syracuse on May 20, 1879, only ten days after the publication of Atkinson’s letter.  In responding to Atkinson’s arguments, Wight quietly defended his profession stating that although the architects were ready and willing to cooperate, the insurance companies stood “between the architect, who wants to do it right, and his client, who wants to do what is cheap.”

More importantly, however, Wight subtly attempted to quell the potential threat to his infant fireproofing company posed by the resurgence of interest in solid timber mill construction championed by Atkinson.  Wight exploited this opportunity for promoting his ideas by describing in great detail all of the porous terra cotta fireproofing systems that he and Loring had developed and were presently marketing for combustible and incombustible materials.  Yet during this very lengthy talk, he never once even intimated that he had any kind of a vested interest in these systems:

“Two systems may be followed.  One is found in the use of heavy wood for all interior constructions…In such buildings all that is sought is the best facility for quenching a fire before it has had time to materially weaken the structure.  Still, a fire in such a building, even if extinguished in its incipient stages, will cause so much damage that many of the heaviest constructional parts will have to be renewed in repairing damages.  Such is the system of building sought to be enforced in factories by the Mutual Insurance Companies of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  As the generality of buildings require an interior finish different from these, it is not always practicable to carry out such a system of construction in buildings other than factories.”

During the next two years while Wight refined his products and slowly expanded his company with a branch office opening in New York late in 1880, Atkinson undauntedly pursued a dual course of exposing the worst work done by architects while promoting the advantages of his “slow-burning” construction.  During this period, Atkinson was the author or subject of more articles in American Architect than any architect.  As such, he apparently commanded the attention of not only the national architectural community, but also the underwriters, fire fighters and owners as well.  Through a series of some twenty articles and letters Atkinson attempted to clarify the fire issue and to reform both the problematic construction and insurance practices that were consistent in their themes:

1. It was useless to look to the underwriters for any help in the matter.  This stemmed from the nature of insurance at the time.  His company was successful in that it was a mutual company, meaning that the owners of the factories were also the owners of the company.  Therefore, the company’s purpose was to reduce the risk to the owners while at the same time providing insurance.  However, the bulk of the available fire insurance, and hence the problem, was with insurance stock companies.  These were formed by speculative investors to sell insurance, gambling on the hope that the insured property would not burn.  As these companies were licensed by the state, all were perceived to be equally reputable.  Therefore, the competition for policies was fierce, which resulted in the readily availability of cheap policies.  In essence, Atkinson agreed with the architects when they pointed their fingers at the insurance companies.

2. However, he reserved his most damning criticism for the architects who had no problem in diverting money that could have made the interiors safer, to the exterior for architectural effect.  His arguments transcended the pragmatic basis of his architectural theory to join a growing body of opinion that rejected the prevalent eclecticism in favor of a regional vernacular appropriate for the United States.

“May it not be suggested that in most of the constructions of the professional architects, with a few conspicuous exceptions, the decorative art has been borrowed from styles and countries with which our necessary work and our climate have no analogy?  Is there not a reason for the want of consideration exhibited by the mill-owner for the architect, in the fact that no truly national art or architecture has yet been developed in the profession that is in any way adapted to the necessity of our work, to our materials used in building, or to the changeful conditions of our climate?”

From an initial polite chiding, Atkinson progressed to more vituperative attacks on the profession.

“I know and count among my personal friends many men as thoroughly competent to build safe warehouses, safe churches, and safe school-houses, as any architects in the land, and what I shall say will not apply to them.  I shall speak only of those who, having had a few lessons in the art of design, and being capable of copying from photographs, and of combining a few elements for outside architectural effect, in many cases entirely unfitted to the climate and conditions of this land, but incapable of considering this or the necessities of the business to which the buildings are to be devoted… The men who build these structures I don’t call architects…

So far as I can judge, all that the architects do is put up the most perfect specimens of combustible architecture, in order that you may have the satisfaction of putting out the fires which are sure to occur in them…There are a few conspicuous exceptions to the common rule, but the vast majority of those who assume the title of architect are masters only of the art of sham… Churches, school-houses, court-houses, college buildings and hospitals are usually planned by professional architects, and the method of construction is measurably under their control; eight hundred and eighty-one, burned in the last five years, are witnesses of their neglect…”

H.H. Richardson, Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, 1881. Bronze relief panel by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. (Online)

I should mention here that among the few architects whom Atkinson considered to be competent and whom he counted among his personal friends was H.H. Richardson, who also lived in Brookline, Atkinson’s hometown (the Brooks brothers also resided in Brookline).  This fact may also help to explain Atkinson’s progressive architectural theory.  Their relationship was best evidenced when only a few weeks after his New York talk, Atkinson, as chairman of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial Committee, helped to secure the commission for Richardson who would collaborate with Augustus Saint-Gaudens who produced the bronze relief sculpted panel.  

Boston Manufacturer’s Mutual Fire Insurance Co., 1879. (Top) Recommended construction for heavy timber roof. (Bottom) Potential design resulting from the company’s recommendations. (American Architect, August 9, 1879)

3.  While casting aspersions on the integrity of architects as well as their construction techniques, Atkinson took great pains to disseminate information, drawings, details and specifications pertaining to his company’s “slow-burning” timber mill construction.  (Among other devices that are taken for granted today that he deserves much credit for popularizing are interior sprinkler systems and firefighting standpipes.)  Stating that “there is no such thing as a fireproof building,” he advocated sturdy brick walls and heavy timber beams and columns.  

Boston Manufacturing Mutual Fire Insurance Co., 1879. Design of a mill using “slow-burning” principles. (American Architect, October 25, 1879)

4. He was at odds with the emerging trend in New York and Chicago of constructing taller buildings that he attributed to the introduction of elevators (and not to the invention of iron framing).  In this he was finally joined by the National Board of Underwriters who in its 1880 annual report singled out the recurring problem of the ever-taller buildings outgrowing the maximum range of the existing fire pumpers.

Atkinson’s relentless offensive in 1880 slowly gained converts, and even his most biting criticism of architects went unchallenged by the American Architect.  There must have been a solid basis to his remarks for the editor to be in sympathy:

“For ourselves, we honestly confess that we think these reproaches by no means undeserved.  Mr. Atkinson’s opinion, that most architects are ignorant of the requirements of a fire-resisting construction, we are sure is erroneous; but that a large majority of the buildings erected under their control show, not an “utter want of consideration of the danger of fire,” but a very inadequate attention to the means of preventing it, cannot be denied…  The community is rapidly awakening to the losses and danger which it suffers year by year from preventable conflagrations, and will soon look sharply to find some one to bear the blame of them, and we…  cannot deny that architects, if they had not only uttered the warnings which their superior knowledge suggested, but had even, when full control was committed to them, been less careless or indifferent about practicing what they know, might have done much to promote a better state of affairs.” 

George H. Young, Building for the Whiting Estate, Boston, 1880. The influence of Atkinson’s crusade for the adoption of heavy timber framing in commercial buildings is evident. (American Architect, October 1, 1881)

By November 1880 it was evident that Atkinson’s efforts were beginning to bear fruit.  At the A.I.A. convention that year, architect Alfred Stone declared him to be the country’s leading expert on fireproof construction.  Indeed, architects were paying attention, for the American Architect reported later that month that a number of mercantile buildings employing his suggestions had just been completed. Finally, in March 1881, even the American Architect had to admit that “it need not be said that more enlightened and convincing arguments than Mr. Atkinson can furnish [one] is never likely to hear.”

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

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