CHAPTER NINE. WESTERN SELF-AWARENESS: THE “INLAND” ARCHITECT AND THE W.A.A.

The year 1884 had been, indeed, a banner year for Chicago.  The Board of Trade’s tower had topped off at 303,’ finally dethroning New York (Trinity Church’s 281’ steeple) from its “higher than thou” attitude of having the tallest building in the country.  Chicago’s collection of skyscrapers was quickly catching up to New York’s.  And most impressive, Chicago’s population was the fastest growing in the country, and expected by many to surpass New York’s by 1900:

1880                                         1890

1. New York     1,2060,299        1. New York      1,515,301 (+309,011)

2. Philadelphia     847,170        2. Chicago       1,099,850 (+596,665)

3. Brooklyn           566,663        3. Philadelphia 1,046,964

4. Chicago            503,185         4. Brooklyn          806,343    

In fact, the “West” was growing like a proverbial wildfire, shifting the nation’s population centroid, aided by the railroads, farther away from the Atlantic Coast each year.  In the world of American architecture, it seemed to architects in the West that they no longer needed the Atlantic Coast.

9.1. THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE A.I.A.

The American Institute of Architects was originally chartered as a scientific society in the state of New York on April 13, 1857, by a group by nine architects from New York City. The organization slowly grew in size and geographic distribution (a three-year hiatus due to the Civil War notwithstanding) so that in its tenth year, 1867, the need was recognized for a more local focus for those members residing in cities other than New York.  The A.I.A. constitution and by-laws were, therefore, so amended to permit the formation of local chapters when so deemed appropriate by a city’s architects.  At the height of this organization’s activity during the mid-1870s, there were eight active local chapters: New York (1867), Philadelphia and Chicago (1869), Cincinnati and Boston (1870), Baltimore (1871), Albany (1873), and Rhode Island (1875).

The depression of the middle 1870s, however, had exacted a toll on many of the country’s architects who were forced to justify the cost of A.I.A. membership in the face of economic hardship.  Interest and support for the organization began to wane toward the end of the decade.  This decline was only compounded in the western chapters of Cincinnati and Chicago by a sense of growing isolation and disaffection with the A.I.A.’s increasing East Coast focus, in addition to major philosophic differences on a number of issues. (An opinion shared by even the architects in Western New York state.)  By 1879, neither chapter was a viable unit of the Institute; the Cincinnati Chapter having failed to submit a report to the annual convention in New York City that viewed the action as an outright secession. Western apathy was met by the A.I.A. Committee on Membership with a proposal at the convention  “that the relation now existing between the Institute and the Chapters should be changed, or rather abolished, making the Chapters completely independent,” in favor of a more honorary and literary (academic-oriented) organization modelled after the Royal Institute of British Architects.  The Boston Chapter led the push for “the dissolution of all organic connections between the A.I.A. and local chapters,” with the Boston-published American Architect, the magazine the A.I.A. had chosen to report its business, looking forward to the act as “a momentous event in the history of architecture in the United States.”  The 1880 convention, held in Philadelphia on November 17, approved the dissolution proposal, leaving the only operative connection between the national organization and the local societies as the requirement that the president of each chapter should be a Fellow of the A.I.A., that would entitle each local president to sit of the A.I.A. Board of Trustees.  Three years later, the divorce from the local chapters was completed by abolishing the rule that made members of local chapters automatic Associates in the A.I.A.

The A.I.A.’s elitist decision to cast off its chapters, more specifically the inactive groups in the West, was quite ill-timed, for by 1883, as has been seen, the construction boom in the West was giving western architects the opportunity to design buildings that were not only comparable in size and cost to those in the East but were also many times more significant with regards to the technology employed in them.  Quite simply, western expansion had begun to mature to the point that the earlier economic and cultural inferiority of the West seemed to many of its residents as unwarranted.  Midwestern architects, many of whom had actually grown up in the East, no longer saw any reason to hold the “dandies” on the East Coast in such high esteem.  Nowhere was this general attitude of indifference to the East more pervasive than in Chicago, the emerging capital of the West.

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

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