9.3. IRRELEVANCY: THE PUSH TO FORM A NEW ASSOCIATION FOR ARCHITECTS IN THE WEST

Such was the atmosphere of “association fever” in Chicago immediately following the A.I.A.’s final divorce from its local chapters in late 1883.  The Chicago A.I.A. chapter at this time is best described as an ineffective collection of a few old architects who had been long devoted to the cause of the A.I.A.  It held no value for the city’s architects, as witnessed this letter by local architect H. R. Wilson, that was published by McLean in the March 1884 issue of Inland Architect:

“Can I trespass upon a little space in your interesting journal to express a want that I think has been in the minds of most Chicago architects for a long time, but each one, from lack of time or some other cause, is waiting for some one else to take the initiatory step in the direction of supplying that want, – which is an association of architects in this city.  We are far behind many less important cities in this respect, and should organize at once a strong, vigorous society of that character, and enroll as its members all worthy Chicago architects.”

Sidney Smith, an architect from Omaha, quickly expanded upon Wilson’s suggestion with a plan to organize the new local societies into a “Western Association,” that could serve a function not unlike that which the A.I.A. provided in the East:

“While I fully indorse all that Mr. Wilson has urged in support of his suggestion for the establishment of a society or association of architects in Chicago, may I be permitted to offer an additional suggestion – that is, to form it as a Western association, embracing the larger and fast-growing cities of the West, in which many architects of good standing and ability have located, and who from various causes are denied the privilege of attending or offering themselves as members of the American Institute of Architects in New York, would embrace the opportunity of doing so in Chicago, and thus be the means of uniting in future the men who are destined to make this the greatest nation of the earth. It will also infuse new life and energy to members of a profession who, more than any other, need unity of action and comparison or exchange of ideas.”

Such a veiled challenge to the A.I.A. establishment found deep sympathy throughout the ignored West, that, once united by McLean’s efforts, quickly rallied behind the issue and dispensed with diplomatic niceties, no longer being afraid to voice their complaints about the group of eastern architects who called themselves the A.I.A.  This opinion was best reflected later in the opening toast by Chicago architect J. C. Cochrane at the banquet of the W.A.A.’s first convention in November 1884:

“We have had heretofore a chapter of the American Institute of Architects; we have tried to carry that along, but it has been a perfect failure, and I have regarded it as detrimental to the architectural profession in the west, for this reason, that the majority of our architects did not become members.  I attributed this to the fact that the American Institute of Architects really seems to be an Eastern institution.  I feel that we have not been treated fairly in the West by the Institute.  I feel that we Western architects have not been represented.”

Criticism of the A.I.A., was not, however, just limited to those in the West, for in June 1884 even the American Architect ran an article that was critical of the A.I.A. and offered some “possibilities of increasing the practical usefulness of the Institute. Among the magazine’s complaints of the A.I.A. were the following:

“1.  That it is sectional-perhaps “urban” would be a better word- in its composition and operation.

2.  That it is to all intents a trades-union [with respect to its fee schedule].

3.  That to be a member secures an ornamental honor and not a practical benefit; that the member receives no real quid pro quo, and that his fees are simply money wasted.”

Besides being viewed by Westerners as only a regional organization serving the needs of only Eastern architects, the A.I.A. promoted two other practices that were contrary to the Western way of thinking.  The primary philosophic differences between East and West were quite evident in the constitution of the first local association formed in the West, that somewhat surprisingly, was not in Chicago, but in Des Moines that was led by its firebrand secretary Eugene H. Taylor:

“It is indeed time that the profession be thoroughly organized…  The profession should not be divided by sectional lines, since many of its most valuable members have long been connected with the A.I.A., and would be interested, and of great service in perfecting a broader organization than the Institute has proven to be.”

While the A.I.A. promoted a two-tier, hierarchical system of Fellows and Associates, the Des Moines chapter opted for a democratic equality among all of its professional members. Hence, while the aristocratic A.I.A. rated individuals along hierarchical classes, and had just voted to dissolve its relations with any organized structure other than itself, the West viewed each architect as one among equals, and strove to establish an organization based on a hierarchy among local organizations.  Such was the thrust of a letter by Taylor that McLean published in the July 1884 issue of Inland Architect:

“The “Institute” System is a failure.  Witness the present demoralized state of the British Institute itself and the efforts of the ‘American’ one to patch and repair its organization.  An Institute is properly the honor-corps of a nation, containing the highest men of many corps.  It forms the great cap-stone of the pyramid.  Until Architecture in America is sufficiently advanced, and an organized corps of workers need a capping-stone, an ‘Institute’ must be laid aside as ‘the stone the builders reject.’

We cannot build enduring pyramids balanced on one point.  Egypt teaches us better than that.  We want this time to build a broad and good foundation, and to root it well into the soil… Without any delay… let associations begin to form at once.  These are local, rooting into every crevice of the soil…

This winter a convention can be called, that will bring the pyramid above the ground and provide for the necessary ‘batter’…  Let this uncapped pyramid, starting where it belongs, in the great valley of the Mississippi, be… made up, not of individual members, but of local associations.”

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s