The call for such a convention was rather single-handedly promoted by McLean, who continued to agitate during the summer of 1884 for the formation of the new organization with monthly articles in Inland Architect.  While continuing to criticize the A.I.A.’s practices, McLean’s view of the new Western organization was not as a national competitor for the A.I.A. (for the A.I.A. had no “national” following at this time), but as a regional sister organization to promote in the West the causes that the A.I.A. championed in the East:

“The American Institute has for many years sought to enlist the interest of the profession in the West, but has failed to do so in any general or active sense.  Seeing this, and realizing the benefits of organization, many Western architects have expressed that an association distinct from, but in harmony with the American Institute, Western in spirit… would have the active support and co-operation of the West… There need be no conflict between an independent Western Association and the American Institute, both having kindred aims, one would aid the other.  With two distinct organizations a lively interest would be awakened and a healthful emulation be engendered, the West striving to outdo the East in the good work of establishing needed reforms.” 

While McLean still encouraged all western architects to attend the 1884 A.I.A. convention in Albany in the upcoming fall, realistically he had to note the reasons for the formation of the new organization:

“This movement is called forth, in a large degree, by the small attendance of Western architects upon the annual meetings of the American Institute; and though for the past few years Western members of that body have been requested to exert themselves in the work of increasing the attendance upon meetings of local chapters, the membership has not enlarged in a degree corresponding with the increase of the profession in the West, while the rolls of the Institute show that a large majority of names of Western members of former years have lapsed.  The Chicago convention is intended to in no way interfere with the existing institution, but to aid it in the work it has so long and creditably performed.  It is therefore apparent to the majority of the profession that the time has come when the architects of the United States should be more united in their action, and this can only be accomplished by the meeting of those who have the future architecture of the country in their charge.”

In August, Henry Lord Gay once again stepped forward to encourage the formation of this new association in Chicago by offering not only the free use of the Permanent Exhibition and Exchange of Building Material’s hall for the convention, but also to pay the entire expense of such a convention.  With the appropriate resources now secured, McLean called for the convention to meet in Chicago on November 12, 1884.  Since the A.I.A. had no authority in the West, its protest would have been counter-productive.  The response of the American Architect to the convention in the West was as cautiously optimistic in its support as had been McLean in his arguments for the convention:

“We trust that the response to the invitation will be general, and are sure that the Western convention will have the best wishes of all architects in the East, and, unless the invitation should be made less general, some of them are not unlikely to make an effort to express in person their fraternal sentiment.”

McLean’s diplomatic request that westerners attend the A.I.A. convention went unheard, for of the twenty-two architects who convened in Albany on October 22, all were from east of Cincinnati.  The comparative strengths of the two organizations were revealed in the relative sizes of their 1884 conventions.  While 22 architects attended the A.I.A. convention in Albany on October 22, 140 architects registered in Chicago three weeks later to form the Western Association of Architects.  None of the 87 who were from Chicago, would be more instrumental and involved with the formation of the W.A.A. than McLean’s close associates, Burnham and Root.


A review of the minutes of the W.A.A. convention, discloses that Burnham, Root, and McLean, in the tradition of Chicago politics, had well-prepared their strategy and goals for the convention.  On the morning of Wednesday, November 12, 1884, McLean stood in front of the gathered throng and called the meeting to order.  He immediately nominated Burnham to be the temporary chairman to open the convention.  Before Burnham called for the election of a permanent chairman, he took the opportunity to deliver a long and inspirational oration on his vision for the new organization, in which he “hoped that the united efforts of us all will leave impressions which shall stamp a pure American spirit on the ages to follow.” Even though he modestly declined many early nominations and begged disinterest in the position, Burnham’s speech had achieved its objective: he sat triumphantly as Chairman in control of the convention at the end of the first day of the three-day meeting.

Attendees at the 1885 W.A.A. Convention, St. Louis. (Inland Architect, Feb. 1886)

To ensure the smooth running of the convention along their lines of thought, Burnham, Root, and McLean apparently enlisted, in addition to Gay, the cooperation of Charles K. Ramsey and Charles E. Illsley of St. Louis, and Isaac Hodgson of Minneapolis.  The group’s strategy for controlling the convention was to use motions that asked the chairman to appoint a committee of five to formulate draft resolutions for the variety of issues upon which the convention would vote.  One of the inside group of seven would quickly make such a motion, another would second it, and Burnham would proceed to appoint two of the group to a committee of five, one of them as chairman.  Hence, the size of the group of seven avoided any outward appearance of impropriety, for somebody different always managed to make the initial motion.  Nonetheless, for a convention comprised of 140 people from 14 states, it becomes indeed suspicious to find the Chairman appointing the same four names to sit on the convention’s four committees: Credentials-Hodgson(chair) and Illsley, Constitution-Ramsey(chair) and Hodgson, State Building Laws-Hodgson(chair) and Ramsey, and Competitions-Root(chair-don’t forget the Chicago Board of Trade fiasco: they hadn’t) and Ramsey.

Program for the W.A.A. Banquet, Nov. 13, 1884. (Inland Architect, Nov. 1884)

The approved constitution reflected the differences between the West and the East.  There was to be only one level of professional membership in the W.A.A.: all members were to be known as Fellows (as opposed to the A.I.A.’s two-tiered rankings of Fellow and Associate).  The other major difference was that the organizational structure of the W.A.A. was to be hierarchical, consisting of local, state and the national associations.  This was in stark contrast to the A.I.A.’s recent decision to divest itself of its local chapters and remain a collection of individuals.

The main objectives of Burnham and Root, however, were specifically related to their business interests: competitions, fees and professional registration and ethics.  Obviously still outraged over American competition practices, including their loss in the previous year of the Chicago Board of Trade competition, it was the Committee on Competitions that was their main concern. Burnham had revealed his sense of frustration over competitions in his opening speech: “There are many things undoubtedly to come up for discussion… for instance… that frequent source of trouble, competitions.”  He, therefore, named Root as chairman of the committee with a charge to draft a statement on the subject overnight that could be voted on by the convention the next day.    Root returned the following morning with a sweeping reform of the American competition system, about which Burnham quickly stepped out of the chair to defend.  After much debate, the committee’s resolution: “That no architect should enter a competition for any building or other work, unless the decision of the competition shall be made by recognized experts,” was adopted for the coming year, pending a thorough review of the subject by a standing committee.  It should be no surprise, then, to find Illsley moving that the Chairman appoint a standing committee of five to further pursue the competition reform issue.  Henry Cobb added that Burnham should be one of the five, to which Burnham added Root and Illsley as chair.

In the spirit of true democracy (and shrewd politics), the end of the convention saw Root magnanimously lead a well-coordinated campaign to elect a non-Chicagoan as the first president of the W.A.A., thereby insuring the interest of a broad constituency for the western reform movement.  Not to worry, for Charles Illsley (St. Louis) was duly elected the first President of the W.A.A.  Leaving nothing to chance, however, Burnham then “suggested” that a committee be appointed to nominate the five members of the Board of Directors.  The convention having made and passed such a motion, Burnham appointed Hodgson and McLean to the committee, which quickly came back with the name of Daniel H. Burnham as Chairman of the Board of Directors.

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

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