About
A Brief History of the Chicago Architectural Club

The history of the Chicago Architectural Club runs side-by-side with the development of the Chicago school of architecture. From its founding in 1885 as an architectural sketch club, to today's rich schedule of discussions, competitions and exhibitions, the CAC has consistently championed the work of Chicago architects, as well as fostering ongoing, vigorous debate on fundamental issues of art and practice. Today, the CAC has rededicated itself to carrying forward Chicago's robust architectural legacy into a new century.

1885-1979

(Note: excerpted from the preface to The Chicago Architectural Club, Prelude to the Modern, by renowned Chicago architecture historian and preservationist Wilbert R. Hasbrouck, to be published by Monacelli Press Spring, 2005)

Origins of the Chicago Architectural Club

From about 1885 until 1940, the world looked to Chicago for some of the most innovative buildings ever conceived. Where, when, and how did the men who produced this work learn to be architects? There are a dozen or so names always associated with the Chicago School of Architecture. All of these people are known to any historian of the modern movement. But who remembers . . . Francis W. Kirkpatrick who became President of the Chicago Architectural Club by default in 1898 and went on to be responsible for a reorganization which led to the now fabled 1901 and 1902 Architectural Exhibitions at The Art Institute of Chicago? J. C. Llewellyn and N. Max Dunning are hardly household names, but they were key figures in the founding of the Architectural League of America, which spread the ideas of the Chicago Architectural Club far beyond the shores of Lake Michigan.

Buildings were being built by the hundreds in the early 1880's when James H. Carpenter, a 42-year-old English born itinerant "draughtsman" in Chicago, who worked from time to time in various offices, realized that the need for trained men to finalize designs and produce the working drawings needed for the construction of Chicago's buildings had reached a critical stage. Just what Carpenter's motives were have never before been defined, but it was he who brought eighteen "draughtsman" colleagues together to form The Chicago Architectural Sketch Club in the spring of 1885. This organization, later renamed The Chicago Architectural Club, was responsible for the evolution and development of the Chicago School of Architecture more than any other individual, firm, or professional society. It was through the efforts of this Club that young men, and a few young women, learned the history, the styles, and the functions of architecture to a degree whereby they were able to translate first their employers and later their own clients' needs into buildings.

The First Fifty Years

The original Chicago Architectural Club lasted for just over half a century. During that period more than 1600 members passed through its roster. From the beginning the Club maintained a level of activity which would be unheard of today. They met as a group at least once a fortnight and sometimes twice that often. Committees met between regular meetings. They sponsored competitions both simple and complex. They had brief sketching evenings when small prizes were awarded to winners chosen by those present and competing. They invited their established professional colleagues to speak to them about a wide range of topics. Several of the great essays concerning the development of modern architecture were first delivered to the assembled members of the Club. Their Annual Traveling Scholarship competition provided funds for the winner to spend a year in Europe during its more than 30 years in place.

The Chicago Architectural Club thus became an instrument of learning for several generations of Chicago Architects, first in the absence of formal education at the college level and later as an alternative to that possibility. It began as a self designed system of lectures, social interchange, competitions, and entertainment all leading to an understanding of architecture which simply would not have been available in any other venue at the time. Its leadership always came from within, although advice and suggestions of established senior architects was regularly sought out and implemented. The membership maintained an excellent library and members were, in general, well read if not formally educated. The Club's affairs were managed by men who followed architectural trends and educational efforts throughout the United States with some diligence. They had no problem with building on the efforts of others. They worked closely with other clubs and organizations including the Architectural League of America and the Society of Beaux Arts Architects whose French influenced educational techniques were eventually almost totally adopted by the Club. Education of their members was all consuming, sometimes even generating an irrational suspicion of more formal training. A similar attitude existed regarding the senior architectural organizations in Chicago, i.e. The American Institute of Architects and The Illinois Society of Architects.

It wasn't until the last few years of the Club's existence that acceptance of and cooperation with their more formally trained senior colleagues became the norm. Eventually the Club joined forces with the Chicago Chapter of The American Institute of Architects and the Illinois Society of Architects to form an umbrella group called The Architect's Club of Chicago. They acquired the W. W. Kimball house on Prairie Avenue and arrangements were made for the John J. Glessner House to become their permanent home. Those plans were torpedoed when the great depression of 1929 hit the United States, Chicago, and the three architectural societies. By 1936 the Glessner House had become an impossible dream and the Kimball House was lost.

The End of the Original Chicago Architectural Club

By 1938 when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was introduced to Chicago, the Chicago Architectural Club had essentially lost its purpose. Architects were being formally educated, often at institutions the Club had had a hand in establishing, and the techniques which the Club had used so successfully for half a century was no longer needed. With the onset of the Second World War, the Chicago Architectural Club effectively ceased to exist. It's ideas, however, lived on including the idea of the architect as a respected professional.

The Club Reborn
(drawn from various Club resources)

In 1976, when the Museum of Contemporary Art mounted a major retrospective, One Hundred Years of Architecture in Chicago, Stanley Tigerman led a group of architects that included Ben Weese, Stuart Cohen and Laurence Booth in responding with their own exhibition, Chicago Architects, designed to provide a picture of the city's architecture that went beyond the Miesian monumentalism of the MCA show. As a follow-up, the gang of four adding in James Nagle, Thomas Beeby, and James Ingo Freed to create Seven Chicago Architects, a show of country houses, at the Richard Gray Gallery.

The "Chicago Seven" continued to organize other exhibitions, and in 1979, many of the contributors of those shows were among those invited to make up the original members of a reconstituted Chicago Architectural Club, which the "Seven" had resolved to revive, serving as its executive committee.

Stanley Tigerman served as president, and meetings were held at the Graham Foundation, lending the new group a heightened legitimacy. Membership was limited to 40 persons. Dues were high. Inclusion was intended as a sort of honor, including the powerhouse architects of the day, the brightest rising stars, as well as the most outspoken academics. New members were admitted only when a spot opened up; applicants were expected to submit their portfolio for review and approval by the board.

In the preface to his comprehensive history, Hasbrouck writes that it was "decided that the new Club would operate along lines very similar to the original. The new Club, however, was to be less concerned with basic education, which its members no longer needed. Virtually all were college graduates and most were accomplished designers or academicians. The new club was designed to be an outlet for their dreams and a place to debate those dreams." At its first meeting on November 19, 1979, it was Hasbrouck, himself, who gave a lecture on the history on the original Chicago Architectural (Sketch) Club.

Monthly meetings were often organized around presentations of members' work. There were debates, with the audience voting for the winner. At one session, Thomas Beeby lost out to Gerry Horne in a modernism-post modernism face off. At another, the designer of the Smurfit/Stone Container building was invited to make a presentation of his new structure, only to be panned and humiliated by his peers. (In the broadest sense, however, he may have still won the debate -- although almost universally excoriated by architects and critics, the building remains wildly popular among the public.)

After Stanley Tigerman moved on, the club attempted to maintain the established format for its sessions, but events became more polite, less confrontational. Under the presidency of Steve Wierzbowski, the club moved out of the Graham Foundation and into its own storefront space on Halsted near Greek Town, with the idea of creating a salon where architects could hang out and engage each other in informal discussions.

The Chicago Architectural Club currently focuses on the younger generation of architects.