December 07: the original AIA

2012/12/07 § Leave a comment

Astor House

On this day in 1836 architects first met for the purpose of joining together in professional association.

The meeting was organized by Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter, made nationally famous with his recent competition win for Girard College.  He wrote to a lengthy list of “regularly educated architects,” encouraging them to join his efforts to advance “architectural science” in the United States.  National in aspiration, the gathering actually represented maybe a half-dozen of the states that, at the time, made up the Union.  The participants included four architects from Philadelphia (John Trautwine, John Haviland, William Strickland and Walter), two from elsewhere in the Middle Atlantic (Robert Mills of Washington DC and Robert Cary Long of Baltimore), eight from New York city (the most famous names among them being Alexander Jackson Davis, Isaiah Rogers, Minard Lafever, Ithiel Town and James Dakin), five from Boston (including the stars Asher Benjamin, Alexander Paris and Ammi B. Young).  After drafting a constitution and appointing Strickland the president and Walter the Secretary, they adjourned with plans to meet next in Philadelphia on the first Tuesday of May 1837.  By that month, membership had grown to include 23 professional, 2 associate and 25 honorary members (who had a “taste for architecture” but not professional education).  This was the group of the officially ratified American Institution of Architects, who saw it as their mission to not just protect their business but also to improve the taste of their countrymen and encourage one another to design beautiful buildings across the country–from the dense cities of the east into the untamed, wild and wooly west–with the ultimate aim of making America’s architecture a properly inspirational and noble representation of the great Republic.

After toasting their success, puffing on cigars and complimenting one another’s cravats, the membership stood adjourned with plans for regular meetings in the future.  However, the architects soon found that their distance from each other–even in an age of increasing advances in steam travel–were challenging to bridge.  In addition, within months the Panic of 1837 spread across the country, putting an end to all but the most necessary of activities.  Professional support would languish for two decades when, in 1857, the organization was resuscitated and reorganized as the American Institute of Architects, which exists to the present day, with, regrettably, less poetic aims (and far fewer cravats).

Image: site of the original meeting: Astor House, built in 1832 by the designs of Isaiah Rogers (from this source)

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