June 14: Chicago’s Allfather

2016/06/14 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1907 William LeBaron Jenney died.

Jenney is the Zeus of Chicago architecture.  No, maybe “Cronus” is more apt: the Titan father of gods whose names are better known to most people now (not The Muse, mind you–she remembers everything).  Jenney (b. 1832) was born in Massachusetts and went to Paris for his education.  But instead of going to the most famous school for architects, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he attended the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures to study technical subjects and engineering.  After serving in the Union Army, instead of going back to New England he took a chance on setting up shop in a cow town in the wild western expanse of the US.  His first success was not in building tall, but building wide, as he was named the chief engineer of Chicago’s west side Parks Commission.   His work is still visible in  Humboldt, Douglas, and Garfield Parks.

Jenney was well established as an engineer in the late 1860s, well situated to respond when the massive fire rolled through in 1871.  Loss of life and property aside, a disaster of that magnitude tends to be a great thing for architecture.  One of the fire’s silver linings is that in the later 1870s Jenney really became an architect.  Setting aside the silly quibbles about what characteristics define a “true” skyscraper (some random height?  metallic construction?  absence of masonry or timber construction?  fireproof system?  blah, blah, blah), let’s just recognize that it was Jenney who was almost always the first guy to noodle out difficult questions about building tall and safe, using new materials, and ensuring safety from fire (at least for the structure).  The two buildings that stand out in Jenney’s treatment of these technical innovations are the first Leiter Building (1878) and Home Insurance (1883).  There are lots of other ones (his practice lasted well into the twentieth century; the Lakeview Building of 1906 is a keeper), but these two are significant in the way they provide protection from fire to the structural systems and set up a strong, simple, gridlike aesthetic that would launch the whole Chicago School.  Both of them lost to the wrecking ball (1972 & 1930 respectively: nice job, Chicago), they were immediate case studies for the likes of Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, William Holabird, Martin Roche and John Root, all of whom passed through Jenney’s office as students.  Jenney was not just the Cronus who made the other gods, but he built Olympus, too.

Side note: after his death, Jenney’s ashes were scattered over his wife’s grave in Graceland Cemetery, which is stuffed with dead architects.  A memorial was finally built for him a century later, but it’s pretty dismal.

Image: Jenney (from this source)

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§ 2 Responses to June 14: Chicago’s Allfather

  • Great article. Your articles always make me realize how minimal my knowledge of the history of my profession. I did not remember the extent of his technical expertise, proving architecture is a fine balance between the artist and the engineer.

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