Letters to a Young Architect

by Arthur on Sunday, November 22, 2009

in Architecture

FOUR LETTERS FROM PROMINENT CHICAGO ARCHITECTS IN RESPONSE TO A QUERY BY A YOUNG MAN. 4 letters, 3 in typescript and one in manuscript in pen, from: 1) Howard J. White of the firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White (one page);  2) Chas Morgan (two pages);  3) Ernest N. Braucher (one page); and 4) Clarence W. Doll (two pages). [45797]
Letter from Ernest N. Braucher

Letter from Ernest N. Braucher

On December 21, 1931, a young man named Richard Crews sent letters to the offices of several prominent Chicago architects inquiring about the demands of daily life in the profession.   He received well-considered, carefully written, and quite informative responses from at least four members of the trade:  Howard White, a founding member of one of Chicago’s most renowned firms, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White (successors to D. H. Burnham & Co.);  Chas Morgan,  an active associate of Frank Lloyd Wright  (who, indeed,  signed his letter “Charles Morgan, Chicago Associate of Frank Lloyd Wright”) and draftsman for Wright’s unrealized but ambitious National Life Insurance Building; Ernest Braucher, who designed scores of Craftsman-style residences in Chicago, several of which are currently marked for historic preservation; and Clarence Doll.

Doll, about whom least is known today, wrote the most detailed response, advising that “perhaps this short narrative will surprise you, as well as many others, for an Architect’s work is quite varied from just drawing. He is much more of a business man than you may imagine, and for this reason a commercial course in his education is of great importance.”

According Doll’s account, if office hours are available to make drawings at all, the process is much interrupted:

After lunch (if no one is waiting to see him, and chances are there is) he will do some drawing.  This drawing may be on work in progress, or perhaps on a sketch for a new building. Every few minutes he is interrupted by the telephone. This interruption is annoying, especially if he is writing specifications, but he must keep sweet, for who knows, a prospective client may be waiting in the Reception room! Salesmen for everything from nails to boilers make their procession through his office — the chief-draftsman wants to know what kind of floor is to be put on the Jones’ residence and what not.  Before Mr. Architect realizes he is left alone — it is five-thirty! He may work on, if not, in his briefcase goes the unfinished “specs” or sketch, to be finished at home sometime that night, for he is to attend a meeting of the What-You-Call-It-Committee at eight.  And this is one more day’s work of Mr. Average Architect past.

Writing in the early years of the Great Depression, Crews’ correspondents offer a sense of the profession at a moment of transition.  Braucher notes that “in good times [an architect] may occupy his time by directing from one to a half dozen assistants while in bad times he can take care of all the work he has by his own efforts and have plenty of time unoccupied.”

Hard work and sacrifice are the orders of the day.  Howard White, a founding partner of the largest architectural operation under one roof in the United States during the first half of the 20th century, cautions that “such an organization, of course, can only exist by having a very large volume of work not only locally in Chicago but also in various parts of the country. This, of course, means a large amount of traveling. The writer for instance spent 118 nights last year in a Pullman car. ”

Chas Morgan, who designed buildings in a style much influenced by Wright, was the only writer to offer advice of a philosophical nature, applicable to an honest man in any of the trades. “A real architect like a good man in any business does not waste any time whatsoever doing things of which he might be ashamed, he must above all be a sincere artist.”

Letter from Chas Morgan, p.1.

Letter from Chas Morgan, p.1.

Letter from Chas Morgan, p.2.

Letter from Chas Morgan, p.2.

The letters display a generosity of spirit and effort, impressive because the architects, all noted and important, took the time to respond so thoroughly to the young man’s inquiry.  Despite the obvious anachronisms, their contents seem plausibly accurate even today, and offer valuable advice for any young person considering the career path.

FAB Item I.D. # 45797

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