About the AIA
Awards: 2005 Institute Honor Award for Architecture
Recipient: Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd.
Project: Mill City Museum; Minneapolis, Minn.
Client: Minnesota Historical Society; St. Paul, Minn.
Photo: Assassi Productions

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History of The American Institute of Architects

On February 23, 1857, 13 architects met in Richard Upjohn's office to form what would become The American Institute of Architects. The group included H. W. Cleaveland, Henry Dudley, Leopold Eidlitz, Edward Gardiner, Richard Morris Hunt, J. Wrey Mould, Fred A. Petersen, J. M. Priest, John Welch, and Joseph C. Wells, as well as Upjohn's son Richard and son-in-law Charles Babcock. The group sought to create an architecture organization that would "promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members" and "elevate the standing of the profession."

Richard Upjohn

Until this point, anyone who wished to call him-or herself an architect could do so. This included masons, carpenters, bricklayers, and other members of the building trades. No schools of architecture or architectural licensing laws existed to shape the calling.

The first steps of this small group of 13 were to change the profession of architecture in the United States profoundly.

At their meeting, the founding members decided to invite 16 other architects, including A. J. Davis, Thomas U. Walter, and Calvert Vaux, to the second meeting on March 10, 1857. A draft constitution and bylaws were read there, and the only change made was to the name of the organization, at that time the New York Society of Architects. Thomas U. Walter, a well-known Philadelphia practitioner, suggested The American Institute of Architects.

The members ordered a copy of the constitution and bylaws on vellum for signature, as well as printed versions for reference and daily use. On April 13, after a luncheon at Delmonico's restaurant, a small group, led by Richard Upjohn, went to New York City Hall and filed a certificate of incorporation before Judge James J. Roosevelt. As reported in the minutes of the AIA Board of Directors, the judge said he didn't worry about the AIA failing because the members were "aware of the necessity of a solid foundation whereupon to construct an edifice & that consequently he felt assured that we had laid our cornerstone on a rock." Two days later, the members signed the constitution at the chapel at New York University. AIA presidents

T. U. Walter

In 1858 the constitution was amended, enlarging the mission of the AIA "to promote the artistic, scientific, and practical profession of its members; to facilitate their intercourse and good fellowship; to elevate the standing of the profession; and to combine the efforts of those engaged in the practice of Architecture, for the general advancement of the Art." To achieve these ends, the document called for regular meetings of the membership, lectures on topics of general interest, creation of a library, and development of an architectural model and design collection for the use of the membership. To ensure good rapport, the constitution banned all discussions of a religious or political nature from the meetings.

The mission statement remained in effect until 1867, when it was modified to read, "The objects of this Institute are to unite in fellowship the Architects of this continent, and to combine their efforts so as to promote the artistic, scientific, and practical efficiency of the profession." Over time, these precepts have been further refined, but the basic objectives have remained the same.

The Message Spreads

By the mid-1860s, architects from other cities wanted to join the AIA, so the members began a series of debates on the best way to include them. Some suggested the AIA invite architects from Mexico and Canada to join, but nothing came of this idea, and the focus returned to architects in other U.S. cities.

While it was obvious that groups should be formed in other cities, the burning question was what to call them. Debate raged over the use of the terms "branch" versus "chapter." Eventually, the membership determined that "branch" had a negative connotation, implying subservience to the Institute, while "chapter" had a more egalitarian tone. With this decided, the membership voted to make their original group the first official chapter. The newly minted New York Chapter of The American Institute of Architects held its first meeting on March 19, 1867. By October the chapter had held four meetings and built a membership of 32 regular members and four associate members.

By 1887, AIA chapters had been formed in Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, Boston, Baltimore, Albany, Rhode Island, San Francisco, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Washington, D.C. Today, the AIA has more than 300 chapters, now called components, in the United States and its territories, as well as in the United Kingdom, Continental Europe, and Hong Kong.

The AIA constitution called for a special meeting to take place annually on February 22 to commemorate the organization of the Institute and the birthday of George Washington. Many of the early meetings were held at the same Delmonico's restaurant where the founders celebrated the creation of the Institute. The AIA held its first convention in New York City on October 22 and 23, 1867. Participants read reports regarding the Institute and its committees and presented papers about advances in the field of architecture. The proceedings of the convention were printed and distributed to the membership. Later editions of the proceedings included reports from chapters and lists of members. Convention proceedings were published until 1931.

1883 Convention
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All for One

In 1884, a rival organization, the Western Association of Architects, was founded in Chicago. This group's membership comprised architects from the Midwest and the South. Chapters formed in several states, and the organization began championing the idea of licensure for architects. By 1888, it was clear that the WAA and the AIA had similar goals and, in some cases, the same members. In 1889, the two groups met in Cincinnati and decided to merge. The merger was approved by a two-thirds majority vote of the WAA, and its membership, property, and records were transferred to the AIA. As part of the negotiations, it was decided the new consolidated group would retain the name "The American Institute of Architects." In return, the AIA agreed to honor the membership nomenclature of the WAA: "Fellow."  The AIA had a similar category, but instead of applying it to all members, it reserved the title for a select few. In addition, the AIA agreed to continue the push for licensure.

Over time, membership in the AIA has grown from the original 29 members in 1857, to 11,500 in 1957, to 75,000 in 2005. From the beginning, membership in the Institute was to be limited to practicing architects. Provisions were made to allow associate members to join, as well as honorary members and honorary corresponding members (architects from other countries). Today, the AIA has four membership classifications: AIA (licensed architects), Associate AIA (interns, academics, nonlicensed architects), FAIA (Fellows of the AIA), and AIA Emeritus (retired licensed architects).

United in Fellowship

In the early years, advancement to Fellowship in the AIA was basically self-initiated. Members needed only to state their qualifications and have support for their application from other Fellows. When the AIA and WAA merged in 1889, the WAA members were allowed to keep their title of Fellow, and everyone who was a member of the AIA in that year became a Fellow as well. This included Louise Bethune, who was a member of both organizations. She had broken the gender barrier in 1886 as the AIA's first woman member, and she became the first woman Fellow in 1889.

Louise Bethune

In 1920, membership changed the rules of Fellowship so the process for elevation would be more institutionalized. A jury of Fellows would select candidates from the various AIA chapters. Chapter members would then vote on the selected candidates, and those who won the most votes would go before the full membership. The process was changed in 1935 to give full power for selection to the Jury of Fellows, who would consider résumés of work submitted by the applicants.

Then, in 1952 AIA leadership established the College of Fellows as an entity within the Institute. Its purpose was to "stimulate and express the opinions and advice of honored and experienced members of the Profession." Over time, the mission statement of the College has evolved and now states as its goal to "stimulate a sharing of interests among Fellows, to promote the purpose of the Institute, to advance the profession of architecture, and to be of ever-increasing service to society." With the establishment of the College of Fellows, bestowing fellowship became more formalized, including an investiture ceremony and convocation dinner held at the annual convention of the AIA.

A Capital Move

Near the end of the nineteenth century, the Institute began to see the need to move its offices from New York City. Members considered a number of locations and ultimately selected Washington, D.C., where the Institute moved in 1898. The prime reason for choosing Washington was the large number of public building projects commissioned by the federal government, which were to be paid for with funds controlled by Congress. In order to influence what was built and who would build it, it made sense to be headquartered where the money and power resided. At the urging of the Washington Chapter, the AIA leased the Octagon, a historic house built in 1799, to serve as its headquarters.

Glenn Brown

Glenn Brown, a founding member of the Washington Chapter, was tapped to become executive secretary of the AIA when it moved to Washington. Brown was a strong administrator and had the connections to position the Institute as a major player in shaping the architectural landscape of this country. During Brown's tenure, the Institute was instrumental in consolidating the MacMillan Commission (also know as the Senate Park Commission) plan for Washington and ensuring that it became a reality. This plan reasserted the open spaces and planning concepts of the eighteenth-century L'Enfant plan. In addition, the commission envisioned complexes for government buildings in the Federal Triangle and around the Mall and Lafayette Square.

The Institute was also instrumental in the formation of and appointments to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, established in 1910. Today, this body continues to advise the federal government on matters of art and architecture that affect the appearance of the nation's capital.

The MacMillan Plan and the Fine Arts Commission were significant factors in the development of Washington during the twentieth century. In asserting its role on the national stage, the AIA played a key part in construction of the Lincoln Highway, advocacy for the Appalachian Trail, and support for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin. Most recently, the AIA has lobbied for school construction funding, brownfields legislation, and state licensure issues, and has taken a leading role in combining security concerns with architectural aesthetics. Visit AIA Government Affairs.

General Advancement of the Art
The Institute also forwards the profession through a series of honors and awards. The highest honor the Institute can bestow is the Gold Medal, awarded by the Board of Directors in recognition of distinguished service to the architecture profession or to the Institute. It was first awarded in 1907, the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the AIA, to an Englishman, Sir Aston Webb.

American sculptor A. A. Weinman designed the Gold Medal in 1906. On the obverse of the medal appear three heads borrowed from the Greek Parthenon-from left to right, Ictinus, an architect; Phidias, a sculptor; and Polygnotos, a painter. A triangle, compass, and brushes represent their tools. The legend, "Presented by The American Institute of Architects, Organized MDCCCLVII," also appears. The reverse bears an eagle and an olive branch, along with the initials "AIA," the sculptor's name, and 1907, the date the medal was first presented.

The most elaborate of all Gold Medal ceremonies was held in 1923 at the Lincoln Memorial. It honored Henry Bacon, architect of the memorial. AIA members, dressed in colorful robes, carried banners and standards. They marched down the Reflecting Pool accompanied by architecture students, who manned a series of ropes to pull Bacon, seated on a "royal" barge, down the pool's length. Bacon sat under a golden wooden statue of a boy with a laurel wreath that represented a crown. As the barge made its way, trumpeters from the Marine Band played a "joyous processional," Walter's "Prize Song" from Der Meistersinger. William Howard Taft, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and former president of the United States, met Bacon at the bottom of the steps and presented him to President Warren G. Harding, who bestowed the Gold Medal. After the ceremony, the participants dined al fresco on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial.

Bacon Gold Medal Ceremony

A Documented Success

One of the urgent needs of the AIA in the nineteenth century was to standardize the contract documents used by the construction industry. The first such document, adopted in 1866, was a fee schedule. It helped define who an architect was and what an architect did. The second important document, adopted by the AIA in 1870, ensured that architects would be involved in planning, overseeing, and judging competitions for building design.

The AIA adopted the first of its construction documents, an architect and owner agreement for construction that was to become the A-201, in 1888. Today, the AIA's Contract Documents program publishes more than 70 contracts and forms that cover all phases of the design and construction process, including bid bonds and change order lists.

On Education and Licensure

In 1867, the AIA also looked at architecture education in the United States. The Institute debated creating a national school of architecture based on the model of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Members envisioned evening classes in drawing, aesthetics, and the history of art and architecture. Unfortunately, efforts to secure funding failed, and the Institute chose instead to support the fledgling architecture program developed by Robert Ware for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1868). Programs were also developed at Cornell (1871), the University of Illinois (1873), Columbia University (1881), and Tuskegee (1881).

Today, 113 accredited schools of architecture serve the profession. The AIA, in conjunction with the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), and the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), continues to ensure the highest quality of architecture education in the United States.

Before 1897, no legal definition of "architect," nor any legal requirements concerning the use of the title or the provision of architectural services, existed. In that year, however, Illinois became the first state to adopt an architectural licensing law. It would take more than 50 years for all of the states to follow suit and adopt licensing laws. Today the AIA works in conjunction with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) to develop and recommend standards regulating the practice of architecture.

From a small group of professionals sharing a meal, the American Institute of Architects has grown to a robust, focused organization providing guidance, service, and standards to architects around the world. The AIA continues to strive for quality, consistency, and safety in the built environment and to serve as the voice of the architecture. For more information, contact the AIA Library and Archives, open to all AIA members.