Renowned architect Louis Skidmore (1897-1991) constructed one of his first buildings in Peoria. Whether or not it still exists, its construction strongly influenced his career.
A Peorian since age eight, he left in 1917 after graduating from Bradley’s manual arts program. In 1952, Bradley recognized him as a distinguished alum and awarded him an honorary doctor of law degree.
At that time, Skidmore was a senior partner with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)—architects and engineers with offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco—with projects around the world.
Skidmore had gone a long way from his days at Peoria’s Manual Training High School. It was there in 1913-1914 that he served as foreman on a year-long woodshop class project, building a quarter-scale model bungalow. An article written by Skidmore in the June 1914 issue of The Manual provides details of the project, but it doesn’t give the finished size. In any case, the roof, body, and foundation could be separated so it could be taken out of Manual’s shop through a window.
Early on, experienced carpenters and educators indicated the model bungalow would be impossible with a class of high school boys. Mr. Graff, their teacher, wasn’t discouraged. “He believed that if he could get the boys interested and show them a thing or two, that they could make anything,” Skidmore wrote.
When representatives of the building trades and people from throughout the city saw the model bungalow June 5, it was complete in every detail according to state laws, Skidmore wrote. Lock sets for the doors, sash lifts, and other necessary hardware were made in Manual’s machine shop. The sewing department made curtains, table covers, and bed outfits. The boys made, stained, and put on 9,000 shingles. The house also included hardwood flooring and custom doors, sash and window frames, and quarter-sawed oak woodwork.
The finished model had seven rooms, each the work of an individual student. “John Daily took the bathroom because he said that either plumbing or hod carrying was becoming to his nationality,” Skidmore wrote.
George Olson completed the dining room with beam ceiling, plate rail, and buffet. John Otten’s kitchen and pantry included a kitchen cabinet, sink, and large cupboards for the pantry. George Gerdes had the little hall with its difficult corners, Skidmore wrote, while Albert Szold and Walter Gess completed bedrooms. The living room, Skidmore’s work, included a fireplace, bookcases on either side, French doors, and a beamed ceiling.
Skidmore noted that having completed it, the boys thought of applying for cards in the following unions: carpenters, brick layers, hod carriers, painters, plumbers, millwrights, molders, machinists, tinners, and cabinet makers.
After Bradley and World War I service, Skidmore worked for a year before entering Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received a special scholarship, and in 1924 he was honored with the Rotch Special Student Prize. In 1926, he won a Rotch Traveling Fellowship and spent three years studying at the American Academy in Rome and l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
In 1961, the American Institute of Architects recognized SOM with its highest honor for design excellence in a collaborative practice—the first time the Firm Award was given. Skidmore had learned collaboration in high school. He refined his skills working on exhibits, as well as buildings at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. During WWII, the firm’s largest commission was to build the town of Oak Ridge, Tenn., providing all facilities for employees of the atomic plants—ultimately a city of 70,000 persons. The project was termed the best job of emergency planning to come out of the war.
Skidmore’s numerous awards included the AIA’s Gold Medal of Honor (1949) and the Gold Medal from the Architectural League of New York (1950).
SOM’s portfolio includes the U.S. Air Force Academy, the John Hancock building and the Sears Tower in Chicago, and Bank of America World Headquarters in San Francisco. They’re also known for corporate headquarters for Lever Bros., Pepsi-Cola, Chase Manhattan, and Union Carbide in NYC, and Ford headquarters near Dearborn, Mich., as well as hospitals, housing projects, churches, airports, and other projects throughout the world.
Skidmore concluded his 1914 article by saying, “We feel that Mr. Graff has done a thing for us boys that will influence our life work and be a memorial to him.”
What an astute observation. And what a tribute to a Peoria Manual arts high school teacher. AA!