As a corporate entity, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is not easy to understand.1 Founded by brothers-in-law Louis Skidmore (1897–1962) and Nathaniel A. Owings (1903–84), the firm grew quickly, opening its first office in Chicago in 1936, a second in New York in 1937, and a third in San Francisco in 1947. Offices were opened thereafter in Portland, Oregon (1951; closed in 1990), Washington, D.C. (1967), Boston (1971; closed in 1985), Los Angeles (1974), Houston (1976; closed in 1988), Denver (1977; closed in 1987), and London (1986). Today SOM is also represented in China, India, and the Middle East. Although the Chicago office is conventionally considered the firm's home base, each location has its own designers and production specialists and keeps its own records. SOM is big: over the span of eighty years its tens of thousands of employees have built between twelve thousand and fifteen thousand buildings—no one knows the exact total. And SOM has not helped clarify its own story. Owings called the firm “a modern ‘Gothic Builders Guild,’” emphasizing anonymity and collectivity, and although published collections of its most notable buildings (representing a fraction of SOM's total output) appear every few years, these publications never mention either the specific office or the names of the responsible design partners.2
Over time, critics and scholars have identified those responsible for the firm's most important buildings. In 1973, Owings published an autobiography/company history, in which he linked SOM's main designers to their buildings.3 Gordon Bunshaft (1909–90), the design leader in the New York office, was the subject of a fine book by historian Carol Krinsky; meanwhile, SOM partners Bruce Graham (1925–2010) and Myron Goldsmith (1918–96) presented “their” works in monograph volumes.4 Filling in significant details, the Art Institute of Chicago has recorded oral histories with the better-known members of SOM's staff, typically the design partners.5
Although these books and interviews are interesting and important, their emphasis on individual designers has undercut the principle of collectivity and anonymity to which the firm aspired.6 In January 2019 a new source by an early SOM partner and head of the production department, William S. Brown (1910–99), came to light (Figure 1). This 780-page typed manuscript, titled “SOM: The Formative Years,” covers the period from 1936 to 1960. Brown wrote it between 1979 and 1983, after retiring from SOM in 1969. Although he focused on his own experiences in the New York office, Brown intended the manuscript to celebrate SOM's fiftieth anniversary in 1986. No copy of the manuscript has been located at SOM, and, so far as I know, this is the first published reference to it.
The manuscript has seven chapters, an envoi, and four appendixes. The first chapter describes Brown's youth in Washington Court House, Ohio, and his training at Ohio State University (BArch, 1932). There he made friends with J. Walter Severinghaus (1906–81), later a partner at SOM.7 Brown went on to do graduate work at Columbia University (MArch, 1935), where he worked with Joseph Hudnut. He called Hudnut “the high point of inspiration,” and chapter 1 includes lively descriptions of his classes, at which “Schopenhauer, Croce, Clive Bell, and Dewey” were discussed.8
Chapter 2, “Wanderings,” describes Brown's early professional experience. He worked variously on prefabricated housing, as a draftsperson for an aircraft factory, and for Norman Bel Geddes before being hired by SOM (with the help of his friend Severinghaus). Chapters 3, 4, and 5 describe the early years of SOM, his participation in the work at Oak Ridge, Tennessee (144–98), and the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati (199–296). Chapter 6 focuses on SOM's projects in the period immediately following World War II (297–314). Chapter 7 is divided into five substantial subsections, each describing in detail the commission and design of a particular building from SOM's “golden” years—1952 to 1960—in which Brown played a significant role: Lever House (317–420), the Istanbul Hilton (421–526), Manufacturers Trust Bank (527–64), Connecticut General Life Insurance (565–648), and Union Carbide (649–718). Other SOM buildings are also referenced along the way.
Brown started at SOM in January 1939 and, with a brief interlude in 1940, remained there until his retirement. He was part of the first cohort invited to share in the partnership. John O. Merrill (1896–1975) had also joined the firm in 1939, and in October 1945, Merrill, Brown, and Robert Cutler (1905–93) were made limited partners. Severinghaus became a limited partner in January 1946, as did Bunshaft shortly thereafter. All of these men became general partners in 1949 and (with the exception of Merrill, who was based in Chicago) were leaders in the New York office until the 1970s.9 Each had his own responsibilities: Severinghaus was the office manager, Bunshaft was responsible for design, and Cutler oversaw publicity (although Bunshaft handled his own) and client relations. Brown was in production and followed the entire construction process from “conception to reality.”10 He often negotiated contracts, and he narrates extensively his experiences in Istanbul and Ankara while he was putting together the terms for Istanbul's Hilton Hotel (1955). Brown had great faith in SOM. He documents the firm's architectural successes, its burgeoning coffers, and the intricacies of its profit-sharing scheme. While acknowledging criticisms (for example, that SOM was a “plan factory”) and the challenges of “younger architects of currently fashionable persuasions,” he was supremely confident in the durability of SOM's partnership system.11
Brown had many reasons for writing. Skidmore had asked him to collect material for a history of SOM––so he was discharging an official duty. But his larger purpose was to explain SOM's success by emphasizing “the contributions of those within the firm who for one reason or another have had little or no public acknowledgement.” Thus, “the roles of those who have reoccuringly [sic] appeared in the foreground of the firm will have to be placed in proper perspective.”12 Brown wrote largely about events in which he participated.13 He was particularly fond of Louis Skidmore, whose contributions he believed were crucial to the firm's success.
Brown writes fluently and in a form unavailable elsewhere, providing an intimate assessment of SOM's buildings and the activities of its staff. For example, he describes the process of design and construction of the firm's Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati (1948), in which he was involved from the beginning. He notes his own introduction of full-scale “mock-ups”—a term he borrowed from his experiences with the aircraft industry—to the design process.14 In Cincinnati, Brown worked closely with Joan Miró, Saul Steinberg, and Alexander Calder on the hotel's artistic program. Brown recalls having lunch with Calder and his wife in Roxbury, Connecticut, along with the Bunshafts, and visiting Miró at his studio in Harlem.15 He also describes Le Corbusier's brief (and silent) visit to SOM's New York office in the fall of 1946.16
In his recounting of events, Brown seeks to demythologize the history of the firm. For example, his description of how the commission for Oak Ridge (begun in 1942) came about lacks the drama of Owings's cloak-and-dagger account, wherein two men enter SOM's office unexpectedly and ask the architects to build a city in an unknown location.17 Instead, Brown tells how the firm developed a plywood substitute called Cemesto for the John B. Pierce Foundation and then employed it in projects for military industrial sites in the early 1940s. An official at the Pierce Foundation, hearing rumors of plans for a city and recognizing the need for housing, put in a call to the Manhattan district office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Representatives from the Pierce Foundation and SOM then met with members of the corps. Brown notes that Skidmore and Owings had little confidence in the group within their office developing Cemesto; the selection of SOM for this commission was vindication for staff members whose work had been unappreciated.18 Brown was responsible for the earliest plans for Oak Ridge, and he narrates in detail his work there with Skidmore.19
Another myth around SOM's practice concerns an intraoffice competition for the Manufacturers Trust Bank in New York (1954). According to Owings, Skidmore decided to hold a competition for the bank's design.20 The winner was Charles Hughes (1915–85), and, despite its attribution to Bunshaft, the building as built more or less followed Hughes's model, as everyone agrees. But why a competition? According to Brown, Bunshaft was unwilling to start on the design, either because he was involved with work in Germany or because he thought the commission a “stuffy, unappealing design problem.” The competition was Skidmore's way of jump-starting a process blocked by Bunshaft. It was not a model for general practice.21
Brown records projects that are otherwise unknown. Bunshaft, for example, prepared a “slender column of a building placed on an island in the center of a pool of water” for Springs Mills in Lancaster, South Carolina (unbuilt).22 He also designed a Rexall drugstore for New York City. Louis Skidmore designed a house for George and Barbara Ferriss in Stamford, Connecticut.23 Many of Brown's stories are revelatory—for instance, his description of his negotiations with Frazar Wilde at Connecticut General adds to our understanding of how carefully that building was put together.24 Brown also tells of an evening at Skidmore's apartment in Manhattan House. At dusk, they arranged chairs to watch the sunset. As the city's “lights began to appear,” Skidmore played music on the phonograph and there was a reading of a poem titled “My Tower in Manhattan.” As Brown reports, “It was very moving. No one spoke. We sat quietly––each with his own thoughts––looking out at the Great City.”25 This was a small and rather incestuous corporate world. Severinghaus's sister was married to the brother of Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine (and Severinghaus roomed with the Luces when he moved to New York). Brown discusses his own cordial relations with Frank Stanton, president of the CBS television network. Some SOM commissions came in through Skidmore's summer acquaintances from Fire Island, New York. And one of SOM's first “office boys” had served the same function at McKim, Mead & White; he would sometimes answer the phone with the name of his previous employer.26
Brown's relationship with Bunshaft suffuses the manuscript. They were colleagues for thirty years, with inevitable ups and downs. They shared an interest in art and a “deep passion for order,” whether in the “arrangement of buildings upon a site or even the placement of books upon a table.”27 Other matters divided them, however. Bunshaft's opinion that “design was the sole province of elite individuals whose aesthetic perceptions were to be carried out automatically by obedient servants” was abhorrent to Brown. For Brown, “the process of design can inform every phase of a building from its genesis to its final assembly when it is being produced by the caliber of persons that constitute SOM.”28 Following his mentor, Skidmore, Brown believed in collective responsibility and design anonymity.29 He thought of Bunshaft as an “executive designer,” quite unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or Le Corbusier, architects who individually shaped designs with the force of their personalities and their hands.30 At one point, Brown quotes Bunshaft speaking in a rare moment of self-deprecation, conceding that he was “just a decorator.” Brown believed that what Bunshaft really meant was “stylist,” a characterization Brown also thought applicable to Eero Saarinen and Philip Johnson.31 Brown was offended by what he saw as Bunshaft's “morally reprehensible position of drawing heavily upon the resources of his partners and associates in private but in public … disclaim[ing] any need for them to exist.”32
Brown points to an early model of Lever House by Owings and Charles Wiley as having provided that project's parti, and he credits the client, Charles Luckman, with a significant role. The glass-and-mullion exterior, he notes, was the result of extensive tests made by the production staff. Thus, although Lever House is routinely attributed to Bunshaft, Brown specifies what many others contributed. At the building's opening ceremonies, Brown laments, the seats at Bunshaft's table were filled with journalists and public relations staff; had Luckman not been fired by Lever beforehand, he surmises, the building might have become known as “Luckman's Lever House.”33 No other building by Bunshaft was “asymmetrically disposed,” Brown observes, offering this as evidence that it was not fully “Bunshaft's Lever House.”34 Brown's account of the ceremony for Lever House's 25-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects, which was the scene of an unseemly spat between Owings and Bunshaft, conveys his anger over Bunshaft's vanity and lack of generosity.35
Troubles with Bunshaft were not uncommon within SOM. Brown notes that “Skid[more] periodically brought up the question of whether Gordon belonged in the partnership. In retaliation, Gordon attempted to organize us against Skid, emphasizing that he was ‘our enemy.’ This, of course, was not true and we simply ignored it, just as we ignored Skid's castigation of Gordon.”36 Matters generally remained at a low boil. During either design or construction of Lever House, however, Skidmore and Owings fired Bunshaft. Brown, Severinghaus, and Cutler had to remonstrate and rescue him.37 Later, following the appearance of an article in Newsweek (4 May 1959) in which Bunshaft made grossly self-promotional remarks, further attempts were made to expel him from the partnership––efforts rescinded only after a tearful session with Brown, Severinghaus, and Cutler.38 This episode seems to have broken Brown's confidence in Bunshaft, and over time his feelings of resentment grew.39 Brown reports asking another partner, Roy O. Allen, about Bunshaft's unexcused absence from a meeting. “He is just sitting in his office being great” was the reply.40
Brown's long-term mission, as documented in “The Formative Years,” was to revise how credit for SOM's buildings was assigned. His manuscript culminates with what he saw as his greatest failure: his inability to establish a firm-wide set of rules for attribution in the face of “Bunshaft's one-man publicity program.” In April 1957, Brown proposed to the partnership that “the Project manager, the Project Designer [sometimes called Senior Designer], and … the Job Captain should be given formal credit.” Such a policy, he thought, would be good for morale within the firm and for establishing “associations in the prospective client's mind as to the relative importance of various individuals in the firm.”41 Unexpectedly, Owings spoke against the proposal, praising Bunshaft and “proclaiming that he deserved all the credit he could get. He [Owings] further stated that the same privilege was open to everyone in the firm.” For Brown, this was heartbreaking. Owings's support for Bunshaft, he thought, was selfish, intended to permit Owings to garner publicity for himself.42 In that assumption Brown may have been correct. The canny Owings was no special friend of Bunshaft; in that moment he may have recognized that the designer's vanity was worth the grief it caused.43
Brown discusses in detail the roles played by “less visible” individuals at SOM. He praises Wayne A. Soverns (1912–93), whom he credits with introducing the “highest standards of detailing for the firm as a whole.”44 He describes the position of project manager, admirably filled by people like Robert Posey (1904–77) and Allan Labie (1924–81). He considered the project manager's role to be critical, for it allowed the design partners to take on many assignments, knowing that someone was always on hand to answer questions and move things forward.45 Brown had a high regard for Natalie de Blois (1921–2013), one of the few women in the design department:
Natalie was sure of her standards and could be outspokenly impatient with those who failed to measure up. She got along well with Bun and with me and was a major design force on many of my jobs… . Natalie evidently admired Gordon––both for his design talent and his straight-forward manner with her. The feeling appeared to be mutual. Although I never heard her complain about it, Natalie, for several reasons, did not receive the credit to which her work entitled her. The main reason was that she remained in the extensive shadow cast by Gordon's limelight.46
Typical of Brown's insights is his criticism of de Blois and Bunshaft when Sedad Hakki Eldem (1908–88), a Turkish architect working briefly in New York on the Istanbul Hilton, moved into the office they shared. “Sedad was at no time intimidated by the considerable arrogance of views that could be displayed by Bunshaft and Natalie. With innate poise, Sedad simply ignored their childish postures.” Brown notes that there was “much of Sedad's hand in the building's design.”47 During the construction of the Union Carbide Building (1960), on which Brown worked closely with de Blois, the design progressed so quickly that Bunshaft, then consulting at the Air Force Academy, complained to Skidmore that he was being left out.48
“The Formative Years” is an insider's narrative. As the head of production, Brown shifts attention away from the star designers and toward all the various agents making architecture: the senior designers, the project managers, the job captains. For Brown, these unacknowledged figures were not simply the “architects of bureaucracy,” in Henry-Russell Hitchcock's phrase.49 Brown enrolls the men and women of the production department in a fictional society of his own invention: “The Society of Exquisite Detailers.”50 They truly were members of Owings's modernized “Gothic Builders Guild,” whose bonds were undermined by the self-publicizing hero—namely, Bunshaft.51
Brown completed his manuscript ten years after the publication of Owings's Spaces in Between, the book that began the mythologization of SOM and its designers. What if his account had been disseminated before Krinsky's book about Bunshaft, or those by Graham and Goldsmith? Brown would likely have pushed them all to tell different stories.52 Even if his criticism of Bunshaft had been toned down, Brown might have pressured SOM (and possibly other firms, for SOM is not unique in this respect) to give attention to those responsible for the more mundane processes of design. From this point forward, all serious students of SOM's architecture and early office culture will need to consult Brown's important manuscript. I regret that I found it so late in my own studies of the firm and am delighted that others will now be able to take full advantage of its riches.53