Dwight Perkins


Dwight Heald Perkins was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1867 and moved to Chicago with his family at the age of 12. Shortly after arriving his father died and Dwight had to work to help support the family. He did so by obtaining work at the Chicago Stockyards and later at the architectural firm of Wheelock and Clay. A family friend, Mrs. Charles Hitchcock, financed his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in 1888, after two years of studies and one year of teaching, he returned to Chicago. While he was in Boston he met his future wife, Lucy Fitch, the well known author of the "Twins" series of children's books. After working briefly for Henry Hobson Richardson he entered the office of Burnham and Root. In 1891 he was placed in charge of the Burnham and Root downtown office when Burnham opened his south side office to oversee the World’s Columbian Exposition, which lasted through 1893. While he was in charge of the office he supervised the completion of the John Welborn Root-designed Monadnock Building.

On January 1, 1894, with a commission from the Steinway Piano Company to design a new building for them, Perkins established his own office in downtown Chicago. After completion of the now demolished building he moved his office to the 11th floor and opened the attic as a drafting studio where he invited some of his friends to share the space with him. Thus, Steinway Hall and the Prairie School of Architecture had its’ beginning. The first to join him was a friend from M.I.T., Robert C. Spencer, who also brought his close friend Frank Lloyd Wright. They were soon followed by Myron Hunt. The group shared a secretary whose office was on the 11th floor and they each had a screened workspace in the attic, but it was also an office where they participated in each other’s work.

The community at Steinway Hall was always changing. Besides the original group, other architects that worked there at some point in their career included Irving and Allen Pond, newly graduated Walter Burley Griffin, Perkins’ cousin Marion Mahony, Birch Burdette Long, and Henry Webster Tomlinson. Eventually even Perkins left Steinway Hall to move onto other phases in his career.

In 1896 Perkins had begun to work with Wright on a commission to design the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago for the All Soul’s Unitarian Church, of which Wright’s uncle Jenkin Lloyd Jones was the pastor. By 1903 Wright was fired from the job by his uncle and Perkins completed the design under severe protest over the design suggestions demanded by Jenkin Lloyd Jones.

Perkins’ association with Mrs. Charles Hitchcock also secured a commission at the University of Chicago to design the Hitchcock Hall dormitory building in 1902. In order to design the building in accordance with the English Gothic style used by Henry Ives Cobb for most of the other university buildings, Mrs. Hitchcock sent Dwight and wife Lucy to England for 6 months for a firsthand study of Gothic architecture.

Perkins’ involvement in the social issues of housing for the poor and his desire to increase the amount of public parks and playgrounds for use by them led to his designs of plans for settlement buildings on the campuses of both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Based on an open space plan prepared by Perkins and noted prairie landscape architect Jens Jensen in 1903, the groundwork was laid for the formation of the Chicago Park District and the Cook County Forest Preserves.

In 1905, after scoring 99 on a civil service exam, Perkins was appointed as the chief architect for the Chicago Board of Education. During his tenure he designed more than 40 schools for the board, with Carl Schurz High School being the most famous of his Prairie School designs. Schurz High School has been designated as a landmark by the Chicago Landmark Council. In 1910 Perkins was brought before the Board of Education, accused of being incompetent, extravagant and insubordinate, and he demanded that he be given a public trial. He was exonerated on the charges of incompetence and extravagance, but found to have been insubordinate and was removed as the Board of Education Chief Architect in 1910.

While he was serving as the school board architect he also maintained a private practice with John L. Hamilton. Perkins obtained and designed the commissions while Hamilton ran the office. At the same time that he was building schools for the Board of Education, he was also designing buildings for the Chicago Park District.

In 1911 Perkins and Hamilton added William K. Fellows, formerly of the firm of Nimmons and Fellows, to their partnership. The firm continued to primarily design, in cities other than Chicago. They also designed numerous park buildings including the Lion House and refectory (now Cafe Brauer) at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse. Perkins won the AIA Gold Medal for the 1912 Lion House design.

By 1925 Perkins was almost totally deaf, making it extremely hard to continue in his practice. This led to the dissolution of the firm of Perkins, Fellows & Hamilton in 1927. Perkins continued to sit on the Park District and Forest Preserve boards and in 1930 he became a consultant for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. His son Lawrence followed in his father's footsteps as a famous architect and co-founded the firm of Perkins Wheeler & Will, which still operates today as the firm of Perkins & Will. Dwight retired to Pasadena, California and  later died on November 2, 1941 in Lordsburg, New Mexico while traveling on vacation. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.