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 Worlds 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 others 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 Souls
Unitarian Church, of which Wrights 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
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
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 Chicagos Lincoln Park
Zoo and the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse. Perkins won the AIA Gold Medal for the 1912 Lion House
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.