Theses Doctoral

Ready for Experiment: Dwight Perkins and Progressive Architectures in Chicago, 1893-1918

Gray, Jennifer Louise

Chicago's turn-of-the-century social settlements, most notably Hull House, have long been considered the mainstay of American progressive reforms. Yet settlement houses were but one aspect of a wide-ranging set of architectural and spatial inventions that used certain kinds of familiar imagery to build public support for innovative social ambitions. This dissertation connects the major settlement house designs of Chicago architect Dwight Perkins with the parks, recreation centers, playgrounds, and public schools he designed during these same years. It also situates Perkins among the extraordinary group of Chicago reformers who were transforming philanthropy, education, public health, municipal government, and the urban environment. The portrait that emerges is one where architecture and civic space were indelibly bound up with and helped to advance transformative social changes. Chicago was the epicenter of American progressive reforms. Both theoretical and practical, these extended across a broad range of issues from education to women's rights, political participation to public health, the natural environment to municipal reforms, social psychology to the social sciences.

Embracing most of these aspirations, Perkins took up familiar civic typologies and gave them a new purpose that can be described, most concisely, as democratic social centers. To some extent, they could be compared with the "social condensers" of contemporary Soviet Union, architecture intended to help generate, or at least facilitate, major social and political transformation. Yet Perkins was not an ideologue. He adjusted his own beliefs to the particular, and often rather cautious, attitudes of various clients and constituencies. By and large, the tensions focused on several related issues that were inherent difficulties in the American progressive movement: a desire for bureaucratic efficiency that leaned towards restricted budgets and standardized types; a desire to transform society that contravened an abiding faith in contingent, piecemeal change; and a desire for expansive democratic participation that ran up against a deep suspicion of the immigrant populations that were flooding into American cities, especially in Chicago where foreign-born individuals or children of immigrants made of 77% of the population in 1900. While interested in intellectual debate about education, social psychology, and political reforms, Perkins was a pragmatist. He wanted the chance to create architecture that could be tested, discovering the most feasible and effective ways to bring about widespread social progress. He applied his ideals about social democracy, education, and the environment in various contexts and in different ways, always remaining open to experimentation, collaboration, and compromise.

These "flexible principles," simultaneously consistent and elastic, gave him the fluidity to engage diffuse audiences, helping him advance his goals. This dissertation situates Perkins within the American progressive movement that centered on Chicago, more than any other city of the era. It then analyzes his designs for five civic typologies - settlement houses, parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, and public schools - as well as his vision for how these spaces were constituent parts of an innovative urban-planning model based on overlapping, yet distinct neighborhood centers. It explains the intellectual debates that informed these projects and his concerted efforts to implement improvements, even if they did not fulfill his highest ideals. Perkins spoke of his designs as "social centers" that he believed were able to facilitate democratic exchange across class and economic lines, as well as bring much needed public services to the people of Chicago. Dwight Perkins was a designer and community activist of mainly regional significance who believed, above all, in social democracy. Exploring his social politics allows me to situate his work within the dominant narratives of American progressivism and its corollaries in modern architecture. This is not to suggest that his progressive goals and aesthetic predilections were avant-garde. Perkins by and large eschewed radical forms in order to achieve other goals, though some involved architectural innovations and experiments. Democratic engagement was his primary concern, related to other principles about educational freedoms, public health, and environmentalism. These aspirations remain central to the history and future of self-consciously progressive architecture, whether in Europe or the United States.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Wright, Gwendolyn
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 18, 2011