Architects' Concrete Contributions

August 15, 2003 · by Richard Swett, FAIA

While we can converse in great detail about the significant buildings and designers of this age, how many of us know the details of those architects whose lives and careers were directly shaped by political and civic events?

Architecture’s history is not confined to the art of design or its technological development. It is as much a product of the ethical and social values passed down the generations of each person’s family, and the subsequent response of the individual to the course of human events as it is the skill evinced in fashioning dynamic plastic from raw materials.

The abolition of slavery was the defining political issue of the 19th century. It split the nation on a profound moral divide. Every American had to choose one side or the other. We shoulder the consequences to this day. Other important issues after the Civil War all involved meeting the physical needs of exponential population, and the widening range of human, civil and social rights.

While we can converse in great detail about the significant buildings and designers of this age, how many of us know the details of those architects whose lives and careers were directly shaped by political and civic events? Try it.

1. One of the 13 original founders of the American Institute of Architects was a legitimate “political refugee,” having escaped from prison for his involvement in the German Revolution of 1848. In 1855 prior to the AIA’s founding, he patented the first fireproof hollow brick tile...which he created for use in one of the most important buildings of the 19th century which he designed and built in New York City during the years 1853-59. What was his name and what was the building?

2. Who is the only American Architect in US history to win the Congressional Medal of Honor for his outstanding bravery and leadership under enemy fire; what war did he fight in, which chapter of the AIA did he found and who was the legendary architect he inspired and trained as a 16 year old apprentice?

3a. Four important designers of the built environment in New York City were instrumental in the founding and the leadership of the most powerful private political & civic organization in NYC, formed in 1863 to deal hands-on with the national and local crisis... What was the name of the organization?

3b. who were the four and c. which regiment of the Union Army did they help organize, finance, equip, train and publicly fete without the support of the public or consent of the Governor of New York?

4. Praised by Jacob Riis in “How the Other Half Lives,” who was the civil engineer, an 1865 graduate of Rensselaer Polytech, who built with his own money in 1877, the first state-of-the art “model” housing for the “working poor” in the USA? Where are these still fully occupied landmark apartment buildings?

5. Between 1880 and 1900, who was the architect who had the most influence on the formation of both New York City’s and New York State’s building codes and who in 1892, along with 4 other prominent architects, successfully lobbied the Governor to veto the AIA’s first attempt to enact a state law which would have given the AIA both proprietary and direct control over the licensing of architects in the state of New York?

and, a bonus: Who invented and patented the first system of poured concrete architecture and why was it a commercial failure for its inventor?


1. a: Fred A. Petersen (1808-1885) born Prussia, died Orange, NJ b: The Cooper Union

2. a: Frank Furness, Civil War (Rush’s Lancers - Sixth Pennsylvania Calvary) The Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA, chartered on Nov. 11, 1869, Louis Sullivan

3. a:The Union League Club b: Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, Richard Morris Hunt and Jasper Cropsey b: New York’s 20th US Infantry Regiment, the state’s first, and one of the nation’s first, regiments of free Black American soldiers

4. a: Alfred Tredway White ( 1846-1921) b: Cobble Hill, Brooklyn NY

5. a: William J. Fryer (1842-1907)

bonus: a: Thomas A. Edison b: he created it as a cheap and profitable construction method for private housing development without understanding the heat and moisture conducting properties of cement. He was not an architect.

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