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George Danforth (1916-2007)

Dates of Interview:

August 9, 16, 23, 1986

Location of Interview:

Danforth's home in Chicago


Pauline A. Saliga

Length of Transcript:

153 pages
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Biographical Summary

George Edson Danforth was born in 1916 in LaHarpe, Kansas. He studied architecture as an undergraduate (1936-40) and graduate student (1941-43) under Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology (formerly the Armour Institute of Technology) in Chicago. While attending IIT, Danforth worked as draftsman in the architectural office of Mies van der Rohe from 1939 through 1944, and taught at IIT from 1941 until 1953. After serving in the U.S. Navy (1944-46), he maintained a private practice in Chicago from 1949 through 1961, and was joined by Daniel Brenner and H.P. Davis Rockwell in 1961, when the firm was renamed Brenner, Danforth, Rockwell. Danforth retired from the subsequent firm, Danforth, Rockwell, Carow, in 1980. In addition to an active practice, Danforth also maintined an academic career, teaching at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio from 1953 to 1959 and at IIT until 1975. Danforth was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1967. Danforth died in Chicago, Illinois, in 2007.

Interview Highlights

Danforth speaks about IIT before and after Mies's appointment; Mies's IIT campus plan; Lilly Reich; Ludwig Hilberseimer; Walter Peterhans; working in Mies's office; teaching; opening his own firm; Brenner, Danforth, Rockwell commissions, including the Lincoln Park Zoo, the National Design Center, the Speed Museum of Art, and H.P. Davis Rockwell's home, "House on a Bluff"; his view of Mies; Danforth's dream project.

Lincoln Park Zoo, Great Ape House, (detail), Chicago, IL, 1973.
Department of Architecture, The Art Institute of Chicago.

H.P. Davis Rockwell, designer, "House on a Bluff," Olympia Fields, IL, 1963.
Photograph by Richard Nickel, courtesy of H.P. Davis Rockwell, with permission of the Richard Nickel Committee.

Interview Excerpt

"I knew [Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Hilberseimer, and Walter Peterhans] so well and for so long...Hilbs was very easy to get to know quite early on. He was a fatherly sort of person....Mies was not foreboding in any way, but he was a slightly more distant personality to get to and to get to know....Mies was never the 'warm' person that Hilbs was in personality and outgoingness...Some people were put off by it, yes, who could not understand that you could be working with someone and not have the man say something every five minutes. He often didn't say anything for hours...A lot of people, of course, simply couldn't assimilate, take that kind of instruction. Hilbs would be much more vocal. Peterhans, on the other hand, was even more tacit a person in personality and would work very closely with the student. He was working with visual values, which are harder to deal with and teach anyway, problems of proportions, texture...rhythm, and all the other visual values....They were a strangely differing group of men in their personalities, in the way they worked with students. In their respective ways, once you got to know them and work with them, they were highly effective." (pp. 22-23)

Speed Museum of Art, addition, Louisville, KY, 1972.
Photograph by Day Johnston, used with permission.
Daniel Brenner Papers, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Additional Resources

Finding Aid to Brenner Danforth Rockwell Records, 1957-1988
George E. Danforth images in the R&B Archives
Related archival materials in the R&B Archives
Works by or related to Danforth in the Department of Architecture and Design

Funding for this oral history was provided by The Art Institute of Chicago and the Canadian Centre for Architecture.