James Deforest Ferris was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1925. After serving for two years in the United States Infantry he began his studies at Pratt Institute in New York in 1945 and was enrolled there for two years before transferring to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. At IIT, under Bauhaus-émigré Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Ferris received his B.A. in 1949 and his M.A. in 1951. After graduation he worked for Philip Johnson in New Canaan, Connecticut, and the Austin Company in New York City before traveling to Italy in 1954 to study under noted structural engineer Pier Luigi Nervi with a colleague. In 1955 Ferris returned to the United States to work for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill on a project in San Francisco. He subsequently moved to SOM's Chicago office but left in 1960 to work for Naess & Murphy, later C.F. Murphy Associates. While in the Murphy office, Ferris was associated with several Chicago projects, including the CNA Center, the Northern Trust restoration and addition, and the team that designed the First National Bank project. Ferris left Murphy in 1967 to work first for Bertrand Goldberg and later for Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, where he designed a forty-five story addition to the CNA Center. In 1973 Ferris founded his own office and among the various commissions completed was a distribution and manufacturing facility for Briggs & Stratton in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. From 1974 until 1978 Ferris was a visiting professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1976. Ferris died in Valparaiso, Indiana, in 2002.
Ferris speaks about his early background and service in the military during WWII, his friendship with Golo Mann, studying at the Pratt Institute and working for Philip Johnson, graduate study at the Illinois Institute of Technoology with Mies van der Rohe, studying in Rome with Myron Goldsmith and Pier Luigi Nervi, working for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, designing the CNA addition in Chicago, working at Naess & Murphy, working on the Northern Trust Bank addition, opening his own office, and designing the Briggs & Stratton facility.
Distribution center and manufacturing facility for Briggs and Stratton Corp. , Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, 1980. Photograph courtesy of James Ferris.
"Jack Brownson said to me--we were designing the first CNA building, which is the twenty-story building--Jack said he would like Mies to take a look at the building as it was being built. We were using a forty-by-forty bay. Brownson thought it was important and wondered if Mies could look at it. We got Mies down on Wabash. He looked at it and looked at it for a long time. He thought it was very good and acceptable and the handling of the steel was interesting because it was welded. As we were going back to our car Mies looked back and saw sunlight on the steel. It was shop-painted at that time. Remember when they painted structural steel? Mies looked back--it was absolutely a red sunset on that steel--Mies looked back and he said, "That is a very beautiful red sunset, isn't it?" or something to that effect. And it came out much later that I had painted the damn building red....[Later, Mr. Probst] said, "What? What are you doing?" I said, "I'm just making some structural models of how the [second CNA building] might be." He said, "Ferris, we are not having another black dirge on the South Side of Chicago. Now get that." With that he walked away and I didn't know. I was absolutely up a creek when someone said we are not having a black building. What do you paint it? Remembering Mies's comment about the sunset, that was when the idea of the red just came out my head." (pp. 58-59, 60)
Funding for this oral history was provided by Carter Manny.