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Lawrence Bradford Perkins (1907-1997)

Audio Interview with Transcript:

Dates of Interview: November 8, 9, 10, 17, 1985
Location of Interview: Perkins's home in Evanston, Illinois
Interviewer: Betty J. Blum
Length of Transcript: 174 pages

View Online (transcript only)

Video Interview, unedited (1994):

Dates of Interview: August 4, 1998
Location of Interview: unknown
Interviewer: Howard Decker
Length of Interview: 2 hours, 26 minutes, 58 seconds

Part 1 of 5 (00:28:41): View Online
Part 2 of 5 (00:29:54): View Online
Part 3 of 5 (00:28:07): View Online
Part 4 of 5 (00:29:47): View Online
Part 5 of 5 (00:30:29): View Online

Video Interview, edited (1994):

Dates of Interview: August 4, 1998 (edited January 20, 1998)*
Location of Interview: unknown
Interviewer: Howard Decker
Length of Interview: 43 minutes

View Online

Biographical Summary

Lawrence Bradford Perkins was born in 1907 in Evanston, Illinois, the son of noted Prairie School architect Dwight H. Perkins (1867-1941). In 1930 Lawrence received his bachelor's degree in architecture from Cornell University, where he met Philip Will, the man who was to become his partner. In 1935 they opened a practice in Chicago and were soon joined by E. Todd Wheeler, renaming the firm Perkins, Wheeler and Will. The young firm first gained national attention when it associated with Eliel and Eero Saarinen on the design of the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois (1939-40). Perkins, Wheeler, and Will soon established a national reputation as respected school specialists. Perkins retired from the firm in 1972 but by 1974 he had embarked on a new career as an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Perkins was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1953. He died in Evanston in 1997.

Interview Highlights

AUDIO/TEXT TRANSCRIPT: Perkins speaks about his father 's education, friends, colleagues, the Committee on the Universe, and his vision of creating the Forest Preserve system. Perkins then speaks about his own education at Cornell University; meeting Philip Will; working for Howard Fisher's General Houses; how the office of Perkins, Wheeler and Will took shape; the Crow Island School commission; collaborating with the Saarinens; the shift to steel and glass; the United States Gypsum building; building the First National Bank building; the Cliff Dwellers Club; travel; the American Institute of Architects.

VIDEO - 1994, Part 1 of 5: Education and careers of parents Dwight and Lucy Fitch Perkins (00:01:15); father brought out-of-work architects into an architectural co-op in Steinway Hall; group included George Maher, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Marion Mahoney [Griffin] (00:06:50); “The Prairie School owes its relationship to itself” (00:08:39); college education at the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University (00:21:45); Phil Will and Perkins did not found a firm; instead, they worked together on two houses that led to more work (00:26.23).

VIDEO - 1994, Part 2 of 5: “A partner, in his own eyes, is above the law. It makes it hard for decision-making; it just doesn’t happen” (00:01:40); worked on smaller buildings in the early years; architects who needed jobs were added to the group (00:02:34); Crow Island School program was “the first olive out of the bottle” (00:04:54); describes the negotiations with Eliel Saarinen to join the Crow Island project (00:13:20); discusses the importance of light for learning and the dilution of shadows in the Crow Island School classroom 00:25:00).

Crow Island School; Winnetka, IL, 1939.
Photo by Wayne Cable, Cable Studios; courtesy of Perkins & Will.

VIDEO - 1994, Part 3 of 5: Crow Island School board expressed concerns about the school’s exterior while the teachers loved the classrooms (00:00:23); very few projects were commissioned during World War II; Perkins worked in any available non-salaried job he could find while keeping his architecture office open; after the war there was a pent-up need for new buildings, including schools (00:03:08); Life magazine article created a demand for new schools (00:12:09); describes how his office was organized as a team (00:16:06); compares his office with other architecture firms in the city (00:22:47); interprets the increase and eventual decrease of Miesian influence on architecture (00:26:18).

VIDEO - 1994, Part 4 of 5: Discusses his personal architectural roots and his definition of function (00:01:26); describes his favorite building, Heathcote School in Scarsdale, NY, designed by Perkins + Will (00:06:14); the First National Bank, Chicago, by C. F. Murphy, is one of Perkins’ favorite buildings (00:07:40); describes the influences of Phillip Will and John Goodall on his own architecture (00:08:03); taught for thirteen years; traveled with his students to France on sketching tours (00:10:50); relates anecdotes about Frank Lloyd Wright (00:15:00).

U.S. Gypsum Building; Chicago, 1963.
Photo courtesy of Perkins & Will.

VIDEO - 1994, Part 5 of 5: Perkins says he is not the author of any building; “Architecture is basically a team sport;” “There is no one man who does all equally well” (00:02:26); provides commentary while sketching a typical early 20th century school classroom (00:06:26); sketches a Crow Island School classroom and explains the function of each element and describes the possible activity in each space (00:11:00); Perkins sketching (00:25:26); Life magazine issue, Oct. 16, 1950, on U.S. schools (00:26:55); article from Life magazine; photograph of model of First National Bank, Chicago (00:27:51).

VIDEO - 1998: Preview of personal background (00:00:43); background and career of father Dwight Perkins and mother Lucy Fitch Perkins (00:01:54); Lawrence’s early background (00:12:10); meets Phillip Will while both were students at Cornell University and begin working together (00:14:27); “Perkins + Will developed into a federation of small independent offices” (00:18:29); speaks about Crow Island School, Wilmette, IL, calling it “a critical collaboration with Eliel Saarinen” (00:19:43); Perkins attended school in a classroom with the young students for three months (00:25:39); Perkins sketches the design of a Crow Island School classroom; the sketches illustrate the grouping of different learning activities (00:27:27); explains the off-center design of the school’s clock tower by Eliel Saarinen (00:33:19); photographs of Crow Island School, taken by Ken Hedrich (00:34:58); Life magazine article, Oct. 16, 1950, illustrating and describing schools designed by Perkins + Will (00:37:32); “Our guide is functionalism” (00:38:37); “Architecture is basically a team sport” (00:40:13).

Interview Excerpt

"[How Dad got started as an independent was] Mr. Burnham said, 'Dwight, I can't reduce you to the ranks and I can't put you over Ernest Graham. Here is a year's office rent and I will help you get the building [Steinway Hall] for you to start with.' Dad got that....They got Steinway Hall built and occupied by the time he was twenty-nine years old, all fourteen floors of it. Dad, characteristically and somewhat like his father before him, spread a little too much sail and took for himself the top two floors, much more than he had the business to consume. He invited a bunch of his friends to have their private offices on the thirteenth floor and they'd share the drafting room on the walk up to the fourteenth floor. I have just the dimmest memory of that space up in the steel beams, rafters and trusses, of this very much improvised, but whole, building space. People wonder why the Prairie School stuff all looks related to each other. Think about the people that were there: Myron Hunt, Jules Guerin, Tom Tallmadge from Tallmadge & Watson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffin, Marion Mahony... when any one of them got a job they'd all pile upstairs and work on it together. Of course everything looked related to everything else....My dad was what they all had in common. He put them together; he collected the rent from them." (p. 6)

*Note regarding Videos

The video dated 01/20/1998 is a condensed version of the interview conducted on 10/13/1994. It is titled "Larry Perkins: A Conversation" and appears to have been produced by Brella Productions for the client Perspectives International.

Funding for the audio interview and transcript was provided by the Cliff Dwellers Club.
Videos courtesy Judith Paine McBrien and the AIA Chicago Foundation.