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Jacques Calman Brownson (1923-2012)

Dates of Interview:

December 4-9, 1994

Location of Interview:

Brownson's home in Denver, Colorado


Betty J. Blum

Length of Transcript:

280 pages
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Biographical Summary

Jacques Calman Brownson was born in 1923 in Aurora, Illinois. He studied architecture with Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago where he earned his B.S. in 1948 and his M.S. in 1954. For his master's thesis he built his own home in Geneva, Illinois--a house of glass that brought Brownson's work much favorable national attention. He worked for various Chicago architects, including A. James Speyer in 1947 and Frazier & Raftery from 1950 until 1953, before he and Bruno Conterato, another student of Mies's, opened their own office in 1955. In 1959 Brownson joined Naess & Murphy (later C.F. Murphy Associates) where he stayed for six years, during which time he designed the award-winning Chicago Civic Center (now the Daley Center and Plaza). From 1968 until 1972 Brownson worked as managing architect for Chicago's Public Building Commission and in 1972 was appointed director of planning and development of the Auraria Higher Education Center in Denver, Colorado. In 1976 Brownson became director of Colorado's State Buildings Division (1976-1986). Brownson, like his mentor Mies van der Rohe, was both a builder and a teacher. He taught at IIT (1948-59), was chairman of the department of architecture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1966-68), and was guest lecturer at various academic institutions from 1961 until 1986. Brownson's designs have been included in numerous exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe. Brownson died in Loveland, CO, February 19, 2012.

Interview Highlights

Brownson speaks about his family during the depression; how he financed his study at IIT; Mies van der Rohe's office; military service; going back to IIT; Ludwig Hilberseimer at IIT; building his glass house in Geneva; working for Naess & Murphy; building the Continental National Insurance building and the Chicago Civic Center [now the Richard J. Daley Center and Plaza]; teaching; Denver and the Auraria Higher Education Center. His ideas and opinions on architecture, colleagues, and architectural education are woven throughout the document.

C.F. Murphy Associates. Continental National Insurance building, Chicago, IL, 1962.

C.F. Murphy Associates. Perspective rendering of the Chicago Civic Center, Chicago, IL, 1963.
Department of Architecture, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Interview Excerpt

"I was roughly thirty-seven or thirty-eight years old when I did [the Chicago Civic Center], and architecture is kind of an old man's game because of all of the things that you have to do. But if you look at all of the work that I've done over the years, I've done relatively few buildings just to be doing buildings. Somebody said to me--we were standing on the plaza, right after the building was dedicated and occupied---they said, 'Jacques, it's going to be pretty hard to do anything after this, isn't it?' And I said, 'Yes. An opportunity like this only comes once in your lifetime.'" (page 202)

Additional Resources

Jacques Brownson images in the R&B Archives
Related archival materials in the R&B Archives
Works by Brownson in the Department of Architecture and Design

Funding for this oral history was provided by a gift from the Estate of Norman Schlossman.