and Merrill (SOM)
In 1936 Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings, both graduates of MIT’s Department of Architecture, formed an architectural firm in Chicago. They opened their first branch in New York City in 1937 and in 1939 were joined by John Merrill and later, another MIT graduate, Gordon Bunshaft. After World War II SOM became the leading American designer of skyscrapers and other large commercial buildings. By 1952 the firm became one of the country’s largest architecture practices, one of the most prestigious in the country, and home to many of the most notable American architects of the 20th century with more than 1,000 staff across the United States. The firm was the first to promote a collaborative approach for which they were honored for design excellence in a collaborative practice in 1961 with the first AIA Firm Award. They are the only firm to be so honored twice, winning again in 1996. Since then they have received more than 800 design awards.
Today the firm has completed 10,000 projects in over 40 countries, and maintains offices in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. The design and construction of Lever House in New York City helped to define a new vocabulary for modern international style or “glass box” skyscrapers. SOM was responsible for the design and construction of America’s tallest building, the 4,600,000 square foot, 109-story Sears Tower in Chicago. Other notable architectural sites are the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, the Bank of America Center in San Francisco, One Worldwide Plaza, Time Warner Center and 7 World Trade Center in New York City as well as Fordham Plaza in the Bronx. The firm is presently responsible for the construction of Freedom Tower at the site of the World Trade Center.
Since 1981 the SOM Foundation sponsors awards and travel study grants to students of Architecture, design, Urban Design and Structural Engineering to emerging talent in those fields. This recognition is now an important measure of achievement among architecture and engineering students and their colleges and universities.
B. 1887 Lawrenceburg, Indiana
Louis Skidmore was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and graduated from MIT’s Department of Architecture in 1924. Skidmore studied at Bradley University in Illinois before serving in England during World War I. After the war, he attended the School of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1924. Skidmore worked in Boston for Charles Maginnis; then in 1926, he won the Rotch Traveling Scholarship and traveled to Europe for three years, including one year studying at the American Academy in Rome. From 1929 to 1933, Skidmore collaborated with Nathaniel Owings to plan and design the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. It was on this project that he gained much of his training in organization and management skills. This teaming of Skidmore and Owings led in early 1936 to the formation of their partnership, which eventually became one of the largest and most prestigious American architecture firms of the 20th century. In 1937 they opened another office in New York, and were joined by engineer John Merrill in 1939.
Nathaniel Alexander Owings
B. 1903 Indianapolis, Indiana
Nathaniel Owings was born in Indianapolis and grew up in the Midwest. In 1920, he traveled through Europe on a Rotary Club award and became enamored with architecture during the trip. On his return, Owings entered the University of Illinois to study architecture, then leaving because of illness. He returned to his studies at Cornell University, earning a degree in 1927, and worked briefly in the New York office of York & Sawyer. Owings met Louis Skidmore in 1929 when Skidmore married his sister Eloise. From 1929 to 1933, Owings assisted Skidmore on the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. In 1936, he and Skidmore formally established their partnership in Chicago, which became Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) when the engineer John Merrill joined them in 1939.
John Ogden Merrill
B. 1896 St. Paul, Minnesota
John Merrill attended the University of Wisconsin from 1915 to 1917. His studies were interrupted by his service as an officer in the army in World War I until 1919. When the war ended, Merrill transferred to the architecture school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1921. He worked briefly for the Federal Housing Authority and in 1939 Merrill joined Skidmore and Owings in their partnership. Merrill moved to Tennessee to take charge of designing the secret buildings at Oak Ridge, creating a town for 75,000 people who worked on the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb. He became an expert in the technology of buildings and building codes and directed a major revision of the building code for Chicago from 1947 to 1949. John Merrill retired from SOM in 1948.