― Exhibition

Prologue: An Early Education in School Design 

The story of our firm started well before our founders Lawrence (Larry) Perkins and Philip (Phil) Will, Jr., designed one of our earliest and best-known projects, The Crow Island School, in 1940. In fact, it was Larry’s father, Dwight Perkins, a Prairie School architect and contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, who paved the way. At an early age, Larry was inspired by his father’s work, as Dwight designed many notable buildings including Carl Schurz High School and Grover Cleveland Elementary School—both designated as Chicago landmarks in 1960 and still in use today.

 

Larry and Phil met as roommates at Cornell University and started their operations in Chicago, sharing a tiny sixth floor office tucked behind the fire stairs at 333 North Michigan Avenue. Their first project was a house in Kenilworth, Illinois, earning them a fee of about 15 cents an hour. Over the next six years, they designed more than 46 residences in Chicago’s north-shore communities before expanding their practice to include schools, healthcare facilities, science and technology labs, and more.

 

Explore some of their first projects and hear from Ralph Johnson, Principal and Global Design Director, about the early history of our firm.

Dwight Perkins, 1867-1941 

Dwight Perkins, father of Perkins and Will founder Larry Perkins, photographed here alongside his writings on “Prairie School” architecture style that emerged in and around Chicago, Illinois and the American Midwest. A contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, Dwight and his colleagues sometimes referred to themselves as “the Committee on the Universe.”

The University of Nanjing (1917)

The University of Nanjing was an example of how Dwight Perkins brought a universal lens to his Prairie School roots. Here, the architecture is a combination of the solid brick forms of his Chicago work and the sweeping rooflines of traditional Chinese timber buildings.

Crow Island School(1940)

A few years after the formation of Perkins and Will, Larry and Phil were hired to design the new Crow Island School by superintendent Carlton Washburn, who wanted an innovative elementary school for Winnetka. Though early in their careers, the mentorship of Dwight Perkins helped prepare Larry and Phil for the task at hand: Envisioning the “first modern school in America.” The school was designed in collaboration with architects Eero and Eliel Saarinen.

Perkins, Fellows, and Hamilton Studio (1910) 

The original shared office of Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. This was the office Dwight Perkins and his partners briefly shared with Frank Lloyd Wright. Here, they worked at the height of their careers, becoming known for designing schools and civic buildings.

Gates Gymnasium, New Trier Township High School (1928)

New Trier Township High School encompasses five distinct towns on Chicago’s North Shore, and brings them all together with the dark brick signature of Perkins’ early projects. Though the school as a whole was a collaboration between many notably Chicago architects, Dwight Perkins designed the iconic Gates Gymnasium wing of the school in 1928, a major entrance to the building as well as a hub for student activity both during the school day as well as after hours. The entrance to the gym is marked with dramatic arches, and the wing encompasses not only the gymnasium itself, a double-height arena for basketball games, but also includes a sublevel indoor track and training facility, changing rooms, trophy display halls and health and wellness classrooms. A variety of staircases facilitate easy flow of thousands of students throughout the building each passing period, and Gates includes, by logical extension, all of the athletics fields and courts surrounding the school, emphasizing athletics and wellness for all.

A Founding Legacy of Education and Civic Work

Dwight Perkins’ prolific output in the Chicagoland area included designs for the Bowen High School, Carl Shurz High School, and New Trier and Evanston Township high schools, along with park facilities including the Lincoln Park Boat House and the Lion House.

Hubbard Woods School (1915)

The Hubbard Woods School was a result of a connection Dwight Perkins made with the Winnetka, Illinois School Director, and many ideas here were taken as early inspiration for the design of the Crow Island School, by Larry Perkins and Phil Will, also in Winnetka. Early ideas about the importance of daylight in classrooms for energy, sustainability, and climate control are expressed here, as well as the signature solid brick façade detailing.

Philip Will’s House (1937)

One of the most prized designs of our founder’s career, Philip Will’s own house in Evanston, Illinois was a Prairie School-inspired design flecked with Phil’s Modernist sensibilities. Completed in 1937, the low, horizontal design evokes a ship, a symbol of the Great Lakes, and Chicago’s own busy Lake Michigan waters. Though built with heavy red brick and cantilevering details, the generous ribbon windows, often wrapping around entire corners, a nod to the great Modern era, offer such abundant light that electric bulbs aren’t needed until late into the evening. Sold in 2017, the buyer called it “the most fascinating house I’ve ever seen.”