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Owings, Nathaniel Alexanderlocked

(05 February 1903–13 June 1984)
  • Lisa A. Torrance

Owings, Nathaniel Alexander (05 February 1903–13 June 1984), architect, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of Nathaniel Owings, a fine-wood importer, and Cora Alexander. After his father’s death in 1914, his mother supported the family by working as an accountant. In 1920 Owings won a Rotary Club trip to Europe, where he saw the cathedrals of Notre Dame, Chartres, and Mont-Saint-Michel. The experience determined his course in life. In 1921 he began studies in architecture at the University of Illinois but left after a year on account of illness. He returned to school, attending Cornell University, where he graduated in 1927 with degrees in architecture and engineering. He began his career in the New York architecture firm of York and Sawyer. In 1931 he married Emily Hunting Otis; they had four children.

A charismatic figure, described by colleagues as ebullient, competent, and devoted, as well as a radical thinker and a buccaneer, Owings would soon prove his ability to make big plans happen when, upon invitation from his brother-in-law Louis Skidmore, the chief of design for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, he moved to Chicago to become the fair’s development supervisor. Planned before the stock market crash of 1929, the initially grand event was reduced by depression-era scarcity. In charge of concessions, both their coordination and design, Owings learned how to make bold gestures with the simplest of manufactured materials, such as beaverboard. His designs were strongly influenced by modern European precedents as interpreted by American architects like Raymond Hood. “A Century of Progress,” as the fair was called, was an economic success as well as one of the first coherent displays of modern architecture in the United States.

In 1936 Owings formed a partnership in Chicago with Skidmore. Three years later they were joined by structural engineer John Merrill. The firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill set the standard for the large-scale, corporate practice of architecture and represents one of Owings’s most important accomplishments. Aspiring to be a “modern ‘Gothic Builders Guild,’ ” as Owings explained in his memoir The Spaces in Between (1978), the firm advocated teamwork and anonymity. The concept of group practice as devised by Owings, which revolved around a team consisting of a partner, a project manager, and a designer, was to prove as important as any of the firm’s designs.

Decentralized early, with a New York office opened in 1937, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill gained a reputation for bigness through commissions for hotels, air bases, and even towns. The firm prospered during World War II and the great building boom that followed. After Lever House (1952) in Manhattan, the firm became known for its celebrated International Style designs. In The Spaces in Between, Owings wrote, “I as an individual cannot point to any major building for which I am solely responsible.” Indeed, his skill was as a facilitator, cajoler, and motivator of both designer and client, a role he compared to that of a symphony conductor whose orchestra is filled with accomplished musicians and supreme soloists often in need of direction.

Owings played an integral part in the completion of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s large governmental commissions, often becoming involved in legislative matters. Projects such as the design of the secret nuclear town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee (1942–1946), where uranium was refined for the first atomic bomb, and the $152.5 million Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs (1954–1962), along with a term as chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission (1948–1951), honed his political skills and changed his design philosophy. Owings began to question the modernist aesthetic his firm had helped popularize through glass-and-steel structures such as Lever House. “Is it, indeed, the personal touch of humanity that we have imprisoned and denied in our glass boxes?” he asked in 1983. Following the governmental commissions, he became an advocate of urban planning that was not only sensitive to human interests but also to architectural preservation and the natural environment. Rather than destroying the built or natural environment for new structures, he believed that old cities could be reorganized more cheaply, more efficiently, and more quickly than building new ones. Part of his urban renewal program included the creation of open spaces in and around densely populated cities, an idea explored in his 1969 book The American Aesthetic.

Owings implemented his approach to urban planning in a variety of cities, including Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. In Baltimore he prevented an interstate highway from bisecting the city and the harbor. By working with a team of architects and engineers in developing workable alternatives and in obtaining the public consensus, he persuaded developers to reroute the road. The maneuver saved the city’s waterfront, which later became a popular commercial district with access to the harbor. His most enduring urban design contribution occurred in Washington, D.C., where he was appointed in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy to the President’s Advisory Council of Pennsylvania Avenue. Through steady determination, wise prodding, and savvy political combativeness, Owings oversaw the avenue’s rebirth and the enrichment of the Great Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. His innovations include the underground placement of the highway in front of the Capitol and the design of the Capitol Reflecting Pool and Constitution Gardens. He also conceived of returning the Mall to pedestrians. For his efforts, ultimately spanning a twenty-year period and four presidential administrations, Owings received the Conservation Service Award of the Department of the Interior. This 1968 honor commended him for having restored the vision of the original Pierre Charles L’Enfant plan of 1791.

In 1953 Owings and his wife were divorced, and that same year he married Margaret Wentworth Millard and established residency in California’s Big Sur. They had no children. The change coincided with Owings’s emergence as an articulate and aggressive voice for conservation. At a time when few people were concerned about the environment, he and his new wife led a successful campaign against development in Big Sur. He rated this act as one of his greatest accomplishments, maintaining that architecture was nothing without land.

Toward the end of his life, as a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Owings championed a crusade to save the region’s adobe churches. He led the effort to preserve and restore structures such as the Church of San José de Gracia de las Trampas. After his retirement from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in 1976, Owings continued to support his favorite causes until his death in Santa Fe.

Architect, urban designer, and environmentalist, Owings dedicated his life to the advancement of a built environment that harmonized with nature and the past. In 1983 the American Institute of Architects recognized his achievements by awarding him their prestigious Gold Medal. Lauded in the award citation for his “drive, imagination and sense of mission,” Owings will be long remembered for the legacy of buildings, urban designs, and protected lands he left behind.


A biography, bibliography, résumé, and chronology of Owings’s life can be obtained from the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. For a complete listing of periodicals see Dale E. Casper, Nathaniel Alexander Owings, Architect: Journal Literature, 1967–1987 (1988). For discussions of the firm’s early history see Ernst Danz, Architecture of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1950–1962 (1963), and Christopher Woodward, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (1970). The later period is considered in Arthur Drexel and Axel Menges, Architecture of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, 1963–1973 (1974). An obituary is in the New York Times, 14 June 1984.