Reflecting on 150 Years of AIA Cincinnati: A Letter from Chapter President Cynthia Williams

What’s a “sesquicentennial”? A sesquicentennial signifies a century and a half, and if you are part of AIA Cincinnati, this applies to you. This week, we will host our Sesquicentennial Anniversary celebration in recognition of 150 years devoted to promoting the profession of architecture. In 1870, architects James K. Wilson, James W. McLaughlin, A.C. Nash, A. Bate, William Stewart, Solomon W. Rogers, and Edwin L. Anderson gathered for dinner and discussed forming a Cincinnati chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Ten days later, Samuel Hannaford joined them as they prepared their formal request to the national AIA board. Their request was granted and AIA Cincinnati became the fourth AIA chapter in the country after Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. 

While our organization today differs in many ways from what it was in 1870, historical records tell us that the founders of AIA Cincinnati gathered as a community to share a meal, and to gain knowledge about the profession of architecture and construction techniques. Early members established a chapter library with catalogues and materials acquired from the wider community of AIA members in eastern centers like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Discussions and papers about professional practice such as design competitions, contract details, and consultation fees were frequent, as were programs on ventilation, indoor plumbing, and the safety of electrical wiring. Some of the early members assisted in the writing of the first building codes and also served as building officials. In 1905, the chapter conducted a debate titled “What shall we do with the canal?” generating a discussion around re-purposing the deteriorating Miami and Erie Canal, later paved over and now known as Central Parkway.

Today, AIA Cincinnati’s programs follow similar themes of technical knowledge, professional practice, and urban design, tailoring each to opportunities and challenges facing the profession today. Our Academy committee recently presented a series of programs on the Ohio Building Code; we’ve hosted a program on risk factors related to practice during the pandemic; our CRAN committee presented their annual design awards program; and our Urban Design Committee has held salons on the proposed Historic Guidelines for Over-the-Rhine and a neighborhood workshop on the Lick Run Project in Fairmount. While the current pandemic has limited our ability to gather to share a meal, it has not limited our connection to each other and to our national community of members. The delivery of programs online has allowed us to join programs hosted by chapters throughout Ohio and across the country.

Even as AIA Cincinnati continues to thrive under changing conditions, we remain mindful that not all of our members are thriving. The virus has sickened some of us, and others have experienced a decline in income after projects were canceled or postponed. Still others continue to experience discrimination because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Once exclusive to white males, the architecture profession and the AIA have made some progress toward equity, diversity, and inclusion. In 1946, more than seventy years after our founding, AIA Cincinnati admitted its first member who was a woman. In 1950, the first Black architect in Ohio was licensed, and in 2017 AIA Cincinnati’s first Black President was installed. Looking ahead to our next 150 years, it remains imperative to amplify the voices of our members who come from backgrounds historically underrepresented in architecture. We must work tirelessly to increase diversity in the AIA and in the architectural profession more broadly, so that our professional community reflects the diversity of the communities we serve. 

Here’s to the next 150 years! And let’s get to work.

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