The Illinois School of Architecture: A History of Firsts

The Illinois School of Architecture is one of the oldest and largest schools of architecture in the country. Since the initiation of its architectural curriculum in 1867, the University of Illinois has consistently broken new ground in the education of architects in the United States.


The University of Illinois was among the first American institutions of higher learning to offer a curriculum in architecture. Until 1868 there were no architectural schools in the United States, although Thomas Jefferson had proposed one at the University of Virginia in 1814. American architects were trained through apprenticeships or pursued studies abroad. The profession's growing awareness of the need for a professional architecture school in the United States was evidenced by the report of the Committee on Education at the first annual convention of the American Institute of Architects in 1867.

In October 1868 the MIT architecture department opened with four students in the four-year course. Almost a thousand miles to the west, newly appointed Regent John Milton Gregory, at the newly established center of learning, the Illinois Industrial University (renamed the University of Illinois in 1878), also realized the need for formal professional training in architecture. Architecture was included in the Polytechnic Department of the proposed administrative structure Gregory presented to the trustees in May of 1867. The first student in this curriculum, Nathan Clifford Ricker arrived in Urbana on January 2, 1870; with Ricker, the proud tradition of architecture at Illinois began. As a result of Regent Gregory's efforts, Ricker became the first graduate of an architecture program in the United States in March of 1873.

The First Architectural Graduate in the United States - Nathan Ricker

Ricker's capabilities were recognized early in his career as a student at Illinois. Following graduation and a six-month tour of Europe, Ricker became the newly established program’s only instructor and head of the Department of Architecture. Ricker's travels abroad influenced the architecture curriculum at Illinois and his work throughout his career. Under Ricker, the architecture curriculum at Illinois followed a German polytechnic method, diametrically opposed to the more popular French system being taught in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, a system followed at MIT and the majority of new American architecture schools created around that time. From its inception, the Illinois program stressed the substance of architecture, teaching principles in relation to applied building and design practices rather than focusing primarily on the avant garde style. For a dozen years Ricker continued to teach all courses in architecture, producing his own texts when those available proved unsuitable. Ricker's Elementary Graphical Statics and Construction of Trussed Roofs (1885) was the first book published by any member of the University of Illinois faculty. Ricker also served as University Architect, completing five major campus buildings including the Chemistry Building in 1878 (now Harker Hall), and the Library Building (now Altgeld Hall), as well as numerous smaller projects.

In 1890, Ricker introduced a four-year curriculum in architectural engineering, the first such curriculum in the country. Ricker firmly believed that research was essential to the education of an architect. In 1903, Ricker helped establish the first engineering experiment station associated with an educational institution to further the research efforts of the faculty in engineering and architecture. Establishing an adequate library was also a pursuit of Ricker throughout his academic career.

In 1922, a convocation was held in honor of Ricker, marking his fiftieth year of service to the University of Illinois and the Department of Architecture. He had seen the program enrollment increase from an average of eight students during his first decade to two-hundred-and-fifty at the time of the convocation. At the turn of the century, approximately one quarter of all students regularly attending American schools of architecture were enrolled at the University of Illinois.

The First Female Graduate with a Degree in Architecture in North America - Mary Louisa Page

Nathan Ricker oversaw the architectural education of many students. One, Mary Louisa Page, was the first woman to graduate with a degree in architecture in North America when she graduated from the University of Illinois in 1879.  Born in Metamora, Illinois, in 1849, she attended the university beginning in 1874, receiving a Certificate in Architecture in 1878, and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture in 1879. She was active in student government and several all-female societies at the university. Her architecture career was bracketed by work as a teacher. In 1887 she joined her former Illinois classmate Robert Farwell Whitham to offer engineering, drafting, blueprint, and (land title) abstracting services under the company name Whitham & Page, with Whitham serving as civil engineer and city surveyor and Mary Page as draftsman. A rare hand-colored map of Olympia and surroundings dated 1890, one of the earliest cadastral maps of the area, testifies to the precise draftsmanship that Whitham and Page produced during this period. 

The First African-American Graduate of the Illinois School of Architecture - Walter T. Bailey

Walter T. Bailey received his Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Illinois in 1904. Following graduation, Bailey worked in firms in his hometown of Kewanee, Illinois, and in Champaign. In 1905, Bailey was appointed head of the Architecture Department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he also supervised planning, design, and construction of several campus buildings. In 1910, the University of Illinois awarded him an honorary master’s degree. He left Tuskegee in 1916 to open his own office in Memphis. In 1924, he moved his office to Chicago, where he became the first licensed African-American architect in the State of Illinois. Bailey’s patrons were the African-American elite of the day and his elaborate and ambitious designs celebrated African-American achievement. Bailey’s best-known work, the 8 story National Pythian Temple in Chicago, is one of the major African-American building projects of the early twentieth century. During and after the Great Depression, Bailey’s practice consisted primarily of small commercial buildings, churches, and remodeling projects.

One of the Earliest Chinese Architecture Graduates in the United States - T. Chuang

Beginning in 1909, through the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program, many Chinese students came to study at the University of Illinois. One of these students, T. Chuang, a 1914 graduate of the University of Illinois School of Architecture, is one of the earliest Chinese graduates of any school of architecture in the United States. Upon his return to China in 1914, he became the primary university architect for the newly created Tsinghua College (later renamed Tsinghua University) in northwest Beijing. The college, located on the former site of Qing Dynasty royal gardens, retains Chinese-style landscape as well as some traditional buildings, but many of its buildings also reflect the American influence in its history. Chuang modeled Tsinghua’s campus plan after the University of Illinois quadrangle. His design for Tsinghua’s Grand Auditorium also bears a strong resemblance to Foellinger Auditorium on the Illinois campus.

The First African-American Female Licensed as an Architect - Beverly Greene

An early African-American graduate of the school, Beverly Greene, was the first African-American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois in 1936. One year later, she earned a master’s degree in city planning and housing from the University of Illinois. Following graduation she broke through both gender and race barriers when she was hired by the Chicago Housing Authority. She went on to earn a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1945. During her career, she worked with noted architects Edward Durell Stone and Marcel Breuer, playing a major role in the design of buildings such as the UNESCO United Nations headquarters in Paris. Green received her architectural registration in the State of Illinois in 1942, and is credit as the first African-American woman to receive a license to practice architecture in the United States.

Distinguished Alumni

The more than 10,000 alumni of the Illinois School of Architecture have shaped the built environment around the world over for more than 140 years. Significant alumni figures include Francis J. Plym, founder of the Kawneer Company; Walter Burley and Mary Mahoney Griffin, architects of the first plan for Canberra, Australia; Temple Hoyne Buell, the father of the modern shopping mall; Charles Luckman and William Perrera, who helped Walt Disney shape his vision for Disneyland; and Max Abramovitz designer of the United Nations Building, the Lincoln Center, the University of Illinois’ Krannert Center for Performing Arts and State Farm Center, and Lebbeus Woods, architectural illustrator and theorist

Notable contemporary alumni have continued the strong Illinois tradition of influential and holistic designers around the globe. Architects like Ralph Johnson, designer of the School’s Temple Hoyne Buell Hall as well as Universidade Agostinho Neto in Luanda, Angola, Carol Ross Barney, designer of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, Cesar Pelli designer of the Petronas Towers and the University of Illinois’ College of Business Instructional Facility, John Zils, noted architectural structural engineer for Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Dina Griffin, partnering with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects to design the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, Jeanne Gang, recipient of the MacArthur Fellow “Genius” Grant, whose magnificent vision for the Vista Tower development is now being transformed into Chicago’s third-tallest building, and Steve Weindel, Firm Design Leader for Genseler International designers for the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world, continue the School’s award-winning design legacy

Future Firsts

At the Illinois School of Architecture we continue to build on our significant history; we believe that great architectural expressions grow from the marriage of technical knowledge and aesthetic considerations. In a time when a new formalism represents the avant garde, we, like Nathan Ricker look beyond current fashion, striving to leverage technical virtuosity in the service of performative design, aesthetic expression and service to society.


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Alofsin, A. “Tempering the Ecole: Nathan Ricker at the University of Illinois and Langford Warren at Harvard,” in G. Wright & J. Parks eds., The History of History in American Schools of Architecture 1865-1975, (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996) 73-88.

Anthony, K. & N. Watkins. “A Legacy of Firsts: African Americans in Architecture at the University of Illinoi at Urbana Champaign,” in O. Burton & D. O’Brien eds.,  Brown at Fifty: The University of Illinois Commemorates Brown V. Board of Education, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 281-300.

Beijing Attractions. (August 8, 2013). Tsinghua University. Beijing Attractions. Retrieved from

Kriz, M. Walter T. Bailey and the African American Patron, Master's Thesis, Art History Program, School of Art and Design (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002).