Design Profession: Firm
Building Types: Civic, Commercial, Educational, Residential
The evolution of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill ( SOM) into a globally recognized and award-winning design firm began in the 1930s. After graduating from the Massachusetts's Institute of Technology's (MIT) Department of Architecture, Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings worked together on the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. The two formed a partnership in 1936 and established offices in New York City and Chicago. In 1939 John Merrill, another MIT graduate, joined the firm as an architect and structural engineer, becoming a full partner in 1949.
The Second World War played a major role in the success and growth of SOM. The firm secured its first large commission, the design and construction of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the site of the Manhattan Project. It was through this commission that a strong relationship between the firm and the United States military developed. Other military commissions followed that enabled SOM to expand across the country.
By the end of the war SOM had a staff of over 450 designers. It was well positioned to take on private commissions during the post-war construction boom and soon shifted its focus to large scale commercial design. Lever House built in New York City in 1951 was one of SOM's first major post-war commercial projects and is a modern icon. Other significant projects included the United States Air Force Academy Chapel near Denver, built in 1962, and the John Hancock Building in Chicago, constructed in 1968 and once the tallest building outside of New York City.
In Michigan the firm was commissioned in 1956 to design the Ford Motor Company Administrative Center (World Headquarters) in Dearborn. The eleven-story building is locally known as "The Glass House." SOM designed the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts building in Kalamazoo in 1961, which was based on a Mies van der Rohe plan for an International style small city museum. In 1967 the City of Grand Rapids commissioned SOM to design a new city hall as part of an urban renewal project. Though controversial at the time, the building, with its bright red Alexander Calder statue, La Grande Vitesse (added in 1969), has become the symbol for the city.
Architect Charles Edward Bassett, a native of Port Huron, Michigan, who attended both the Cranbrook Academy of Art and the University of Michigan School of Architecture, joined SOM in 1956 and became a design partner in the firm's San Francisco office. He was with the firm for twenty-five years. One of his best known designs is the Louis M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.
Today SOM has expanded to eight offices, having completed more than ten thousand projects worldwide. It was the first company to win the American Institute of Architects Firm Award and the only firm to win the award twice.