The Master Builder Tradition – What Happened? VI

Post 6 of this series. To backtrack, post 1 <–(link)

The prevailing American attitude toward the builder, master or otherwise, profoundly changed in the decade 1890~1900. Throughout most of the 19th century, the construction trades were the subject of respect for the most part, even romanticized as a proud tradition upholding noble skills, however by the close of the century, the building laborer came to be seen rather differently: unconcerned with high quality or innovation, a ‘fly in the ointment’ holding up progress, and a pawn of the union movement, a movement which came to be seen as corrupt. The term ‘slipshod’, more and more, came to be associated with the work of the craftsman. Ruskin, through his extolling of the virtues of traditional craft, gave a mantle of dignity that protected the worker from harsh criticism. Part and parcel of Ruskin’s depictions of the craftsman were that they were people content with their position in the social hierarchy.

The rise of industrialism was met by the Victorian architecture of the time, in an apparent counter-stance, architecture which on its surface appeared to be celebrating handcrafted detail. In fact this was an artificiality- the ornament, not to mention entire sections of structures, were often produced in a factory. The wealthy, of course, along with their architects, could still have handmade ornament and detailing on their buildings, thus perpetuating an illusion for some observers.

The 1890’s were a period of social and political turmoil. The prevailing idea in Victorian architecture – the fashion, in other words – was that of a domestic architecture celebrating individual carpenters and masons, and the house as refuge and realm of the housewife. As mentioned in the previous post in this thread, women at that time began to chafe against the narrow social role allowed to them – less interested in being ‘married to a house’, women began to campaign for suffrage on an increasingly loud basis.

On the building front, carpenters, sheet metal workers, and woodworkers developed increased antagonism towards the industrialization of their crafts. They complained that the factories were taking their jobs, driving the quality of construction downward, and ‘dumbing-down’ the work itself. The factory system, being the very epitome of the new rage in rational technique, planning and integration, led to greater and greater specialization – usually this specialization was in fact also a simplification of method, and thus unskilled workers, trained to do but one task, at low wages, were taking over the trades.

The trades increasingly unionized in response and attempted to fight back against the threat of industrialization in a number of ways: resolutions were passed restricting the use of certain machinery, over the use of non-union materials or labor on sites, limiting access to the union only to those that had served a long and all-around trade apprenticeship, and so forth. However, though the building trades were fighting against the factory, they as often as not fought amongst themselves, and some of the methods they employed with the intention of promoting job security in fact contributed to an accelerated downfall of their trade. By restricting entry to those that had served long apprenticeships, while at the same time many highly specialized jobs were being created in industry, the pool of talent began to drain away and union membership began to contract slightly.

Prominent local capitalists came together in virtually every major US city to sponsor trade schools, the purpose of which was to train workers for specialized jobs as opposed to a complex trade. In such schools, there was little emphasis on decision-making or experimentation, though a great deal on discipline. Most trade journals, along with the unions themselves, were resolutely against these new trade schools. Here’s a quote from the trade journal Carpentry and Building (#27, March 1905) in an editorial:

We are opposed to trade schools…as objectionable, because they never learn the practical parts of a business, only giving a smattering of the theoretical knowledge that makes its victim a poor workman, incapable of getting a good job, and yet a menace to every other man in the craft

The unions saw the trade schools as places for little more than teaching skills for mindless industrial production and little else.

The building trades unions had once been at the forefront of the labor movement. In 1876, the year of the American Centennial, and the following year, labor strife came to a head, according to G. Wright’s Moralism and the Model Home:

…Chicago carpenters and lumber workers joined with railroad workers, tailors, and McCormick plant laborers in the strike by the Workingman’s Party for the eight hour day and wage increases; the army was called in to break the strike. The following year, Chicago laborers took part in the nationwide Great Strike, in which a hundred thousand people left their jobs across the country in support of railroad worker’s grievances; again, National Guard troops were called in. Reactions among the working class and the middle class were tense and angry.

After such events as these, many people in the middle class began to fear that organized labor would engender more strikes, class violence and chaos. National Gaurd Armories were enlarged and well stocked during this period, often by public subscription, in anticipation of coming class warfare. Many found the actions of the labor movement frightening and feared further conflict might upset social order more dramatically than had been already threatened.

The 1877 Great Strike was held by railroad workers in response to having their wages cut for the second time that year. By the time this strike spread to Chicago, angry mobs wreaked havok in the train yards. The year of 1877 was coincidentally the same year that some 20,000 loans for rebuilding the city of Chicago after the fire of 1871 came due. The city’s largest savings bank failed, and as a result many depositors lost their property. The cities newspapers took the opportunity to lay most of the blame, not on the banks and their unscrupulous fractional lending practices and speculations with railroad building, but on the strikers. The builders themselves, prominent in these labor movements, were also held to blame for the cities inadequate supply of housing.

In Chicago 1886, the final straw that turned the tide of the labor movement: a large labor rally in support of striking workers was held May 4th in Haymarket Square. As the meeting was dispersing at 10:30, a bomb exploded without warning, killing a police officer. This infamous event is referred to as the Haymarket Riot. Police fired into the crowd, killing one and wounding many more. Many police officers in fact died as a result of ‘friendly fire’ in the ensuing chaos. Because of the riot, four labor organizers were hanged, and one committed suicide in jail with a real ‘exploding cigar’, which blew half his face off. The hangings of these organizers took the steam out of the national labor movement and energized management. the fact that many of the convicted were recent German immigrants also fueled resentment against the labor movement as being ‘un-American’.

With the corporate press in vehement condemnation of the labor movement, along with the architects, bankers, and real estate interests, the tide began to turn against the building trades. The Panic of 1893, caused by bank speculation in shaky railroad ventures, turned into a severe depression and a series of bank failures resulted. In Chicago, the number of unemployed in the city topped 200,000 in the winter. The mood was one of despondency, and the construction industry was hard hit. Nonetheless, the unions remained powerful, and yet the earlier feeling of kinsmanship between builder and worker was broken by this point. Contractors and architects were desperate for work, and found themselves increasingly in opposition to the skilled craftspeople who wanted to keep their jobs and ways of work the same. In the face of an onslaught of industrially produced material (in fact a dangerous overproduction of construction materials happened at the time of the 1893 depression) , the contractors found themselves more and more in favor of the products of industry as a means of solving their problems. It all came to a head in 1899 when the Chicago Building Contractor’s Council went to battle with the unions. This led to a citywide lockout, initiated by the Contractor’s Council, in which materials were withheld from construction sites in an effort to regain control over the cities construction sites. The impasse dragged on for a long time, and the next year, 1900, saw the lowest number of housing starts in Chicago’s recent history. Hundred of manufacturers had to close down, and 50~60,000 workers were out of work, along with thousands more in related industries. Finally, in April of 1901, the deadlock was broken and the Contractor’s council came out on top.

The building crafts were themselves in decline at this point. G. Wright again:

A worker with a general education in the arts and sciences, with autonomy at the workplace and a respected place in the political arena seemed an impossibly romantic notion by 1900, even to the building unions. The fact that a style of handcrafted (or seemingly so) decoration continued to be acceptable – indeed, to be a minor fad in certain parts of the country – did not by any means, indicate that Americans still believed that building workers deserved their respect. Not even the workers themselves advanced such a position. House-building, even if it had a romantic look to it, was industrial production.

With all these changes in public perception of the building arts, came changes in ideas of how the family functioned, along with new ideas about sanitation and hygiene, that led to reformulations of much in America, including how architecture should represent such ideas. The next, and final, installment in this series, which has been looking at the decline of the master builder tradition, will focus on the transformation of domestic architecture in the US along these new models of economic and social rationalization, themselves reactions in many ways to the very idea of individualized dwellings with costly handcrafted details: the new dwellings would embody a minimalist, efficient, and economical aspect. One more post in this thread.

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