Doris Curry and Jacques Brownson House


Michelangelo Sabatino


IIT College of Architecture, Docomomo US Board of Directors


Chicago, Regional Spotlight
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The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Modern in the Middle: Chicago Houses 1929-1975, by Susan S. Benjamin and Michelangelo Sabatino, published by The Monacelli Press. Expected in August 2020.

Use code MODERN20 to receive 20% off pre-orders of the book through the Monacelli website.

Modern in the Middle Part Four:
Doris Curry and Jacques Brownson House

Jacques Calmon Brownson has received praise for his civic buildings, especially as chief architect of the award-winning Chicago Civic Center (1965, renamed Richard J. Daley Center in 1979) during his time with C. F. Murphy Associates.(1) In the 1990s, Paul Gapp, architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune, listed it among the city’s ten most important postwar works of architecture.(2)

Jacques Brownson started his undergraduate professional degree at IIT in 1941, shortly after the arrival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as the new director in 1938. Brownson acquired experience in the design-build process very early when his father agreed to build and sell a house with Brownson as apprentice builder in order to pay for his architectural education with profits from the sale.(3) Although the war intervened, upon his return to Chicago after serving with the US Army Corps of Engineers (from 1943–46), Brownson re-enrolled at IIT and in 1947 was awarded the opportunity to participate in the Build-It-Yourself House initiative sponsored by Popular Mechanics magazine.(4) Published in both the April and May issues of the magazine, the “modified Cape Cod” house that twenty-three-year-old Jacques, with the assistance of his spouse Doris, designed and built in his hometown of Aurora opened to the public in Spring 1947.(5) In the demonstration photographs published in the April 1947 issue, Jacques and Doris often appear working side-by-side to realize the house.(6) The sale of the Popular Mechanics Build-It-Yourself House in Aurora allowed the Brownsons to purchase property for their future modern house in nearby Geneva.

During the postwar years there was a growing trend among architects to live in Chicago-area villages and cities and either commute to work or establish home offices. Brownson designed and built a steel-and-glass one-story pavilion on a wooded site along the Fox River for Doris and their children.(7) The Brownson House lies flat on the ground—as does Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan completed earlier in 1949, and unlike the elevated Edith Farnsworth House (p. 162) that was also under construction in nearby Plano. The pavilion effect was reinforced by the wooded setting in which hawthorn trees were planted with the guidance of landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, Brownson’s former teacher at IIT. Brownson wrote: “In a glass pavilion, the spectacle of nature is always before you.”(8) The steel-framed roof plate is suspended from four rigid steel girders held up by black steel columns. In describing the spatial and material strategy of separating and demarcating living areas (defined by floor-to-ceiling glass walls) from sleeping areas (brick infill with windows) at the rear of the house. Brownson indicated that the “Geneva house is really two houses in one. If you look at the plan, it is separated very clearly by a wall that says that one part is very private, and the other part is the public space, which is the front part. It’s a house in which the difference shows.”(9)

A couple of years after completion of the house, Brownson submitted an overview of the design and building process—“A Steel and Glass House”—as part of the requirements for fulfilling his IIT Master of Science in Architecture degree in 1954. In the preface of his MS thesis Brownson writes: “It was my intention to explore the architectural possibilities and the technical problems involved in building a house using industrial techniques and materials of the present time.”(10) Also an educator, Jacques Brownson taught at IIT first as an instructor, then assistant professor (1948–59), and as professor and chairman of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan (1966–68).(11)

The Brownson House was selected as one of “Eight Adventuresome Houses With New Ideas,” in Architectural Record: Record Houses of 1956.(12) (This same issue of Record Houses also features the A. James Speyer designed steel-and-glass Frances Landrum and Ben Rose House in Highland Park.(13) An exhibition held in 2017 at the Geneva History Museum, Inside & Out: Geneva’s Faces, Places & Spaces featured the Brownson House along with a number of notable dwellings designed by other prominent local architects including the Walter Frazier and William Moulis House and the Margaret Montgomery and J. Howard Raftery House. In addition to exhibitions and professional journals, the Doris Curry and Jacques Brownson House received a considerable amount of attention from the popular press as well.(14)

Sold by the Brownsons in 1966, the house is currently in private hands and requires considerable restoration to return it to its original state.

  1. Associated architects for the civic center included Loebl Schlossman & Dart, Bennett, SOM, and C.F. Murphy (supervising architect). “Jacques C. Brownson,” Faculty History Project, University of Michigan Library, The Michigan Alumnus, 14, accessed April 3, 2019, lib. commercial projects included Continental National Insurance Building and Hektoen Institute for Medical Research. “Public Building Commission of Chicago Minutes of the Rescheduled Meeting of the Board of Commissioners Held on March 9, 2010,” accessed April 3, 2019, adopted Resolution No. 7775, honoring Jacques Calman Brownson, who had served as managing architectof the Chicago Public Building Commission.
  2. Blair Kamin, “Daley Center Architect, Jacques Brownson, Dies at 88,” February 21, 2012, accessed April 3, 2019,, which included a quotation from Paul Gapp, “Building on Tradition,” Chicago Tribune, Sunday magazine, March 31, 1991, 11: placing it with “such icons as the X-braced John Hancock Center, the corncob-shaped tower of Marina City, and Mies’ foremost temple of steel and glass, Crown Hall at IIT.”
  3. See Jacques Calman Brownson, Oral History of Jacques Calman Brownson / Interviewed by Betty J. Blum, Compiled Under the Auspices of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project, the Ernest R. Graham Study Center for Architectural Drawings, Department of Architecture, the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1996), 23.
  4. “Here is the Home That Millions Want … The Popular Mechanics Build-It-Yourself House,” Popular Mechanics 87, no. 4 (April 1947): 105–13, 252, 256, 260, 264. Second part by James R. Ward in Popular Mechanics 87, no. 5 (May 1947), 168–74.
  5. The “modified Cape Cod house” is still extant in Aurora.
  6. “Here is the Home That Millions Want”: 109. Brownson is quoted as saying: “I hope you like my house: I sure do. It measures up to the dreams I had overseas a year and a half ago. Frankly the house is the biggest thing that has ever happened to Doris and to me. It was a challenge from the beginning to end, but I assure you that no man could have greater pride than we have in having constructed our own home with our own hands.”
  7. The lot purchased by Brownson was part of a parcel of land that was subdivided and sold by the Reckitt family and was located adjacent to the Fabyan Forest Preserve. In 1907 Frank Lloyd Wright remodeled the Fabyan Villa—known as “Riverbank” estate.
  8. Architectural Record: Record Houses of 1956, Special Issue, Architectural Record 119, no. 6 (Mid-May 1956): 206–07.
  9. Brownson, Oral History, 120–21: Brownson went on to say, “The other two, the Farnsworth House and the Johnson house, are different. Johnson went to a small adjacent building to sleep. He had a kitchen and the other kinds of things in it, but the glass house itself was a completely open public space, but yet he went to the other one for the more private aspects of his life. In Mies’s case, in the Farnsworth House, Edith Farnsworth could do all of her activities, anything she wanted. Her house was a private house, and she could live in it any way she wanted to. She slept there, she prepared food there, she did gardening out of there, and she did all the kinds of things. But as I say, the Geneva House was two houses, and if you look at the plan, you’ll see it very clearly.”

10. Jacques C. Brownson, “A Steel and Glass House,” (MS thesis, Illinois Institute of Technology, 1954), iv, held in the University Archives and signed by Ludwig Hilberseimer as adviser.

11. “Jacques C. Brownson,” Faculty History Project.

12. “Glass House is Suspended From Steel Frames,” Record Houses of 1956, 206–07.

13. “Exposed Steel Frames Modular Illinois Home,” Record Houses of 1956, 157–61.

14. Anne Douglas, “Geneva Residence A Blend of Steel, Glass and Brick,” Chicago Tribune. Sunday, July 12, 1953, 32–33; “With Steel Components Like These You Can Build A Home,” House & Home 7–8 (December 1955): 138–51. The Brownson House is discussed and illustrated under the rubric of “Dwellings” in Oswald W. Grube, Peter C. Pran and Franz Schulze, 100 Years of Architecture in Chicago: Continuity of Structure and Form Tribune (Chicago: J. Philip O’Hara, 1976), 115–33.

About the Author

Michelangelo Sabatino trained as an architect, preservationist, and historian. As an educator, academic administrator, and award-winning scholar, Sabatino has shaped architectural discourse and practice in the Americas and beyond. Between 2017-19 Professor Sabatino served as Interim Dean for the College of Architecture of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He currently directs the PhD program in architecture and is the inaugural John Vinci Distinguished Research Fellow. Sabatino has trained new light on larger patterns of architectural discourse and production: his book Pride in Modesty: Modernist Architecture and the Vernacular Tradition in Italy (2011) was translated into Italian and won critical acclaim and multiple awards, including the Society of Architectural Historians’ Alice Davis Hitchcock Award. His most recent books include Canada: Modern Architectures in History (with Rhodri Windsor Liscombe, 2016), Avant-Garde in the Cornfields: Architecture, Landscape, and Preservation in New Harmony (with Ben Nicholson, 2019), Making Houston Modern: The Life and Architecture of Howard Barnstone (with Barrie Scardino Bradley and Stephen Fox, 2020), and Modern in the Middle: Chicago Houses 1929–1975 (with Susan Benjamin, 2020). Additionally, he supports the preservation of modernism through his work as a member of the Board of Directors of Docomomo US

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