the mysterious life and death of Charles Bowler Atwood

[This is a bit that’s been relegated to the cutting room floor, and it’s a bit long and read-y, but it’s such a great soap opera story that I think it needs to be out there somewhere.  Someday, someone should write this biography–or perhaps a Broadway musical.]

The death of John Root in 1891 deprived Burnham of his closest collaborator; heartbroken but determined to complete the work of the Columbian Exposition, he consulted with the architectural committee to find a replacement.  Root had, Burnham acknowledged frequently, been the primary design presence in the office, and thus the need for an architect of similar aesthetic sophistication to match Burnham’s business acumen and technical ability was urgent, given the workload of the Exposition.  William Ware and Bruce Price suggested Atwood, a peripatetic figure who had achieved recognition for his work with Richard Morris Hunt on the Vanderbilt Houses in New York City and on the Vanderbilt’s Marble House in Newport.[i]  McKim, interestingly, warned Burnham away from Atwood, for while his skill as a designer was widely known, Atwood’s personal life was mysterious, and McKim knew that his architectural abilities lay alongside a peculiarly ‘artistic’ temperament.[ii]

Atwood was born in Millbury, Massachusetts in 1850, and he was educated at Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, after which he worked in the firm of Ware and Van Brunt for several years.  After opening his own practice, he was asked in 1879 by the New York decorating firm Herter Brothers to collaborate on twin houses for the Vanderbilt family in Manhattan, and it was these homes that gained him a reputation as a gifted residential architect and, no doubt, his exposure to Hunt, who was the family’s architect for much of their other work.  Atwood’s position with the Herters was solidified, and he became their in-house architect for several years, working on Searles Castle, a house for the widow of railway magnate Mark Hopkins in Great Barrington, Mass and, improbably, leaving New York and eventually his position with Herter Brothers in 1884 to relocate to Great Barrington as work on this house was completed.  There is little trace of Atwood in the years immediately following, though it is claimed that he executed some designs for Hunt’s Marble House, the Vanderbilt’s notorious “cottage” in Newport, R.I., in 1888.[iii]  By 1891, he had resurfaced in New York and had been involved in two major controversies surrounding architectural competitions; his designs for both the Boston Public Library and New York’s City Hall were premiated, but the former project ended up in the hands of McKim, Mead, and White, while the latter foundered as the City debated whether to extend the existing building or, as they eventually decided, to build on a new site.  In any event, Atwood seems to have been rather at loose ends by 1891, well-known to Hunt, Ware (who became professor at Columbia in 1881), and others, but seemingly incapable of extending his early success.

The opportunity to work for Burnham nearly fell through.  On a trip to New York, Burnham arranged to meet Atwood at his hotel, but when he failed to arrive after an hour, Burnham left to catch his train, meeting Atwood by happenstance on his way out.  Understandably less than impressed, and annoyed at being made to wait, Burnham brushed Atwood off, and caught his train.  Upon arrival in Chicago, Burnham went directly to his office to catch up on work, where Atwood appeared, four hours later, having caught the next train west.[iv]  From this inauspicious beginning grew a unique, productive, but tragically brief collaboration that would explore a dramatically new strategy for skyscraper construction, one that would produce two of Chicago’s most innovative and most influential buildings.

These, however, would wait until the work of the Fair was done, for while Atwood was originally charged with addressing and managing Burnham’s private commissions, his consummate skill as a classicist became immensely valuable to the Exposition team and he was made Architect in Chief almost immediately upon his arrival back in Chicago in April 1891.[v]  All told, Atwood designed more than sixty buildings for the Fair, along with countless ornamental flourishes.  His design for the monumental Peristyle improved upon the group’s original vision; “confound him,” McKim is alleged to have said on seeing Atwood’s scheme, “he is right every time.”[vi]  When the original architect for the Fine Arts Building was unable to continue due to illness, Atwood produced—on short notice–what many considered the finest building for the Fair, leading the esteemed sculptor Saint-Gaudens to gush to Burnham that nothing in western architecture had equaled it “since the Parthenon.”[vii]

Atwood was also responsible for the new, Beaux-Arts inspired addition to the Marshall Field block, finished in conjunction with the Fair in 1893 (see Chapter 7, below), several houses, and the Ellicott Square Building in Buffalo, which for a short time claimed to be the largest office building in the world and, at a cost of over $3,500,000, one of the most expensive.  All of these projects continued the language of tasteful Beaux-Arts classicism that Atwood had been trained in; as a gentleman architect with exquisite taste and a refined sense of style and proportion, he filled Root’s position well enough for Burnham even if his architectural language was something entirely different.  Burnham was clearly besotted with Atwood personally, as well, “marveling at his clearness and simplicity of statement, and the apt expressions which constantly issued from the mouth of this gifted man.”  After Atwood’s death, Burnham would publicly recall his “elegant figure and bearing” among other delicate, almost feminine qualities.[viii]  Yet there were hints of trouble to come; the delicacy that the robust Burnham so admired were unfortunately manifested in Atwood’s work habits and general health.  He would alternate periods of intense concentration with length, mysterious absences, and where Root’s genius lay in his ability to doggedly work through iteration after iteration until a solution emerged, Atwood gained his reputation based on single sketches, drafted fluently but with little opportunity for development and little need for long hours at the drawing table.  His mercurial personality was, perhaps, reflected at the dinner given by the architects of New York at Madison Square in March, 1893; while Burnham, Ware, and Hunt enjoyed the distinguished company of the main table, and while McKim and other members of the architectural committee sat at esteemed locations throughout the concert hall, Atwood was nowhere to be seen.[ix]

Always a frail man, during his work on the Reliance and Fisher buildings in 1894 and 1895 Atwood’s appearance grew ominously skeletal, and he could no longer keep up the pace he had set during the design of the Fair.  Despite this, in 1894 he was made one of four partners in the newly reorganized firm, now named D. H. Burnham & Co., along with Ernest Graham, engineer E. C. Shankland, and Burnham himself, but Atwood’s absences grew more frequent even as his final buildings neared completion.  He became reclusive and secretive, and finally Burnham had enough, effectively firing him by ordering his retirement from the partnership on Dec. 10, 1895.[x]   Atwood died nine days later, at the age of forty-six, to causes ascribed to ‘overwork’ by physicians.[xi]  While this caused a minor scandal, implicating Burnham’s office for working two gifted designers to their deaths in the short space of four years, it went unreported that he had been dismissed from the office just over a week earlier.  Burnham later, in confidence, told his biographer that Atwood had become an opium addict in his final years, which had not only destroyed his health but had also led to other difficulties.[xii]  Publicly, Burnham would say only that Atwood, despite his great talents, had, “as most great artists have been…a mere child in the practical things of life.”[xiii]

Despite Burnham’s discretion, Atwood’s unconventional personal life surfaced in part as his will was probated.  Burnham filed a petition to appoint Illinois Trust as administrator of the estate following Atwood’s death, and while its total value was $17,000 (about $425,000 in 2008 terms), rumors that it was far more surfaced.  Shortly afterwards, New York actress Marian (Minnie) Singer telegrammed Illinois Trust’s attorneys announcing that she was Atwood’s widow; his remains were dispatched to Connecticut where they were interred in a family plot, and Singer arrived in Chicago in late January to lay claim to the estate.[xiv]  This was a shock to Burnham, who like many in Chicago had believed Atwood to be single; he protested publicly, but Singer’s story was plausible.  She claimed that she and Atwood had met in New York in 1881, that they had been married shortly thereafter and had lived in White Plains while Atwood worked for Herter Brothers.  His unexplained departure for Great Barrington coincided with the death of their young son in 1884, apparently an attempt to console Singer by taking her away from the city.  The couple returned to New York in 1890, but Atwood went to Chicago alone in 1891, leaving Singer alone, she claimed, due to her ill-health.[xv]  Atwood’s New York colleagues gradually confirmed his story; it emerged, too, that Singer had filed for divorce in 1892, further compounding the scandal.  While Atwood had a reputation as a ‘well-known clubman’, an intimation that marriage would have been at best unlikely, or for mere convenience’s sake, detectives eventually credited Singer’s story.[xvi]  She finally claimed only a few personal effects before returning east, leaving in her wake a final chapter to Atwood’s mystery.[xvii]

[i] Daniel H. Burnham, “Charles Bowler Atwood.”  The Inland Architect and New Record, Vol. XXVI, no. 6.  January, 1896.  56.

[ii] Charles Moore, Daniel H. Burnham: Architect, Planner of Cities.  (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921.)  Vol. 1, 52.  “Those who knew Atwood merely as a lovable companion, who had the failings of an artistic and somewhat erratic temperament…”  “Work of the Late Charles B. Atwood,” The New York Times, January 1, 1896.  10.

[iii] “Story of Mrs. Atwood.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 25, 1896.  6.

[iv] Charles Moore, op. cit., 52.

[v] “Mr. Atwood, of whom you know, he who designed the William Vanderbilt house for Herter, and other well known structures, has been attached here as our Architect in Chief.  Mr. Hunt, Mr. Ware, Mr. Bruce Price, and Mr. Mead, all having personally told me that they regard him as one of the three or four best designers in the country.  You will have his aid and counsel therefore in any matter you may wish to discuss, as he is already in charge.” Letter, D. H. Burnham to Henry Van Brunt.  29 Apr 1891.  D. H. Burnham Letterpress Copybooks, Microfilm 1972.4, reel 1, Ryerson & Burnham Library, Art Institute of Chicago.

[vi] Charles Moore, op. cit., 52.

[vii] Daniel H. Burnham, “Charles Bowler Atwood.”  The Inland Architect and New Record, Vol. XXVI, no. 6.  January, 1896.  56.

[viii] Daniel H. Burnham, “Charles Bowler Atwood.”  The Inland Architect and New Record, Vol. XXVI, no. 6.  January, 1896.  56.

[ix] The entire attendance is listed in Charles Moore, op. cit., 70-72.

[x] Donald Hoffman, The Architecture of John Wellborn Root (rep., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).  220.

[xi] “Like his partner of Exposition days, John Root, he dies in the harness, and the death of both of Mr. Burnham’s partners, in the opinion of physicians and those who knew them well, is to be traced to overwork.  Mr. Root died after making his designs for the World’s Fair, not living to see them realized.  Mr. Atwood worked arduously upon his designs for the Fair, and since that time has overworked in preparing suggestions for making the Lake-front Park in some sense a reminder of the White City.” “A White City Architect Passed Away.”  Chicago Daily Tribune.  Dec. 21, 1895.  12.

[xii] Hoffman, op. cit., 220.  This explains the rather elliptical cause of death enumerated by Moore in Burnham’s biography: “…[Atwood] succumbed to his only enemy—himself.”  Moore, op. cit., 86.

[xiii] Daniel H. Burnham, “Charles Bowler Atwood.”  The Inland Architect and New Record, Vol. XXVI, no. 6.  January, 1896.  57.

[xiv] “Is She Atwood’s Widow.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 24, 1896.  4.

[xv] “Story of Mrs. Atwood.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 25, 1896.  6.

[xvi] “Is She Atwood’s Widow.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 24, 1896.  4.

[xvii] Atwood has been memorialized—perhaps more appropriately than its owners realize—in the name of the bar and restaurant now occupying the street level of the Hotel Burnham, which occupies the Reliance Building.

18 thoughts on “the mysterious life and death of Charles Bowler Atwood

  1. I think there is a misleading quote in the 7th paragraph: describing the dissolution of Atwood, the article asserts that Root Died nine days later”. When in fact in the context of the article, it was Atwood that died in 1895, nine days after being fired.

    Great article. Minor misattribution. Thanks.


      • Neither one–he died well before either one was built. Land Title was finished in 1898, Union Station in 1908. Frederick Dinkelberg and Peirce Anderson became the firm’s chief designers–both Beaux-Arts classicists…


  2. I am also looking for information on Atwood on the internet. I am particularly interested in any information regarding the Columbian Exposition ‘Atwood Pole’. Thank you.


  3. I am helping friend update his little book,” THEIR FINAL PLACE,,A Guide to the Graves of Notable American Architects.” Can you give the name me the name of cemetery in Connecticut where Atwood is buried ?


    • Delighted to help. The Tribune reported that Atwood’s (alleged) widow traveled to “Milbury, CT” to attend the funeral after her visit to Chicago. I suspect this was actually “Millbury, MA,” which was Atwood’s hometown, and in fact he is listed in the Millbury Central Cemetery in Worcester County, MA.


  4. That’s good news—will look forward to seeing that. Atwood deserves more recognition than he’s had from historians. Thank you for passing that along.


      • Sure thing, Gary—my email is tleslie (AT) Drop me a line and I’ll be happy to discuss. Most of the source material here was from the Chicago Tribune, which covered Atwood’s death as something of a scandal…


  5. Back in the middle of 2005 aprox I was gifted an incised glass window that I beleive to be from the Fisher Building of Chicago. It’s aprox. 23″ wide by 35 1/2 ” in length. At one time I had it designed into in my front door of my home . It has long been removed and it is in storage. Is it possible that it was designed by Charles B Atwood who worked for Burnham at the time prior to his death in 1895?

    I’ve always been curious of its value value and worth since the Fisher Building is a historical landmark Etc. with the Fisher Building remodel, I have always wondered why this pane of glass per se was not included back in the remodel?


  6. Pingback: “Nothing equal to it since the Parthenon.” Remembering Charles B. Atwood - Chicago's 1893 World's Fair

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