Joeseph G. Durrant (1907–1985) was an architect active from the 1930s to 1980s the in the region of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. A competent creative designer in his own right, Durrant was an even better manager of his prolific firm, continually earning commissions that the firm responded to with designs having lasting results. Many of the firm’s buildings are still in use after fifty years or more, albeit with modifications of some flat roofs. With the assistance of many skilled assistant and partner architects, his firms grew to be recognized in much of the United States and at least one project obtained a national merit award from the American Institute of Architects. A few projects were built internationally before the firm folded in 2012.
Born 1907 in Maywood, Illinois—an inner-ring suburb of Chicago, Durrant graduated from high school and took two years of night courses and then two and a half years of day courses to obtain the necessary education to begin work in 1926. He worked first as a drafter for two years and then began doing design work. He worked at a number of studios for four years, including three in Chicago and one in Madison, Wisconsin before he opened his own firm, Joseph G. Durrant—Architect, in 1933 (Durrant and Bergquist 1947). The firm bore that name until 1945. Durrant was a member of the Wisconsin Association of Architects and the Illinois Society of Architects in 1947, and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) from 1953 until his death in 1985, though he retired from active practice in 1981 (Ellis 2011, Balousek 2006). He served as president of the Wisconsin Chapter of AIA in 1966 and was named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA) in 1973. He obtained his license to work in Wisconsin in 1931 and in Illinois in 1944 (Durrant and Bergquist 1947).
Durrant’s early work was mostly on New Deal government projects funding by the Public Works Administration and similar agencies (Hohenfeldt 2013, Wisconsin Historical Society). Examples from this time include three buildings built in 1934—a community center and two bathhouses (Wisconsin Historical Society). A sense of proportion and style is evident in these early buildings.
It is notable the community center that the Wisconsin Historical Society has classified as a Quonset form actually predates the existence of true Quonset huts. Durrant may have made use of laminated roof beams that had become a popular material in use in barns and other buildings that required large open spans.
From 1934 to 1940, Raymond G. Bergquist (1907–1962) worked as a drafter with Durrant on some of the break out designs of the firm, primarily working in the Streamlined Moderne style (Durrant and Bergquist 1947). Bergquist held a B.S. in architecture and had worked as a drafter for seven years, and then moved to Boscobel and worked as a drafter for Durrant for six years. Work from this time period included two community centers with theaters (1934), a newspaper building (1935), a school (1938), and a highway garage building (ca. 1938). A number of these projects have been documented by the Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory (Wisconsin Historical Society).
Durrant closed shop during the Second World War. From 1941 to 1943, he worked for Mason & Hanger in New York, a venerable firm that today promotes itself as the oldest architecture and engineering firm in the U.S. and, as of 2017, nearly two centuries of work, largely in public projects (Durrant and Bergquist 1947). He apparently then returned close to home to work at the Badger Ordinance Works, a US Army ammunition plant located near Sauk City, Wisconsin (Balousek 2006).
Bergquist had left for Detroit during the Second World War, likely on defense projects during 1940 and 1941 while he was working as a drafter for Albert Kahn in Detroit, who is known primarily for Neo-Classical styled homes as well as an Art Deco office tower and modernist industrial complexes (Durrant and Berquist 1947, Bently 2017, Historic Detroit 2017).
Two very large projects were being designed in 1940 to 1941—The Willow Run (1943) manufacturing complex near Ypsilanti, Michigan and the earlier Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant (1941) in Warren, Michigan (Bently 2017). Both were short, sprawling, war time assembly buildings but Khan ensured a high level of style was used in the appearance of Willow Run, which was used to assemble B-24 aircraft (Brennan 2015). It was appropriately designed in the Streamlined Moderne style—an outgrowth of Art Deco that Khan had worked in for the Fisher Building in Detroit.
In fact, Khan had previously designed an early system for fireproof factories and had perfected systems to allow ample light and open floor plans (Bently 2017, Historic Detroit 2017). Bergquist may have been introduced to the technique here. The first of the Khan reinforced concrete buildings was the Packard Plant in 1903 (Historic Detroit 2017). A number of people were working in reinforced concrete at the turn of the 20th century, but it is likely the Pacific Coast Borax Refinery (1897) in Bayonne, New Jersey, which survived an extensive fire in 1902, convinced Kahn to use this method of construction. It presented not only a fireproof alternative to wood but allowed more open floor plans and walls could be whatever they were wanted to be. Though Khan certainly did not invent reinforced concrete structures, he clearly had figured out how to use them early on for large scale, low-rise buildings, something Bergquist seems to have taken home with him after the war.
Bergquist spent the rest of the war as an steel processing engineer and designer at firms in Chicago and Des Plaines. He rejoined Durrant in 1945, now with a total of 17 years experience including two as an engineer in steel production and three years as an architectural designer (Durrant and Bergquist 1947). In 1946 they formed a partnership named Durrant & Bergquist. The name was in use from 1946 to 1962. Durrant remained in Boscobel and Bergquist was located initially in Chicago (Durrant and Bergquist 1947). It seems Durrant retained Boscobel as his professional and home address throughout his career (Durrant 2010, Ellis 2011).
Durrant and Bergquist and their associates worked on projects primarily in southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois but soon began to expand into Iowa. In 1948, the firm moved its main office to Dubuque, Iowa (Leonard Parker Associates 2017). Six years later they moved into their own building at 666 Loras Bolevard. (Lyon 2017). It seems likely the firm designed it, given it was a new building (Dubuque County Assessor 2017).
Their work in the 1950s remains somewhat poorly documented, as photographs are not easy to find of the very few works listed in the AIA directories. Success came to them, however. They continued to work mostly on publicly funded buildings including a mental health hospital, a retirement home, a power company major addition and, schools. Durrant had positioned his firm to work on publicly funded buildings with some private commissions as indicated in the AIA directory. Beyond this, Durrant took advantage of the increasing number of available architects who were paying for college with the GI Bill. The long economic boom that began about 1950 and continued into the early 1970s sent many government contracts their way. The firm expanded by five times its size in the 1950s (Hohenfeldt 2003). Over the 10 year period of 1949 to 1959, a number of staff members were hired. By 1953 there were 18 in the firm. An architectural engineer was added in 1961 (Gordon 2010). Previously, they subcontracted for this work (Durrant and Bergquist 1947).
Four partners were added in 1961 (Leonard Parker Associates 2000). The AIA directories indicate these included George E. Denninger (1923–1994), Jerold W. Dommer (1930–), Donovan D. Kramer (1927–), Gene P. Gordon (1930–) and in the late 1960s, the number of partners returned to six with the addition of Norman E. Wirkler (1937–). Much of their work involved reinforced concrete for at least slabs and columns. At least one project utilized steel beams at the Iowa Interstate Power Company building addition (1956), and while this may have been for contractor or client demands, shortly after the beams in their buildings were reinforced concrete, as seen in their University commissions of the 1960s (NRHP Form for Iowa Interstate Power Company Building, Dubuque Iowa, AIA Directories).
Denninger joined in 1950 after serving in the Navy during the Second World War and earning his Bachelors Architecture (B.Arch) degree in 1950. He was a drafter as well as specifications writer and inspector for the firm and was a member of the AIA Wisconsin Chapter and National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) certificate, which would allow him to apply for reciprocal licensing in the region (Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa) and elsewhere. He also served as chair of the building code advisory board for Dubuque. His practice is listed in Boscobel, WI along with Durrant in the AIA directories’ geographic sections (Dommer 2010, Durrant 2010).
Dommer earned his B. Arch. in 1953 along with that year’s AIA School Medal (Now the AIA Henry Adams Medal) and George W. Cart scholarship. He worked with Durrant and Bergquist for two years as a drafter, obtained another year of internship and joined Durrant and Bergquist as a partner in 1959. He joined the AIA Iowa Chapter in 1960 and had an NCARB certification (Dommer 2010). In 1962 he was also listed in Boscobel but by 1970 he was listed in Watertown, so it is likely he ran that office for the firm. His address was listed there for his Illinois license which was valid and from 1974 to 1996. He was licensed in Wisconsin 1977 to 1980 under his own service corporation following the reorganization of DDDKG into The Durrant Group.
Kramer joined the firm as a partner in 1959 after serving as a technician in the Army Medical Corps from 1945 to 1947. He had a B. Arch. and five years experience as a drafter when he joined the firm. He also joined the AIA Iowa Chapter in 1959 and held his NCARB certification. He was licensed in Wisconsin from 1971 to 2002 (Kramer 2010).
Gordon joined the firm in 1961 with a B. Arch. and Bachelors in Architectural Engineering (BSAE). He joined the Iowa Chapter of AIA that year and was also certified by NCARB in Iowa and Minnesota. At the time Gordon had and seven years experience. He served in the Air Force as an installations engineer and planner for two years concurrent with his work as a designer-drafter with James A Burran (Gordon 2010).
Wirkler joined in 1959, the same year he earned his B. Arch and mostly worked on health care facilities including a number of hospitals and nursing homes. He was made a partner by 1970 and became a Fellow of the AIA in 1986 (Wirkler 2010).
The partnership was renamed Durrant Deininger Dommer Kramer Gordon (DDDKG) in 1963 following the death of Bergquist (Leonard Parker Associates 2000). This name continued until 1977. That same year the firm opened an office in Watertown while retaining the Dubuque and Boscobel locations (Daily Times 1963). Dommer ran the Watertown location, which had a number of commissions through the 1960s (Dommer 2010, Daily Times 1963). The firm designed a distinctive addition to the Sauk County Courthouse (1907, 1915, 1963), which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and included in the Wisconsin State Register of Historic Places in 1989. It and the Mayville High School were also completed in 1963. The high school included a very early multi-purpose auditorium that used partitioning walls to allow smaller or larger rooms as needed, an idea that is common today in convention centers, libraries, and schools (Balousek 2006).
As the firm worked through the 1960s, they were taking on still larger commissions including a number of large university buildings and whole campuses for small colleges, notably including in 1969 what was then the Wisconsin State University, Fond du Lac (Gordon 2010).
They primarily worked in modernism, especially mid-century modernist style, which emphasized new forms, function over form, and limited ornament typically coming in the form of window spacing and placement and form of other necessary elements. This beauty through utility was part and parcel with the minimalism common in this time period which de-emphasized ornament and emphasized utility and structure. Though a few buildings stand out with unconventional roof lines or curvilinear walls, the majority are rectilinear with strong horizontal lines punctuated with narrow, vertical elements.
The firm made ample use of reinforced concrete superstructures—columns and floors, a mixture of brick and cast concrete curtain wall cladding, as at Van Allen Hall (1965, 1970) at the University of Iowa, or infill masonry, such as the Nursing building (1969) at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and the Hilltop Center (1969) at the same location. Brick cladding was frequently used, often in a buff or cream tone with notable exceptions while the cast concrete remained either light gray or bright white in all cases and provided crisp boarders and broad defining elements that accentuated necessary horizontal and vertical structural elements. In a number of projects, cast awnings were used, hearkening to Eero Saarinen and Walter Gropius, though the firm’s style is evident and original. The firm’s style also closely aligns with Meisian buildings in some cases. For example, the S.R. Crown Hall (1956) at the Illinois Institute of Technology by Ludwig Meis van der Rhoe is suggested in their offices at 122 Rockdale Road, Dubuque built in 1964 (Dubuque County Assessor), while a somewhat Wrightian influence is suggested in the Sauk County Courthouse Annex and and the Fond du Lac Public Library with the broad banding of cast concrete at the rooflines (1967), while the University of Wisconsin—Fond du Lac makes use of an original interpretation of Dickey Roofs—the original Hawaiian style inflected roof line.
Affirming satisfaction among clients, they were commissioned for more buildings and additions to buildings on the same campuses where they had previously completed successful designs. To a large extent, this was the Golden Age of the firm. It was largely the same working group who designed both sections of the Physics Research Center, now Van Allen Hall at the University of Iowa (1965, 1970), which was designed in 1962 and 1967, as well as L.E. Phillips Science Hall (1964, 1967), the Hilltop Center (1969), and the School of Nursing building (1969) at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire, the Molecular Biology and Biophysics, now R.M. Bock Laboratories (1967), and Educational Science (1971) buildings for UW—Madison, and seven buildings, including Bessey Hall (1967) and Carver Hall (1969), for Iowa State University in Ames.
L.E. Phillips Hall main entrance, University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. Wisconsin Historical Society
Propelled by successes with many government and university commissions, the firm began to expand and open offices or acquire subsidiaries across the upper Midwest in the 1970s. The firm reorganized as the Durrant Group in 1977, with subsidiary corporations Durrant Architects, Inc. and Durrant Engineers, Inc. The firm employed 80 people by the end of the 1970s (Balousek 2006).
Durrant died while pheasant hunting in South Dakota in 1985 (Ellis 2011). After his death, the firm went on to acquire additional firms across the country, including smaller firms in Minnesota, Arizona, Colorado, California. By 2005 the design influences of Joseph Durrant on the firm that bore his name had all but completely faded.
Editorial Notes: Wherever possible, the dates of buildings cited are those of completion with dates of major alterations indicated following a comma. I’ve compiled a fairly extensive but likely incomplete list of projects completed by the firm which goes well beyond the projects discussed in this article. Contact me to discuss it or let me know about other projects they worked on. Copyright holders are indicated for all photos.Please contact me if you are the owner and would like an image taken down. This written educational work is issued here as CC-BY-NC. You must obtain permission for any other use.