The Design Observer Group


Posted 05.14.12


Keith Eggener

The Uses of Daylight


Louis Curtiss, Boley Building
Louis Curtiss, The Boley Building, Kansas City, Missouri, 1908–09, photographed in 1910. [Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library]

Louis Curtiss, the Boley Building, and the Invention of the Glass Curtain Wall
At the unveiling of its new store in Kansas City, Missouri, on 31 March 1909, the Boley Clothing Company sold no clothes. Instead, employees handed out roses while a military band played and — as at a starchitect-designed museum that opens to the public before its contents are placed — visitors were invited to admire the building. What they saw was a structure unlike any other in the city, one seemingly made almost entirely of glass. Six-story glazed walls faced the streets while inside were plate-glass counters and showcases and glass-encased elevators. Daylight flooded the interior, accompanying the light from hundreds of tungsten and incandescent lamps (fueled by an in-house electrical plant) whose glow reflected from the mirrored walls and columns. Newspaper advertisements, featuring a drawing of the building’s exterior, emphasized its beauty and uniqueness, its glass walls and the light these admitted. Newspaper stories reiterated these themes, identifying light as the building’s “dominating idea,” and praising its “general crystalline effect.” Thousands turned out on opening day to see the place for themselves. [1]

The Boley Building is the best-known work of its little-known designer, Louis Singleton Curtiss (1865-1924) — an architect whose comparative obscurity I analyzed in an earlier essay on the politics of professional reputation. Regarded by local historians as the city’s most important architect, Curtiss was an innovator —an early adopter at least — who experimented with new forms such as the Art Nouveau and the Prairie Style, and with new materials and techniques like rolled steel columns, caisson foundations and cantilevered construction. The Boley’s modest fame is due to its being among the first — some have called it the first [2] — true glass curtain-walled buildings in the world, predating more famous curtain walls from Walter Gropius, Willis Polk and Mies van der Rohe. In this it is a precursor to, if not the germ of, the glazed skylines of post-World War II cities around the world. In 1908 the Kansas City Times proudly (if hyperbolically) called the just-unveiled design “an architectural form for which there is no precedent.” [3] In the 1970s, architectural historians Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co identified the Boley as “among the most interesting works of the early twentieth century in the United States.” [4] Unfortunately, other than noting its vague resemblance to Polk’s Hallidie Building in San Francisco (1917-18), they didn’t say just what they found so interesting about it; like everyone who has written about the Boley Building since World War I, their attention likely went no deeper than the thin glass skin and the technological innovation this represented. My intention here is to ask what this glass house made visible to Kansas Citians roughly one hundred years ago, and what it makes visible to us today. Ultimately, this is a speculation on the uses and meaning of daylight, circa 1909.

First, some bright spots from the previous year: in 1908, the first Model T, its brass headlamps and radiator grill gleaming, rolled off a Detroit assembly line while a Bowler-hatted Henry Ford looked on; Henri Matisse, dismissing the unnerving emissions of his fellow Parisians Braque and Picasso (works later central to Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky’s famous analysis of architectural transparency [5]), coined the term “Cubism”; in Berlin, Peter Behrens, assisted by young Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, began work on the steel-framed, glass-walled A.E.G. Turbine Factory (whose openness Henry–Russell Hitchcock later compared to the great Art Nouveau department stores of Paris and Brussels [6]). Meanwhile in Kansas City, former newspaper editor Charles N. Boley announced that his prospering men’s clothing store would move from 10th and Main Streets, where it had stood since 1904, to a new purpose-built location at 12th and Walnut.


Louis Curtiss, Boley Building
Top: Advertisements for grand opening of the new Boley’s Clothing Co. store. [From the Kansas City Times, March 30 and 31, 1909] Bottom: The Boley Building, 1910 postcard. [Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library]

Kansas City was then ascendant. Its population stood near a quarter million, up 50 percent from the 1900 census. [7] The local economy — fueled by agriculture, livestock, food processing, and a garment industry second only to New York’s — was booming. The influx of population and new wealth radically altered the scruffy frontier town, where not 30 years before Jesse James had lived and launched raids on area banks and railroads. Myriad additions and adornments now appeared: hard-paved streets and tree-lined boulevards, electric street lighting and street cars, an extensive park and parkway system, buildings for culture, commerce, industry, recreation and governance. A new general hospital opened in 1908, and work began on the city’s innovative Country Club shopping and residential district. Looking forward, local historian Carrie Westlake Whitney insisted that year that it was “simply the logic of destiny that Kansas City is to be the greatest metropolis on the American continent” [8] — typical turn-of-the-century boosterish overstatement, perhaps, but it illustrates the excitement and sense of possibility that many shared. It must have seemed an especially promising time and place to build a business.

That March Boley signed a 23-year lease on a busy corner lot, near banks, restaurants, nickelodeons and retail stores. “The new building is a necessity,” he said. “Kansas City is a wonderful business center and we feel sure that our investment could not be made in a better place.” [9] Boley hired Louis Curtiss — rising local architect of the Baltimore Hotel (1899), the city’s largest and most lavish, and of the nearby Jones and Company department store (1902) — to design his new building. One year and $150,000 later, the six-story Boley Building was ready. The client’s name was emblazoned in terracotta block letters on the street-side cornices, from a large white sign on the roof, and in several smaller signs near street level. [10]

The new building, the Kansas City Post told readers, was unique, “without a peer in the entire United States.” Its north- and west-facing party walls were ordinary enough, consisting of unadorned red brick. Its south and east-facing street walls, however, were glass and metal curtains framed by glazed white terracotta cornices and end bays. Inside, posts and beams were set back nearly six feet from the building line with floors cantilevered outward; nine-foot square plate-glass panels were pinned to these floors and joined on the exterior by cast-iron spandrels and mullions. Nine large display windows faced the south side at street level, six faced east; high round-arched doorways stood at each of the end bays. The Post predicted that many future buildings would copy the Boley’s glass-curtain wall system, for its advantages over traditional masonry included reduced construction costs and increased interior light. [11]


Louis Curtiss, Boley Building
The Boley Building. [Photo by Keith Eggener]

The story of the curtain wall — from Paxton’s Crystal Palace to the Bauhaus and beyond — has been told many times. [12] Sometimes it includes the Boley, although such mentions have invariably been brief and baffled by this apparently isolated experiment. Suffice it to say that new developments in metal framing, glass production, and glass mounting and sealing technology had resulted in increasingly daring innovations throughout the second half of the 19th century. Greenhouses, exhibition halls, train sheds, department stores, factories, office buildings and collieries all capitalized on the new developments. [13] Interest in the further possibilities of glass architecture mounted. An article published in Kansas City in 1882 predicted that houses made entirely of glass — walls, floors and roofs — would soon be possible. A later article envisaged home furnishings, utilities and utensils (tables, chairs, fireplaces and mantles, heating ducts, water pipes, cutlery, cookware, etc.) all made of glass — clean, dry, dust free, and indestructible. [14] Architectural historian Dietrich Neumann has noted “the numerous accounts of utopian glass architecture common among architects and writers in the 1890s.” [15] The utopian glass fantasies of German Expressionism were just over the horizon. Further advances in glass production technology soon made many of these visions possible. They also made possible the Boley Building. [16]

The Boley today looks as striking and singular as it must have when new, although for different reasons. Today, almost nothing of the building’s original pre-war neighborhood remains. It seems a dainty and rather delicate survivor dwarfed by austere modern giants, a sputtering bi-plane among roaring jumbo jets. Its neighbors’ shift in scale and its own antiquity veil the face the Boley once presented. When new it was larger than the mostly masonry buildings around it, yet in period photographs it seems noticeably more buoyant than these, almost weightless by comparison. Even its end bays, the most substantial-looking part of the façade, seem like hollowed-out piers, incapable of any but the most tenuous support. With its thin white terracotta framework and translucent glass screens, the building appears out of place in the early 20-century urban landscape, like an enormous gazebo or tent frame, a birdcage or a spindly piece of carved and painted wood furniture. Discrete concentrations of applied terracotta ornament — cartouches, volutes, and heavy dangling garlands blending classical and floral elements into something reminiscent of the Vienna Secession — further these visual analogies.


Ford Model T Runabout
Ford Motel T Runabout. [Photo by Autoviva]

Curtiss, however, may have had a more distinctly machine-age reference in mind. With their crisply articulated, symmetrical frames surrounding large central “voids,” the Boley’s street elevations look like nothing so much as the radiator grilles of vintage automobiles — for instance, the Ford Model T, introduced the same year that Curtiss began work on the Boley. [17] The cornices’ centralized ornaments stand as logos, their peaks rise like radiator caps. This might well have been on Curtiss’s mind, given his obsession with motorcars. He owned and drove some of the first cars in Kansas City, a Walter Racer and a Winton Runabout. He was elected President of the Automobile Club of Kansas City in 1902 and appointed to the city’s Automobile Operators’ Examining Board in 1904. [18] In volumes of caricatures of notable Kansas Citians, funded by those represented, Curtiss was shown first at his drafting table surrounded by drawings of cars and later driving one. [19] At his instigation, the Baltimore Hotel included an Automobile Room featuring imagery depicting “the joys of automobile life.” [20] One might conclude that years before Le Corbusier announced the machine á habiter, Louis Curtiss designed a technologically advanced building that actually looked like a machine.

Bluntly put, we build machines to perform tasks. Construed as a machine, the Boley’s primary function — apart from enclosing retail space — was to draw light and attention to its interiors and their contents. In short, the building was a daylight-seeking merchandise machine. The German architect Arthur Korn wrote in 1929 that with glass-walled buildings, “the outside wall is no longer the first impression one gets of a building. It is the interior, the spaces in depth and the structural frame which delineates them, that one begins to notice through the glass.” [21] Korn was talking about the view from outside, and Boley certainly wanted passersby to notice the goods displayed inside his store’s windows. But he and his architect were even more concerned with how things looked once one stepped inside. According to the Kansas City Times, “business houses have been demanding of their architects that buildings be made with all possible provision for light. Louis Curtiss, in the Boley building plans, has gone further than anyone before in answering this demand. If it proves to be a success he may be given credit for a form of construction which means better light and greater economy of material that anything known in steel skyscraper building.” “The name ‘the daylight store’ [is] particularly appropriate,” said the Post. [22]


Louis Curtiss, Boley Building
The Boley Building. [Photos by Keith Eggener]

Boley’s was one of many so-called “daylight stores” operating in turn-of-the-century America. These were a feature of what sociologist Rudi Laermans, writing of department stores, called the “technocracy of the eye” that developed around this time. As Western society shifted from a production-oriented model to a consumption-centered one, large urban stores became “object theaters” where commodities were “staged” in eye-catching settings geared to make them seem fascinating and desirable. [23] Window dressing emerged as a profession while window-shopping became a significant urban pastime. Spacious, luxuriously appointed interiors greeted shoppers once inside.

Much has been written on the theatricality of these spaces, their sometimes “carnivalesque” qualities, their correspondence with art galleries, theaters and cinemas (of which there were at least two in the same block as the Boley), even peep shows. [24] Outside and in, light was of the essence in creating visually appealing environments, in luring customers and displaying merchandise. But gas lighting was dirty, inefficient and dangerous. Electric lighting was increasingly available, yet before World War I electric power remained so costly that several storeowners, including Boley, built their own on-site power plants; the era’s bulbs, meanwhile, distorted fabric colors — a significant concern for clothiers like Boley. Thus, natural light, and the glass walls that facilitated it, were both sought after and proudly advertised. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, many well-windowed American retail stores from coast to coast were called “daylight stores.” [25]

The advantages of daylight for businesses were many. Advertisements for the Luxfer Prism Company, a Chicago-based maker of prismatic architectural glass founded in 1896, spelled out many of these. [26] Abundant natural lighting through street facades alleviated the need for light wells and thus increased floor space. The use of daylight reduced energy costs associated with artificial lighting. It promoted more comfortable, sanitary, healthful conditions that led to a more productive workforce. Under artificial lighting, goods had to be taken to doors and windows for colors and textures to be seen accurately; this was especially true of menswear, with its mostly dark color palette. [27] Natural lighting throughout a retail space could improve service and sales — allowing clerks to assist customers more quickly and efficiently, showing merchandise to best effect, making the whole exchange easier and more enjoyable for shoppers and more profitable for merchants. [28]


Loomis Colliery, Hallidie Building
Top: F.J. Nies, Loomis Colliery, Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, 1913-1917. [Photographer unknown] Bottom: Willis Polk, Hallidie Building, San Francisco, California, 1917. [Courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey, U.S. Library of Congress]

For retailers, daylight offered one additional advantage the advertisements did not mention: the implication of moral virtue. Though turn-of-the-century commentators sometimes cast shopping in quasi-religious terms — e.g., as a moral duty of middle-class women attending opulent cathedrals of commerce — they were more likely to link it to sin. Shop display windows, said a writer in The Atlantic, were “one of the most immoral forces in modern city life,” breeders of envy and Socialism, destroyers of romance, theology, and logic. [29] Large department stores were presented as dens of iniquity, “nurseries of immorality.” They were described as cesspools of fraud, filth, poor working conditions, child labor, anti-competitiveness, potential press censorship (because of their advertising clout), disease, drunkenness, savagery, prostitution, suicide and darkness. [30] Legislative efforts against them were undertaken in France, Germany, and in several American cities and states, including Missouri. [31]

A well-lit interior, it was said, could do much to counter such negative associations. An article in the trade journal The Illuminating Engineer, published two months before Boley’s grand opening, put it thus. “To have light on a subject is to have the truth concerning it…. A brilliantly lighted store carries with it the positive, though unconscious conviction of honest and fair dealing. Where there is light there is manifestly no desire to conceal. Merchandise that is displayed in the full rays of the modern light-source is literally exposed to the light of truth…. Some merchants, recognizing this general truth, have used ‘the daylight store’ as an advertisement: with modern illuminants there is no excuse for any store not being a ‘daylight store.’” [32]


Louis Curtiss, Boley Building
The Boley Building. [Photo by Keith Eggener]

It might seem an empty coincidence that Boley’s “daylight store” opened the same year that William Willett wrote to every member of the U.S. Congress pressing for the adoption of a nationwide daylight savings time. Yet the word “daylight” was then on a lot of lips. It was around this time that newspapers began referring to especially brazen crimes as having occurred “in broad daylight.” Magazines and newspapers titled Daylight or The Daylight were launched in England, New Zealand and the U.S. (including two such papers in neighboring Kansas). Works of poetry and popular fiction with titles like Burning Daylight (Jack London), Between the Dark and the Daylight (William Dean Howells), and Darkness and Daylight (Mary Jane Holmes) were published in these years.

Willett, an English architect and the leading proponent of daylight savings time, first published his book The Waste of Daylight in 1907. [33] Daylight savings, he argued, would enhance opportunities for outdoor recreation and decrease the amount of time spent drinking in pubs; it would reduce artificial lighting costs, coal smoke from power plants, and the consequent risk of airborne disease; it would lead generally to improved physical and mental health and morale. A daylight savings bill was introduced to the British House of Commons in February, 1908; key supporters included King Edward VII, former and future Prime Ministers Arthur Balfour, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, and most interestingly, Richard Burbridge, Managing Director of Harrod’s Department Store in London, who saw the bill and the longer day-lit shopping hours it promised as a boon to retailers. (Harrod’s printed 50,000 pamphlets explaining and endorsing the bill and distributed them free of charge to customers.) A year later Willet sent his letter to Congress and throughout 1909 daylight and daylight savings were discussed and debated often in The New York Times and many other American papers and magazines. Daylight, in short, was in the air.

So too was disease. In the century’s first decade, Kansas City papers reported regular outbreaks of tuberculosis, pneumonia, measles, typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever and small pox. The word “epidemic” was frequently used. Tuberculosis, “the white plague” as it was then called, was the greatest threat. The Jackson County Society for the Relief and Prevention of Tuberculosis was founded in Kansas City in September 1907. A modern municipal tuberculosis sanatorium was begun there the following year. Over the course of ten days in April 1909, 45,000 Kansas Citians attended an exhibit staged by the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis. As one medical writer of the day put it, “dirt and darkness… are the chief factors in the causation of disease.” Fresh air and sunshine were the principle cures. [34]

Beatriz Colomina has argued that modern architecture cannot be understood apart from disease, especially tuberculosis. In its attention to hygiene — to light, ventilation, sun, transparency — “modern architecture was unproblematically understood as a kind of medical equipment.” Modern buildings even looked like medical devices, she says. Skeletal construction and curtain walls were “skin and bone” architecture, “x-ray architecture.” [35]


Louis Curtiss caricature
Louis Curtiss. [From Kansas City in Caricature, 1912]


In 1905 Louis Curtiss came down with smallpox. He spent three months quarantined in his studio, recuperating and drawing daily. After this his work changed, adapting elements of the Prairie Style and the Vienna Secession, becoming more open and volumetric, exchanging traditional materials such as brick and stone for concrete, glazed terracotta, metal and plate glass. It’s unlikely that Curtiss was thinking of architecture as “medical equipment,” yet like so many others of his era he knew profoundly, from personal experience, the dangers of darkness and the benefits of daylight. The Boley Building, like the similar Ideal Clothing Company Building in St. Louis (1910) and the Studio Building (1908) in Kansas City — Curtiss’s own residence — were light-seeking engines — clean, uncluttered, transparent. As much as any American buildings of their era they upheld daylight as their “dominating idea.”

Boley’s shut its doors in 1915 for reasons that remain unclear, while Charles Boley went west to sell industrial lubricants and hot water heaters in California. Subsequent tenants of the Boley Building included shoe, clothing, and drug stores; time and ill-conceived renovations took their toll on the place. Refurbished in the 1980s, the building today houses the offices of newspaper publisher Andrews McMeel Universal. Curtiss’s oeuvre includes other curtain walls, yet in a larger sense the Boley Building was an isolated incident, published only locally before the 1960s and influencing designers outside of Kansas City perhaps not at all — apart from Willis Polk, who’d lived in Kansas City and knew Curtiss personally. When Polk’s Hallidie Building opened in San Francisco in 1918 several articles in the architectural press took notice, calling it “the world’s first glass front building,” “the daylight building,” and calling Polk “the pioneering architect in this [type of] construction.” [36]

By this time, Curtiss and his Boley Building, never well known outside of Kansas City, were all but forgotten, and so they remained except for a few short, mostly local publications and scattered footnotes. Both are deserving of more light than they’ve had of late.