The ABCs of Lowell History: E is for Ernest

The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. The ABCs of Lowell History continues with a look at Ernest Graham, a Lowell resident who went on to become one of the country’s premier architects. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.


Ernest Graham was born in 1866 on Peck’s Hill on the northeast side of Lowell. At the age of 7, he moved with his family to their new brick house built by his father, Robert Graham-the current Lowell Museum. Ernest was said to have helped his father carry bricks to build this house. Three weeks after moving in, his mother died of pneumonia. A year later, his father remarried and Ernest’s stepmother and three step-siblings moved in.

Ernest attended Lowell Public Schools. He started his career by laying bricks at 213 East Main Street- another building built by his father Robert Graham, in 1879 and later the Post Office at 101 Main St. Ernest became an architect’s apprentice for the Grand Rapids firm of Robinson & Rush. There, he had a hand in building Union Station and the Castle on Cherry Street.

In 1888, at twenty-two years old, Ernest entered the Chicago offices of Burnham & Root. Burnham was one of America’s finest architects and a pioneer in skyscraper design. Graham came to his attention when he disputed a set of plans based on his earlier experience in Grand Rapids. Burnham agreed with Graham and soon made him his assistant. Ernest’s career took off when Burnham had him help oversee construction of the 1893 World’s Fair. As Daniel Burnham’s assistant, twenty-three year old Ernest Graham had a major role in the World’s Fair. He designed the Fine Arts Building and then worked around the clock for two-and-a-half years as assistant director of construction and operation of the fair. After the Fair, the Art Palace was the only building left standing. It was used as the Field Museum from 1894-1916 and then became the Science and Industry Museum. Ernest designed a new Field Museum building, which opened in 1921.

On March 1, 1894, the firm of D.H. Burnham & Company was founded. The partners were Daniel Burnham, Ernest Graham, Edward Shankland and Charles Atwood. The company used new technology to design and build the tallest skyscrapers and the biggest banks, department store buildings, office buildings, railroad stations, post offices, and museums in the world. Ernest went on to become one of the most well-known architects in the United States. When Daniel Burnham died on June 13, 1912, the firm was dissolved and a new partnership formed with Ernest R. Graham, Pierce Anderson, Edward Probst, Howard J. White, sons Daniel H. Burnham and Hubert Burnham. The six practice under the name Graham, Burnham & Company for five years until August 4, 1917. On the same day, the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White formed. This company continued for 23 years with a staff numbering into the hundreds of talented architects.

Graham’s career included the Merchandise Mart, said to be the world’s largest building, Wrigley Building, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Union Station, and Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. His firm also designed big buildings in other cities: Union Station and General Post Office in Washington, D.C.; the Union Trust, Union Station and Terminal Tower buildings in Cleveland; Gimbel Brothers in New York and the Seldfridge & Co. store in London.

Ernest was active in Chicago, serving as an advisor to the Cook County assessor. He was donor of The Ernest R. Graham Hall of Historical Geology at the Field Museum. He commissioned Charles R. Knight, the sculptor and painter, to execute a series of large murals, some of them 25 feet in length, to hang as a frieze on the wall of the Hall that bore his name. These murals represent the evolution of the world in prehistoric times and the gigantic animals that flourished in it. Graham also donated to the Field Museum one of the two largest collections at the time of Coptic textiles from ancient Egypt.

Ernest was a social man. He belonged to many Chicago clubs and often hosted dinner parties in his home. He dreamed of establishing a school in Chicago to rival the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and of a lakefront development that included a consolidated train station. He died November 22, 1936, before it could be realized. His death was attributed to overwork. As one of the originators of the skyscraper, America’s most distinctive contribution to world architecture, Mr. Graham’s place in history is assured.

The Lowell Area Historical Museum’s latest exhibit explores the life and career of Ernest Graham and his father Robert Graham.

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All images courtesy of Lowell Area Historical Museum.

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