Thomas Rogers Kimball
A combination of training, talent, and personal connections made it possible for the late Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball to design some of Omaha's finest buildings, many of which continue to stand today.
But Kimball is perhaps best known for his work as co-architect-in-chief of the Trans Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898-99, which featured buildings that were not designed to last, said David Batie, Ph.D., and assistant professor in the construction management department at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. Batie has studied Kimball's work for many years and is the author of a Kimball biography.
Kimball, born in 1862 in Linwood, Ohio, moved to Omaha with his parents when he was in his early teens. After graduating from high school in 1878, he attended the University of Nebraska for two years, but did not graduate. He next went to Boston, where he worked with a private tutor for another two years. Kimball then entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied architecture until 1887. He did not graduate, but was later given an affiliation with the School of Architecture.
Kimball then moved to Paris, where he spent a year studying art at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts. Returning to Boston in 1888, he began working for a publishing company. "Kimball was an excellent artist and draftsman, so he did a lot of illustration work," said Batie.
The following year, Kimball married Annie McPhail in Boston. In 1891, he formed an architectural firm with MIT instructor C. Howard Walker and architect Herbert Best.
Best soon retired. Walker remained in Boston to run the office there; Kimball moved back to Omaha and opened an office. Both operated under the name "Walter and Kimball." In 1892, Kimball was commissioned to design the old public library building at 1823 Harney St. Batie said there was little question that Kimball had been able to get the job through connections established by his father, railroad executive Thomas Lord Kimball. However, the younger Kimball was well qualified for the work. He was also something of a curiosity in 1890's Omaha, since he has been educated in he east and had studied architecture. "Most other architects of the time were (civil) engineers," said Batie. Kimball's time at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts also made him unusual. "There weren't many architects outside New York who had studied in Europe," he said.
Kimball began attracting many high-profile projects , including St. Frances Cabrini Church and the Burlington Station. In 1893, some of his architectural plans were shown in Chicago at the World Columbian Exposition.
As his circle of contacts grew, Kimball came to know an increasing number of prominent Omahans. One of these was Gurdon Wattles, a banker whose home Kimball designed in 1894.
By 1896, Wattles was president of the Trans Mississippi and International Exposition, a World's Fair-like event planned for 1998 that would require the construction of many buildings. Kimball and Walker were named co-architects-in-chief for the event. "They spent the better part of two years planning and working on the Exposition," said Batie.
The two men were responsible for the overall site development, including perimeter buildings. They designed several major buildings, some smaller structures and the Arch of States (a main entrance). "The other 'name' architects who were there did a main building and nothing else," Batie said.
The buildings were constructed of strips of wood covered with a mixture of plaster and horsehair. They were temporary by design, built at about half the cost of permanent buildings. The lower the cost allowed the construction of larger structures.
Kimball was already successful, but his Exhibition work made him even more so. "He became one of the big hitters in architecture," said Batie. Kimball began attracting commissions for major projects, such as St. Cecelia's Cathedral and the Fontenelle Hotel in Omaha, and the Electricity Building at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
By 1918, he had gained tremendous stature among his peers and was elected national president of the American Institute of Architects, an office he held until 1920. "People were impressed by his integrity. They knew that what he said was what he did," said Batie. "He loved to talk, he loved to communicate and debate."
Kimball was involved in many architecture-related activities, including supervision of the 1920 design contest that selected Bertram Goodhue as architect of the Nebraska State Capitol. In 1927, Kimball went into a partnership with architect William Steele.
In addition to his successful professional life, Kimball was able to maintain a well-rounded home life. He remained close to his family and enjoyed the outdoors, especially when playing golf. He and his wife also taught painting classes.
However, his unbridled success was not to last. The Great Depression hurt Kimball financially, and he died a pauper in 1934.
© 1998 Omaha Public Library