Nathan Clifford Ricker (1843-1924) was a leading architect and pioneering figure in the development of architectural education in the United States. He served the University of Illinois for 45 years in roles that included Professor of Architecture (1873-1917), Chair of the Department of Architecture (1873-1910), University Architect, and Dean of the College of Engineering (1878-1905).
Ricker was born June 24, 1843, and spent his early childhood on a 150-acre farm in Acton, Maine. In 1870, he enrolled as the first student in the architecture curriculum of the Polytechnic Department at the University of Illinois, one of the earliest in the United States. As a senior, he was offered the role of instructor the following school year for a new architecture department at the University of Illinois, which he accepted. When Ricker completed his university studies in the winter term of 1873, he had the distinction of being the first graduate of an architecture program in the country. He then undertook a six-month architectural study tour of Europe, which deepened his knowledge of different architectural methods and styles that would later influence his practice, including German Gothic.
In 1873, Ricker became the sole instructor and first head of the newly established Department of Architecture, which he chaired until 1910. He is recognized for his influential approach to architecture curriculum at Illinois where he introduced a German polytechnic method diametrically opposed to the French system of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris that was followed by MIT and the majority of new American architecture schools of the period. He also chose to teach design principles in relation to applied building practices instead of focusing primarily on avant-garde styles.
Recognizing the essential role of design in applied building practices, Ricker introduced a four-year curriculum in architectural engineering in 1890, the first such curriculum in the United States. In 1903, Ricker participated in the establishment of the first engineering experiment station located on a university campus and designed to facilitate the research of faculty in engineering and architecture. From 1878 until 1905, Nathan Ricker also served as the Dean of the College of Engineering. Ricker moreover laid the foundations for the architectural and art collections of the University of Illinois library by donating significant architectural books and folios in 1873. In 1917, the library unit housing Ricker's entire collection was named in his honor as the Ricker Library of Architecture and Art.
Over the course of his long career, Ricker wrote many books, including Elementary Graphical Statics and Construction of Trussed Roofs (1885), the first book published by a University of Illinois faculty member and A Treatise on the Design and Construction of Roofs (1912). Ricker designed several sites now listed on the National Historical Register and located in Champaign County, Illinois. Among them are Altgeld Hall, Harker Hall, and the Natural History Building on the University of Illinois campus, as well as Ricker's home at 612 West Green Street in Urbana, Illinois.
Ricker was married to Mary Carter Steele of Galesburg, Illinois, in 1875. His only child, Ethel, was born in 1883. He died on March 19, 1924, at the age of 80.
"The Illinois School of Architecture: A History of Firsts," Illinois School of Architecture, accessed April 15, 2020, https://arch.illinois.edu/welcome/history-school/.
"Nathan Clifford Ricker," Illinois Distributed Museum, accessed April 15, 2020, https://distributedmuseum.illinois.edu/exhibit/nathan-clifford-ricker/
Wikipedia, s.v. "Nathan Clifford Ricker," accessed April 15, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Clifford_Ricker