The History of the Academy

Cornerstone Ceremony with Marshal Foch, 1921

The Beginning

The Academy, originally called the National Institute of Arts and Letters, was founded in 1898 as an offshoot of the American Social Science Association. The Institute met for the first time in February 1899 on West 43rd Street in New York City. Membership was originally capped at 150. Of those 150, 30 were eligible for the additional honor of election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a prestigious inner body of the Institute that was founded in 1904. In 1907, the Institute and Academy increased their memberships to 250 and 50, respectively. In 1913, President Taft signed an act of Congress to incorporate the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The Academy was similarly incorporated in 1916.

The Academy

l to r: Edward Simmons, William Merrit Chase, Willard Metcalf,
Frank W. Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, Childe Hassam,
Thomas W. Dewing, J. Alden Weir, Joseph R. DeCamp,
and Robert Reid
Photo: A.E. Seler, Philadelphia, 1908
Members' Room, 1923

Taking as its model the Académie française, the members of the Institute created the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1904. Members of the Institute selected seven of their own to become the first Academicians. These seven—William Dean Howells, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Edmund Clarence Stedman, John La Farge, Mark Twain, John Hay, and Edward MacDowell—then chose eight others, who chose five more, and so on until they reached the full complement of members.

The Institute and Academy acquired a permanent home in 1923 when it moved into the current headquarters building on West 155th Street. The headquarters includes an oak-paneled members' room which contains fifty hand-carved Italian walnut chairs that were designed by McKim, Mead & White and given to the Academy by Mrs. Elizabeth Cochran Bowen. Between 1923 and 1992, each Academician, upon election to the Academy, was assigned a particular chair. Fastened to the backs of each chair is a plaque listing the name and date of tenure of each previous occupant. The names of members who were no longer alive in 1923 were also included, creating an unbroken lineage of occupation going back to 1904. Although the Academy no longer assigns chairs to its members, the original fifty still reside in the members' room where meetings are held throughout the year.

The Merger

In 1976, the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters voted to merge into one institution with a single board of directors, committee structure, and budget. From 1976 to 1993, the organization was known as the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1993, the members of the Academy and the Institute voted to dissolve the two-tier system of membership and enroll all 250 members into one organization called the American Academy of Arts and Letters.