Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Perkins moved to Chicago as a child after his father had suffered a stroke. His father died and young Dwight had to quit school in the eighth grade to help support his mother. He worked first at the Chicago stockyards and then for two local architectural firms. When Perkins decided that he wanted to study architecture, a family friend agreed to pay his tuition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After completing a degree in architecture, he briefly worked in the office of Henry Hobson Richardson in Boston. He returned to Chicago and found a position with Burnham & Root. Perkins became a highly valued member of the office, and was given the responsibility of running the office after John Wellborn Root’s death when Daniel H. Burnham became deeply involved in preparations for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The following year, Perkins embarked upon his own practice with the commission to design a large office building for the Steinway Piano Company. He occupied one of the upper floors of Steinway Hall, and soon several other young architects joined him there. This group of architects, which included Robert and Allen Pond, Robert Spencer, Walter Burley Griffin, and Dwight Perkins’s cousin Marion Mahony, made important contributions to the development of the Prairie style of architecture.
In 1905, the Chicago Board of Education instituted a new policy requiring candidates for the position of supervising architect to take a civil service exam. With a nearly perfect score on the exam and a recommendation from Daniel Burnham, Perkins was appointed as the architect to the Board of Education. He brought his sense of humanity and progressive spirit to the design of school architecture. Perkins wanted the buildings to serve as holistic community centers, so he placed auditoriums on the first floor to make them more accessible for after-hours functions. He also sought to improve upon difficulties in the way that the earlier schools functioned by widening stairwells and hallways to minimize crowding, creating bathrooms on every floor (the only toilet rooms in the older schools were in basements), and maximizing the amount of natural light in the classrooms.
Perkins also sited buildings so that classrooms would either face east or west, to avoid relying only on sunlight from the north. Most of the older schools were built close to the edge of the street, and very few had any playgrounds at all. Perkins was an open space advocate. He was appointed as a member of the Special Park Commission and through this quasi-governmental organization, Perkins and his friend and colleague Jens Jensen developed the original plans for the Cook County Forest Preserve system. Through the Special Park Commission and other groups devoted to social reform, Perkins played an important role in Chicago’s Playground Movement. As school architect, he also focused on the open spaces around schools, recommending larger setbacks, landscape improvements, and as many as three playgrounds per school building.
Perkins’s schools were often quite simple and even bold in their appearance. While earlier schools had fanciful cut-stone embellishments, he created earth-toned brick buildings that emphasized geometric planes and had minimalistic terra cotta details.
Although Perkins’s buildings were well received by his peers and the public at large, after his first couple of years, he lost political support. The Chicago Tribune reported in 1910 that board members accused him of “incompetence, extravagance and insubordination.” (These corrupt administrators were likely unhappy that Perkins had stopped the practice of giving inflated contracts to well-connected contractors and suppliers.) Perkins refused to resign, and was forced to participate in a hearing that was strongly biased against him.
At the end of the hearing, the Board of Education removed Perkins from his position as architect, but his career did not suffer. The newspapers portrayed him favorably and his private architectural firm remained busy designing settlement houses, park buildings, and private residences. His extant Chicago schools include: Moos, Hayt, Graeme Stewart, Cleveland, Pullman, Jahn, Tilton, Trumbull, Pullman, Bowen and Carl Schurz High School. Perkins became well known throughout the region as a designer of educational buildings. These include Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois; Whiting High School in Indiana; Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas, and the Thomas Handy Junior High School in Bay City, Michigan.
In 1905, Perkins formed a partnership with John L. Hamilton, who had recently resigned as a Board of Education draftsman. Perkins and Hamilton added a third partner, William K. Fellows in 1911. The firm practiced together until 1927 designing many handsome Prairie style buildings including their own office and studio near Chicago’s Water Tower. After the firm dissolved, Perkins practiced with architects Chatten & Hammond from 1927 to 1935. His son Lawrence Perkins (1907 -1997) became an architect who also specialized in schools. His firm, Perkins & Will, retains an international reputation, particularly for designing schools and colleges.