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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Robert H. Aiken, Tilt-Up Construction Inventor

In 1907, Robert H. Aiken (1859 - 1925) of Winthrop Harbor, Illinois invented "tilt-up construction."

Col. Robert Aiken. Cement World, August 15, 1908, p. 327.

Aiken's fast and economical method of building concrete-walled buildings revolutionized construction and is still in use today. The process involves pre-fabricating concrete wall sections and lifting or tilting them into position on a concrete foundation.

Aiken was born in Abingdon, Knox County, Illinois. He came to Lake County, Illinois by 1895, when he was promoted to the rank of Colonel and assigned as the range officer at the new rifle training center at Camp Logan in today's Zion. Camp Logan was an Illinois National Guard training facility established in 1892.

On December 16, 1895, Robert Aiken married Jannette Kellogg (1879 - 1953) of Winthrop Harbor.

Jannette was the daughter of George P. Kellogg and Phoebe F. Landon Kellogg. Jannette was also the granddaughter of Nelson Landon (1807-1884), one of Lake County's most influential and wealthy pioneer settlers. Jannette and Robert resided on her father's farm along the east side of Sheridan Road just south of Kellogg Creek in Winthrop Harbor.

Aiken came up with his idea of constructing buildings using pre-cast concrete walls and raising them into position in early 1907, when he built concrete target walls for use at Camp Logan. Previously, the Camp's targets were made of wood. The new concrete targets kept ordnance from being shot into Lake Michigan and endangering boaters, and allowed the lead to be retrieved and reused.

After filing for a patent on a "method and apparatus for constructing concrete buildings," Aiken built a factory to manufacture the concrete targets and steel target frames, and used his new tilt-up method to construct it. The factory stood on his farm in Benton Township along Sheridan Road and was 80 x 75 feet and 14 feet high.

His next project was an ammunition and gun house at Camp Logan (above), and then a large mess hall at Camp Perry in Ohio. His first commercial store was built near Kenosha and was 30 x 40 feet with a cellar.

On November 14, 1908, Aiken organized the Aiken Cement Home company and incorporated it in the State of Maine (for tax purposes).

In 1909, he made plans to build a residential subdivision on his farm on Sheridan Road, using his tilt-up technique. The houses were to be concrete and two-stories high with six large rooms, front hall, stairways and bathroom. The subdivision was never built.

In February 1909, Aiken had a booth for his Cement Home Company at the 2nd Annual Cement Show held at the Coliseum in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune called him, "the novelty of the show" for demonstrating his invention of building concrete homes by actually constructing one inside the Coliseum.

In 1910, Aiken completed a new church for the Memorial United Methodist at 2935 Sheridan Road in Zion (above).
Memorial United Methodist Church as it looks today.

By 1910, Aiken had formed a partnership with Frederick H. Sears of Chicago with Sears organizing the Aiken Home Company of Chicago with offices at the Peoples Gas Building. Fred Sears expanded the company across the country, including in Los Angeles. The business was valued at $1,000,000.

It is unclear when and if Aiken and Sears parted ways.

Jannette Kellogg Aiken Black and grandson Hector Aiken
History of Lake County, Illinois (1939).

In 1924, Aiken and his wife, Jannette, and her sister Josephine Kellogg, subdivided the northern portion of their property south of Kellogg Creek into the "Kellogg's Home Site Subdivision." The site was improved with one and two bedroom concrete, Spanish-style bungalows that were rented on a daily basis to tourists. In addition, there was a campground and sandwich shop on site. This was Robert Aiken's last project using his method of tilt-up construction.

Josephine Kellogg was the proprietor of the tourist camp (above), which she named "Hollyhock Hill." Aiken's concrete bungalows are still visible today on Sheridan Road in Winthrop Harbor.

Aiken's tilt-up construction remains a dominant form of construction throughout the United States. He is honored each year by the presentation of the Robert Aiken Memorial Award at the annual World of Concrete Convention.

Inventor Robert Aiken's grave marker at Lake Mound Cemetery, Zion, Illinois.

Special thanks to museum volunteer, Al Westerman, for his extensive research on Robert Aiken. 

Diana Dretske, Curator 


hunter said...

It feels so nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on regarding Really thankful to you for starting this.

John Crosse said...

Thank you for your wonderful and informative piece on Robert Aiken. I cited and linked to it extensively in my "Sarah B. Clarke Residence, 7231 Hillside Ave., Hollywood: Irving Gill's First Aiken System Project" at:

Diana Dretske said...

Thank you so much for your kind comments on my Aiken post. Your blog is wonderful! I appreciate the citation and link. :)
All best wishes,

Robert Aiken granddaughter said...

Robert Aiken granddaughter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Diana Dretske said...

Hello Barbara,

Do you have any recollections or photos of your grandfather you'd like to share? We'd be very interested.

The postcard images used in the blog were provided by a private collector, and the image of Jannette and Hector was scanned from the "History of Lake County Illinois" 1939 book.

Thanks so much for commenting!


Becky Thompson said...

So grateful for the detailed information on Robert Aiken and his connection to the Kellogg family. The 1897 Dickerman genealogy p. 417 says that Emma Frank Chapman, born Aug 31, 1871, at Aurora Illinois, married Robert H. Aiken on March 10, 1890, at Chicago. Did Robert Aiken have a wife before Jannette?

Diana Dretske said...

Hello Becky,

It appears that Emma Frank Chapman and Robert H. Aiken were divorced soon after their marriage in 1890. Robert then married Jennette Kellogg on December 16, 1895.

Emma seems to have taken back her maiden name and then married George S. Abbott on June 25, 1895 in Kane County, Illinois.

You'll need to check divorce records in Cook or Kane Counties to verify.

Thank you for reading and commenting.