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The First Women Architects in America

Updated on August 13, 2017
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I hold a Masters in Public History, and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

Women were obscure in architectural history until the mid-to-late nineteenth century. However, they were not absent from it; rather, women’s contributions to architecture prior to the Victorian era remained almost entirely within the domestic sphere and thus largely unrecognized.

Prior to the professionalization of architecture, women were architects in the sense that they designed, modified, and decorated their homes. Susana Torre notes this in her history of women architects:

"The dominant element in women’s relationship to architecture has been, since the obscure beginnings of humankind, the relationship to the domestic, including everyday caretaking and maintenance labor. Although women were the original builders, they were only passive, marginal actors in the intellectual process that resulted in a differentiation of ‘building’ as a function of shelter and survival from ‘architecture’ as a function of culture."

Thus, women’s contributions remained in the domestic sphere until architecture, which implies institutional training and technical knowledge, became distinct from dwelling, which is concerned primarily with the needs of shelter rather than the decorative expertise found in architecture.

An example of this role is found in Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home, published in 1869. Beecher and Stowe’s work primarily focused on women’s daily lives, but its first chapters also detailed building techniques, plans for homes, and discussion of elements including ventilation, stoves, and chimneys.


Native American Women

Another example of women’s role in architecture prior to the Victorian era is found among Native American tribes. Among many of these tribes, women were responsible for the design, fabrication, and construction of dwelling units, notably among the Plains tribes.

As Doris Cole notes, “it was the Indian woman who was responsible for the tipi. ‘She tanned the hides and from them fashioned lodge covers. She made the tipi, set it up, and took it down when the encampment moved on.’”

However, it is nearly impossible to distinguish whether Native women were truly architects, as Native building forms developed over vast periods of time, adapting to changing cultural and environmental conditions. Additionally, the construction of dwelling units in Native tribes was almost always communal, with many people working on the design and building of structures.


Louisa Tuthill and Mother Joseph

Mother Joseph
Mother Joseph | Source

Between the heyday of Native tribes and the mid-nineteenth century, few women’s names stand out in architecture. However, the precedent for women’s involvement in architecture was established in 1848, when Louisa Tuthill published the first history of architecture in the United States. Tuthill’s work, History of Architecture from the Earliest Times; its Present Condition in Europe and the United States; With a Biography of Eminent Architects and a Glossary of Architectural Terms, was the first book to focus exclusively on American architecture. It featured 28 chapters in 426 pages, including 46 engravings and 102 woodcuts.

Additionally, in Canada during the 1850s, Mother Joseph travelled with the Sisters of Providence from Montreal to Washington Territory, constructing hospitals and schools of her own design. After her death, the American Institute of Architects honored her as the first architect of the Pacific Northwest.

Harriet Morrison Irwin

Courthouse designed by Harriet Irwin in Beaufort, North Carolina.
Courthouse designed by Harriet Irwin in Beaufort, North Carolina. | Source

The first woman to stand out in American architecture came to prominence shortly after Tuthill and Mother Joseph’s efforts.

In 1869, Harriet Irwin of Charlotte, North Carolina, applied for a patent for an “Improvement in the Construction of Houses.” Her improvement was a hexagonal building that she believed would economize space, materials, and heat.

In her design, she eliminated the entrance hall, used one central chimney, and utilized lozenge-shaped rooms to provide more floor space and better lighting and ventilation. Her patent was approved, and her hexagonal building was built on West Fifth Street in Charlotte, completed with a mansard roof and surrounded by a traditional veranda.

According to historians, Harriet Irwin possessed no formal architectural training.



Late 1800s

After 1870, several women rose to prominence in architecture, though none gained the professional status equivalent to that of their male contemporaries until the turn of the century.

In 1876, Mary Nolan of Missouri proposed a prototype house of interlocking bricks that was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial.

In 1880, Margaret Hicks became the first woman to graduate with a Bachelor's in Architecture from Cornell University

In 1881, Louise Blanchard Bethune, the most notable woman architect of the period, opened her own architectural office in Buffalo, New York, at the age of twenty-five. She had apprenticed under Richard Waite and, with her husband and partner R. A. Bethune, would design several buildings in the Buffalo area. These included the Hotel Lafayette (1898-1904), the Lockport Union High School, stores for Michael Newall, the Iroquois Door Company plan on Exchange Street, and the Denton, Cottier, & Daniels music store.

In 1888, Louise became the first woman elected to membership in the American Institute of Architects, making her the most likely candidate for the title “first American woman architect."

Sophia Hayden Benett
Sophia Hayden Benett | Source

In 1890, Sophia Hayden Benett became the first woman to receive an architecture degree from MIT. Unfortunately, Sophia was unable to find work in her chosen field, eventually accepting a job teaching technical drawing in a Boston high school. But she didn't stop dreaming. In 1891, at the age of 21, Sophia entered the competition for designing the Women's Building at the World' Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She won first prize for her design for a three-story building in the Italian Renaissance style. However, she only received $1,000 for her design, which was a tenth of what men received. During construction of the building, she suffered constant demands from the construction committee and eventually broke down, being placed in a sanitarium for enforced rest. This led many to claim that women did not belong in architecture, and Sophia never worked as an architect again.

Another MIT graduate who had more success than Sophia was Marion Mahony Griffin. After her 1894 graduation, Marion was hired by her cousin, who worked in the same building as the famed Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright hired Marion in 1895 as his first employee. Her watercolor renderings of Wright's designs soon became synonymous with Wright's work, though she was never credited by him. Marion worked for Wright until 1909, when Wright left for Europe. Though Marion was offered to obtain the studio's commissions, she declined and was subsequently hired by Wright's successor and granted full control of design. In 1911, she married Walter Burley Griffin, and they set up a practice together that eventually was granted the design for the Australian capital of Canberra. After completing their work in Australia, they moved to India, where Marion worked until her husband's death in 1937.

Architect Barbie
Architect Barbie | Source

The 20th Century

Women continued to enter the architectural field throughout the course of the 20th century. Many became notable for their involvement with famous male architects. However, others chartered their own paths, showing that women could continue to change the field in a variety of ways.

One of these women was Norma Merrick Sklarek. Norma was a woman of firsts: the first African-American woman to hold an architecture license; the first to earn a license in California; and the first African-American woman to be elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. She was born in Harlem in 1926 and graduated from Columbia University. She eventually found work at Skidmore Owings & Merill until she moved to California in 1960 to work for Gruen Associates. Despite feeling under pressure due to her gender and ethnicity, Norma advanced quickly at Gruen, becoming its Director in 1966. She gained a reputation as an excellent project architect, completing projects such as the LAX Terminal 1 and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. After leaving Gruen in 1980, Norma co-founded Sklarek, Siegel, and Diamond -- which became the biggest female-only firm in the country.

Why are there so few?

In conclusion, the lack of women in architectural history is not due to the fact that they were absent; rather, it is that women in architecture – as in all other professional fields – have simply suffered from that most wretched curse in history: subjugation by the victors and writers.

Denied recognition and advancement – and often employment – women architects most commonly opened their own firms, whose records were most often destroyed at the end of the architect’s life.

Additionally, women’s commissions tended to be for private buildings and very rarely for the large institutions that are more likely to survive into modern times.

Finally, like women in all other professions, their abilities and conducts were subject to constant questioning and scrutiny, leading many to deliberately remain inconspicuous so that their work was judged on merit rather than sex.

Whether building hospitals and schools in the western territories, writing architectural history books, or patenting new building designs, women have made contributions to the field that set precedents for the standards of building and design that we know today.

Robert A.M. Stern on Why: Do You Agree?

Equity in Architecture

Bibliography

Cole, Doris. From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture. New York: i press incorporated, 1973.

Doumato, Lamia. “Louisa Tuthill’s Unique Achievement: First History of Architecture in the U.S.” In Architecture: A Place for Women, edited by Ellen Perry Berkeley, 5-14. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Grierson, Joan. For the Record: The First Women in Canadian Architecture. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008.

Paine, Judith. “Pioneer Women Architects.” In Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, edited by Susana Torre, 54-69. New York: Waston-Guptill Publications, 1977.

Torre, Susana. “Introduction: A Parallel History.” In Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, edited by Susana Torre, 54-69. New York: Waston-Guptill Publications, 1977.

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