In honor of Women’s History Month, I spent some time contemplating the contributions of women to the profession of architecture over the course of history, and specifically to traditional and classical architecture in America. There are many significant female practitioners today, but that was not always the case; and women remain scarce in architectural history courses and textbooks.
Julia Morgan (1872-1957) is perhaps the best known historical female architect, and she was certainly a trailblazer as the first woman to graduate from the École des Beaux-Arts and the first woman in the state of California to become a licensed architect. She had a prolific career, working on an estimated 700 buildings. Although she preferred to stay out of the public eye during her career, many of her beautiful buildings are still standing and have helped to establish her legacy.
Another woman that had a prolific practice, but is not as widely recognized today is Leila Ross Wilburn (1885-1967). Wilburn was the first woman to become a licensed Architect in the state of Georgia and had a successful practice in Atlanta. However, what is most notable about Wilburn is the great number of Pattern Books that she published. In one of these Pattern Books, she wrote, “What we need most in America is a better class of small domestic architecture, one which shall provide us with homes more wholesome in their exterior appearance and more satisfying in their internal arrangement and finish.” Her drive to provide quality design to a larger number of people was admirable and has helped to establish her legacy in the history of traditional American architecture.
Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856-1913) was one of the first professional female architects, the first woman admitted to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the first to be named an AIA Fellow. She had a successful practice in Buffalo, NY focusing on public buildings. Unlike Leila Ross Wilburn, Bethune disliked working on residential projects because she felt that they did not pay well. She also gained notoriety when she refused to enter a design competition for the Woman’s Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago because she felt that it was unfair that women were paid one tenth what a male architect would be paid for designing a building at the World’s Fair.
Bethune’s refusal to enter the design competition for the Chicago World’s Fair left an opening for another female architect: Sophia Hayden (1886-1953). Hayden won the design competition for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Fair when she was only 21 years old. She had recently become the first woman to graduate from MIT with a degree in architecture. Unfortunately, Hayden’s design for the Woman’s Building was compromised through numerous changes by the construction committee. This experience proved very frustrating for Hayden and discouraged her from working as an architect.
The women mentioned in this essay were able to contribute to the beauty of our built environment and enrich our architectural heritage, despite the fact that the architectural profession was not welcoming to women during their lifetimes. As a woman practicing architecture today, I am thankful for the work that my fore mothers did to open the doors of the architectural profession to women. It is encouraging to see that there are an equal number of women (to men) entering architecture school today, and more of them than ever before are continuing on to professional practice and leadership roles. It is also encouraging to see more women gaining recognition for their design work through major prizes and publications, and I am hopeful that future textbooks and syllabi will include more women’s names.
This is certainly not an exhaustive listing of the women who deserve recognition for their contributions to traditional American Architecture, but hopefully it has piqued your interest. If you would like to learn more, Wikipedia has compiled a list of Women Architects, and that may be a good place to start.
About the Author
Elizabeth C. Dillon is a Principal at Historical Concepts, where she manages an assortment of large custom residential projects and leads a New York-based design studio. She has served as both the Treasurer and the Vice President of the Southeast Chapter of the ICAA and currently serves on the Finance Committee of the Institute’s national board.