Building on the Past: A History of Women in Architecture


BWAF was contacted earlier this year by The National Women’s History Museum to contribute a feature story on the history of women in architecture in the United States. Below is the story, a primer in many ways, written by BWAF Trustee, Despina Stratigakos, Associate Professor, State University of New York at Buffalo Department of Architecture.

Republished with permission from the National Women’s History Museum. Download the NWHM Spring 2014 Newsletter .pdf

By Despina Stratigakos, Ph.D.

In May 2011, Architect Barbie made her debut at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Convention in New Orleans. The more than twelve thousand AIA members in attendance, an overwhelmingly male crowd (only 16 percent of AIA members are women), must have been surprised to encounter the pink-and-white Mattel booth in the vast exposition hall, which was occupied primarily by companies selling new building materials and technologies. The Mattel booth featured Architect Barbie and her Malibu Dream-house as well as a lively workshop area that filled each day with children who came to learn about the history of women in architecture, meet female practitioners, and try their hand at designing a floor plan for their own dream home. Four hundred girls were exposed to architectural practice that week, and many expressed excitement at the idea that they might grow up to be builders. The homes they envisioned testified to their awareness of their spatial needs and a desire to shape their own environments. One little girl designed a home with a special room for monsters, acknowledging their existence while getting them out from under her bed.

Celebrating the debut of Architect Barbie, 400 girls participated in interactive design workshops at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2011 National Convention and Design Exposition. Architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie helped introduce girls to the profession through the Barbie "I Can Be..." doll line, which encourages girls to dream big and "try on" different careers, New Orleans, Thursday, May 12, 2011. (Cheryl Gerber/AP Images for Mattel)

Celebrating the debut of Architect Barbie, 400 girls participated in interactive design workshops at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2011 National Convention and Design Exposition. Architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie helped introduce girls to the profession through the Barbie “I Can Be…” doll line, which encourages girls to dream big and “try on” different careers, New Orleans, Thursday, May 12, 2011. (Cheryl Gerber/AP Images for Mattel)

As a profession, architecture does not have a history of welcoming women and continues to struggle with their integration. Although women account for half of American architecture graduates, they represent only 20 percent of licensed practitioners and even fewer partners of architectural firms. The reasons more women than men leave architecture are poorly understood, but the traditionally macho culture of the profession, which idealizes starchitects and dismisses so-called feminine values, such as collaboration, has certainly played a role. So, too, has women architects’ invisibility in popular culture and history books, although they have practiced in the United States for more than one hundred and thirty years. For young women seeking to enter architectural practice, knowing the history of female pioneers offers an anchoring sense of roots.

Louis Blanchard Bethune

Louis Blanchard Bethune

In 1881, Buffalo native Louise Bethune became the first woman architect in the United States to open her own firm. Buffalo was booming, and its spirit of innovation attracted some of the country’s greatest architects, including H. H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Bethune designed public, commercial, and industrial buildings in the city, among them some of the first structures in the United States to use the new building technology of a steel frame and poured concrete slabs. Many consider the Hotel Lafayette, richly decorated in the French Renaissance style, her architectural masterpiece.


Image from Landmark Heritage Foundation.

Image from Landmark Heritage Foundation.

Julia Morgan is arguably the best-known female architect in the United States, thanks in part to having had William Randolph Hearst as a loyal patron. Although millions of visitors have admired Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, Morgan’s architectural legacy is found throughout the state, where she designed more than seven hundred buildings during her long and prolific career. Morgan also has the distinction of having been the first woman to be accepted for architectural study at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which she entered in 1898. Morgan’s many accomplishments were recently acknowledged by the AIA, which awarded her the 2014 AIA Gold Medal. Almost sixty years after her death, Morgan became the first female architect to receive the AIA’s highest prize, which has been awarded since 1907.

The Lookout Studio at Grand Canyon National Park by Mary Colter. Photo Credit: NPS photo by Michael Quinn, under Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

The Lookout Studio at Grand Canyon National Park by Mary Colter. Photo Credit: NPS photo by Michael Quinn, under Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

Mary Jane Colter, raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, brought a great sensitivity for history and land- scape to the lodges and hotels she designed in the American Southwest for the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Company. From 1905 to the mid- 1930s, Colter designed a series of buildings at the Grand Canyon whose bold designs, archaeological references, and use of local materials fired tourists’ imaginations and remain immensely popular sites. She is credited with inspiring the style known as National Park Service Rustic, nicknamed Parkitecture, developed by the National Park Service in an effort to blend visitor facilities with their natural and historic surroundings. Others claim Colter’s fusion of cultural influences set the standard for Southwestern design. In Gallup, New Mexico, for example, Colter’s 1923 railway hotel, El Navajo, daringly combined modernist, Spanish, and Native American architectural elements and featured Navajo sand paintings in the lobby. The hotel was demolished in 1957, shortly before the architect’s death, to widen Route 66.

A different sort of experimentation, social and urban in nature, drove Alice Hands and Mary Gannon, two young and dynamic architects in New York City, to form the country’s first female architectural partnership in 1894. Among other ambitions, Hands and Gannon sought to better house the city’s marginal populations, an early example of designing for social justice. To study the problems faced by the poor, Gannon and Hands lived in tenements and experienced their deficiencies first-hand, something that few male colleagues were willing to do. On this basis, they designed model tenements that were praised by housing reformers for being affordable, sanitary, practical, and even beautiful. In 1895, Hands and Gannon designed a series of residences in New York City for self-supporting working women, a new social type that had become highly visible in the nation’s urban centers at the end of the nineteenth century. When Hands and Gannon disbanded their firm sometime after the turn of the century, they slipped into obscurity, as did the story of their unusual collaboration.

BWAF DVD cover Final 10.18.12A similar eclipse has befallen the women architects who worked in Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio. A Girl Is a Fellow Here, a 2009 documentary produced by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), focused attention on the forgotten history of the many creative female hands in his firm. At a time when the majority of Americans viewed architectural skills and the female gender as fundamentally incompatible, Wright recognized women’s abilities and employed a surprising number of them over the years. He was not as good, however, at giving them credit for their contributions. Marion Mahony Griffin, who graduated in 1894 with an architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was hired by Wright the following year as his first employee, played a particularly important role. During the fifteen years she worked in his studio, she helped to develop Prairie School architecture and to popularize Wright’s work through her exquisite drawings of his designs.

In the 1930s, many designers fled Germany to avoid religious or political persecution, thus also spreading modernism to new shores. Bauhaus-trained architect Hilde Reiss was among the female émigrés who served as ambassadors for the new style in the United States. In 1946, she was hired by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to serve as the curator of its new Everyday Art Gallery, one of the first museum spaces in the country devoted to modern design. Like Reiss, Elsa Gidoni fled Berlin in 1933, but spent five years in Tel Aviv designing buildings in the International Style before moving to New York in 1938. Although, like many refugees, she initially struggled to find work, she eventually became a project designer at the New York City firm of Kahn and Jacobs and contributed to modernist department stores, office buildings, and industrial facilities along the East Coast.

dna.1After the war, the enormous demand for housing propelled experiments in new domestic materials and technologies. In 1948, architect Eleanor Raymond, working with MIT researcher Maria Telkes, constructed the Dover Sun House in Dover, Massachusetts, the first occupied solar-heated home in the United States. During this period, and indicative of other social changes under way in the nation, Norma Merrick Sklarek, born in Harlem, New York, was studying architecture at Columbia University. Despite facing discrimination because of her gender and race as well as a lack of role models, Sklarek rose to senior positions at major architectural firms, achieving many firsts for African American women. By 1950, women had established a significant history in American architecture. However, it would be several more decades before the effort to record this history began in earnest. In 1985, the International Archive of Women in Architecture was founded at Virginia Tech to help preserve the material record. The past decade has seen a wealth of new books on the topic, and online resources, such as the BWAF’s Dynamic National Archive, a public database of women designers, are helping to expose younger audiences to this national history. Unfortunately, museums have lagged in collecting and disseminating the work of women architects. Exhibitions that make accessible the blueprints, drawings, and models created by these pioneers or that point us to their still-standing legacy beyond the museums’ walls remain rare.

 DespinaDespina Stratigakos is a professor of architectural history at the University at Buffalo. She has published widely on issues of diversity in architecture, including the award-winning A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City. She is a trustee of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation and has served on the advisory board of the International Archive of Women in Architecture.

Did You Know?

  • Mary L. Page was the first woman to earn an architecture degree in the United States; she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign in 1873.
  • In 1900, only thirty-nine American women had graduated from formal four-year architecture programs. Nearly one hundred years later (1999), the number of female licensed architects had risen to approximately thirty thousand, or 15.5 percent of licensed architects in the United States.
  • Today, women represent about 50 percent of students enrolled in architecture programs, but fewer than 18 percent of licensed architects (and fewer in leadership roles).
  • In 1963, Ada Louise Huxtable became the first architecture critic in the United States with The New York Times. She later received the Pulitzer Prize of “distinguished criticism” in 1970.

Spotlight on Deryl McKissack

Deryl McKissack is President and Chief Executive Officer of McKissack & McKissack, an architecture, environmental engineering and program management firm. She founded the company in 1990 as an outgrowth of her family’s business—the oldest minority-owned architecture/engineering firm in the United States. In fact, its roots go back to the pre-Civil War era when a slave named Moses McKissack learned the building trade from his overseer. In 1905 his grandson, Moses III, founded the first McKissack & McKissack in Nashville, Tennessee. William DeBerry, the youngest son of Moses III, took the helm as President of the firm in 1968. He nurtured the talents of his daughters—Andrea, Cheryl and Deryl—who all excelled in the fields of architecture and engineering. Today, through Deryl’s leadership and vision, McKissack & McKissack has grown to 160 employees, with offices in Washington, DC, Chicago, Miami and Baltimore.

NWHM had the pleasure of working with Ms. McKissack when she spoke at our forum Making a Business of Change: American Women in Business last November. Ms. McKissack’s comments that evening made it clear that her success in this traditionally male field did not come easy. Her professional abilities were questioned at every turn. In fact, she stated that she wasn’t sure if it was because she was a minority, a new business owner or because she was a woman, but her gender certainly played a role. Clearly, McKissack didn’t shrink from the challenges she faced along the way. As a leading program management organization, McKissack & McKissack is ranked by Engineering News-Record as one of the top 50 program management and top 100 construction management for- fee firms in the United States.


Maya Lin (1959 – )

Maya Lin is an American designer and artist best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Born in Athens, Ohio, to Chinese parents who immigrated to the United States from China in 1949, Maya’s mother wrote poetry and taught literature. Her father was a ceramicist who went on to become dean of the Ohio University College of Fine Arts. Lin attended Yale University where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1981 and a master of architecture degree in 1986.

In 1981, as a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate, Lin won what was, at the time, the largest public design competition in US history (1,422 entries)—the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The Memorial, a black cut-stone masonry wall with the names of 57,661 fallen soldiers engraved upon it, was completed in October 1982 and dedicated on November 1, 1982.

Today, Lin owns the Maya Lin Studio in New York City and has designed many impressive structures, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, the Wave Field at the University of Michigan, the Sculpture Center in Long Island City, New York, and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City’s Chinatown.

Maya Lin holds many honors and distinctions including that of being the youngest architect and first woman to design a memorial on the National Mall. She has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Women’s Hall of Fame, served on the selection jury of the World Trade Center Memorial competition, and is a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

Sophia Hayden Bennett (1868 – 1953)

Best known for designing the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1892, Sophia Hayden Bennett was one of the first women architects and helped pave the way for other women to enter the profession. Bennett was born in Santiago, Chile, to an American father and a Chilean mother who sent her (at the age of six) to live with her grandparents in a Boston suburb so that she would get an education.

Sophia began to show an interest in architecture during high school and went on to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where, in 1890, she became the first woman to receive a degree from MIT’s four-year architecture program.

Following graduation, Bennett faced many challenges in finding work as an entry-level apprentice and eventually settled for a position as a mechanical drawing teacher at a Boston high school. In 1891, she heard about a design competition for women to submit architectural drawings for the Woman’s Building planned for the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Just twenty-one years old, Bennett won the competition. She received $1,000 for her design at a time when men were receiving $10,000 for similar designs. Sadly, the construction committee demanded multiple changes that were inconsistent with her design, and she was eventually fired from the project. Although many architects sympathized with her position and in fact defended her, critics pointed to her frustration as typifying women’s unfitness for supervising construction.

In the end, Bennett’s building received an award for “Delicacy or style, artistic taste, and geniality and elegance of the interior.” Frustrated with the way she had been treated, Bennett retired from architecture and never worked as an architect again. She died in Winthrop, Massachusetts, in 1953.

Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926 – 2012)

Norma Merrick Sklarek is considered the “Rosa Parks of Architecture” for her pioneering work in architecture and for opening the door for other women of color to enter the field. Sklarek was born in Harlem in New York City to West Indian parents. Her mother was a seamstress, and her father was a doctor. She attended Hunter High School, a selective public school for girls, where she excelled in math and design. She then attended Barnard College in New York as a prerequisite to matriculate at Columbia University’s School of Architecture. Graduating from Columbia in 1950 (one of two women), she became one of the first African American women to graduate with an architecture degree.

Following graduation, Sklarek found it difficult to find a job as an architect, and instead accepted a civil service job in the city’s engineering department. The first African American woman to pass the exam in New York, she became a licensed architect in 1954, and one year later, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, one of the largest firms in New York City, hired her to work with engineering systems.

In 1960, she moved to California and was soon employed by Gruen Associates to work on large-scale government buildings, including the American Embassy in Tokyo and the City Hall of San Bernardino, California. She eventually advanced to the head of the architectural department and stayed with the company for twenty years.
Sklarek went on to become a principal at Jon Jerde Inc., now the Jerde Partnership, where she worked on the country’s largest mall, the Mall of America in Minnesota, until her retirement in 1991. Sklarek died on February 6, 2012, in Pacific Palisades, California.

Marion Mahony Griffin (1871–1961)

Marion Mahony Griffin is best remembered for her work as a member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture team in Chicago. Born in Chicago, Griffin pursued architecture as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she became the second woman to receive a degree in architecture from the university.

After graduating, she worked briefly for her cousin and two classmates from MIT who had not graduated. Barry Byrne, an early associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, recruited Griffin to join Wright’s team in Chicago. Byrne later suggested that Griffin was “the most talented member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s staff,” and doubted the studio produced anyone superior.

Most of Griffin’s work with Wright remains completely credited to Wright. When she designed the Church of All Souls in Evanston, Griffin revised her original, more radical octagonal design to gracefully meet the client’s demand for something Gothic with a limestone exterior and climbing ivy.

Griffin’s work with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, is well remembered and celebrated today. After their wedding in 1911, the couple moved to Australia and oversaw the construction of Canberra, the new national capital. Enamored with the indigenous plant life, Griffin developed a collection of sketches that became known as the “Canberra drawings.” Her designs influenced the construction of the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne and were reflected in the theater’s crystalline ceiling of four thousand individual bulbs in ornate plaster work. Griffin oversaw the construction of the theater, and spent much of her subsequent time managing the development of Castlecrag, the Sydney suburb she designed. Griffin died in 1961 at the age of ninety, in Chicago.

NWHM gratefully acknowledges the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation’s Dynamic National Archive as the primary source for this material.