When people ask how I came to write Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel, Two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America with architectural historian Tania Martin, I sometimes answer I got hooked once I discovered the work of these women is generally unknown or habitually omitted from histories of architecture, and if mentioned, often disparaged.
On KPFA, a Pacifica radio station in the San Francisco Bay area, on March 10, 2015, Middle Eastern scholar and media analyst Edmund A. Ghareeb discussed the consequences of the destruction of written records and artifacts created by the ancient cultures of Iraq and Syria. He paraphrased a traditional saying from the region, that those who do not know their past will not have a future.
That has certainly been the dynamic effecting generations of North American women who unknowingly followed paths first forged in architecture by thirty-some nineteenth century women. Who knows how many other names have yet to surface. At the American Institute of Architects (AIA) ceremony posthumously designating architect Julia Morgan (1872-1957) as its 2014 Gold Medal winner, Beverly Willis, an architect and long-time advocate for women in architecture, noted her ignorance of women who practiced architecture early in the twentieth century: “Women in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were denied the incredible role model of a successful practitioner.”
It might seem amazing that anyone interested in contributing to the built environment would be unaware that Morgan was the first woman in the world to be admitted to l’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (in 1898), considered the most prestigious training anyone could find at the time, who then became the undisputed designer of over seven hundred buildings, including her most famous project for William Randolph Hearst, where for twenty-eight years she designed and supervised the erection of most buildings comprising his San Simeon estate and ranch, known to many as the principal set of the Orson Welles film, Citizen Kane. But actually, Julia Morgan’s emergence as the best known woman architect of those practicing in the first half of the twentieth century was spurred by the discovery of her first significant chronicler, Sara Holmes Boutelle, when as late as 1972, she found Morgan identified as Hearst’s secretary in a photograph in San Simeon’s guest book. (In a March 2015 search of their web site, hearstcastle.org, Morgan’s role in creating Hearst Castle, as it is most familiarly known, is now celebrated and documented.)
For over twenty years I have been researching moments of American innovation or change, particularly those omitted from standard historical references, such as the ones included in my twentieth century chronology Rediscovering America, The Making of Multicultural America, 1900-2000 (Three Rivers Press, 2003). Routinely when men, particularly white men, achieve an important “first” they are justly celebrated. In fact you can find many books of “firsts.” But search their indexes for female names, for instance, and you will quickly see how rarely women appear in these ranks.
Like Boutelle, who was inspired to begin fifteen years of research, writing and lecturing on Morgan after seeing the Hearst Castle guestbook error, I plunged into nine years of research and writing centered on Buffalo, New York based architect Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856-1913) and the thirty-some other North American women who began their careers as architects before the turn of the twentieth century, when I learned Bethune had designed one of the country’s turn of the century premiere luxury hotels, Buffalo’s Lafayette Hotel (1904-1912). As it quickly became evident, Bethune was also the first woman architect in the United States to open her own architectural office (1881); the first woman to be acknowledged by her peers with her admittance into a professional organization of architects, the Western association of Architects (1885); the first woman elected a member of the AIA (1888); and the first woman Fellow of the AIA (1889). In part what struck me about this list of Bethune’s firsts was to find out how hidden her achievements had remained outside of the Western New York area, until the recent forty-three million dollar renovation of her signature work, now renamed Hotel @ The Lafayette, brought much attention to her achievements.
In Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel co-author Tania Martin chronicles the work of Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart (1823-1902), a Catholic nun born Esther Pariseau in Saint-Elzéar, Quebec. Her works were built to serve the mission of her order, the Sisters of Providence, and pre-date much of Bethune’s work. In 1856 Mother Joseph traveled from Providence’s Mother House in Montreal to Vancouver, the Catholic seat in the Northwest Territory, where she immediately set upon building between twenty-eight and thirty-two structures to serve as schools, hospitals, orphanages, and chapels, besides provide housing for the aged and her religious community. Mother Joseph continued this work until shortly before her death in Vancouver, Washington, the site of her remaining signature work, known as The Academy (1873). Recently purchased by the Fort Vancouver National Trust, The Academy is slated to receive its own major renovation, becoming the centerpiece of a multi-use campus.
Though we are led to believe what we learn in school is the complete historical record, we clearly are only taught a selected version of the facts. The disappearance of these nineteenth century women architects’ names from the historical record provides a clear illustration of how the retelling of “History” is political. This is not surprising, as the facts in “official” histories are likely to be selected by the winners. And when each following generation perpetuates this official version of our nation’s story, it is very difficult to reintroduce different facts or newly found information. An example of how habits become so engrained can be found in architecture as recently as 2012 when the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the profession’s equivalent of a Nobel Prize, chose Wang Shu to receive the award, neglecting his wife and the co-founder of their practice, Lu Wenyu. And this happened even though there had been vigorous campaigning to right the Pritzker’s wrong to Denise Scott Brown, who was ignored when Robert Venturi, her husband and long-time partner in architecture, received the Pritzker in 1991. It is likely Julia Morgan was the beneficiary of this dust-up, when she was honored by the AIA in 2014.
So if we want to help half of our population to be winners—meaning to inspire them to find ways to have a fulfilling future–, it is necessary to keep digging up and broadcasting more realistic facts which will include everyone’s history.
Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel, Two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America, by Carla Blank and Tania Martin, was recently published by Baraka Books of Montreal, and is available in paperback and electronic editions, plus Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
CARLA BLANK is author of Rediscovering America: the Making of Multicultural America, 1900-2000 (Three Rivers Press, 2003) and co-editor of Pow-Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now (Da Capo, 2009). She lives in Oakland.