March is Women’s History Month—a time to celebrate the important contributions women have made to American history. For centuries, scholars neglected women’s history. While the U.S. has come a long way in recent decades, the task of recovering women’s history is an ongoing project. A new groundbreaking exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives recovers the story of a 19th-century architect named Minerva Parker Nichols (1862-1949). She was one of the country’s first woman architects, practicing in Philadelphia in the 1880s and 1890s. Over her lifetime, she designed over 80 buildings across the country.
This is the first time ever that Minerva’s story will be stitched back together and displayed for contemporary audiences.Molly Lester, architectural historian
Born in Illinois, Nichols was raised by her mother after her father died in 1863 fighting for the Union Army. She learned to draw from her grandfather, who was a builder originally from Massachusetts. Her mother later remarried and moved with Minerva and her sister Adelaide to Philadelphia in 1876. But her stepfather soon died, leaving her mother pregnant and again having to fend for herself and her three young children.
The family ran a boarding house, and Minerva also worked as a servant for the family of a wholesale grocer to make ends meet. But she sought better paying work to support her family.
In 1880, she enrolled at the Philadelphia Normal Art School, graduating in 1882, and then completed a two-year course in architectural drawing at the Franklin Institute Drawing School in 1886. She joined the architectural firm of Edwin W. Thorne, taking over his office when he departed in 1888—making Nichols the first independently practicing female architect in the United States. In 1889, she completed a certificate at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts.
Between 1888 and 1893, Nichols had over 60 commissions, which were primarily dwellings but also included two spaghetti factories, a building for the Philadelphia New Century Club in 1891, a women’s pavilion for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a building for the Wilmington New Century Club in 1893 in Delaware.
In 1894, she designed a building for the Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass. From 1891-1895, she taught architecture and historic ornament at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now the Moore College of Art and Design.
Nichols brought her experiences as a woman, servant and caretaker of children to her designs. She prioritized “reducing household labor to a minimum” (her own words) by, for example, minimizing intricate woodwork that would need to be dusted. She focused on the impact of architecture on the people who would inhabit her buildings, including children—“don’t have a house so dainty, or so fine, that there is no place for children”—and workers—“it seems an unnecessary humiliation to lock a store-room door.”
She encouraged her clients to stamp their own individuality on their house design and urged, “Don’t be afraid of light and air: They are that things that do most to beautify our homes.”
She summed up her aesthetic in a few basic rules: “A building must not only be strong, but have the appearance of repose” and “the science of harmony is never monotony. A single note never can produce discord, yet it is not harmony.”
Nichols was surprisingly successful. At the peak of her career in 1891, when she was just 29 years old, she earned approximately $6,000—the equivalent of about $200,000 annually in today’s dollars.
She also received widespread recognition for her work. In the eight years she maintained her independent practice in Philadelphia (1888-1896), her name appeared in 606 newspaper articles in 44 states and eight different countries, including New Zealand, Jamaica and France. In 1890 alone, readers worldwide saw her name at least 240 times, including 11 mentions in separate newspapers on a single day (April 10, 1890).
In addition to designing buildings, Nichols supervised the construction of her designs—all the while dressed in a corset, in accordance with the social mores of the day. Despite restrictive ideas of women’s roles and capacities at the time, Nichols earned the respect of male builders.
“She’s the most particular and knowing person to work for,” one tradesman remarked. “She knows every brick and just where it ought to go,” another told a reporter. “There’s no cheating her by smuggling in knotty lumber and leaving the joists sticking out into the chimneys,” said another builder. A contractor said he “had never worked for an architect who better understood the business,” while another said, “she knows not only her business, but mine, too.”
Many of Nichols’ clients came from the growing number of educated women, graduating from newly-formed women’s colleges, and who were pushing the limits set by the male-dominated society of their day. For example, Nichols designed a house for Rachel Foster Avery, a prominent suffragist and close confidante of Susan B. Anthony. Nichols designed the building to house suffragists visiting Philadelphia. Nichols’ two women’s club buildings in Philadelphia and Wilmington served as staging grounds for women’s social, literary and political gatherings. At a time when women had little influence on broader society, the clubs provided a space for women to organize social reform campaigns to advance suffrage, women’s and girls’ education, improved labor conditions, dress reform and more.
In addition to her designs, Nichols published many articles on art and architecture, and advocated for women in architecture. One of the only known instances of Nichols speaking publicly about a political issue was at an 1893 dress reform rally in Chicago, no doubt because corsets—which reduced lung capacity in half—made her work on construction sites much more difficult. She once mentioned in a newspaper interview, “I don’t mind walking over scaffolding a bit, but I draw the line on ladders.” She was also active in early affordable housing efforts in Philadelphia and New York.
While many of the over 80 buildings she designed still stand, Nichols has been largely forgotten. But an intrepid group of architectural scholars hope to change that with a new groundbreaking exhibit: Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for A Forgotten Architect, on the life and works of Nichols. The exhibit runs from March 21 to June 17 at University of Pennsylvania’s Architectural Archives and will then travel to University of Massachusetts, Amherst next year.
The exhibit is built on over a decade of research by architectural historian and preservation planner Molly Lester, who is the lead scholar and co-curator for the show along with William Whitaker, the curator and collections manager of the Architectural Archives. Supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the exhibit includes photographs of many of Nichols’ still extant buildings taken by architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella and is also supported by archivist Heather Isbell Schumacher at the Architectural Archives.
“This is the first time ever that Minerva’s story will be stitched back together and displayed for contemporary audiences,” said Lester. “During her lifetime, she was one of the most famous architects in the country; it’s only since she died that most architectural histories have forgotten about her and her contributions to the built environment. With this exhibit, we want to correct for that absence and reclaim her significance as part of a larger reckoning with how we construct and keep our cultural heritage.”
Nichols’ story is an inspiring example of a woman overcoming tremendous obstacles to achieve her dream of becoming an architect—a story women and girls still need to hear. According to data collected by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, women are less than a quarter of practicing architects today. Recovering and celebrating women’s long history of contributions to the built environment may inspire more young women to enter field of architecture.
For more information, see the website Preserving Minerva, the podcast Gender Jawn from the UPenn Center for Research in Feminist, Queer and Transgender Studies, architectural historian Molly Lester’s 6-part podcast series What Minerva Built and follow WhatMinervaBuilt on Instagram.
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