Women contribute in every field of endeavor – including as architects. Their contributions have been recognized for more than 100 years in this profession. Let’s learn about some of the pioneering women architects in the U.S. including Mary Colter, Julia Morgan, and Sophia Hayden Bennett, as well as a contemporary woman architect – Maya Lin.
Originally a schoolteacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mary Colter became an architect, designer and decorator for the Fred Harvey Company in 1902. The Fred Harvey Company had operated the gift shops, newsstands, restaurants, and hotels of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway since 1876. Fred Harvey made an agreement with AT & Santa Fe in which the railway would build and own the station hotels and restaurants, while he would manage them and provide good food and service for reasonable prices. Colter created those Fred Harvey hotels along the railroad and at the Grand Canyon, putting the Southwest on the map.
Colter demonstrated a new style of architecture – one that grew out of the surrounding land. Her buildings pay homage to the early inhabitants of the region as she used Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and Mexican motifs. Her buildings have the simplicity of the early architecture after which they are patterned. Colter also developed what is today called “National Park Service Rustic.” For these buildings she used local and natural materials. In 1925 at the La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, her interior design and decorating featured local craftsmen from the pueblos; this created what is today called the Santa Fe Style. At Grand Canyon National Park, her buildings included the Hopi House (1905), Desert View Watchtower (1932), Hermit’s Rest (1914), Lookout Studio (1914), Bright Angel Lodge (1935) and Phantom Ranch (1922). The creator of Mimbreno china and flatware that was used serving food on the trains, Colter also decorated the exteriors of the train stations in St. Louis, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Best known for her work as the architect on the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, Julia Morgan was the first woman to be licensed as an architect in California. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in civil engineering (the only woman in her class) in 1894. Mentored by an architect who was a lecturer in her senior year, she journeyed to Paris with the hopes of studying to be an architect. In 1897, the École Nationale superiere des Beaux-Arts succumbed to pressure from French women artists and decided to admit women. Morgan was admitted a few years later and graduated in 1902.
Morgan’s architectural practice in San Francisco, established in 1904, was especially busy after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Her many projects for the YWCA included the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California. After accepting more than 450 commissions, she was quite famous and was selected by William Randolph Hearst to serve as the architect for his ranch at San Simeon, California. His simple instructions to her in 1919 were: “Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something”. By 1947, Morgan had created an estate of 165 rooms in numerous buildings; there were also 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways. Today, the project on which she worked for twenty years is called the Hearst Castle and is a California State Park. It is listed as both a National Historic Landmark and a California Historic Landmark.
In 1886, Sophia Hayden Bennett became the first woman admitted into the architecture program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After she graduated with honors in 1890, she was unable to find work as an architect. This was not surprising, due to gender restrictions at the time, whether spoken or unsaid. She did take a position teaching mechanical drawing at a high school in Boston. At the urging of a friend, she entered an architectural competition, open to women architects only, for the Women’s Building to be built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Women’s Building was developed at the insistence of Bertha Palmer, whose money, vision and expertise contributed enormously to the Exposition. Bennett’s design won the competition and the building was constructed. It was her first and last commission. The building, which had received both positive and negative reviews, was torn down after the Exposition was over. After the Exposition was over, Bennett relocated to Winthrop, Massachusetts, where she was active in local women’s societies. It appears that she married and left the field of architecture shortly thereafter.
Known both for her sculpture and her land art, architect Maya Lin won the competition for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981, while she was still an undergraduate student at Yale University. Her design was selected from more than 1400 entries. Although her memorial sculpture was highly controversial at the time she did it, in 2007 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was named #10 on the list of America’s Favorite Architecture. Today it is considered one of the influential memorials built after World War II.
Lin’s body of work consists of memorials, public and private buildings, landscape and sculpture. She designed the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama (1989). Her work reflects significant environmental awareness; she focuses on the relationships that people have with their environment. Much of her recent work makes a significant statement as she concentrates on global warming, endangered bodies of water and animals faced with extinction. Lin has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives. The architects featured in this month’s article as well as many others, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories. Write women back into history!
Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.