AIArchitectInstititute News
02/2006 Women and Women Architects in the 1890s
Architects Louise B. Bethune and Sophia G. Hayden, and the likes of Mrs. Potter Palmer

by Tony Wrenn, Hon. AIA

At the 1892-93 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, something that had not been done before at any world’s fair was planned. There would be a building devoted solely to women. All buildings were to be designed by architects, and Daniel Burnham, the exposition’s chief of construction, sought the best known American architects as designers. He would have known Louise Bethune, FAIA, a woman architect, and member of the AIA. She was clearly capable of designing the Woman’s Building—she had, after all, designed schools, a hotel, a police station, a baseball field, and other buildings in Buffalo, where her architecture office was located—but was not nationally known. Burnham may have had her in mind, may even have offered her the job. If so, she refused and he ordered a competition among American women architects for the design of the building. (Larson, Eric, Devil in the White City, p. 120.)

Bethune, who was the first woman elected to the AIA in 1888, addressed the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union of Buffalo, on May 6, 1891, after the competition was announced. “Chairman and Ladies of the Educational Committee,” she began, “you have requested me to speak upon ‘Women in Architecture.’ The subject might, from a masculine standpoint, at least, be disposed of with the brevity which characterized the famous chapter upon the ‘Snakes of Ireland.’” She spoke of Egyptians, English queens, and of the “sainted women of Catholic Europe who built and governed monasteries as well as nunneries, and who founded and endowed charities and schools.” She recounted advances being made in the U.S., where schools of architecture had recently been established, which women were entering, and from which they were graduating.

Bethune discussed architecture, “never satisfactorily defined . . . It is not construction in any of its various branches nor is it arrangement of interior nor exterior, nor coloring, nor carving, nor profiling of moldings; neither is it acoustics, nor fenestration, nor sanitation, nor any one of a hundred other things. It is the arranging and adjuncting, harmonizing and contrasting of all these and many other elements into a suitable and satisfactory whole.” Women, she said, had entered the architecture profession earlier than women had entered other professions, “even before it has received legislative recognition,” which did not come until 1897 when Illinois was the first state to adopt an architectural licensing law.

Bethune said women architects “meet no serious opposition from the profession nor the public. Neither are they warmly welcomed. They minister to no special needs of women, and receive no special favors from them.” She concluded that one threshold remained to be crossed by women, that of “Equal Remuneration for Equal Service.” Whether Bethune invented the phrase is not known, but the fact that she used it in 1891 indicates the depth of her thought and concern for the profession.

Unequal pay for equal work
The Inland Architect and News Record, which reported Bethune’s speech, notes that she was asked about the Woman’s Building suggested for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (The Inland Architect and News Record, Vol XVII, No. 2, March 1891, pages 20-21) She responded that “the idea of separate Women’s Board Exhibit, etc., expresses a sense of inferiority which business women are far from feeling.” She pointed out the evils of architectural competition (also opposed at the time by the AIA), which was to be used to select a woman architect for the building.

Worst of all, the competition winner would be paid $1,000, “about three-tenths [actually it was only one tenth, for male architects were paid $10,000] of the average rate paid the already appointed architects [all male] for nearly similar service,” which was, she noted “an unfortunate precedent to establish just now, and it may take years to live down its effects.” In point of fact, 110 years later, equal pay for equal work has not yet become widespread.

Still, the competition for the Women’s Building at the Columbian Exposition was held, and architect Sophia G. Hayden’s design was selected. Chief-of-construction Burnham reported that “Miss Hayden was at once employed as the architect of the building, and it has been constructed upon her designs and under her supervision. ‘Examination of the facts,’ testified Mr. Burnham emphatically, ‘shows that this woman had no help whatever in working up the designs. It was done by herself in her own home.’” (Hon. William E. Cameron, editor, History of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Columbian History Company, 1893, page 42.)

Mrs. Palmer Potter strikes
The report of the Board of Lady Managers, headed by Mrs. Potter Palmer, disposes of Hayden somewhat differently. The Woman’s Building, she reported, was “designed by Miss Sophia G. Hayden, a Boston architect, only 22 years old, and a modest girl of such retiring appearance that architecture is the last thing one would think her guilty of . . . It was not generally known in this country that there were many women architects until the design for the building was called for. The President of the Board [Palmer] admitted that it was with dread of the results of the competition that she attended the meeting of architects who adjudicated the plans submitted for female competitors.

“There were fourteen in all,” she continues, “and to the astonishment of the judges, who were in the blessed frame of mind which expects little, the designs were all possessed of more than ordinary claims to recognition. Several were extremely fine, some of excellent originality, and none entirely bad . . . With two exceptions the contestants came from the Southern and Western states. Miss Hayden is of Spanish extraction, and a native of South America, but having been reared and educated in Boston, and a graduate of its school of Technology [she was the first woman to graduate in architecture from MIT], is essentially an American girl.”

“But of the Woman’s Building . . . The Board of Lady Managers wields entire control and management.” (History, p. 160)

Perhaps Hayden should have heeded the AIA’s warning about the evils of competitions. Perhaps she should have talked to Bethune. Perhaps Burnham should have used his influence to persuade Bethune to undertake the building design. He had after all been influential enough to persuade Richard Morris Hunt, perhaps then the nation’s leading architect, and a reluctant designer for the World’s Columbian Exposition, to design for the fair.

A Gilded Age battle
Hayden did enter, and her design was chosen. She accepted the $1,000, completed drawings for the building, and came to Chicago to supervise the completion of the building exterior. Mrs. Palmer apparently had other ideas, and she and Hayden were at odds. The 22-year-old counteracted the decisions of the grand dame, intent on ensuring that the building she had designed was carried to completion in accordance with her designs. She seems, however, to have had neither the wiles nor the maturity to win, and the conflict ended in tragedy for her.

It was “a battle . . . fought in true Gilded Age fashion, with oblique snubs and poisonous courtesy. Mrs. Palmer pecked and pestered and catapulted icy smiles into Hayden’s deepening gloom. Finally Palmer assigned the decoration of the Woman’s Building to someone else . . .

“Hayden fought the arrangement in her quiet, stubborn way until she could take it no longer. She walked into Burnham’s office, began to tell him her story, and promptly, literally, went mad: tears, heaving sobs, cries of anguish, all of it. ‘A severe breakdown,’ an acquaintance called it, ‘with a violent attack of high nervous excitement of the brain.’

“Burnham, stunned, summoned one of the exposition surgeons. Hayden was discretely driven from the park in one of the fair’s innovative English ambulances with quiet, rubber tires and placed in a sanitarium for a period of enforced rest. She lapsed into ‘melancholia,’ a sweet name for depression.”

The Women’s Building, under Burnham’s direction, one of the first of the exposition buildings completed, was a success. Today, in remembering that Hayden had a nervous breakdown trying to ensure completion of the building after her design, it is well to remember the patronizing Mrs. Potter Palmer, the wife of the man who owned Chicago’s best known hotel, secure in her position as a leader of Chicago society, and in her belief that architecture was “the last thing one would think her [Sophia Hayden, and by extension, any woman] guilty of.” (History, p. 160)

An unfair legacy
Minerva Parker Nichols, a Philadelphian who had entered the competition for the Women’s Building, and lost to Hayden, understood what happened in 1893 in Chicago, and its effect on women then practicing architecture. “It is not fair,” she noted, “because one woman makes a doubtful success, to draw conclusions from her example . . . Because one woman suffers from exhaustion in the daily wear and tear of her household duty, you would not say that women were unfitted for domestic life.” (Ellen Perry Berkeley and Matilda McQuaid, Architecture A Place for Women, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989, p. 32.)

Still today, when Hayden’s name comes up, one will hear not of the 22-year-old who designed one of the most popular buildings in the great White City, but of the woman architect who had a nervous breakdown while supervising, against great odds, its construction.

Copyright 2005 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved. Home Page Home Page

AIA150 Rolling History
 A Beginning, 1857-1866
 The Second Decade, 1867-1876
 1877-1886: Westward and Upward
 1887-1896: A Decade of Outreach, Inclusiveness, and Internationalism
 Women and Women Architects in the 1890s
 1897-1906: The AIA Moves to and Changes Washington
 The Institute's Influence on Legislative Policy
 At 50, the AIA Conceives the Gold Medal, Receives Roosevelt's Gratitude
 Spinning a Golden Webb
 1909-1917: The Institute Comes of Age in the Nation's Capital
 1917-1926: A New Power Structure: World War I, Pageantry, and the Power of the Press
 1927-1936: A Decade of Depression and Perseverance
 The AIA in Its Ninth Decade: 1937-1946
 1947-1956: Wright Recognition, White House Renovation, AIA Closes on 100
 The Tenth Decade: 1957-1966
 1967-1976: New HQ and a New Age Take Center Stage
 A New Home for the AIA in 1973; A Greener Home in 2007
 Diversity and the Profession: Take II
 'The Vietnam Situation Is Hell': The AIA's Internal Struggle over the War in Southeast Asia
 1977-1986: Activism and Capital-A Architecture Are Alive at the AIA
 1987-1996 Technology, Diversity, and Expansion

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