Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1247:
THREE WOMEN ARCHITECTS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1247.

Today, a story about three very different women. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

America reached the latter 19th century with no professional women architects. So historian Madeleine Stern goes looking for the first ones. She finds three, and their stories are not alike.

First, Harriet Irwin: upper-crust child of ante-bellum North Carolina aristocracy. After the Civil War the South needed new construction and Irwin, now having borne nine children, felt she understood the problems of home design. She studied architecture on her own, then obtained a patent for a new kind of house -- two stories high with a hexagonal floor plan. A couple of those odd houses were built. One is still there in Charlotte. Irwin did a few more designs, then switched to writing as a creative outlet.

While Harriet Irwin's architecture was wed to her role as a homemaker, Louise Bethune's was not. Born a Yankee in 1856, Bethune was also home-educated. At 20 she found work in an architectural office, and she forged her own apprenticeship. At 25, she married another architect and the two went into business. For Bethune, architecture was a business that women should enter on equal footing. "Equal pay for equal service," she insisted. She wanted nothing to do with designing houses. That was just a way to be drawn into family squabbles and haggles over fees. House plans were something you ordered from any of a growing number of catalogs.

Bethune worked all her life as a professional architect. She designed hotels, schools, offices. Then an event linked Irwin, Bethune, and a third woman whom we'll meet in a moment. Organizers of the 1893 Chicago Exposition announced a competition for the design of a Women's Building. It was budgeted at three million in today's dollars and all entrants were to be women architects.

Bethune was horrified. The idea that women should compete for the privilege of designing a building, free of charge, offended everything she stood for. Besides, women should cooperate, not compete! The other problem was the tiny pool of qualified applicants. Only a dozen entries came in.

The winner was 21-year-old Sophie Hayden, an MIT graduate and America's first college-trained architect. Her design was derivative with nice classical grace. It got pretty good reviews, but the overall stress drove Hayden into a nervous breakdown. She designed only one more building. Bethune's objections seemed validated.

Although Irwin didn't enter the competition, either, she was represented at the fair. She sent one of her novels for display in the Women's Building. Only Bethune stayed in architecture, and you might feel that she established women's place in the profession.

But Irwin and Hayden had also made huge strides toward validating women as architects. This once male field couldn't have been cracked by just one woman, or by just three. It took many women, and many individual talents, to bring about real change.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Stern, M. B., We the Women. New York: Schulte Publishing Company, 1963, Chapter 3.

See also the website http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA96/WCE/title.html.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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