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