Minerva Parker Nichols - First American Woman to Practice Architecture Independently - An Engineer's Aspect


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Monday, March 28, 2016

Minerva Parker Nichols - First American Woman to Practice Architecture Independently

Drawing of Minerva Parker Nichols, 1890
Source: Wikipedia
Today, for Women's History Month, I am featuring Minerva Parker Nichols.

Margaret (Molly) Lester, an architectural historian and preservation planner, wrote her master's thesis on Minerva Parker Nichols and now has a website dedicated entirely to preserving Minerva Parker Nichols' contributions to architecture.

Lester states that Minerva Parker Nichols was born on May 14, 1862. After years of school at the Philadelphia Normal Art School and the Franklin Institute Drawing School, she began practicing architecture in 1886 in the firm of Edwin W. Thorne. She worked there less than three years, then in 1888 she opened her own office on Arch Street, thus becoming the first woman in America to practice architecture independently, in an architecture firm run completely by a woman.

Minerva Parker Nichols was well respected in her time and designed many beautiful buildings.

Cottage for Mr. Isaac Ashmead Designed by Minerva Parker Nichols; Wyncote Heights, Jenkintown PA; May 1888.
Source: brynmawr.edu
Pen-y-Bryn, Home of Irwin N. Megargee, Gladwyne; Designed by Minerva Parker Nichols in 1892.
Source: The Lower Merion Historical Society
The New Century Club for Women in Philadelphia designed by Minerva Parker Nichols in 1893.
Source: Wikipedia
Minerva Parker Nichols was awarded the design for the Women’s Pavilion, the Queen Isabella Building, for the World's Fair in 1891.

The Isabella Pavilion designed by Minerva Parker Nichols.
Source: Mary Pepchinski
Below is the announcement of her winning design in 1891:

The Times, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 13, 1891, Page 9.




The Brilliant Philadelphia Artist Who Will Design the Queen Isabella Building for the World’s Fair--Her Work in Her Profession-- Perseverance and Natural Aptitude Have Won the Way for Her.

Truly it is a glorious thing to live in these times and be a woman. The scope of her work was never so high, so broad nor so untrammeled as it is to-day. It is now conceded by all just, unbiased, well-informed people that woman's sphere is in whatever place her talents provide for her. Men, as a rule, are broader minded and more lenient in their judgment, in regard to this stepping aside from the ordinary pursuits, than are women, the majority of whom still cling to the traditions of their grandmothers, that if a woman do anything besides trade at a counter, nurse a baby or prink before a mirror, she must be unwomanly; if she give the bulk of her attention to letters she, of course, becomes a slovely, unlovely literary crank and an altogether undesirable wife or sweetheart; or, if she learn a trade, especially one which up to that time has been monopolized by men, then she is judged coarse, vulgar and unsexed.

Such prejudice in these days can only come from ignorance. Women do not inform themselves in regard to what women are doing outside of the social world. We are all well-posted in regard to our four hundred, their fetes, their personal attractions, their coaches, coin and coquetry--yea, even to the color and texture of their underwear! All the details of their every-day life are read with avidity.

But why not, through the same medium, get acquainted with our bright, gifted women of a lesser number, who have taken advantage of the new dispensation by fitting themselves for higher duties and fields of labor spread out before them--women who have illustrated anew the fundamental law that success in any direction is not a matter of sex but of character and endowment? Of such women Philadelphia has her full quota, women of whom any city would be boastful, and one in particular whom the entire world--the women world especially--will soon delight to honor. Until it was announced throughout the length and breadth of the land that Miss Minerva Parker, of Philadelphia, had achieved the distinction of being selected as designer of the Queen Isabella pavilion for the World’s Fair, I wonder how many women in her own city knew of her?

I am sure it will be a revelation to many even yet to learn that she is the first woman to enter the profession of architecture and that she at this time only has one rival--Mrs. Louisa Bethune, of Rochester, N. Y., whose set of school plans exhibited at the last Paris exposition were highly recommended.

Minerva Parker

If we can judge by the success that has crowned the serious efforts of Miss Parker it would seem that architecture is indisputably a work for women. Like all innovators she has had many obstacles to overcome, before reaching her present high position, but the fact of her being a woman, she says, has never in anyway handicapped her while pursuing her line of work. On the contrary she reports only words of encouragement and good fellowship both from the public and her fellow architects, while on the part of builders and mechanics there has seemed to be an added care in executing the work called for by her plans and specifications.

Neither has she found her present dress (which I assure you is a la mode from bonnet to boot) a hindrance to the free and uninterrupted use of brain and limb, but says of the present fashions that owing to the unwelcome presence of too many stiffening rods, she is prepared to elect for a more untrammeled form of garment, but that it is in her opinion largely a matter of taste and judgment how a business woman should dress and that our emancipation in this as in every other department of life rests within our own hands and is not a matter for legislative enactment.

Her chief obstacle, she says, has been that of receiving thorough technical architectural training in this country, a difficulty which men experience as well. Undoubtedly Miss Parker inherited the taste and talent for her work, her maternal grandfather having been an architect and shipbuilder, and her mother, as she grew up, having worked with him and become a good, practical carpenter.

She believes the student must have natural talent and that no amount of study can make up for lack of it. She expresses surprise that anyone would think of taking up the work without adequate preparation, architecture being a business to be learned and thoroughly mastered like any other, and the training as important as that of a doctor and, in Miss Parker's opinion, far more than that of a lawyer.

After making a special study of industrial art modeling, she entered an architect’s office, just as a young man would have done, and has been studying and practicing for twelve years. As a preparatory course there must be a high school or college education; a thorough knowledge of mechanical and free hand drawing, construction, geometry, perspective, historic ornament, in short, a four years' course--the Boston School of Technology or Columbia being the best places for the preparation.

Notwithstanding Miss Parker's own success she does not strongly recommend her profession as a means of livelihood for women, but naively remarks: "I think it is like marriage, there are so many obstacles in the way I should advise them to keep out, but if they have sufficient love and courage to attempt it, and will fit themselves properly for the work, then I should be only too glad to extend the hand of fellowship to such follow-workers."

Any one having talked with Miss Parker and learned of the enormous amount of work done by her could hardly imagine her lacking courage in anything, yet how else account for the state of "single blessedness?" In addition to her demonstrated ability to support a husband, she is a gifted conversationalist and endowed with personal graces much beyond the ordinary, hence the inference that Miss Parker prefers her profession to a husband. Though no knight of the camera has ever been able to transfer the likeness to cardboard, yet there remains a remarkable resemblance both in face and figure between Miss Parker and Mrs. Cleveland. This likeness is so pronounced that more than once people familiar with the ex-President's beautiful wife have mistaken Miss Parker for her.

Though still under thirty our fair architect looks much younger. She has been grimly amused by paragraphers continuously publishing her as about twenty-two and invariably crippling this statement with another to the effect, her father fell fighting in defense of his country in the late Rebellion!

The New Century Clubhouse

Miss Parker makes domestic architecture a specialty, and when we consider this particular field of work, its immense resources, its magnificent possibilities, its peculiar adaptability to woman, the wonder grows that it had not been entered long before Miss Parker determined to turn her attention to designing beautiful homes.

In addition to a number of private residences in and about our own city now being builded under her own supervision, she has in charge our women’s club building, the New Century Club House at Twelfth and Sansom, a splendid residence at Somerton, Pa., for Mrs. Rachel Foster Averyes, and a large three-story house of stone for the land company of Overbrook, Pa.

Ever since the award of the design for the Women’s Pavilion at the Columbian Exposition, every spare moment has been devoted to the study of Spanish architecture, and now her plans are nearly perfected. When completed the building will be two stories high, with Spanish tile roof, and an interior fitted with apartments for the accommodation of women, care of children during a visit, medical, press and legal departments, ministers’ rooms, parlors for notables, musicians, stenographers, architects, designers, milliners, tailors and representatives of every trade and industry engaged in by women. Also writing and reception rooms and an emergency department, with trained nurses and remedies at hand, as well as physicians, a sewing room and a children’s day nursery with attendants on hand in case of need. The exact size of the structure is not given yet, but its main entrance will be of an imposing nature, ornamented by a grand statue of Queen Isabella of Spain, by that gifted sculptress, Miss Hosmer.

In the contemplation of Miss Parker have we not as Philadelphians, and more especially as women, much then of which to be proud? And more than anything else do not her achievements and does not the courtesy accorded her by fellow workers afford convincing proof that a position is waiting for every woman who will make herself capable of filling it?