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Progressive-era architect gets her due

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Minerva Parker Nichols, Frank Wallace Munn Residence, 1890–91, Philadelphia.  Photo: Elisabeth Felicella.

Minerva Parker Nichols, Frank Wallace Munn Residence, 1890–91, Philadelphia. Photo: Elisabeth Felicella.

IN A SIGNIFICANT BREAK from its typical Manhattan-centric provincialism (even more pronounced, then, than it is now), the New York Times devoted two and a half entire columns in the Style section of the March 10, 1977 edition to very local Philadelphia news. Written, of all people, by Anna Quindlen – another twenty-five years before her Pulitzer – the story details the alleged last luncheon of the New Century Club, once a high-society staple in the city of brotherly love and a force for women’s rights. at national scale. The occasion coincided, ironically, with the 100th anniversary of the band’s founding. Quindlen recounts with characteristic bathos how “the club has lost everything but its air of friendliness”, having already abandoned its longtime home for the ballroom of a seedy hotel. “It’s not like our old club,” laments a dowager. “I wish you could see our old clubhouse.”

Surprisingly, the name of the woman who designed this former clubhouse is not mentioned, although for Minerva Parker Nichols such omissions were mostly the norm. Born in 1862 in rural Illinois, the future architect bounced back to the Midwest after her father died in the Civil War, before moving to Philadelphia with her mother. Forced by difficult circumstances to seek employment, Parker Nichols worked menial jobs while pursuing a technical education, leading to a position with a prominent local builder from whom she learned the trade first hand. Her talent, as well as her ambition, quickly became evident: in 1889, she took the extraordinary step of opening her own practice, becoming the second woman in American history (after Louise Blanchard Bethune, who co-founded a practice with her husband in Buffalo, New York, in 1881) to do so. Over the next six decades, she designed more than eighty buildings, including private homes, places of worship, assembly halls, and protofeminist tony headquarters.

    Minerva Parker Nichols, The New Century Club, ca.  1894, Philadelphia.  Photo: Collaborative History of West Philadelphia/Bryn Mawr College.

Minerva Parker Nichols, The New Century Club, ca. 1894, Philadelphia. Photo: Collaborative History of West Philadelphia/Bryn Mawr College.

How this remarkable career unfolded – and what happened in the years that followed, as its importance faded from the collective memory of architecture – is the subject of “Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect,” an ongoing exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania. Harvey & Irwin Kroiz Gallery. It’s an appropriate setting: the building in which the gallery is located is the Fisher Fine Arts Library, originally Penn’s main library and designed in 1881 by Frank Furness. The most celebrated public project by the city’s most celebrated 19th-century architect, the structure earns additional local credit points for its connection to another hometown hero, Robert Venturi, who helped launch a successful campaign to save the building from demolition in the mid-20th century. 1960s. Drawing on material from the university’s extensive architectural archive, the exhibit allows Parker Nichols to finally return home, assuming her rightful place in the architectural history of the nation’s first capital.

Minerva Parker Nichols, ca.  1893. Photo: Pennsylvania Historical Society.

Minerva Parker Nichols, ca. 1893. Photo: Pennsylvania Historical Society.

It is, of course, a funny place. The cradle of the country’s independence is not, by general opinion, the cradle of the country’s design independence. That honor has always been reserved for Chicago, where American architecture is generally considered to have become truly American, and from where it has spread just about everywhere else. And yet, Philly holds a special place on the map of American modernism: Furness was the mentor of Louis Sullivan, who would later move to the Midwest, perfect the skyscraper, then hire his own apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright, cementing the style from Chicago. reputation as the primus inter pares of architectural innovation. On the other side of two world wars, Philadelphia is emerging again, thanks to the arrival there (via Estonia) of Louis Kahn, who helped make Penn a hotbed for a heterodox new brand of late modernism – eventually receiving the prefix of “post-“, thanks in large part to the efforts of Venturi. Despite the fun overtones, the Sons of the Schuylkill definitely left their mark.

Of course, in this version of the story, they’re all sons – and therein lies the problem. As should come as no surprise to anyone by now, the contributions of women architects have been systematically ignored, undervalued or completely erased from the evolution of modern design. The above appeal shows that the phenomenon is in full swing: Denise Scott Brown was no less important in shaping postmodernism (or in preserving the Furness Library, for that matter) than Venturi, her husband, but she has always been Shrift, most famous by the Pritzker committee; Kahn’s earliest and most significant projects relied heavily on the work of his associate Anne Tyng, a fact deliberately concealed with their years-long romantic involvement; and as for Wright, among her many offenses against women, perhaps the saddest is her effective eclipse of her very first hire, Marion Mahony Griffin, perhaps the most brilliant cartoonist of her generation and a key influence on the prairie school. Based on research by historian Molly Lester with a team of curators led by William Whitaker of the Archives, the Parker Nichols exhibition forges another link in a long and still incomplete chain of scholarship, slowly pulling these and other stories submerged stories out of the depths.

Minerva Parker Nichols, New Century Club of Wilmington, 1892–93 Wilmington.  Photo: Elisabeth Felicell.

Minerva Parker Nichols, Wilmington New Century Club, 1892–93 Wilmington. Photo: Elisabeth Felicell.

Featuring images in display cases, on walls and on shelves featuring recent photographs by Elizabeth Felicella, the Penn exhibition reveals an artistic trajectory both in line with and against the tide of 19th century American life. . In the brief interval before his marriage to Unitarian minister William Nichols in 1891, the architect worked feverishly, completing some twenty residential projects in his first solo year; even after her marriage she continued to take commissions, including what would have been her largest to date, a pavilion for the 1893 World’s Fair. This project was eventually superseded by another, complete with a another wife, Sophia Hayden. When Hayden clashed with fair organizers, the Philadelphian showed both intellectual and personal courage by publishing an article in defense of Hayden and women architects around the world. Writing and speaking have always been central to Parker Nichols’ practice, continuing after she moved to Brooklyn with her husband in 1896. The move had been for her job, not his, and from that time until when he died in 1949, his only clients were his children and grandchildren. Speaking to the New York Architectural League five years later, the architect encouraged women to enter the field, but for very specific reasons. “It will be mainly as house builders that women architects will excel,” she told her audience. “For who can so well plan the convenient little arrangements that make the homemaker’s job easier?”

This is not the only instance in which the subject of Lester and Whitaker’s exhibition (which they have the unfortunate habit of referring to throughout as “Minerva”) offers a less-than-practical vehicle for a feminist rewriting of life. 20th century architecture. The problem is remarkably common: many of architecture’s most prominent practitioners make flawed proxy fighters in this regard, either due to other political commitments – see for example Lina Bo Bardi, pioneering Brazilian modernist and stubbornly anti-feminist Marxist – or to have obtained success at the expense of other priorities – see Zaha Hadid, undeniable genius and serial courtier of the patriarchal petrocrats. In the case of “Minerva,” her conservatism could of course have been a cover-up, a cover for another, more innovative agenda embedded in her work. One way to figure this out might be to look at its buildings, though again the sight proves a little frustrating. What exactly makes a Minerva Parker Nichols design a Minerva Park Nichols design? Conservatives never quite say.

Either way, her homes are exquisite: toned down versions of the decorative Eastlake type, hints here and there of the Shingle style, which is exactly what she says they should be in one of his own essays: “From the own cemented cellar to the smoky chimney, there will be nothing that does not give its share of comfort, utility and beauty. Public projects, like the New Century Club, are exactly the kind of self-assured, stripped-back Victorian that makes any stroll through the streets of Philadelphia such a pleasure, full of ornamental little surprises and an eerily intimate sense of grandeur.The old clubhouse was replaced by a parking lot after the ladies left, and various other Parker Nichols projects have since been lost or threatened.If the show does nothing else, it should serve to put the architect on the preservationist map, and make everyone a little more aware of the priceless heritage represented. by its time and place. We owe it the least.

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