That Exceptional One, Mary Brown Channel

Architecture has often been, and in many ways still is, a male dominated profession. Early female pioneers in architecture were deemed “that exceptional one” based on a quote from Pietro Belluschi, FAIA stating “If [a woman] insisted on becoming an architect, I would try to dissuade her. If then, she was still determined, I would give her my blessing – she could be that exceptional one.” Virginia’s exceptional one was Mary Brown Channel.

hand drawn colored architectural drawing
Proposed Reredos for St. John’s Church. Ms2007-030 Mary Brown Channel Architectural Collection.

Born December 8, 1907 to William Ambrose Brown and Mary Ramsay Brown of Portsmouth, VA, Channel attended Randolph-Macon’s Woman’s College earning a bachelor of Mathematics in 1929. She wanted to follow her brother to the University of Virginia to study architecture, but women were not accepted into the University’s graduate programs at the time. She instead applied and was accepted to Cornell University’s School of Architecture.

Graduating second in her class in 1933, she was the first woman to win the Baird Prize Competition Medal. The Baird Prize was a six day design competition held by Cornell for architecture students in their junior and senior years. Channel was awarded the second prize medal for her design of a “monumental aeration fountain for the city reservoir.”

Channel returned to Portsmouth, VA after graduation and began her career with the Norfolk architecture firm Rudolph, Cooke and Van Leeuwen. She drew no salary for her two years but gained valuable experience working with the team that designed the main post office in Norfolk as well as several other civic and organizational buildings. In 1935, Channel was one of three candidates in a class of five to pass Virginia Examining Board’s licensing exam becoming Virginia’s first licensed female architect.

Watercolor church front
Proposed Front for Episcopal Church, Blackstone, VA. Ms2007-030 Mary Brown Channel Architectural Collection

Following her licensure she opened her own practice in Portsmouth, VA. In October, 1941 she married local businessman Warren Henry Channel. After the birth of her first child she limited her practice to residences and churches. Channel retained her license until 1990 and was actively drawing plans into her eighties.

She designed structures throughout southeastern Virginia. Some of her projects include the Lafayette Square Arch housing the main entrance of the demolished American National Bank, the old Virginia Power Company Building on High Street, Channel Furniture Store in Greenbrier, numerous houses, church additions, and renovations.

Watercolor architectural drawing
Virginia Electric Power, Portsmouth, VA. Ms2007-030 Mary Brown Channel Architectural Collection.

She was recognized in October, 1987, at an occasion honoring Portsmouth’s local and statewide notables. Channel died in 2006.

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WANTED: Researchers interested in women’s contributions to the built environment

Want an opportunity to win $2500 and take a road trip to Virginia Tech Special Collections? (Airlines, cruise ships, or a brief walk across the Drillfield are other forms of acceptable transportation.)

Photo: Milka Bliznakov in a car
Milka Bliznakov, IAWA founder

Well, you are in luck because proposals are now being accepted for the annual Milka Bliznakov Research Prize sponsored by the International Archive of Women in Architecture Center, Virginia Tech.

The Board of Advisors of the International Archive of Women in Architecture Center (IAWA) presents this Annual Prize of $2500 (with an additional $500 available for travel) in honor of IAWA founder Milka Bliznakov.

The Prize is open to architects, scholars, professionals, students, and independent researchers with research projects that would benefit from access to the IAWA’s collections.

More details and submission guidelines can be found here. The proposal must be submitted by May 1st, 2014. The winner will be announced by June 15th, 2014.

Straight from the stacks

While pulling materials for our Special Collections open house last week I came across this little gem.

From Ms2007-017 Natalie de Blois Architectural Collection.  Note from de Blois's father listing the number of women practicing architecture in 1941.
From Ms2007-017 Natalie de Blois Architectural Collection. Note from de Blois’s father listing the number of women practicing architecture in 1941.

A handwritten note from architect Natalie de Blois’s father dated 1941. The note lists figures he pulled from a New York Times article about the status of women practicing architecture in the United States and in New York, in particular, during this period. As you may guess in 1941 that was not a very high number.

1944 saw de Blois’s graduation from Columbia University’s architecture program and her first professional job with the firm Ketchum, Gina & Sharp.  She relates in a 2004 interview with Detlef Mertins that she was fired nine months later after rebuffing the affections of a fellow architect at the firm. No matter. She quickly secured a job with the then-fledgling but soon-to-be powerhouse firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).

Here she spent the majority of her professional career working closely with architect Gordon Bunshaft, earning notoriety within the architectural community as one of the top female architects in America. But that notoriety was often not formally recognized. Nathaniel Owings, one of the original founders of SOM, relates in his 1973 autobiography that de Blois’s “mind and hands worked marvels in design – and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of SOM, owed much more to her than was attributed by either SOM or the client.”

de Blois is now recognized for her work on a number of influential SOM projects including: Lever House (NYC); Pepsi-Cola building (NYC); Union Carbide Corporation (NYC); Connecticut General Life Insurance (Hartford, CT); Lincoln Center (NYC); and the Hilton Hotel (Istanbul, Turkey).

After 30 years with SOM, she left to join the Houston firm of Neuhaus & Taylor as Senior Project Designer, and during the last thirteen years of her architecture career, she taught at the University of Texas at Austin, retiring in 1993. de Blois passed away of cancer earlier this year on July 22, 2013. She was 92 years old.

She had a fascinating career. If you think Joan and Peggy have it rough you should read her in-depth interview with Mertins mentioned above. But the thing I love most about this great collection is this tiny scrap of paper, a note from a father to a daughter.

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By the way if you missed our last open house don’t fret we are holding them on the first Tuesday of each month this fall, through December.

New Orleans prepare yourself for the archivist invasion

Mardi Gras Parade float
Mardi Gras Parade, New Orleans, Louisiana (LOC)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/8385172346/

When I was a wee lass pondering my future I did what any bookish young person (pre-Google) would do–I went to my local library. In this case, I went to my childhood library to interview the library director about careers in librarianship. This is the only tidbit I remember – librarians love conferences.

It’s true. Think about it for a moment. Librarians love information and learning new tricks of the trade and what better venue to do that in than an overly air-conditioned, poorly decorated hotel conference room in Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., or Anaheim.

Archivists also like their conferences and our big one is coming up in a few weeks. Yay, New Orleans in August! In honor of our soon to be host city I thought I would highlight some IAWA collections from the Crescent City.

One of the many institutions of higher learning in New Orleans is Tulane University. For 120 years (1886-2006) Newcomb College operated as a coordinate college of Tulane. Founded by Josephine Louise Newcomb’s desire to establish a college in memory of her daughter, Harriot Sophie, Newcomb College would in time flourish academically becoming by 1916 one of only seven southern schools to hold a standard college designation within the Southern Association of College Women. Two departments in particular garnered regional and even international admiration: the Department of Physical Education and the Newcomb Art School (1910-1945).

The Newcomb Art School offered an industrial art program featuring pottery, interior design, furniture making, and many other arts and crafts in an effort to educate women in the “practical side of life,” as well as, to provide employment opportunities for women when few existed. The IAWA has 16 original pencil drawings from students who attended the Newcomb Art School featuring drawings of furniture and interiors by Wanda Simmons and Fannie Magee.

Our next collection with a Big Easy connection is the Betty L. Moss Architectural Collection. Moss was an architect in New Orleans who opened her practice in the 1940s and continued until her death in 2007. A graduate of both Newcomb College and Tulane she was a proud New Orleans resident and an outspoken defender of building preservation and conservation. In October of 2005, a mere 2 months after Hurricane Katrina, she submitted designs for 3 + 4 bedroom prototype houses for the new New Orleans to city officials. These raised houses were designed to protect life and property and to fit the historic New Orleans lot sizes and aesthetic.

Moss along with our third New Orleanian, Abbey Gorin, worked ardently to defend against the demolition of the Rivergate, a mid-20th century Expressionist structure that existed on Canal Street, where the main thoroughfare of the city meets the Mississippi River. The futuristic convention center designed by New Orleans architectural firm Nathaniel C. Curtis Jr. and Arthur Q. Davis lasted only 27 years before it was demolished in 1995 to make way for a Harrah’s casino. Moss and Gorin wrote a six-minute film about the history and importance of the structure and it is present in Gorin’s collection.

Our conference hotel is just a mere 0.1 mile from Harrah’s casino, and I would much rather see the undulating concrete roof line of the Rivergate, meant to mimic the Mississippi River, than the bright lights of Harrah’s.

If anyone has any suggestions of what I should see and where I should eat in the City that Care Forgot please drop me a line in the comments section below.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Taliesin, and the IAWA

At a time when women could find little work or credibility in the field of architecture Frank Lloyd Wright unhesitatingly employed and mentored women accepting them into his Taliesin Fellowship as peers. Over the years more than 100 women architects, designers, and artisans worked with Wright. The IAWA has architectural collections from three of these women: Eleanore Pettersen (1941-1943); A. Jane Duncombe (1948-1949); and Lois Davisdon Gottlieb (1948-1949).

Taliesin

Longtime proponents of “Learn by Doing,” Frank Lloyd Wright and his third-wife Olgivanna Wright envisioned a self-sufficient school and community where architecture and the arts would flourish. Therefore, when they established the Taliesin Fellows at Wright’s summer home, Taliesin, near Spring Green, Wisconsin in 1932 they put into place a system that would emphasize painting, sculpture, music, drama, and dance “in their places as divisions of architecture” as well as requiring that the apprentices be responsible for the entire work of feeding and caring for the student body.

Apprentices at Taliesin worked in the gardens and fields, did laundry, cooking, and cleaning while simultaneously working on the construction, daily operations, and maintenance of the school. Taliesin quickly developed into an architectural laboratory producing some of the nation’s best design work and attracting talented artists and creative thinkers from around the word.

Under Wright’s direction apprentices created renderings, made models, did the engineering and produced construction drawings. They supervised construction on projects like the Johnson Wax Headquarters (Racine, WI), Fallingwater (Bear Run, PA), and the first Usonian houses. In the winter of 1935, the entire Fellowship moved to Arizona, where they eventually established Taliesin West in Scottsdale (1937) after spending the first two winters in temporary quarters.  The 1935 migration inaugurated the tradition of seasonally moving the school between Wisconsin and Arizona.

Wright passed away in 1959 and upon his passing the ownership of the Taliesin estate in Spring Green, as well as Taliesin West, passed into the hands of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The Foundation continues the educational mission of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship has evolved into the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

Apprentices

Eleanore Pettersen (1913-2003); apprentice at Taliesin from 1941-1943.

Pettersen studio and home in Saddle River, NJ.
From Ms2003-018 Eleanore Pettersen Architectural Collection. Pettersen in her studio and home a renovated 200-year-old barn in Saddle River, NJ.

Pettersen was one of the first women licensed as an architect in the state of New Jersey in 1950, and was the first woman in New Jersey to open her own architectural office. She primarily designed residences. Among her clients were President Richard Nixon and jazz artist George Benson. She became a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1991.

Pettersen on Wright: “I am a tactile person and must really enter into the process of a given field. In this case, the process is construction. In 1941, such an aspiration seemed impossible for a woman. Being an apprentice afforded me the opportunity to participate in the building process – concrete, wood, electrical work, etc. This experience I have carried with me my whole life. It was the foundation of my architecture career. Mr. Wright was my architectural father and from him came my desire for excellence and architectural integrity.”

Pettersen on Taliesin: “It was a beautiful life. We had time for everything, time to be creative. We made our own music and entertainment, had our own dress parties. The only thing was that it was so insular; you didn’t see anyone from the outside. It was like living on the moon. When I left, my bloodstream ran differently.”

Thurkauf House, Amador City, CA
From Ms2002-004 A. Jane Duncombe Architectural Collection. The west elevation of the Thurkauf House, Amador City, CA designed by A. Jane Duncombe (1987).

A. Jane Duncombe (1925-); apprentice at Taliesin from 1948-1949. A. Jane Duncombe graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago’s School of Industrial Design where she studied under Marya Lilien. Lilien was the first woman to receive an architectural degree in Poland and was a Charter Apprentice at Taliesin. Lilien told Duncombe early in her studies, “You must be an architect, you have it!” Duncombe teamed up with fellow Taliesin apprentice Lois Davidson Gottlieb to form the design team Duncombe-Davidson, based in Sausalito. During their partnership (1951-1956) they designed residences in Marin County starting with the Val Goeschen house, a one-room unit with 576 square feet, in Inverness, CA. Duncombe continued to practice in the San Francisco Bay area for forty years where she completed a broad range of projects.

Duncombe on Taliesin: “The impact of Taliesin was Taliesin itself. I am convinced that having lived in those incredible buildings was the ‘teaching’ that was necessary. For the first time I was aware of the ‘wonder’ possible in buildings. It changed the way I look at everything and I know it is essential to all of us who work with land, light, space, and materials.”

Lois Davisdon Gottlieb (1926- ); apprentice at Taliesin from 1948-1949.

Woman at loom
From A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright by Lois Davidson Gottlieb (2001). Caption reads: “Lois Davidson weaving at the loom (Davidson was my maiden name before I married in 1955.)”

Gottlieb is a residential designer based in San Francisco, CA. After her partnership with A. Jane Duncombe (see above) she worked as a freelance designer on over 100 projects in the Bay Area and in Riverside, CA, as well as in Washington, Idaho, and Virginia.  She also published several books including, Environment and Design in Housing (a book based on her lectures for a course of the same name published in 1966) and A Way of Life: An Apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright (which was based on the traveling exhibit of her photos taken while at Taliesin in the late 1940s).

Gottlieb on Wright: “The first time I saw a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright it was as if I suddenly heard a Beethoven Symphony, never having listened to music before. It was the Hanna house on the Stanford campus. During my last quarter as a student there my architecture class went on a tour of the house. Stunned by the experience I had to do something about it.”

Gottlieb on Taliesin: “Mrs. Wright informed me, the first time that we met, that at Taliesin everything was done from scratch. We sleep in sleeping bags, weave our own cloth, grow our own food, and play live music. Fortunately, I knew how to play the piano and weave. True to my word I made new pillows for the living room.”

Why no, we did not forget April was National Landscape Architecture Month

Spring has finally sprung here in Blacksburg. After an unexpected snowstorm earlier in the month the trees are now flowering, birds are singing, and flip flop weather is upon us once again.

Suddenly, nature is front and center and thoughts (mine anyway) turn to planting. Flowers, herbs, vegetables, the possibilities for shaping our environment and bringing forth color and sustenance abound.

In case your thoughts, like mine, turn to soil and planting during this time of year here are some landscape architecture drawings by Elsa Leviseur from our International Archive of Women in Architecture collection for inspiration.