Ephemera as evidence: Uncovering glimpses of women in design history

The International Archive of Women in Architecture includes over 2000 cubic feet of unpublished primary sources (manuscripts, photographs, drawings, correspondence, business records and more). Researchers visiting Special Collections at Virginia Tech also have access to hundreds of published books, catalogs, documentaries, and encyclopedias about women in architecture and design. Many of these publications are scholarly or autobiographical in nature, but our growing collection of supporting materials also includes published ephemera (follow this link to learn more about the research value of ephemera) which shed light on the hidden contributions of women to design.

Publications like trade cards and catalogs, advertisements, and event posters represent fragments of evidence for the work of pioneering women architects and designers. The bulk of our resources in this realm reflect the contributions of women in the United States of America, working in an era where women had limited access to formal architectural education and licensure. These materials rarely divulge biographical details about their subjects, but suggest future possibilities for intrepid scholars.

Here are three examples that hint towards hidden contributions of women:

Vintage catalogs of house plans

Early 20th century designers in the US advertised their house plans by distributing colorful, eye catching catalogs to homebuilders, lending agents, and manufacturers. The Garlinghouse Company was founded around 1910 by homebuilder Lewis F. Garlinghouse of Topeka, Kansas. Advertising for decades under the tagline “America’s Pioneer Home Planning Service,” Garlinghouse Company was among the first and most prolific seller of home plans in the US. Iva G. Lieurance was the company’s principal house designer, and her plans appear in several catalogs through the 1950s. We know little about her work beyond what we can glean from the catalogs. She may have worked for the company as early as 1907, traveling around the country to document attractive homes and adapt their floor plans for customers in the midwest. An application with the Maryland Historical Trust calls Lieurance “the only known woman credited for design work associated with the mail-order house movement.”

Garlinghouse Company catalog, "Sunshine Homes", feat. designs by Iva G. Lieurance. (1938)
Garlinghouse Company catalog, “Sunshine Homes”, feat. designs by Iva G. Lieurance. (1938)

Lieurance’s credentials and her relationship to L.F. Garlinghouse may be lost to history. According to the 1940 census, 53 year old Iva G. Lieurance lived with her elder sister in Topeka, Kansas as head of the household. Her occupation is recorded as “Designer of Home Plans” and she reported working 50 hours per week. The census worker recorded 8th grade as the highest level of education she had completed. The 1954 Topeka, Kansas City Directory lists her as a designer for L.F. Garlinghouse, indicating a long and prolific partnership with the company.

Other collections in the IAWA suggest that residential design was more accessible to American women in the early 20th century than industrial or large-scale commercial work. Like Iva G. Lieurance, many pioneering women represented in the IAWA managed to apply their trade through creative partnerships that worked around credential barriers.

Browse specific titles in our collections featuring Iva G. Lieurance (including recent acquisitions not yet cataloged).

Trade Cards

This blog has previously featured the Coade Lithodipyra or Artifical Stone Manufactory Trade Card, a 200 year old advertisement for a manufacturing company in England run by Eleanor Coade (1733-1821). This trade card is probably the oldest item in the IAWA, although it is not the oldest item in Special Collections!

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Coade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Manufactory Trade Card

World’s Fair Posters

The Town of Tomorrow and Home Building Center Souvenir Folder, a collection of ephemera from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, offers another glimpse into the historic contributions of women to design. Documenting an exhibition of 15 model homes, the collection of brochures features a design by one Verna Cook Salomonsky. Unlike Iva G. Lieurance, Verna’s contributions are somewhat well known. She first practiced architecture with her husband Edgar. Continuing as a solo practitioner after his death, she designed and oversaw construction of hundreds of homes in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California. She also wrote extensively about Mexican design traditions with her second husband, Warren. Her archives are maintained by the University of California at San Diego. Having partnered with a spouse or family member before branching out on her own, Verna Cook’s career reflects another common path for pioneering women architects.

Demonstration Home Brochure No. 12, "Town of Tomorrow" Model Village, New York World's Fair, 1939. Designed by Verna Cook Salomonsky.
Demonstration Home Brochure No. 12, “Town of Tomorrow” Model Village, New York World’s Fair, 1939. Designed by Verna Cook Salomonsky.

To learn more about World’s Fair related materials in Special Collections, see https://vtspecialcollections.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/summer-of-the-white-city/

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The Art and Travels of Sigrid Rupp

When she wasn’t designing offices for Silicon Valley giants like Apple and IBM, Sigrid Rupp was busy traveling around the world, writing and sketching the scenes that caught her eye. From 1966 to 2003, she visited over 30 countries, traveling extensively throughout North America, Europe, and East Asia. With an eye for design in environments both natural and built, she meticulously documented her many travels in photographs, diaries and sketchbooks. Maybe a little different from the typical contents in our many collections that form the International Archive of Women in Architecture, but I think they help show who Sigrid Rupp was- always curious, always creating.

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Sigrid Rupp sketching the view from an overlook in Guanjuato, Mexico.

Rupp developed her fascination with architecture and the built environment as a child growing up in post-war Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Much of Europe was in the process of rebuilding from the devastation of World War II, and Rupp got to witness first-hand how modern architecture and urban planning could transform communities. At age 10 she moved with her family to California, and at 17 she enrolled at UC Berkeley to study architecture. In 1976, 5 years after receiving her architectural license, she founded her own firm, SLR Architects, in the San Francisco bay area, where she served as president until she closed the office in 1998.

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An excerpt from one of Rupp’s travel diaries, complete with a view out her tent on a lake in Alaska in 2002.

Rupp traveled and sketched extensively throughout her career, but after her retirement, she devoted more time to travels and to watercolor painting. Her watercolors of bay area landscapes were featured in several juried shows of the Pacific Art League of Palo Alto. She also began hosting a rotating art show at the Ravenswood Medical Clinic in East Palo Alto, where she had previously worked as project architect.

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Architectural details of La Paroquia in San Miguel Allende, Mexico
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Rupp’s sketch of a yurt during her visit to Mongolia in 2000

Rupp kept traveling and sketching until late 2003, when she was diagnosed with gastric cancer. After a six month battle, she passed away on May 27th, 2004, at age 61. In her obituary, her family writes that she was “was the life of the party at family functions where she told stories from her extensive travels and loved her champagne.” Though her adventures were cut short, her passion for seeing the world lives on in her travel diaries and sketchbooks, which can be seen in full in our reading room. The finding aid for the Sigrid Rupp Collection contains an extensive list of all the sketches, photographs and recollections from her travels. You can see a small sampling of items from her collection, including some of these drawings, on our IAWA digital collections site. Happy travels!

Exploring the Lived Experience of Women Architects

The International Archive of Women in Architecture is supported by approximately 300 rare books and published manuscripts written by or about women working in the built environment. Many of these authors have archival collections in the IAWA, including Anna Sokolina, Brinda Somaya, Cristina Grau Garcia, Carmen Espegel Alonso, Despina Stratigakos, Inge Horton, and Susana Torre.

Reflecting the broad interests and expertise of women architects around the world, these books discuss a range of topics. Texts on the Russian Avantgarde movement and Soviet civil planning are accompanied by analyses of the intersection between gender and architecture; Viennese garden design theory and fireplace innovations accompany contemporary criticism and Caribbean architecture textbooks. Biographies and anthologies complement conference proceedings and exhibition catalogs. 

Autobiographies often exist at the intersection of archives and literature. This blog will highlight a selection of autobiographies from the IAWA collections. Spanning three different eras of practice, these texts offer a glimpse into the private experiences and public struggles of early women in architecture. These books are available to view in the public reading room at Newman Library.

EnamoredWithPlace

Wendy Bertrand
Enamored with place: as woman + as architect (2012)
[
NA1997 .B48 2012]

Wendy Bertrand is a registered architect from California. A student of both the École des Beaux Arts (1964-65) and University of California, Berkeley, her extensive career has included major projects for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Forest Service. Her archival papers are maintained by the IAWA. An excerpt from the author’s page captures the book as follows:

“As a single mother, Wendy Bertrand accepted job security over the potential glamour, prestige, or celebrity of private practice, where architectural stars shine. She tells us how she pursued a career while continuing to value her perspective and insight as a woman, a mother, and someone who cares passionately about social equity. Her love of place infuses every aspect of her personal and professional life. She tells us of her adventures in travel, education, marriage, childbirth, motherhood, and work…. This is also a story about a woman coming into her own as she matures, enjoys the fiber arts, and embraces the elements of her life that have enduring value.” (Excerpted from
http://wendybertrand.com/enamored-with-place/)

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Karola Bloch
Aus Meinem Leben (1981),
[CT3150 B5 A3 1981]

Karola Bloch (born Piotrowska, 1905) was a Polish-German architect who practiced in Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, the United States, and Germany. Her German-language autobiography is rich with unforgettable stories, including an eyewitness account of the October Revolution in Moscow, her tenure as a Soviet informant in Austria, a Nazi raid on her home in a Berlin artist’s colony, the loss of her immediate family in the Treblinka concentration camp, and anecdotes from her marriage to Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. Karola Bloch was a founding member of the International Union of Women Architects, accompanied by several other women represented in the IAWA. Archival materials from her life are housed by the Ernst Bloch Archives in Ludwigshafen.

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Lois Gottlieb
A way of life : an apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright  (2001)
[NA737.W7 G67 2001]

Lois Gottlieb is a California architect specializing in residential design. This visual autobiography based on a traveling exhibit captures Gottlieb’s experiences in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed Taliesin Fellowship, where she served as an apprentice for eighteen months in 1948-1949. Gottlieb was profiled alongside IAWA members Jane Duncombe and Eleanore Pettersen in the 2009 documentary film “A Girl is a Fellow Here” – 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. Her archival papers are housed by the IAWA.

Buttresses to Broadway: When Lilia Skala Came to Blacksburg

On July 30, 2015, the Lyric Theatre presejted LiLiA!, a one-woman show performed by actress/playwright Libby Skala from the Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles and the Arclight Theatre Off-Broadway to festivals in Seattle, London, Toronto, Vancouver, Edinburgh, Berlin, Dresden, and beyond. Reviewers have called it “absolutely dazzling… magical and alchemical,” a “unique and spellbinding production… at once appealing and a privilege to view,” and “a thoughtful piece of history – political, theatrical and personal.” Although the Lyric is no stranger to great performances, you might find yourself wondering how such a prestigious production came to tread the Blacksburg boards.

In 2003, Special Collections added a portfolio of architectural drawings by a woman named Lilia Skala to the International Archives of Women in Architecture. The collection (Ms2003-015) primarily comprises her work as a student of architecture at the University of Dresden from 1915 to 1920. Her student work includes architectural drawings, ink and charcoal sketches, and watercolor paintings. The collection also includes copies of her academic records, printed material about the architectural program at the University of Dresden at the turn of the century, articles by and about Lilia, and press material for LiLiA!

[Learn more about the Lila Sofer Skala Student Portfolio in Special Collections]

[Learn more about the donation, from Skala’s sons Peter and Martin]

Special Collections joined the cast in 2003, but the real story – Lilia’s story – begins much earlier.

In 1896, Lilia Sofer Skala was born in Vienna, Austria. Although she had an early passion for the performing arts, Lilia’s family wanted her to have a more “respectable” career. Having graduated Summa cum Laude with a degree in architecture from the University of Dresden, Lilia became the first woman member of the Austrian Association of Engineers and Architects. She practiced professionally in Vienna for a time and, with the encouragement of her husband, began performing with the Max Reinhardt Repertory Theatre. Lilia gained wide acclaim in Europe for her stage and screen roles, but continued to claim her title, Frau-Diplom Ingenieur.

When her Jewish husband was arrested in the wake of the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany –  Lilia secured his release from a Viennese prison and fled with her family to the United States. Her portfolio of student work was among the personal belongings with which she escaped. As a political refugee in New York, Lilia attended night school to learn English and worked in a Queens zipper factory for her first two years in America.

Lilia returned to the stage as a housekeeper in the 1941 Broadway production Letters to Lucerne. She continued to work steadily on and off Broadway, with occasional television roles. In 1963, Lilia earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress as Mother Maria opposite Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. She later received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in 1977’s Roseland. An industrious performer, Lilia continued to work in film, television, and theatre throughout the 1980s. Among her many accolades was the Western Heritage Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, which she received in 1981 for her role in Heartlands. Lilia’s final stage appearance was in Lorraine Hansberry’s Broadway show Les Blancs (1989), at the age of 94.

In December 1994, Lilia passed away from natural causes in her New York home. Her granddaughter, Elizabeth “Libby” Skala, is also an accomplished actress and playwright. She began developing LiLiA!, a one-woman show based on her grandmother’s phenomenal life, in 1995. Libby Skala was invited to perform this show during the 18th Congress of the International Union of Women Architects (UIFA), which was jointly hosted by the IAWA in July 2015. Her audience included Blacksburg locals and women architects from Argentina, Eastern Europe, Germany, Israel, Japan, Mongolia, Spain, and beyond. Many of the architects recounted that the performance was a highlight of the conference.

Special Collections currently has an exhibit on display featuring selections from Lilia’s portfolio and materials advertising the LiLiA! play.

Lilia Skala Portfolio Exhibit, July 2015
Lilia Skala Portfolio Exhibit, July 2015

More selections from the Skala Portfolio, Special Collections:

Celebrating 30 Years of the International Archives of Women in Architecture

This summer, Special Collections will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the International Archives of Women in Architecture (IAWA), a joint initiative by the Virginia Tech University Libraries and the College of Architecture and Urban Studies to document the global contributions of women to the built environment.

To commemorate this anniversary, the IAWA has partnered with the International Union of Women Architects ( UIFA) to host the 18th International Congress in Washington, D.C. and Blacksburg, Virginia. This event will bring professional architects from around the world to the Virginia Tech campus for a week of research presentations, collaboration, and networking. In the months leading up to the congress, we’ve been working with members of the IAWA advisory board to research and prepare exhibit materials that capture the depth, breadth, and uniqueness of the IAWA holdings. It has been an amazing opportunity to connect with the real-world community represented in the collections.

Formally established in the summer of 1985, the IAWA began with the work of one tireless educator and architectural historian. In 1983, Dr. Milka Bliznakov wrote over 1,000 letters to women architects around the world, hoping to learn how they planned to preserve their legacies. Dr. Bliznakov was inspired in part by conversations with her students, who asked why they never studied or read about the work of women architects. Dr. Bliznakov saw the consequences of leaving preservation to chance when the accomplishments of her own colleagues were marginalized or lost to history. She was determined to “correct the omission of women from architectural history,” ensuring that “future generations, simply because of a lack of information [cannot] say women architects never did anything.” [1]

Two page donation request letter from Milka Bliznakov for the International Archives of Women in Architecture, July 1985
Copy of the first letter sent out on behalf of the IAWA, encouraging women to donate their records.

Since that first summer, the IAWA has grown to document the legacies and experiences of more than 400 women in architecture and design. In Special Collections, we collect, preserve, and provide access to approximately 2000 cubic feet of IAWA materials which include personal correspondence, detailed architectural models, exhibit panels, artifacts, and visual materials capturing every step of the design process.

The women represented in the collections lived, taught, and practiced in more than thirty countries across five continents. Drawing upon their rich and varied experiences, the IAWA collections contribute to a broad understanding of what it means to be a “woman in architecture.” For example, a visitor to Special Collections could learn about:

Many of the women whose records we maintain were trailblazers and pioneers. Their stories also speak to universal experiences, whether the woman worked in partnership with her spouse, managed her own firm, or deferred her career to support her family. Perhaps the most exciting part of working with the IAWA collections is that – much like the global community of women architects – they are always growing. We look forward to sharing some of these stories with UIFA delegates from around the world this summer.

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.

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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.

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.