In The Club

A Progressive-era architect gets her due

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

IN A STRIKING BREAK from its typical Manhattan-centric provincialism (even more pronounced, in those days, than it is now), the New York Times gave over an entire two-and-a-half columns in the Style section of the March 10, 1977, edition to some very local news out of Philadelphia. Written, of all people, by Anna Quindlen—still twenty-five years before her Pulitzer—the story details the presumed final luncheon of the New Century Club, once a fixture of high society in the City of Brotherly Love and a force for women’s rights nationwide. The occasion coincided, ironically, with the hundredth anniversary of the group’s founding. Quindlen relates with characteristic bathos how “the club lost all but its air of gentility,” having already given up its longtime home for the ballroom of a tatty hotel. “It is not like our old club,” laments one dowager. “I wish you could have seen our old clubhouse.”  

Surprisingly unmentioned is the name of the woman who designed that old clubhouse—although for Minerva Parker Nichols, such omissions have mostly been the norm. Born in 1862 in rural Illinois, the future architect bounced around the Midwest following her father’s death in the Civil War, eventually moving to Philadelphia with her mother. Obliged by straitened circumstances to seek employment, Parker Nichols worked menial jobs while pursuing technical training, leading to a position with a prominent local builder from whom she learned the trade firsthand. Her talent, as well as her ambition, quickly became obvious: In 1889, she took the extraordinary step of opening her own office, becoming the second woman in American history (after Louise Blanchard Bethune, who cofounded a practice with her husband in Buffalo, New York, in 1881) to do so. Over the ensuing six decades, she designed more than eighty buildings, including private homes, houses of worship, meeting halls, and tony protofeminist headquarters.

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

How that remarkable career unfolded—and what happened in the years after, as its significance proceeded to slip from architecture’s collective memory—is the subject of “Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect,” an ongoing exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania’s 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 nineteenth-century architect, the structure gets extra local-cred points for its connection with another hometown hero, Robert Venturi, who helped launch a successful campaign to save the building from demolition in the mid-1960s. Drawing on material from the university’s extensive architectural archives, the show allows Parker Nichols to return home at last, assuming her rightful place in the architectural history of the nation’s first capital.

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

It is, admittedly, a funny place to be. The cradle of the country’s independence is not, in the general view, the cradle of the country’s design independence. That honor has always been reserved for Chicago, where American architecture is usually considered to have become truly American, and from whence it spread to pretty much everywhere else. And yet Philly occupies a special place in the on the map of American modernism: Furness was the mentor of Louis Sullivan, who would subsequently relocate to the Midwest, perfect the skyscraper, and then take on his own apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright, cementing Chicago’s reputation as primus inter pares of architectural innovation. On the other side of two world wars, Philadelphia emerges again, thanks to the arrival there (by way of Estonia) of Louis Kahn, who helped turn Penn into a hotbed for a new and heterodox brand of late modernism—ultimately to receive the prefix of “post-,” thanks in large measure to the efforts of Venturi. Funny accents notwithstanding, the Sons of the Schuylkill have definitely left their mark.

Of course, in that version of history, they are all sons—and therein lies the problem. As should surprise no one by now, the contributions of women architects have been systematically discounted, undervalued, or effaced altogether from the evolutionary record of modern design. The above roll call demonstrates the phenomenon in full swing: Denise Scott Brown was no less important in the formation of postmodernism (or in the preservation of the Furness library, for that matter) than Venturi, her husband, yet she has always been given short shrift, most famously by the Pritzker committee; Kahn’s earliest and most consequential projects relied heavily on the work of his associate Anne Tyng, a fact deliberately concealed along with their yearslong romantic involvement; and as for Wright, among his many offenses against womankind, the saddest may be his effective eclipse of his first-ever hire, Marion Mahony Griffin, perhaps the most brilliant draftsperson of her generation and a key influence on the Prairie School. Based on research by historian Molly Lester with a curatorial team led by the archive’s William Whitaker, the Parker Nichols show forges another link in a lengthy and still incomplete chain of scholarship, slowly pulling these and other submerged histories out of the depths.

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

Displaying images in vitrines, on walls, and on racks featuring recent photographs by Elizabeth Felicella, the Penn exhibition reveals an artistic trajectory running both with and against the grain of nineteenth-century American life. In the brief interval before she married the Unitarian minister William Nichols in 1891, the architect worked feverishly, realizing twenty-odd residential projects in her first solo year; even after her wedding, she continued to take on commissions, including what would have been her highest-profile one yet, a pavilion for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. That project ended up being bumped for another, completed by a different woman, Sophia Hayden. When the latter ran afoul of fair organizers, the Philadelphian showed both her intellectual and personal mettle by publishing an article in defense of Hayden and women architects everywhere. Writing and speaking were always central to Parker Nichols’s practice, continuing after she’d moved to Brooklyn with her husband, in 1896. The move had been for his work, not hers, and from that point until her death, in 1949, her only clients were her children and grandchildren. Addressing the New York Architectural League five years later, the architect encouraged women to enter the field, albeit on very particular grounds. “It will be especially as builders of homes that women architects will excel,” she told her audience. “For who can plan so well the little convenient arrangements which make it easiest for the homemaker?”

This is not the only instance in which the subject of Lester and Whitaker’s show (whom they have the unfortunate habit of referring to throughout as “Minerva”) affords a less-than-convenient vehicle for a feminist rewrite of twentieth-century architecture. The problem is remarkably common: Many of architecture’s most important female practitioners make imperfect proxy fighters in this regard, owing either to other political commitments—see for instance Lina Bo Bardi, pioneering Brazilian modernist and stubbornly antifeminist Marxist—or to having achieved success at the expense of other priorities—see Zaha Hadid, undoubted genius and serial courtier to patriarchal petrocrats. In the case of “Minerva,” her conservatism might of course have been camouflage, cover for some other, more innovative agenda embedded in her work. One way to figure that out might be to actually look at her buildings, though here again the show again proves a little frustrating. What, exactly, makes a Minerva Parker Nichols design a Minerva Park Nichols design? The curators never quite say.

Anyhow, her houses are exquisite: Toned-down versions of the decorative Eastlake type, hints here and there of the Shingle Style, they’re just how she says they ought to be in one of her own essays—“from the clean cemented cellar to the smoke-wreathed chimney, there shall be nothing which does not yield its share of comfort, utility, and beauty.” The public projects, like the New Century Club, are exactly the kind of assured, de-froofed Victorian that makes any walk through Philadelphia’s streets such a pleasure, full of little ornamental surprises and an oddly homey sense of grandeur. The old club was replaced with a parking structure after the ladies moved out, and various others of Parker Nichols’s projects have been lost or threatened since then. If the show does nothing else, it should serve to put the architect on the preservationist map, and to make everyone a little more mindful of the invaluable heritage represented by her time and place. It’s the least we owe her.