Columnist Carrie N. Baker: Minerva Parker Nichols, America’s first independent woman architect


Published: 03-28-2023 10:28 AM

March is women’s history month — a time to remember and celebrate the important contributions women have made to American history. As a professor at Smith College, I have in recent years been helping to recover the story of a nineteenth-century architect named Minerva Parker Nichols (1862-1949). She was one of the country’s first female architects, practicing in Philadelphia in the 1880s and 1890s. Over her lifetime, she designed over 80 buildings across the country, including some right here in Massachusetts.

Born in Illinois, Nichols was raised by her mother after her father died in 1863 fighting for the Union Army. She learned to draw from her grandfather, who was a builder originally from Massachusetts. Her mother later remarried and moved with Minerva and her sister Adelaide to Philadelphia in 1876. But her stepfather soon died, leaving her mother pregnant and again having to fend for herself and her three young children. The family ran a boarding house, and Minerva also worked as a servant for the family of a wholesale grocer to make ends meet. But she sought better paying work to support her family.

In 1880, she enrolled at the Philadelphia Normal Art School, graduating in 1882, and then completed a two-year course in architectural drawing at the Franklin Institute Drawing School in 1886. She joined the architectural firm of Edwin W. Thorne, taking over his office when he departed in 1888, making Nichols the first independently practicing female architect in the United States. In 1889, she completed a certificate at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts.

Between 1888 and 1893, Nichols had over 60 commissions, which were primarily dwellings but also included two macaroni factories, a foundry for the Philadelphia New Century Club in 1891, a women’s pavilion for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a building for the Wilmington New Century Club in 1893 in Delaware. In 1894, she designed a building for the Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From 1891-1895, she taught architecture and historic ornament at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.

Nichols was surprisingly successful considering the time. At the peak of her career in 1891, she earned approximately $6,000 — the equivalent of about $200,000 in today’s dollars. She also received widespread recognition for her work. In the eight years she maintained her independent practice in Philadelphia (1888-1896), her name appeared in 606 newspaper articles in 44 states and eight different countries, including New Zealand, Jamaica and France.

In addition to designing buildings, Nichols supervised the construction of her designs — all the while dressed in a corset, in accordance with the social mores of the day. Despite restrictive ideas of women’s roles and capacities at the time, Nichols earned the respect of male builders. “She’s the most particular and knowing person to work for,” one tradesman remarked. “She knows every brick and just where it ought to go,” another told a reporter. “There’s no cheating her by smuggling in knotty lumber and leaving the joists sticking out into the chimneys,” said another builder. A contractor said he “had never worked for an architect who better understood the business,” while another said, “she knows not only her business, but mine, too.”

Many of Nichols’ clients came from the growing number of educated women, graduating from newly-formed women’s colleges, and who were pushing the limits set by the male-dominated society of their day. For example, Nichols designed a house for Rachel Foster Avery, a prominent suffragist and close confidante of Susan B. Anthony. Nichols designed the building to house suffragists visiting Philadelphia. Nichols’ two women’s club buildings in Philadelphia and Wilmington served as staging grounds for women’s social, literary and political gatherings. At a time when women had little influence on broader society, the clubs provided a space for women to organize social reform campaigns. In multiple publications, Nichols commented on art and design, but also advocated for women in architecture.

Nichols’ story is an inspiring example of overcoming tremendous obstacles to achieve her dream of becoming an architect. Many of the over 80 buildings she designed or redesigned still stand. Here in western Massachusetts, Nichols refurbished the Deerfield Unitarian Church (now the First Church of Deerfield) in 1913.

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A new exhibit on the life and works of Nichols is running from March 21 to June 17 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Architectural Archives and then will come to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst Design Building next year.

“During her lifetime, she was one of the most famous architects in the country,” says architectural historian Molly Lester, who is co-curator of the exhibit. “It’s only since she died that most architectural histories have forgotten about her and her contributions to the built environment. With this exhibit, we want to correct for that absence and reclaim her significance as part of a larger reckoning with how we construct and keep our cultural heritage.”

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine. Minerva Parker Nichols is her great grandmother.]]>