Trajectories of an Architects Design Sensibilities: From Student to Practitioner

Model of architectural design project.
AustellungsbauVariabelTransportabel, Architectural model, 1962

The beginning of the fall semester and the nearly overnight return to a bustling and lively campus provides a good opportunity to reflect on the essential thing that we do, which is to educate. Student works are common discoveries in the collections that form the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) and can tell us either about an architects own practice or their methods of classroom instruction. This post will focus on the former, with an eye to the role that archival collections can play in examining design sensibilities within the context of a developing architectural practice.

Drawing showing elevation and site plan sketches.
Concept drawing, Bahamas Nursing School, c. 1985.

One of the most profound ways to understand the progression of the aesthetic sensibilities of a creative professional is to examine their works (including inspirational materials, writing, and sketches) across their career. Looking at materials that span yearsor even decadesoffers a glimpse into how their style evolved, was refined, stayed constant, or in some cases shifted radically. With architects it is possible to trace the development not only of their design considerations, but also the changes in drawing techniques, enhanced observational skills, and a deeper understanding of spaces. It is often possible to see how they refine and expand their understanding of the outer world, visual culture, and the impact of spaces on the people who inhabit them.

Photograph of architectural model.
AustellungsbauVariabelTransportabel, Architectural model, 1962

The Exhibition HallVariableTransportable project was completed by Dorothee Stelzer King while she was an architecture student at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Berlin, Germany. Completed the same year that she received her degree, the project was based on a first-year design exercise involving the enlargement of a simple shape to create a complex design without adding extra material to the final structure.

Document outlining requirements and development of the project.
Description and requirements of the award-winning portable exhibition hall project.

 

Drawing showing interlocking shapes.
Concept drawing showing how a basic triangle is repeated and extended to create interlocking stars and circular forms that in turn interlock to create flexible, modular shapes.

 

Elevations, site plans, and details.
Elevations, site plans, and detail drawings for AustellungsbauVariabelTransportabel.

Ms2013-023, Dorothee Stelzer King, Folder 3Ms2013-023, Dorothee Stelzer King, Folder 3

The Dorothee Stelzer King collection also contains works that the architect completed at various points during her professional career, allowing researchers to study the progression of her designs over time. The series of concept drawings and plans for the Bahamas Nursing School in Nassau, Bahamas, shows Kings attention to understanding how educational spaces and their inhabitants interact. While the drawings show a move away from the more experimental design work seen in Exhibition HallVariableTransportable, they showcase a greater understanding of the practical nature of educational facilities and the importance of proper acoustics, seating, structural elements, and paths of movement through interior spaces.

 

Site plan drawing.
Location plan, Bahamas Nursing School, April 16, 1985.

 

Construction photos.
Construction photographs showing exterior and interior spaces, including structural elements, of the Bahamas Nursing School project.

Ms2013_023_B001_F020toF024_002_BahamasNursing_Scrap_120Ms2013_023_B001_F020toF024_002_BahamasNursing_Scrap_118

Many other student and professional design projects and records can be accessed in the Special Collections Reading Room at Virginia Tech. The finding aid for the Dorothee Stelzer King Architectural Collection can be viewed online at Virginia Heritage. The collection is currently being digitized with funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and will be available in full through the Virginia Tech digital library.

Carmen Venegas, VPI’s First International Woman Graduate

Special Collections has celebrated Women’s History Month 2018 with numerous exhibits in Newman Library and the Holtzman Alumni Center. Part of our focus has been on some of the first women who attended or worked at Virginia Tech. I’ve written before about some of VT’s female trailblazers, but I decided to concentrate on the first international woman to graduate, Carmen Venegas (1912/1914? – 1991). She has the additional distinction of being the first known Latina/Hispanic woman to study at Virginia Tech and, according to the July 15, 1945, profile about her in the Los Angeles Times, she is the first Latin American woman to earn an electrical engineering degree in the United States.

The first international male student came to Virginia Tech in the 1874, and the first women matriculated in 1921. But, it took much longer for the first international female student to enroll as Venegas joined the student body in 1935. (It would be another 18 years before the first Black male student matriculated in 1953 and another 31 years for the first Black women to enter VT in 1966.)

Venegas earned one of two scholarships awarded by the government of her home nation Costa Rica, making it possible for her to attend the university. Before graduating in 1938 with a B.S. in electrical engineering, she was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and was the only woman in the organization of nearly 40 students at that time.

Maria del Carmen Venegas in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle
Carmen Venegas in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle

A founding member of the Short Wave Club, Venegas trained students in amateur radio operations. She taught classes in radio operation and acted as Hostess for the Club in 1937. The Short Wave Club is a predecessor to the student-run group, the Virginia Tech Amateur Radio Association, exemplifying how her and other students contributions to the university have made an impact that can still be felt today.

Maria del Carmen Venegas as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle
Carmen Venegas as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle

In addition to her school activities, Venegas is remembered as a pilot, even keeping her own airplane in Lynchburg. In 1937, the National Intercollegiate Flying Club invited her to join a convoy from Washington, D.C., to view air races in Miami, Florida. Out of 100 pilots, Venegas was the only Virginia-based woman in the bunch!

Following her time at VPI, Venegas went on to a long and varied career as an engineer, performer, and painter. She married Meade A. Livesay and moved to Los Angeles, where she studied music and art at UCLA. Venegas went on to perform dancing and singing under the name Carmen Lesay.

You can read more about the first women to graduate from Tech and the legacy they left behind inthe blog posts linked above as well as onthe archived Special Collections’ women’s history section of the 125th Anniversary of Virginia Tech website.

(This post was updated Nov. 9, 2018, with corrections and additional information about Carmen Venegas after her time at Virginia Tech. Thank you to Ivannia Diaz for her corrections and sharing resources with us!)

Oh, it is a Long Story


Marie-Louise Laleyan once wrote in an article for the “Daily Pacific Builders”Women in Constructionissue of an exchange she had with her father during the opening reception for a public housing project for which she had been the architect. She recounted that upon seeing their nametags a group of happy attendees approached them exclaiming, Here is the architect and promptly shook her fathers hand:

They are congratulating me because of my daughter! He was almost in tears.
Well no. They think you are the architect.
Why would they think that? he wanted to know.
Oh, it is a long story. I may even write a book about it. Lets go home.

And it is that long story, nestled here into a fond anecdote, that defines a great deal of Laleyans work within the broader architectural profession.

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Daily Pacific Builder, Friday, October 31, 1986
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Daily Pacific Builder, Friday,October 31, 1986.

I have been encounteringin part through happenstance, but also likely in part because of the particular architectural collections with which I have been most involved as of latean abundance of materials related to the status and (often) undervaluation of the contributions of women in many professional fields. Apart from archival records, I recently listened to a 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible that showcased the near erasure of photographer Lucia Moholy from the history of the Bauhausan institution that owed its reputation at least in part to her astounding (unpaid and uncredited) documentation. Recent books, such as Where are the Women Architects, and excellent articles such as the 2012 piece “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” which appeared in the journal Places, have refocused my attention on how that long story that Marie-Louise Laleyan mentioned fits into an ongoing conversation. A call to examine the current state of the architectural fieldof nearly any fieldalso encourages reflection on how past decades of womens experiences and actions can inform a conversation going forward.

Laleyan had what is likely a common experience for women entering the American architectural scene in the mid-1960s, which is to say that she was often told that firms did not hire women. She noted in an interview years later that, My reaction of how stupid has not changed in 22 years! To say she defied the barriers to entry is an understatement. She went on, after working her way up in several firms, to found Laleyan Associates, Architects. Her project records, held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA), reveal a lot about the constant need to assert her authority as an architect.

 

For instance, filed into the general correspondence associated with any project, we find glimmers of the difficulty Laleyan sometimes faced in being taken seriously or authoritatively. Between the contracts, bid documents, cost estimates, schedules of work, invoices, field reports, change orders, specifications, revised plans, and the general back and forth between architects, owners, and contractors, are observations about undercutting. When viewed en masse, these suggest a challenge to the expertise of a woman working in a male-dominated field.

In some of the following examples, Laleyan has to remind contractors and owners of her professional role in a project, ask that they do not undermine her, and note the outright disrespect of her knowledge and expertise.

L1008
In the last section Laleyan notes her encounter with a sub-contractor during an inspection. He, among other challenges, asserts that she doesnt know what she is talking about. Laleyan goes on to record that this is a repeated challenge and that she will not tolerate such interactions.

L1002In reference to a letter from a contractor, Laleyan notes in section A that I do not challenge contractors. I administer the construction contract as required by my agreement and later notes occasionally contractors have disagreed with my interpretation of the contract documents, but you are the first who has challenged persistently my authority to interpret those documents and my right to make decisions, based on those interpretations.

L1005The notes in the last section recount Laleyan’s experience ofbeing yelled at in front of a job superintendent, workers, and others. She goes on to mention that while she did not respond on grounds of professional behavior, she will not tolerate a project development supervisor undermining her authority with the contractor.

L1023Laleyan notes that she would appreciate it if her designs were followed and not improved upon by the contractor.

Many more records can be found in the Marie-Louise Laleyan Architectural Collection.

Beyond Laleyans success as an architect and owner of her own firm, she had a prominent role in professional organizations and helped to begin actively addressing the challenges that she and other women were facing. She tackled barriers to entry, noting that when she had studied in Bulgaria half of the architectural students were women. She went on to co-found the Organization of Women Architects in 1972, and against the background of 1970s feminist initiatives she contributed a great deal to the conversations and actions that were taking place to encourage a sense of equity within the profession. Apart from participating in organizations that helped to support and encourage other women in the field, Laleyan worked in high-level roles in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which had a high barrier to participation for professional women. She co-authored the 1975 AIA Affirmative Action Plan and co-chaired the AIA Task Force on Women in Architecture, among other roles. The studies and action plans outlined as part of the AIA initiative helped to move the inclusion of women in the professional activities of the field forward, but as Laleyan noted in her 1980s article for Daily Pacific Builder, the arguments about the success of the Affirmative Action Plan still go on. Its arguable that the core of those recommendations and the issues they address are still relevant today, and are applicable in many fields where women still represent a minority of participants. Still, the increased awareness and forthright conversation about barriers, as well as the existence of toolkits and resources to support women entering the field, likely owe their existence to earlier initiatives such as these.

Looking through a historical lens at Marie-Louise Laleyans work provides a microcosm of the experiences of many women architects working at the time (certainly the papers in many of the IAWA Collections attest to similar experiences). But such bridges to the past that examine issues of gender equity, professional practice, and labor issues almost demand to be viewed along a continuum and alongside the work of women in related fields. As Laleyan stated practically with regard to the 1970s AIA Affirmative Action Plan, What has been achieved in the last ten years is more than I expected. The rest is up to the next generation.

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One of many drawings related to the numerous public housing remodeling projects that Laleyan completed during her lengthy career.

The OWA still works on behalf of the vision the group outlined in the 1970s. Visit the website for history, newsletters, and current initiatives and projects. Papers from the IAWA Collection are available to view in person in the Virginia Tech Special Collections reading room.

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 visitedover 30 countries, traveling extensively throughout North America, Europe, and East Asia. With an eye for design inenvironments both natural and built, shemeticulously documented her many travels in photographs, diaries and sketchbooks. Maybe alittle different fromthe typical contents inour many collections that formthe International Archive of Women in Architecture, but I think they help show who Sigrid Rupp was- always curious, always creating.

ms1997_006_rupptraveldiary_mexico1998
Sigrid Rupp sketching the view from an overlook in Guanjuato, Mexico.

Rupp developed herfascination 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, 5years after receiving her architectural license, she founded her own firm, SLR Architects, in the San Francisco bay area,whereshe served as president until she closed the office in 1998.

ms1997_006_rupptraveldiary_alaska_2002
An excerpt from one of Rupp’s travel diaries, complete with a view out her tent on a lake in Alaska in 2002.

Rupptraveled and sketched extensively throughout her career, butafter her retirement, shedevoted 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 beganhosting 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
ms1997_006_rupp_travdiary_mongolia_2000_0728
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 Collectioncontains an extensive list of all the sketches, photographs and recollectionsfrom her travels. You can see a small sampling of items from her collection, including some of these drawings, onour IAWA digital collections site. Happy travels!

The Coade, Hard Facts…about Artificial Stone

Working with the History of Food & Drink Collection for the last few years has helped me build up an interest in advertising. Since 2011, we’ve been acquiring materials for our Culinary Pamphlet Collection, which contains hundreds of pamphlets, booklets, and cards/card sets. Much of the collection consists of small recipes books that consumers would either have sent away for or received free, full of recipes that use a product or products and aimed at encouraging future purchasing. In 2013, we started building the Culinary Ephemera Collection, which contains things likelabels, broadsides, trade cards, puzzles, menus, and postcards. There are lots of great bites of culinary ephemera–just the kind of items you’ll find me blogging about on “What’s Cookin’ @Special Collections?!” It’s through food and food advertising history that I first got into trade cards, but that’s not the only place you’ll find them.

Which brings us toCoade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Manufactory Trade Card:

Ms2015-045_tradeCard_jpg

This collection is among what we call our “1-folder collections.” The entire collection, in this case, consists of the single trade card, probably printed around 1784. But, there’s a great deal of history to even a single small piece of paper. (In other words, don’t let the size of a collection fool you!)

The image is believed to have been one carved above the door at the factory. The woman whose belt is labeled “Ignea Vis” (or, “Firey Force”) appears to be overpowering a winged figure, who has both a tail and a trumpet, but we have no other clue to who or what he represents. The text reads:
Coade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Stone Manufactory For all kind of Statues, Capitals, Vases, Tombs, Coats of Arms & Architectural ornaments &c &c; particularly expressed in Catalogues, & Books of Prints of 800 Articles & upwards, Sold at ye Manufactory near Kings Arms Stairs, Narrow Wall Lambeth, opposite Whitehall Stairs, London
The Latin above the three women reads, “nec edax abolere vestusas.” This is most likely the second half of the second of two lines from Ovid’sMetamorphosis:Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis/nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas. Of, if you prefer: “And now my work is done, which neither the anger of Jupiter, nor fire,/nor sword, nor the gnawing tooth of time shall ever be able todestroy.” It seems an obvious advertising suggestion at the timelessness of the artificial stone manufactured by the company. Which brings us toCoade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Stone Manufactory.

 

Coade’s was a company run by Eleanor Coade (1733-1821). Her first business was as a linen-draper, but she eventually shifted to making artificial stone, referred to as “Coade stone.” (Seeing a woman run any sort of business at time is only one of the reasons the trade card is such a stand-out item!) She ran the company from 1769 until her death in 1821, at which point her last business partner, William Croggon, continued the business until 1833. Coade produced stone for famous architects of the time, including John Nash. Nash’s works using the stone included the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, andthe refurbishment of Buckingham Palace in the 1820s. Other sites using the stone wereSt. George’s Chapel, Windsor and the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

 

You can see the finding aid for the collection online. It offers a little more context to the trade card (designed by sculptor John Bacon, who studied at the Royal Academy). A trade card often seems like a simple thing, without much to do, other than advertise a company–but that isn’t usually the case. There’s a great deal of thought as to what goes into the design, what effect it might have, and what its real intention is. Certainly, Bacon probably thinking of this as a work of art, nor was Coade expecting it to last 231 and find its way to our collections, but it really is a work of art and it still has value over two centuries later. What that value is…well, art is in the eye of the beholder, just like research value. It’s up to you and me to figure out what this small, but not insignificant collection can mean.

Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech

In the early 1920s, the first female students at Virginia Tech were not quite welcome. They had special rules to follow, there were no dormitories for women, and male students would throw water on them as they passed by the dorms. But one day, Ruth Terrett, a civil engineering student, decided to show the men she could do just as well as them. She donned a cadet uniform and climbed the universitys water tower, a tradition the male cadets undertook to prove their strength and ability. That day, Ruth proved that women, when given the chance, could do what men could.

Women throughout Virginia Techs history have encountered many obstacles, and have consistently overcome them. Sam Winn and I (Laurel Rozema) recently searched through Special Collections holdings to document these women and their achievements in the universitys history. Our work culminated in an exhibit at the Alumni Associations Womens Weekend and a slideshow, entitled Climbing the Water Tower: How Women Went from Intruders to Leaders at Virginia Tech. Let me share with you a few of those milestones now, or you can view the PDF of our slideshow here.

Women join the student population

Many people know the story of the first female students: twelve women, including five full-time students, enrolled in 1921. Two years later, transfer student Mary Brumfield received a bachelors in applied biology, earning her masters from VPI in 1925, the first woman to achieve either degree. But, did you know women began attending VPI several years earlier? They were allowed to sit in courses during the fall and spring for no credit and were admitted to summer classes, starting in 1916. 1921 was still a milestone year as it was the first all courses were open to women seeking a college degree, because there was no good reason for not doing so” as the university bulletin states.

First female graduates: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield (23; 25); Ruth Louise Terrett (25); Lucy Lee Lancaster (25); Lousie Jacobs (25); Carrie Taylor Sibold (25)
First female graduates: Mary Ella Carr Brumfield (23; 25); Ruth Louise Terrett (25); Lucy Lee Lancaster (25); Lousie Jacobs (25); Carrie Taylor Sibold (25)

The first coeds, it must be admitted, were more than likely all white, given that segregation was legal due to Jim Crow laws and the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upholding separate but equal racial segregation in the public sphere. Its not clear when women of color were first admitted to the university, but international students from Mexico, China, Puerto Rico, and other places were already attending VPI by the 1920s. We believe the first woman from India to attend VPI was Kamini Mohan Patwary, who earned a masters in statistics in 1955. However, it wasnt until 1966 that the first six African American women matriculated, thirteen years after the first African American man and 55 years after the first women. In 1968, Linda Adams became the first African American woman to graduate from Virginia Tech. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.)

There wasnt much for women to do athletically in the early years, so Ruth Terrett, mentioned above, started an informal womens basketball team before graduating in 1925. Women joined the cheerleading team in 1941, but were not officially recognized as members until the 1955-1956 school year. The first intramural womens sport was basketball in 1967. Three years later, swimming became the first intercollegiate sport for women, and women were allowed to compete on the gymnastics team.

Because the Corps of Cadets did not admit women, Patricia Ann Miller was denied permission to enroll in Corps classes. Despite this, in 1959, she became the first woman commissioned during graduation when she successfully applied for a commission from the Army Womens Medical Specialist Corps. Finally, in 1973, the Corps formed the L Squadron, exclusively for female cadets. Deborah J. Noss became the first female squadron commander and Cheryl A. Butler the first female African American cadet (and squadron leader the next year). In 1975, women were admitted to join the cadet band, and four years later, the L Squadron was disbanded to order to integrate women into the formerly all-male companies. In 1987, Denise Shuster became the first female regimental commander and in 2005, Christina Royal the first African American female regimental commander.

Female students who were not athletes or cadets had other ways of breaking the glass ceiling. In 1953, Betty Delores Stough became the first woman to receive a doctorate, in parasitology. Jean Harshbarger was the first woman elected class president for the Class of 1974. In 1968, Jaqueline D. Dandridge was the first woman of color in the homecoming court, and Marva L. Felder became the first African American homecoming queen in 1983.

Women join the workforce

What about the women working at VPI? Ella Agnew is often remembered as the first female home demonstration agent in the nation in 1910. When the university became headquarters for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Agnew and the other agents became staff of the university. Agnew was also the first woman to receive VPIs Certificate of Merit in 1926, and Agnew Hall was the first campus building named after a woman in 1949. However, few realize she was not the first woman to work at Tech. In 1902, Frances Brockenbrough became Superintendent of the Infirmary, and the next year Mary G. Lacy became the first female Librarian and Margaret Spencer the Presidents Secretary.

Other female agents worked for the Extension during its early years at the university. In fact, although the African American division was headquartered at Hampton Institute, the agents were considered non-resident staff of VPI, first listed in the 1917 university catalog. One of these women was Lizzie Jenkins, who became the first African American female home demonstration agent in Virginia in 1913.

Women faculty members are first listed in the university catalog for 1921-1922. Mary Moore Davis ranked as a professor and worked as a state home demonstration agent in the Extension Division. She also established the home economics degree program at VPI. The first Dean of Women was Mildred Tate, who served from 1937 to 1947, and the first female academic dean was Laura Jean Harper, who in 1960 became the first Dean of the School of Home Economics. (Read more about her on our previously blog post.) Heidi Ford in 1970, Ella L. Bates in 1974, and Johnnie Miles in 1974 became the first female African American faculty members at Virginia Tech.

Women began achieving executive positions in the 1980s and 1990s. Sandra Sullivan was named Vice President for Student Affairs in 1982, and Peggy S. Meszaros served as the first (and currently only) female Provost from 1995 to 2000. Women started serving on the Board of Visitors in 1944, when VPI and Radford College merged. However in 2014, Deborah L. Petrine became the first female Rector in the universitys then 142-year history.

Women by the numbers

Virginia Tech has gone through enormous changes since its founding in 1872, especially in the growth of opportunities for women. Women on the staff have grown from one female administrative officer in 1902 to five women faculty members (only 4.7% of the faculty) in 1921 to 1,525 or 39.5% of the faculty in 2014. The student population has grown from 12 women or 1.3% of the students in 1921 to 13,241 women or 42.4% of the student population in 2014.

According to the Digest of Education Statistics, in Fall 2013, women accounted for 54.6% of enrolled students, 48.8% of faculty, and 54.5% of total employees (including faculty) in degree-granting public institutions in the U.S. However, the Digest also shows that women received only 30.8% of the degrees conferred by STEM schools in 2012-2013. So, as far as women have come, theres still more to do.

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 bythe 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, weve 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 sawthe consequences of leaving preservation to chance when the accomplishments of her own colleagues were marginalized or lost to history. Shewas 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 legaciesand 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 collectionslived, taught, and practicedin more thanthirty 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 annualMilka 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 IAWAs 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.

“With reluctance I seat myself…:” A Mother on the Home Front

March is Women’s History Month. Over on the History of Food & Drink blog, I’ll be profiling women who made contributions and influenced American culinary history. Which got me thinking about our other manuscript collections, women who lived through American history and women whose words are on our shelves. If you had the time to look through our nearly 1800 collections, you would find many women’s names. Most of them aren’t famous, but their letters, diaries, architectural drawings, cookbooks, and other papers can be important both as individual objects and in the larger context.

That being said, I thought I’d share Nancy B. Harbin’s letter. Written in the second year of the American Civil War, Nancy writes from Calhoun County, Mississippi to her sons in Richmond, Virginia. Jack, John, and Edward all served with Company F, 42nd Regiment, Mississippi Infantry.

As with many mothers, her concern is first and foremost for the well-being of her sons. Her letter is really two letters: one to Jack and a second to John. She doesn’t write Edward directly, which may be the result of his being “so near death.” It is unclear if he was sick or injured. (Our research on the family wasn’t as fruitful as we might hope–which sometimes the case–and we don’t know if any of Nancy’s sons survived the war. ) On the one hand, this is a letter from a mother to her children, providing them updates from home, sharing her concern and love for them, and encouraging them. On the other, the very fact that it has survived 152 years makes it an important part of the larger body of Civil War materials in our collections and far more than a simple letter from mother to sons. BecauseNancy’s concerns are what we might expect from such a letter, it is both specific to her family anda representative voice of the Civil War home front correspondence of the time.

We have other home front letters from women (and men!) in our Civil War holdings, and if you were to keep reading, you would see similar themes, regardless of location, relationship, or loyalty. If you’d like to do so, come visit us and we’ll be happy to help!