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 Bloiss 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 Bloiss graduation from Columbia Universitys 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 Bloiss 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.


By the way if you missed our last open house dont fret we are holding them on the first Tuesday of each month this fall, through December.

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.

A Mightier Ring: Bugle or Tin Horn?

Hokies know that each year their activities are chronicled with a Bugles call, but how many know that The Bugle, Virginia Tech’s yearbook, was once accompanied by a Tin Horn.

VT's First Women Graduates
The first women graduates of Virginia Tech were (l-r) Mary Brumfield, 1923. and Ruth Terrett, Lucy Lancaster, Louise Jacobs, and Carrie Sibold, 1925

Women were formally approved by the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institutes Board of Visitors to be admitted to all courses of study excluding the military on January 13, 1921. This motion was approved, unanimously, due in large part, to VPI president, Julian A. Burruss persuasive arguments that VPI was in a unique position to economically provide the technical and agricultural training needed by Virginias women in the new arenas available to them in the post-World War I society.

Although, the motion to allow women to attend VPI was accepted unanimously by the Board acceptance among the cadets (and some professors) took a bit longer. The co-eds who arrived ready for classes in September 1921 faced cadets whopubliclyprotested their admission and professors who actively doubted the womens intelligence. Acceptance in extra-curricular activities was nonexistentso the co-eds organized their own groups: a basketball team (at various times called the Sextettes and the Turkey Hens); a Womens Student Organization; special science, chemistry, business, and biology clubs; the Coed Dramatics Club; and their own yearbook The Tin Horn.

The 1925 Tin Horn, published when the women who entered in 1921 would be seniors, consisted of hand-drawn pages and pasted-in photographs dedicated to the spirit of fun. Although, billed as the first and only volume, subsequent publications of The Tin Horn followed in 1929, 1930, and 1931. The latter two were professionally printed. It would not be until 1941, 20 years after the arrival of the first female students on campus, that The Bugle would represent women equally alongside the men in their pages.

Special Collections has digitized all four volumes of The Tin Horn. They have also been pulled as part of our celebration of Womens History Month and are available for viewing in our Reading Room. Whether you visit with The Tin Horn online or in Newman Library make sure to spend some time with Virginia Techs leading ladies.

Yours in Sisterhood: Special Collections Celebrates Womens History Month

Tin Horn 1925
Page from the 1925 self-published, co-ed yearbook The Tin Horn.

March is Womens History Month and in honor of this commemorative month Special Collections is hosting an interactive exhibit-celebrating women. Stop by the exhibit cases located on the first floor of Newman Library to see some representative materials from our collections featuring women in literature, the domestic arts, and science and technology. If you have a few extra minutes (or hours, seriously this is great stuff) then come on in and we will let you loose on a cart full of collections created by women. Our archivists have pulled womens travel diaries from 1840-2000s, speculative fiction magazines, literary first editions, architecture collections, items from Virginia Techs history, and much more.

If you are visiting with us through the magic of the Internet dont despair for each Tuesday in March we will be spotlighting a collection here on this very blog.

Mark your calendars for next Tuesday’s profile on the short-lived, co-ed yearbook, The Tin Horn, published by the first female students at Virginia Tech.

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 13th 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 IAWAs collections.

More details and submission guidelines can be found here. The proposal must be submitted by May 1st, 2013. The winner will be announced by June 15th, 2013.

Opinion Makers: Women writers on architecture

The world of architecture lost a passionate and opinionated voice when Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for The New York Times (1963-1982) and The Wall Street Journal (1997-), died earlier this month at the age of 91. How opinionated was she? Check out this New Yorker cartoon by Alan Dunn that appeared in 1968. And although the Pulitzer Prize-winner was the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper when she started at The New York Times in 1963, she was actually following a tradition of women who wrote about extant architecture.

Book Cover, 'The House in Good Taste' by Elsie de Wolfe
Americas first decorator. Elsie de Wolfe’s seminal book that banished Victorian gloom. Special Collections call number: SPEC Large NK2115 D6 c.2

In the mid-to-late 19th century architecture was a relatively new profession engaged in a public campaign to separate itself from common builders. Authors such as Louisa C. Tuthill, Mariana Van Rensselaer, Mary H. Northend, Edith Wharton, and Elsie de Wolfe served as intermediaries between the lay audience (i.e. potential client base) and architects. Though not trained in architecture per se, these women were often from privileged backgrounds that afforded them the highest levels of private education, an early knowledge of art and culture, and the ability to travel often abroad. They published primarily in general periodicals aimed at the emerging middle class: Century, House and Garden, and American Homes and Gardens, although some such as Van Rensselaer did contribute to the trade publication American Architect and Building News (AABN).

Embracing the 19th-century notion of the cult of domesticity, they served as style dictators endorsing particular aesthetics and architects, and instructing the new glut of middle class homeowners on how to create a domestic sanctuary. Subjects such as the history of architecture and general principles of architecture were also perennial topics during this period.

Book page, 'The History of Architecture' by Louisa C. Tuthill
Page from Louisa C. Tuthill’s “The History of Architecture from the Earliest Times: Its Present Conditions in Europe and the Unites States (1848). Special Collections call number: SPEC LARGE NA200 T8 1848

Their writings did not go unnoticed by the professional architecture establishment. Van Rensselaer was praised by the profession and even had her essay Client and Architecture recommended for reprint and distribution at an American Institute of Architects (AIA) meeting (1890). She was made an honorary member of the AIA that same year. The tables could quickly turn, however, as they did in 1892 when the AABN panned Van Rensselaers book English Cathedrals saying that it smacks of the magazine and so, almost of the literary hack.

The entry of women into an architecture practice that did not center around the domestic sphere would be a gradual one that would eventually make way for renowned critics such as Huxtable and Pritzker-winning starchitects.

Want to know more about women in architecture? Special Collections is home to the International Archive of Women in Architecture. Visit the IAWA page or come see us in person!

**The historical research for this post was culled from Lisa Koenigsberg’s book “Professionalizing domesticity: a tradition of American women writers on architecture, 1848-1913.” and her essay ‘Mariana Van Rensselaer: An architecture critic in context’ published in “Architecture a place for women.” **