A significant figure in architectural history belongs to Philadelphia, but unlike other noteworthy names, hers has largely been overlooked. A new exhibition seeks to correct that omission and restore the legacy of Minerva Parker Nichols (1862-1949), the first woman to establish an independent architectural practice in the United States.
“Our first impulse was the creation of an archive in the absence of one,” explained William Whitaker, curator of the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania, joining with architectural historian and Hidden City contributor Molly Lester, archivist Heather Isbell Schumacher, and photographer Elizabeth Felicella to create Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect.
During the eight years she worked in Philadelphia–with an office at 14 South Broad Street– Nichols was prolific and well-known in the field. Her body of work focused primarily on individual residential commissions, though she also designed at least two speculative projects for railroad suburbs, the occasional factory or other commercial building, and women’s clubhouses for the New Century Clubs of Philadelphia and Wilmington. Although ultimately not built, an important commission was the Queen Isabella Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Nichols’s work was documented in the trade press, including dozens of issues of the Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders Guide. She also produced her own coverage, writing in several women’s publications, including a column in The Homemaker magazine.
“I think she did earn a lot of respect from colleagues. The record shows positive quotes from builders and the trade press,” said Molly Lester, Associate Director of the Urban Heritage Project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. “She received a great deal of respect because she had many satisfied clients.”
So the question remains: Why is Nichols relatively unknown today? “I have overlapping theories,” said Lester, who has been researching Nichols’s life and work for over a decade. “Her work was mostly residential, with fewer high profile buildings to point to. No university claims her. And she never joined the American Institute of Architects. All those factors, and the seeming brevity of her career, combine to eliminate her profile.”
Designing the exhibit became a treasure hunt of sorts. According to Lester, they began with the items in the Architectural Archives, plus a handful of drawings that Nichols had donated to Radcliffe College’s Schlesinger Library. A wealth of material, including drawings, period photographs, and personal items were loaned by Nichols’s great-granddaughter. “It’s a really rich and rare opportunity that they’ve kept so much,” noted Lester.
At the outset, they were aware of a handful of projects that Minerva completed in her first few years of practice, but an article in the but an article in the Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders Guide one year after she’d established her practice credited her with 24. “It was utterly gratifying to try to leave no stone unturned,” recalled Whitaker. “We had to make the list of what she built. Sometimes it took a lot of time and research, and sometimes we just stumbled upon them, training your eye to see characteristic aspects of her work.”
For exteriors, Nichols favored the Shingle and Colonial Revival styles that were popular in the late Victorian era. It’s with interiors where a distinctive character appears. “She’s thinking about the plan of the house and the domestic space, the daily routines,” said Whitaker. “How to make them pleasant and flow together, along with the movement of sunlight through the house.” “She wanted to make sure women could advocate for what they wanted in a home,” agreed Lester.
Another item in the exhibition that demonstrates how Nichols intertwined her roles as both an architect and a woman is one of Lester’s favorites. “I’m drawn to the baby book,” she said. “When I flipped through it and saw photos of buildings alongside those of her children, I found it so rich because it illustrates how she was nurturing multiple things at that time.”
Augmenting the period materials in the exhibition are a series of photographs shot on film by Felicella of exteriors and interiors of many of the extant houses designed by Nichols. This present-day documentation creates a kind of conversation with the period views, as many of the homes had been altered over time.
The story of the New Century Club of Philadelphia opens the exhibition as a sort of cautionary tale. It was built in 1891 at 124 South 12th Street, was included in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), and added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1965. On display are correspondences concerning the waning, aging membership of the club, the deterioration of the building, and the decision to demolish it in 1973. “We framed the exhibit as how buildings are lost and found,” noted Whitaker. In addition to the building being lost, it’s an example of how Nichols’s legacy was lost. When the HABS entry was digitized, the metadata with her name was not transferred.
Lester sees this exhibition as a first step in righting that wrong. “Even with all of the research we’ve done, there is still question marks and hopes that something else will turn up.”
In addition to the exhibition, the project team are planning public programs and a book to be published by Yale University Press.
Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect is on view now until June 17 in the Harvey & Irwin Kroiz Gallery of the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania. See exhibition details here: https://www.design.upenn.edu/events/minerva-parker-nichols-search-forgotten-architect