A New Book Illuminates the Life and Work of a Forgotten Architect

May 28, 2024 | by Kimberly Haas

For several years, a team of historians, archivists, and photographers have been working to return a forgotten architect to the historical record. Not just any architect: Minerva Parker Nichols (1862-1949) was the first woman to establish an independent architectural practice and she did that in Philadelphia.

An exhibition at the Architectural Archives of the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania was presented last year, and now, a book, Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect, has been published. “We wanted to build an archive in the absence of one, and the book is part of that archive,” explained Molly Lester, associate director of the Urban Heritage Project at Penn Design and co-curator of the exhibit. “There are no texts out there about Minerva.” Her collaborators on the book are William Whitaker, curator and collections manager of the Architectural Archives, Heather Isbell Schumacher, archivist at the Architectural Archives, and architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella.

Born during the Civil War, which took her father’s life when she was an infant, Nichols’ early years were spent in Peoria and Chicago, Illinois before moving to Philadelphia with her remarried mother, sister, and stepfather in 1876.

Portrait of little-known architect Minerva Parker Nichols. Photographer unknown. | Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In the late 19th century, college-based architectural studies were not yet well established. Apprenticeships were more the norm for entry into the profession, although unlikely to be available to many women. There were, however, institutions that offered programs in drafting, and Nichols opted to enroll in one, the Drawing School of the Franklin Institute.

She orchestrated an extremely quick transition into her career, submitting her first entry in a design competition, acquiring an apprenticeship, and securing her first commission all within a few months of her graduation in 1886. Within three years, Nichols had established her solo practice.

For information about her personal life, Lester turned to a memoir of sorts, called The Baddest Day. “It’s a photocopy of stories she told her grandchildren around 1944,” Lester explained. “One of them wrote them down, and another family member illustrated them. It’s the most complete record of her early life, although somewhat unofficial.”

The Wallace Munn House at 1012-1014 Oak Lane Road is one of Minerva Parker Nichols’ many residential commissions in Philadelphia. | Photo: Elizabeth Felicella

In 1891, at the age of 29, Nichols married Unitarian clergyman William Nichols. A few years later they left Philadelphia for Brooklyn, New York and Connecticut after that. She continued to practice architecture while raising their four children, rejecting the common trend of the time for women to retire from their careers upon marrying.

Despite practicing for only eight years in Philadelphia, she left behind a substantial body of completed work, much of which still exists today. These include buildings in Mount Airy, East Oak Lane, Germantown, Powelton Village, Overbrook, Darby, Rutledge, Wyncote, Narberth, Berwyn, and Bala Cynwyd.

Beyond the team’s extensive research, mounting of the exhibit, and now authoring this new book, Lester says they hope others will join them in further discovery. “As I was writing, we tried to make ‘breadcrumbs’ for anyone who comes after us to see where more research might lead,” she said. “We were upfront on what we didn’t know.”

New Century Club of Philadelphia at 124 S. 12th Street was completed in 1892 and designed by Minerva Parker Nichols. It was demolished in 1973. | Photo courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress

One of the things that seems to remain unknown is the question of why history has overlooked Minvera Parker Nichols. It wasn’t because of her gender—she clearly was well-known and well-regarded during her career. A contributing factor may have been her emphasis on residential architecture, with only a handful of other types to her credit.

During her lifetime she received much press coverage for her work and not merely owing to the novelty of her position. For example, in March of 1890, The Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide published a front-page profile of her, the first profile of an architect it ever ran, after 220 issues. She was well-known nationally. For instance, Nichols’ wedding in Philadelphia was reported in a newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska. In addition, she herself authored many articles and columns, often in women’s magazines, but always dealing seriously with architecture.

The new volume is several books in one: a detailed biography, an architectural catalog, and selections of Minerva’s writings. Beyond her personal biography and her architectural record, they all contribute to an interesting look at a wide swath of American cultural and social history, from the Civil War through World War II.

“My hope is that this book would take Minerva seriously,” said Lester. “And we wanted the book to be taken seriously, not just a coffee table book.”

Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect by Heather Isbell Schumacher, Molly Lester, Franca Trubiano, and William Whitaker is published by the Weitzman School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania and distributed by the Yale University Press.


About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

One Comment:

  1. Congratulations on your book about Minerva Parker Nichols!!
    Forgotten?? I assume when doing research you found page 73 of my book, From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture, published in 1973 by i Press, which was the first book on the history of women in architecture in North America.

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