(Editor’s note: While in Boston recently to help celebrate the centennial of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), we joined the over-flow crowd at the session moderated by Joan Ockman, On Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Architecture Schools Today. The stellar panel, (see photo below) tackled, among other questions, the following: What is the value of history in the architecture school curriculum today? What is the value of reexamining the history of architecture education itself? These same questions resonate in Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America, ACSA’s just published centennial tome, of which Ockman is editor, and Rebecca Williamson is research editor. We caught up with Williamson after the session, and learned about some of the women whose careers her primary research uncovered—she shares with us below two of what we hope will be more profiles.)
Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America tells the story of how we came to teach and learn architecture the way we do. Women are part of this history: pioneers such as Catharine Beecher, Sophia Hayden, and Julia Morgan in the early years, the first large influx of women into the field around World War II, the consciousness raising about gender and race from the late 60’s onward, and the current successes of countless female practitioners, educators, and administrators.
Researching the famous figures turned up others who charted more unusual paths. For example, the research included reading through records of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture looking for content of various kinds, but attentive to indications of the presence of women. While the ACSA had been a multi-racial organization in the 1920’s, with Howard University professors William Hazel and Albert Cassell attending annual meetings, women appear only as the “girls” in the offices until sometime after World War II.
For this reason it was striking to see the name of Elmira Smyrl as the only female participant in an ACSA faculty workshop during the 1950’s. The poetry of the name alone was enough to spark curiosity. A loving tribute on a family memorial site revealed a personality that was at once unique and familiar. Many of us remember an older female faculty member, who was perhaps the only woman in her department for many years, reputed to be eccentric or tough or both, perhaps cultivating her own mystique. Elmira Smyrl was one of these. (Read more on Smyrl)
After an early career in practice in Texas, she began teaching at Bozeman in 1955, developing expertise in civil defense, including the design of fallout shelters, about which she lectured and led workshops throughout the 60’s. Her name is not attached to significant designs or publications, nor was she associated with a movement or style. She may never have won a competition or prize. Her experiences in her career represent instead a part of the journey of women in architecture that has not been fully explored – the risks individual women took, the difficulties they faced, and the creativity with which they defined their personal identities and professional careers.
Mary Page is another who has received little attention in the history books. We can be fairly certain that she was the first woman to receive a degree in architecture in the United States when she graduated from Illinois Industrial University (later University of Illinois) in 1878. With no available evidence tying her to an architectural design or publication, however, she has been largely ignored in favor of women who left a record of built works.
What the archives have revealed of Mary Page’s experience is of interest for other reasons, for she made a series of bold and unconventional choices as her career took her from the Midwest to the Northwest, and from architecture to social causes. She began her career as a draftsperson and ended it as a leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a group whose obsession with restricting access to alcohol was only part of a larger agenda that included racial and gender equality, respect for people with disabilities, and humane treatment of animals. (Read more on Page)
Both Page and Smyrl chose to live outside the norms for women of their eras and bore the consequences undeterred. We can only guess at the challenges they confronted. The themes that connect their lives with those of so many other “originals” are not the stuff of traditional professional and academic histories, rather the gleanings of a collective and collaborative history of the experience of women in architecture.
By Rebecca Williamson, University of Cincinnati
The author wishes to thank Elmira Smyrl’s daughter, Donna Crossland; her granddaughter, Teri Inscoe; Washington State librarian Crystal Lentz; University of Illinois archivist Linda Stahnke; University of Cincinnati graduate student Gael Tabet; and Washington State archivist Erin Whitesel-Jones for their kind assistance.