The lobby of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in central Baltimore is a loud, busy space—double-high with hard marble surfaces, designed in 1930 in a Beaux Arts Greek Revival style. Curator and architect Jillian Storms is in the middle of this uncharacteristically noisy and crowded room, telling a story about Poldi Hirsch. “When looking for a town in Maryland to start her husband’s medical practice, they made a pit stop in Havre de Grace and heard they could use doctors. They thought the town quaint, a lovely place in which to raise a family.
Demand for the professional services of an architect was harder to find, much less so a woman who followed the tenants of modernism. So Hirsch ended up acting as her own developer, and eventually as her own contractor too. She was a pioneer in design-build, building her own house with space for both her husband and herself to practice. When I caught up with her kids, they told me that they had never fully understood what their mother had accomplished, they just knew that she was the only mom in town who was on the phone all day!”
Hirsch is one of a dozen women whose work and lives are sketched in a show curated by Storms. “We just ended up using all of their first names in the text,” Storms said about putting together the show with help from students at Morgan State University. “Otherwise, with name changes due to marriage and other reasons, it was getting too confusing.”
Names weren’t the only source of confusion that arose when Storms and her collaborators started their research. While looking for women in the AIA’s records in Maryland and Washington, D.C., they found no way to search by gender. Before 1970, there was no opportunity to check a box on the application form indicating whether you were a man or a woman because architects were so overwhelmingly male. Still, Storms and her team persisted, conducting their search one microfiche file at a time.
Today, only about 16 percent of the AIA’s membership is women, but thanks to initiatives like “The Missing 32% Project,” the AIA is trying to keep better track of them. That 32 percent is the rate at which women leave the profession, or don’t pursue licensure, after graduating from architecture schools where they make up about half of the student population. This percentage is, in part, the audience that Storms hopes this show might reach. Storms, who is on AIA Baltimore’s Women in Architecture / Diversity Committee, said the show is about asking, “How did the women who came before—who had even fewer role models or members of a support group—how did they do it?”
One theme that emerged was flexibility. Like Hirsch, many of the women included here founded their own firms so that they could manage family and practice with a greater degree of self determination than would have been available working for someone else. The home studio that Hirsch designed for herself is a standout in the show, making fluent, strikingly contemporary architecture out of the divisions and flow between work and life, spaces and solids.
Another thread was independence. Chloethiel Woodard Smith, FAIA, led a Washington, D.C.–based practice that was, at its peak in the 1960s, the largest woman-owned architecture firm in the nation. Former members of her staff remember her determination that her work would not be defined by her gender. “She would walk into a room full of male developers and put them in their place,” one former staffer told Storms. “I’m an Architect with a capital A,” Smith wrote to her school’s alumni publication in 1979. “Being a woman has nothing to do with it.” “She wouldn’t have wanted to be in this show,” Storms said, with a laugh.
It’s the resonances between moments like these and contemporary conversations that linger in the mind after visiting this collection of work and stories. Throughout her career, the late Zaha Hadid was continuously asked to address these same issues about the relationship between architecture, gender, and the disparities that exist within the profession. “I used to not like being called a woman architect. I’m an architect, not just a woman architect,” Hadid told CNN in 2012. “Guys used to tap me on the head and say, ‘You are O.K., for a girl.’ But I see the incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all.”
It is this tension between the existence of these early women of architecture as both individuals and role models that drives the show that Storms has put together. She is on a first name basis with the architects here, “I’ve visited most of their projects and I’ve gotten to know their kids.”
Back in the Pratt Library lobby (a space that in 1932 then-library president Joseph L. Wheeler said was designed to be “a building that women could wheel their baby carriages [into]”), Storms has an impromptu audience gathered around her as she wraps up her tour of the show. “I’ve found some of them through friends of friends on Facebook and LinkedIn. That’s how research goes in the 21st century.” This show is about “who came before and what they had to deal with,” but it’s also about “trying to understand these women as people.”
Early Women of Architecture in Maryland is on display at the AIA Maryland Gallery through June 26.