Alice J. Hands
November 16, 1874 – November 11, 1971
Portraits of Alice J. Hands and Mary N. Gannon, newspaper sketch of the pair. Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Honolulu, February 12, 1895

Portraits of Alice J. Hands and Mary N. Gannon, newspaper sketch of the pair. Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Honolulu, February 12, 1895

Birthplace

Alpine, New Jersey

Education

  • YWCA architecture course (2 years)
  • New York School of Applied Design for Women, 1892–95

Major Projects

  • Florence Sanitarium, San Francisco, circa 1894–96
  • Misses McWilliams cottage, Twilight Park, Catskills, N.Y., 1895
  • Clubhouse, Twilight Park, Catskills, 1895
  • J. H. Lange, residence, alterations, and additions, Twilight Park, Catskills, 1895
  • Gretchen Cottage, Asbury Park, N.J., circa 1895
  • Hotel for women, New York City (unbuilt), 1897
  • Student apartment house, New York City (unbuilt), 1897
  • Model tenements, 215 & 217 West 67th Street, New York City, 1897–98
  • New Era Building (also called the United Clubs Building), office building and clubhouse, New York City (unbuilt)
  • Women’s Hotel, Broadway & 37th Street, New York City (unbuilt)

Awards and Honors

  • Second honorable mention, New York Sketch Club, 1894
  • Second prize, Competition for Woman’s Building, Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, Ga., 1894

Firm

Gannon & Hands, Architects, New York City

Location of Last Office

13 West 18th Street, New York City, 1900

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By Sarah Allaback, Library of American Landscape History

Alice J. Hands (1874–1971), with her classmate Mary Gannon,11See also the biography of Mary Nevan Gannon. formed in 1894 the first professional partnership of women architects in the United States. The successful firm took on a variety of commissions, including designs for a hospital, houses in several states, and efficient model tenements.

Early Life and Education

Alice Hands was born in Alpine, New Jersey, on November 16, 1874, the daughter of Charles and Mary Howe Hands. What little is known of her early life comes from printed interviews after she had become a well-known architect, where she was described as a “New York girl” living at West Eighteenth Street with her parents. When asked about her youth, Hands spoke of a “passion for mechanical drawing” that led her to enroll in the Young Women’s Christian Association’s architecture class. She recalled studying at the YWCA “until I had got to the end of all that is taught there and then I fairly didn’t know what to do, as there was no other school of architecture open to women at that time.” Not long afterward, Hands learned of the soon-to-open New York School of Applied Design for Women and was the first student to enroll.22“Women Architects; The Career of Two Successful Young Ladies,” Hawaiian Star [Honolulu], August 26, 1896.

Mary Nevan Gannon and Alice J. Hands, Woman’s Hotel for New York, newspaper sketch. Flagstaff Sun-Democrat, April 29, 1897

Mary Nevan Gannon and Alice J. Hands, Woman’s Hotel for New York, newspaper sketch. Flagstaff Sun-Democrat, April 29, 1897

The New York School of Applied Design opened its doors on September 19, 1892, at Seventh Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. Although not the first of its kind, the school offered exceptional opportunities for its day, including instruction in architecture from professionals, access to design competitions, and the chance to display work in public. The school unabashedly proclaimed itself “the only school of the kind in the world, in which the instructors are the practical head designers and architects from the leading establishments in the city.”33The Art Amateur 28 (New York and London, March 1893). Mrs. Ellen Dunlap Hopkins, the school’s founder, used her many social connections to assist her students. Although she assumed that the school would exist through philanthropy for at least a decade, by 1895 it would boast six hundred students and an income of over $15,000.44“One Woman’s Work,” San Francisco Call 77, January 20, 1895.

Design schools for women were not uncommon by the late nineteenth century, but the New York School was unusual in many respects. Hopkins was part of the social elite, the daughter of millionaire grain operator George Dunlap of Chicago, and her effort to further women’s design education brought with it financial support from a variety of well-connected New Yorkers interested in the arts, civic causes, and creating opportunities for working women. Before launching her endeavor, Hopkins visited the École des Beaux-Arts, the “L’Academie des Dessins in Paris, and Kensington Art School of London [now the Royal College of Art],” and “gleaned from each the features . . . best calculated to advance the interests and meet the requirements of American students.”55“Pioneer Designers,” The Times, Owosso, Mich., Dec. 30, 1892.

Soon after entering the New York School of Applied Design, Hands met Mary Nevan Gannon, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who shared her dream of becoming an architect. The friends became star pupils of the school’s architectural department. Two drawings by Hands, “Design for hospital” and “Order of Doric, Mutular Doric and Pediment,” were listed in the Architectural League’s 1893–94 catalog among other student projects, the first ever by female architects to be listed in the League’s catalog.66“Work of Woman’s School of Applied Design,” Architectural League of New York, Catalog of Exhibition, 1893–94. These achievements represented not only Hands’s skills, but also those of her teachers. Mrs. Dunlap Hopkins secured an arrangement with the new Metropolitan School of Fine Arts for her students to receive instruction from James Carroll Beckwith and H. Siddons Mowbray, two prominent landscape painters. The first instructor of the architectural department, Austin Lord, would be followed by J. Moore Hewlett, a fellow architect also associated with the renowned firm of McKim, Mead and White. As partners in the firm of Lord, Hewlett and Hull, the two men would later collaborate with their accomplished students.

Mary Nevan Gannon and Alice J. Hands, A Cottage, newspaper sketch. San Francisco Call, May 24, 1986, 27

Mary Nevan Gannon and Alice J. Hands, A Cottage, newspaper sketch. San Francisco Call, May 24, 1986, 27

Career

Alice Hands and Mary Gannon took every opportunity to excel in their chosen profession. In their third year at the school, they were awarded second prize in the competition for the women’s building at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. As Hands later explained, their plans arrived too late, and although “effort was made to reconsider the decision,” the partners’ “professional etiquette” caused them to refuse any special treatment.77Alice Hands, “She Plans New Buildings. How a Girl May Learn to Be an Architect,” in What Women Can Earn: Occupations of Women and Their Compensation, ed. Grace Dodge et al. (New York, Frederick A. Stokes, 1899), 97. They also submitted an entry in a competition for a hospital in San Francisco (one of seven competitions they were said to have entered that year), most likely based on the design Hands had displayed at the Architectural League. In December 1894, newspapers throughout the country announced that their design had won first prize.88See, for example, “Two Talented Girl Architects; They Designed a San Francisco Sanitarium and Won Against Numerous Contestants,” Pacific Commercial Advertiser [Honolulu], February 12, 1895, 5; “New York Girls Winners, Plans of Misses Hands and Gannon for a ’Frisco Building Accepted,” The Evening World [New York], December 13, 1894; “Women the Successful Architects,” St. Paul Daily Globe [Minn.], December 14, 1894; “Young Ladies Win an Architectural Prize,” Omaha Daily Bee, December 14, 1894, 7; “Lady Architects, Their Plans Chosen for the Florence Sanitarium,” The Pioneer Express [Pembina, N.D.], December 21, 1894. By this time, the young architects had opened their own office in the school building and were advertising their services as “Gannon and Hands, Architects,” the nation’s first female firm.99“Women Architects,” The Hawaiian Star [Honolulu], August 26, 1896, 7.

About this time, Gannon and Hands became the only female members of the 10th Ward Sanitary Investigation Committee and accompanied the editor and reformer Richard Watson Gilder on inspection tours through the New York slums.1010“Successful Women Architects: Sixteen Tenements to Be Built on Their Plans,” New York Times, February 25, 1895. As the director of the Tenement House Commission, Gilder not only led the effort to improve worker housing but also sponsored a competition for a design that would solve the “tenement problem.” The young architects understood the complexity of a program that demanded housing in a 25-foot-wide lot, and took on the challenge by spending the winter as tenants of a typical tenement building on Forsythe Street in the 10th Ward, the most crowded section of the city.1111Philipsburg Mail [Montana] April 18, 1895, 8. Their dedication paid off, as Gilder and others considered their design the “solution” to the problem. Journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis praised the plans for letting “in an amount of light and air not dreamed of in the conventional type of double-decker, while providing detached stairs in a central court,”1212Jacob A. Riis, A Ten Years’ War: An Account of the Battle with the Slum in New York (1900 repr.; Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967), 96. and the partners’ experience as undercover “factory girls” living in squalid conditions was noted in newspapers nationwide.1313See, for example, “Women as Architects,” Salt Lake Herald, February 9, 1895, 5; “Fair Architects,” Omaha Daily Bee, April 1, 1895, 3 and April 17, 1897, 12; Philipsburg Herald [Kansas], July 2, 1896; “Two Women Architects,” Wichita Daily Eagle [Kansas] December 12, 1897; “Women Study Homes of Poor; Misses Gannon and Hands Solve Tenement House Problem,” Kansas City Journal, October 17, 1897, 14. Renderings of the tenement façade and interior courtyard, along with the plan for the building at 16 East Twenty-Third Street, appeared in several publications; the drawings were credited to Gannon & Hands, Architects. In an interview after the plans for the new tenements were filed in the New York Building Department, Hands observed that “it would be difficult to tell what share each of us has taken in the work. We are partners, and we work together with just one end in view—success.”1414Copper County Evening News, Oct 26, 1897. By the spring of 1898, the same newspaper could report that the “star ‘applied’ designers” had not only hired two assistants from the school but were supervising the completion of their “novel tenement house.”1515“Our New York Letter; The Star ‘Applied Designers,’” Copper Country Evening News [Calumet, Mich.], May 20, 1898, 7.

According to Gannon, the practical knowledge obtained through education was worth far more than “theoretical training.” The firm prided itself on taking its own measurements, knowing the market rates of building materials, estimating costs, and superintending construction, “except in New York, where an engineer is always chosen for the purpose.”1616Frances E. Willard, Occupations for Women (New York: The Success Company, 1897), 366–67. Gannon and Hands were particularly insistent that compensation for their work be equal to that of their male counterparts, a principle upheld by the school. Their success in this effort is illustrated by a contract they signed with Lord, Hewlett and Hull, Architects, in January 1897. The two firms joined forces to provide architectural services (for which preliminary plans had already been prepared) related to three buildings: the United Clubs Building, an improved tenement house, and a woman’s apartment house. Lord, Hewlett and Hull were the primary architects for the United Clubs building, with Gannon and Hands in the role of “associated architects.” In the case of the tenement and the apartment house, Gannon and Hands acted as architects, with Lord, Hewlett and Hull, supervising architects. A line at the bottom of the contract putting the employment of Gannon and Hands “at the discretion of the party of the second part,” has been crossed out and replaced with a handwritten addendum: “Mary N. Gannon and Alice J. Hands shall be employed to the fullest extent possible compatible with their knowledge of the plans of aforesaid buildings and they shall be preferred in the employment of any labor necessary on said plans.” The contract went on to say that Lord, Hewlett and Hull would not be bound to continue employment unless reasonable skill and diligence was exhibited by their collaborators. Gannon and Hands were confident in their abilities but rightly looked out for themselves when it came to compensation.1717Contract between Mary N. Gannon and Alice J. Hands and Lord, Hewlett & Hull, January 19, 1897. Copy in author’s collection.

Portrait of Mrs. Dunlap Hopkins and Her Office. “One Woman’s Work. What Mrs. Dunlap-Hopkins is Doing in New York,” San Francisco Call, January 20, 1895

Portrait of Mrs. Dunlap Hopkins and Her Office. “One Woman’s Work. What Mrs. Dunlap-Hopkins is Doing in New York,” San Francisco Call, January 20, 1895

The surprising success of the “girl architects,” now known from coast to coast, led to new opportunities for Ellen Dunlap Hopkins of the New York School of Applied Design as well. In the spring of 1897, she was credited for “the idea of erecting a series of buildings, handsome, spacious, comfortable, and practical, adapted to the requirements of the working women of New York”—three of which were described in the contract the architects had signed over the winter. According to the Perrysburg [Ohio] Journal, four buildings—the business woman’s hotel, the art student’s home, the United Clubs Building, and the model tenement—would be near completion by that spring. The plan for the four buildings was called the “most elaborate in the U.S., if not the world,” specifically devoted to buildings for women’s needs, and “Miss Gannon and Miss Hands” were “congratulated by architects in different parts of the country for the utility and beauty of the plans.”1818“Big Hotel for Women; A Greatly Needed and Practical Philanthropic Scheme,” Perrysburg Journal [Ohio], April 24, 1897. Although this project never came to fruition, the idea of buildings exclusively for women inspired national interest and debate over a period of several years.1919See, for example, “Notice of Women’s Hotel,” Omaha Daily Bee, March 20, 1897, 10; “Big Hotel for Women,” Wilmar Tribune (Minn.), April 27, 1897; “Big Hotel for Women,” Perrysburg Journal [Ohio], April 24, 1897; Pioneer Express [Pembina, N.D.], June 7, 1895; Lawrence Democrat [Kansas], June 14, 1895; “Model Hotel for Women,” New York Times, May 12, 1895, 5; “Successful Women Architects: Sixteen Tenements to Be Built on Their Plans—Also a Woman’s Hotel,” New York Times, February 25, 1895, 8.

By 1897, Gannon and Hands were recognized as established New York practitioners, identified in newspapers as the two young women who planned the Florence Sanitarium and solved “the tenement problem.” The firm moved to 16 East Twenty-Third Street that year, and then again to 13 West Eighteenth Street in 1900.2020Dennis Steadman Francis, Committee for the Preservation of Architectural Records, Architects in Practice, New York City, 1840–1900, 33. By all accounts, business prospered. In October 1898, a reporter for the St. Paul Globe described Alice Hands as someone who “has not only made herself rich, but has gained a name in the field of architecture.” And Hands left the younger generation this advice: “After a woman has secured technical training, there is no better opening wedge to the money-making world than to become identified in some way with a well-established architectural firm.”2121“In Woman’s Realm, to Earn a Living,” St. Paul Globe, October 9, 1898, 15.

Although sources suggest that Hands continued to practice, the firm dissolved when Mary Gannon moved to Spokane, Washington in 1900. Five years later, Hands married Henry Kerr, with whom she would raise three sons, born between 1906 and 1908. The family moved to Pennsylvania by 1912, when Henry Kerr became a manager for the Reid Ice Cream Company, and then, in 1915, settled in Cincinnatus, New York, where he continued to expand the business.2222Harry Roberts Melone, History of Central New York (Indianapolis: Historical Publishing Co., 1932), 1357–58. Alice Kerr is credited as the designer of the Kerr family home in Cincinnatus, Cortland County, New York, as well as the Reid Ice Cream Company building. In 1935, she received a U.S. patent for a collapsible pushcart for delivering milk bottles. When she died at age ninety-seven, Kerr’s obituary in The Post-Standard of Syracuse noted that she was the designer of “several structures in the New York metropolitan area” but neglected to mention her as one half of Gannon and Hands, the “pioneer women architects of America.”2323“Mrs. Alice Kerr Succumbs at 97: Was Architect,” The Post-Standard [Syracuse, N.Y.], November 12, 1971; Kathleen Mathew, “Women Architects; The Career of Two Successful Young Ladies,” Cortland County Sentinel, October 1, 1896.

Bibliography

  • Allaback, Sarah. The First American Women Architects. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008, 83, 92.
  • Hands, Alice. “She Plans New Buildings,” in What Women Can Earn: Occupations of Women and Their Compensation, edited by Grace Dodge et al., 94–97. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899. https://archive.org/stream/whatwomencanearn00dodgrich/whatwomencanearn00dodgrich_djvu.txt
  • Miller, Joseph Dana. “Women as Architects.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly 50 (June 1900): 202.
  • Severance, Alice. “Talks by Successful Women IX.—Miss Gannon and Miss Hands on Architecture.” Godey’s Magazine 83 (September 1896): 314–16.
  • Willard, Frances E. Occupations for Women. Cooper Union, New York: Success Company, 1897, 366–70. https://archive.org/stream/occupationsforwo00will#page/n5/mode/2up