By Sarah A. Lichtman, Parsons School for Design, The New School
Anna Wagner Keichline (1889–1943) was the first registered woman architect in Pennsylvania and was among the first registered women architects in the United States. During her long career, she designed dozens of commercial and residential buildings, as well as numerous industrial products. She was awarded seven patents for her innovative residential and building designs, including one for The Building Block (1927), popularly known as the K-brick, which was a forerunner of today’s concrete block.
Early Life and Education
Born in 1889 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, Keichline attained fame at an early age. In 1903, when she was only fourteen years old, she won first prize at the Pennsylvania Centre County Fair for a small oak table and walnut chest that she designed and built herself. Comparing her work to that of a highly skilled mechanic, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a photograph of the young designer modestly clad in a sailor dress and wearing a bow in her hair. The accompanying caption declared, “May Devote Life to Industrial Art.” The article explained that Keichline’s parents supported her interest in carpentry, a skill she first learned from her father, and had given her access to sophisticated tools and a work space, “complete in every detail.” The paper noted Keichline’s enthusiasm for building and related how “every spare moment” she had was “put in her shop.”11The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 18, 1903.
As with many individuals who became architects and designers, the experience of working with her hands, using tools, and making things played an important part in her choice of career. Such positive and pleasurable early associations endowed Keichline with confidence in her own abilities. So too did childhood achievements and formal education.22Pat Kirkham and Lynne Walker, “Women Designers in the USA, 1900–2000: Diversity and Difference,” in Women Designers in the USA, 1900–2000: Diversity and Difference, ed. Pat Kirkham (New York: Bard Graduate Center; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), 58–59. In 1906, she studied mechanical engineering at Penn State College before transferring in 1907 to Cornell University. Recognized for her excellence in scholarship, leadership, and public service, she graduated in 1911 with a degree in architecture. At the time, universities often awarded women students “certificates” rather than degrees. When a rumor surfaced that this might be the case for Keichline, some of her Cornell classmates threatened to disrupt commencement unless she was awarded the same diploma that they would be receiving.33Anna M. Lewis, Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014), 23.
Keichline’s study of architecture and engineering came at a time when men overwhelmingly dominated both fields. While studying at Penn State College, for example, she was the sole female student in her class, and at Cornell University she was only the fifth woman to graduate with a degree in architecture. Nevertheless, she found great satisfaction in her work. She recalled the exhilaration of spending long stretches of time on projects with her fellow students and staying up all night drawing in her room. Such experiences helped shape her identity as an architect. “Now after years of practice,” she later explained, “I realize that I have never thought of hours, time is divided into jobs, a floor plan, a model, specifications, until the job is done.”44Eleanor Morton, “More About the Advantages of Having a Woman as an Architect in the Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 12, 1936, quoted in Anne L. Macdonald, Feminine Ingenuity (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992), 260. In addition to architecture, Keichline found time at college for a variety of other pursuits, among them university politics, sports, and theater.55Ella Howard and Eric Setliff, “In ‘A Man’s World’: Women Industrial Designers,” in Women Designers in the USA, 269–70.
In 1920, Keichline became the first registered woman architect in Pennsylvania. She shared an office with her father, a successful attorney, and designed more than twenty residential and commercial buildings in Ohio, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the state where most of her buildings were built. In 1915, she designed a church in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, in the Gothic Revival style, and in Bellefonte that same year, Keichline, a car enthusiast herself, designed a Cadillac garage with apartments above. During the 1920s, she designed the Plaza Theater, also in Bellefonte (1925), as well as the Juanita Colony County Clubhouse in Mount Union, Pennsylvania (1927), a two-story rectilinear structure with large windows. Throughout the 1930s, many of her buildings were in the Colonial Revival style, but she also designed a series of picturesque cottages and homes, such as the turreted Decker Home (1931). Her hometown newspaper described Keichline as the “successful young architect of Bellefonte,” and her architectural practice would remain in that Pennsylvania town throughout her career.66http://www.bellefontearts.org/local_history_files/local_hist2_new.htm
In addition to buildings, Keichline also designed products. She held six utility patents and one design patent. Her inventions ranged from a Portable Partition (1927) replete with doors, windows, and eaves, meant to be used as a child’s playhouse, to a space-saving Bed for Apartments (1929), a foldaway sleeping compartment that stowed in the wall. The Building Block (1927), better known as the K-brick, a forerunner of today’s concrete block, is probably her best-known design. Engineers recognized the benefits of the inexpensive, fireproof, and lightweight building material made from clay and meant to be used for hollow wall construction. The brick also functioned as insulation and soundproofing, and its notched breaking slots and fracture lines helped bricklayers more easily obtain desired shapes. Functional as well as decorative, the bricks were produced in a wide array of colors, and builders could arrange them in a variety of patterns. In 1931, the American Ceramic Society honored Keichline for her K-brick, and the following year, an article on the benefits of brick construction titled “Modern Wall Construction” was published in TheClay-Worker, the journal of the National Brick Manufacturers’ Association.77Cited in Lewis, Women of Steel and Stone, 25.
At a time of growing interest in the rationalization of American housekeeping, Keichline joined other women domestic reformers in calling for “scientifically built” houses and “rational” kitchen design. In 1912, she received her first patent for a space-saving collapsible combination sink and washtub, which was presumably intended for small apartments, and in 1926, she patented an efficient and economical kitchen unit, her so-called Kitchen Construction, to “involve the minimum amount of labor on the part of the housekeeper and to reduce the operative cost.”88Anna Wagner Keichline, “Kitchen Construction,” patent no. 1,612, 730 (Dec. 28, 1926). http://tinyurl.com/pr9co6j Keichline considered women themselves best suited for kitchen design because of their own lived experiences using such spaces and equipment. She expressed frustration at what she perceived to be a disregard for function and utility in the so-called unstudied design of kitchen furnishings. “People seem to have been content to place one box upon another,” she lamented, “install a few shelves and call it a kitchen cupboard.”99Nancy Perkins, “Women Designers: Making Differences,” in Design and Feminism: Re-Visioning Spaces, Places, and Everyday Things, ed. Joan Rothschild (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 121. In discussing her own design, Keichline said she hoped her improvements in the appearance, cost of operation, and sanitation would lead to even better kitchen furnishings:
Although this may not be the last word in this line, in considering the large number of inconveniences we have hitherto accepted in the work of cooking and cleaning, in the storage of foods, it is surely a step forward for a more convenient working arrangement.1010Ibid.
Keichline’s kitchen unit increased the comfort of the housekeeper while reducing her work. It featured glass-doored cabinets enabling users to find contents more quickly, aligned burners for easier cooking, and placed shelves overhead, eliminating the need for bending. She also provided adequate counter space for food preparation and included a small built-in motor for grinding and peeling. To reduce the floor space that needed to be cleaned, Keichline extended the front end of the stove down to the floor. In 1936, an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “More About the Advantages of Having a Woman as an Architect in the Home,” relayed Keichline’s staunch advocacy of women architects and their special skills. The article even argued for their supremacy in the design of the rational house, an endeavor she feared would “never be accomplished until women take hold.”1111Eleanor Morton, “More About the Advantages of Having a Woman as an Architect in the Home,” quoted in Perkins, “Women Designers,” 123.
In addition to her architecture and design work, Keichline was also active in a variety of social and political causes. She agitated for women’s suffrage and led the Bellefonte March for Women’s Suffrage on July 4, 1913, dressed in her graduation regalia, showing that women too could earn college degrees. During World War I, despite a thriving and lucrative practice, she contacted Captain Harry A. Taylor of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division, asking to aid the war effort. In her letter, Keichline promoted her physical strength as well as her ability to drive and maintain an automobile. Rather than seeking an office job, Keichline, who was fluent in German, hoped to persuade Captain Taylor to assign her a “more difficult . . . [or] more dangerous” wartime role.1212http://www.bellefontearts.org/local_history_files/local_hist2_new.htm As a result, the U.S. government stationed her in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a special agent in the Military Intelligence Division. In addition to her wartime service, Keichline participated in President Herbert Hoover’s Better Housing Conference (1931), which promoted better and more affordable dwellings.
Anna Keichline never married or had children, but was a devoted aunt. Her great niece, the industrial designer Nancy Perkins, continues in Keichline’s tradition of design innovation and holds three patents.