Papers of Cloethiel Woodard Smith & Associated Architects, Prints and Drawings Collection of the Octagon Museum, American Architecture Foundation, Washington, D.C.
American Institute of Architects Archives, Washington, D.C.
Clipping and Biographical Files, Smith, C., Washingtoniana Collection, Martin Luther King, Jr., Public Library, Washington, D.C.
Letters to Lewis Mumford, Special Collections of the Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania
By Madlen Simon, University of Maryland
Chloethiel Woodard Smith (1910–92) was a highly successful mid-century architect who left a legacy of planned communities and buildings, mainly in and around her beloved city of Washington, D.C. A well-known public figure, she published extensively about architecture and urban planning and served on influential boards and commissions. Her impact on the built environment of the nation’s capital continues to be felt, as does her influence on the careers of the distinguished roster of architects who trained in her firm.
Early Life and Education
Chloethiel Woodard was born on February 2, 1910, in Peoria, Illinois, and grew up in Portland, Oregon. Her parents were Oliver Ernest Woodard, a scholar, and Coy Blanche Johnston Woodard, a chemist-physicist who taught at the University of Oregon Dental College.11Catherine W. Zipf, A Female Modernist in the Classical Capital: Chloethiel Woodard Smith and the Architecture of Southwest Washington, D.C. (Newport, R.I.: The Cultural and Historic Preservation Program at Salve Regina University, 2006). At age twelve, Chloethiel’s interest in architecture was sparked by the construction of her family’s new house. Defying her mother’s wish that she attend an Eastern women’s college, Woodard enrolled in the University of Oregon, where she earned a bachelor of architecture degree with high honors in 1932.22Ibid. Woodard went on to study at Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned a master’s degree in 1933.
The Department of Architecture at Washington University, influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, offered a welcoming environment for women.33Cynthia Field, interview by author, University of Maryland, College Park, Md., May 19, 2014; and Jeffery Karl Ochsner, Lionel H. Pries, Architect, Artist, Educator: From Arts and Crafts to Modern Architecture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007). Woodard was one of two women out of seven students in her graduate class.44Zipf, A Female Modernist in the Classical Capital. Her studies there introduced her to modernist principles of architecture and planning, including reformist ideals of community-building and the connection between landscape and architecture, that would animate her future career. Woodard explored these ideas in her master’s thesis, “An Industrial Housing Community for the City of St. Louis, Missouri.”
Following graduation, Woodard joined the architecture firm of Henry Wright in New York, likely working on the design of the type of planned communities for which Wright was noted and that she had studied at Washington University. She also freelanced for the Housing Study Guild, a group of architects and planners focused on housing and planned communities. During this time, Woodard struck up a long-standing friendship and correspondence with Lewis Mumford, whose philosophy of architecture as a force for the creation of civil society resonated with her own principles.
Woodard moved to Washington in 1935, taking a position with the Federal Housing Authority, also known as the Federal Housing Administration, where she began as a senior draftsman in the rental housing division and rose to the role of chief of research and planning in the Large Scale Housing Division. In 1939, she joined the office of architect A. R. Clas as a designer. Around this time, Woodard met a young State Department employee, Bromley K. Smith, and the couple married on April 5, 1940. Chloethiel Woodard Smith embarked upon several years abroad in Canada, Burma, and Bolivia with her diplomat husband and, soon thereafter, with their two children, Bromley Jr. and Susanne. In 1941, in their first diplomatic posting, in Montreal, Canada, Smith designed an exhibit, “City for Living.” The following year, they moved to La Paz, Bolivia, where Smith served for two years as a professor of architecture at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. In 1944, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the history of planning in South America. This research led to three articles published in Architectural Forum and the Architect’s Yearbook, as well as the design of a master plan for Quito, Ecuador, in 1945.
Back in the United States in 1946, Smith went to work for Berla and Abel, a firm in Washington, D.C., noted for its modernist architecture. Five years later, she and three colleagues left the firm to found Keyes, Smith, Satterlee, and Lethbridge, one of the significant modernist D.C. firms. That group split up after a few years, with Satterlee and Smith forming a new partnership. When Satterlee and Smith dissolved their partnership in 1963, Smith created the firm that she was to lead for the next twenty years, Chloethiel Woodard Smith & Associated Architects. Her firm was a training ground for many architects, including future firm principals Arthur Cotton Moore, Hugh Newell Jacobson, George Hartman, Warren Cox, Edward Marshall Hord, and Colden “Coke” Florance. It is estimated that by the 1980s approximately 30 percent of the architects in the Washington area had worked for Smith.55Beverly Willis and Herbert M. Franklin, “Tribute,” National Building Museum Blueprints XI, no. 2 (Spring 1993): 15.
In 1952, Smith collaborated with Louis Justement on a bold master plan for the radical redevelopment of Southwest D.C. A modified version of this plan was implemented, and parcels were designed by several architects; Smith designed Capitol Parks 1 through 4. This project gave Smith the opportunity to implement her theories of community in a highly visible development that was to transform a broad swath of Washington, D.C. Capitol Park combined town houses and high-rise apartments in a dense urban fabric with ample green space. Glass-enclosed lobbies and balconies brought nature and architecture together. Smith collaborated with landscape architect Dan Kiley to create well-designed spaces both indoors and outdoors. Smith demonstrated the range of her abilities in this award-winning work, from expertise in large-scale urban planning to the care for detail she exhibited in the design of perforated screens that gave privacy to balconies and mahogany screens offering flexibility in the apartment interiors.66Architectural Record, January 1964, 155, 160. The project, though it won the AIA Award of Merit in 1963, came to be viewed as controversial; where slum clearance was initially viewed as beneficial, attitudes shifted as people came to understand the human toll of the destruction of existing low-income, largely African American, communities. And, the new development suffered from zoning that forced residents to cross a highway to reach the nearest shops, located in the Waterside Mall, designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith & Associated Architects in 1964–71.
Smith went on to design another residential development in Southwest Washington, Harbour Square Apartments and Townhouses, in 1965–67. She incorporated the historic Wheat Row town houses into the new development, championing the preservation of these examples of Washington’s historic heritage and skillfully weaving together new and old, high-rise apartments and low-rise town houses. She also envisioned a bold solution to the disjuncture between residential and commercial uses in the area, the never-built Washington Channel Bridge, a Ponte Vecchio–inspired mixed-use development spanning the Potomac River.77Chloethiel Woodard Smith, A Washington Channel Bridge, June 3, 1966.
Other important large-scale residential projects were new towns, including Laclede Town in St. Louis, Missouri, and Lake Anne in Reston, Virginia, and the Chestnut Lodge Mental Hospital and Research Institute in Rockville, Maryland. Smith also designed single-family houses, whose clients included developers for whom she was engaged in large-scale projects. A tiny weekend house, built in 1952 for Colonel and Mrs. Julius Wadsworth, exemplifies her modernist design principles and her skill in bringing nature and architecture into harmony. The open, loftlike interior, entered from the carport, flows through dining area, living space, and studio with glass walls open to lake views. A dining terrace extends the space of the house out underneath a projecting roof that shelters the glass façade from direct sunlight. On the landside, hearth and heater serve as a screen for private spaces enclosed in largely opaque walls.
Although Smith was an expert in the area of residential planning and design, she maintained a generalist practice, applying her creative energy to the design of projects as varied as a highway, Metro station, mental hospital, embassy, church, school, community center, store, and office buildings. While the majority of her work was done in and around Washington, D.C., she designed buildings in other parts of the United States and an embassy for Paraguay. Smith made her mark on downtown Washington with three office buildings at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Streets NW, dubbed “Chloethiel’s Corner” by Washington Post architecture critic Ben Forgey.88Colden “Coke” Florance, interview by author, SmithGroup, Washington, D.C., May 19, 2014. When asked which of her buildings was her favorite, Smith answered, “The next one.”99Benjamin Forgey, “The Work of an Architect Is a Compromise,” Washington Post, month and day unknown, 1977.
Chloethiel Woodard Smith left a tripartite legacy in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area. First, she founded an influential firm that served as a training ground for generations of modern architects. Second, her architecture, planning, and urban design brought modernist ideals of living and new building types to whole quarters of the city, most notably Southwest D.C. Third, her vision and role in the preservation of the historic Pension building led to the creation of the National Building Museum, the preeminent center in the United States for the display of architecture and the building arts.
Smith’s philosophy of architecture echoed her mentor Lewis Mumford’s characterization of the city as a stage, and she described her role in this way: “Architects are the set designers in people’s lives, and until the lights go on and the play begins, we are the only people who have seen the whole and put the elements together. Seeing the buildings that shape people’s lives before they are there and seeing them well in my mind’s eye—that is the source of my work.”1010Chloethiel Woodard Smith, at the height of her career in the mid-1960s, quoted in Willis and Franklin “Tribute.”
What factors led to her success? An early employee described Smith as smart, passionate, provocative, persuasive, relentless, working constantly, and motivated by a social conscience that drove her to improve lives through architecture and planning.1111Colden Florance interview. She was also unusually well qualified, through her education and experience in housing and community development, to take on the challenge of the Southwest redevelopment, the work that established her reputation. Smith’s stint with the Federal Housing Authority likely taught her how to compete for government projects, and she had access to government contacts through her husband, who rose through the ranks of the State Department to work in the White House on the National Security Council during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations.1212Ibid.
A cofounder of the National Building Museum noted that Smith believed firmly in her own ideas.1313Cynthia Field interview. This seems to have been clear from an early age, when Chloethiel Woodard defied her mother’s wishes and, rather than attend an Eastern women’s college, chose to enroll at the University of Oregon, where she was able to study architecture in a coeducational environment. She also demonstrated a resilient attitude throughout her career. When her husband’s diplomatic postings took them north to Canada and south to Bolivia, she quickly found extraordinary opportunities to extend her work in these new settings. She nimbly changed jobs and formed new firms in response to challenges and opportunities as they arose. Smith abhorred the term “woman architect,” considering herself simply an architect and rejecting any qualifier signifying difference, saying, “I am an architect, not a ‘woman architect.’”1414Benjamin Forgey, “Appreciation; On Chloethiel’s Corner; The Architect Put Her Stamp on D.C. & Opened the Way for Others,” Washington Post, January 1, 1993.