By Jessica Fletcher, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
Elisabeth Coit (1892–1987) was a leading public housing expert during the 1930s and ’40s in the United States. Unlike many other architects of the era, she interviewed working-class tenants to better understand their housing needs and actively campaigned for public housing that would accommodate them. During World War II, Coit worked for the Federal Public Housing Authority in Washington, D.C., and then, from 1948 until 1962, she served as a Principal Project Planner for the New York City Housing Authority, where she continued to advocate for architecture that responds to the preferences of tenants.
Early Life and Education
Born September 7, 1892, Coit grew up in an upper middle-class family in Winchester, Massachusetts. Her father, Robert, worked as an architect and had a successful practice in Boston designing weekend homes for wealthy clients. Her mother, Eliza Richmond Atwood, was a homemaker who died when Elisabeth was thirteen years old. Later articles would note the disparity between Elisabeth’s childhood living in a large single-family suburban home that included a front porch, yard, and attic, and her later life, spent dwelling in apartments in New York City and advising government agencies on low-income urban housing.11Harriet Morrison, “Needed: A Technique for Apartment Living,” New York Herald Tribune, August 21, 1964.
Elisabeth (or Betty, as she was often called) and her sister, Dorothy, were both encouraged by their father to attain a liberal arts education. After graduating from Winchester High School, Elisabeth attended Radcliffe College from 1910 until 1911, and then the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1912. However, she wished to work as an architect and eventually enrolled in the architecture program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), receiving her bachelor of science degree in architecture in 1919.
Upon graduating from M.I.T., Coit worked briefly for her father in Boston. Her first project was to remodel a stable designed by her father as a guest house in 1919.22Nancy Jane Olive, “Elisabeth Coit: Pioneer in Architecture” (master’s thesis, Michigan State University, 1989), 36. Later that year, she secured a job as a draftsman at the firm of Grosvenor Atterbury in New York City, and was swiftly promoted to design assistant. Besides designing houses for wealthy industrialists, Atterbury was a pioneer in low-cost housing and renowned for his innovative use of standardized construction in the Forest Hills Gardens housing community (1909–17). In the fall of 1923, Coit took a leave of absence from the firm and made a year-long sojourn to Paris, where she studied ceramics and art history at the Collège de France.
On her return to New York in 1926, Coit became a registered architect in the state, working part-time for Atterbury to allow herself time to establish her own architectural office. She soon had a thriving practice designing and remodeling homes in New York and New Jersey, as well as making alterations to offices and restaurants. The first house that she designed on her own was a cabin for herself and her companion, Eleanor Duncan, in Croton Heights, New York to accompany their small but thriving poultry farm.33“Elisabeth Coit: Biographical Statistics,” Elisabeth Coit Papers, American Institute of Architects Archives. She received an Honorable Mention in the 1932 Better Homes in America Small House Architectural Competition for the house of Anna B. Van Nort, also in Croton Heights. According to the review committee, the house “shows domesticity and real charms, and fits its country site well.”44“Prize-Winning Home Plans Stress Compact Layouts,” New York Times, February 26, 1933, RE1.
During the 1930s, Coit became interested in flying small aircraft and frequently flew with the pioneering aviator Wolfgang Langeweische. She explained in a letter that, “light plane flying takes one further for less money than does automobiling, and is far more fun; also excellent for observing city planning and architectural developments.”55Elisabeth Coit, letter to Mr. Sherman, October 15, 1940, Folder 6, Box 1, Elisabeth Coit Papers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. During these flights, Coit rigged up a bracket to her seat, so that she could keep small sheets of paper and a watercolor palette in place while she painted the scenes below. In 1937, she flew over the Norris Dam to view housing built by the Tennessee Valley Authority,66Jean Lyon, “Her Favorite Perfumes are Cellars, Paint and Wood,” New York Sun, September 1937. and later that year wrote a short article with suggestions for improving airport design, recommending that architects get involved in small airport design to avoid the “dullness of the average automobile roadside camp found in the country.”77 Elisabeth Coit, “The Smaller Airport,” Pencil Points 18, no. 11 (November 1937): 741.
In the summer of 1935, Coit returned to Europe, traveling to France, Belgium, Holland, Austria, and Germany, and visiting numerous low-income housing projects. She wrote an article for the Radcliffe Quarterly about European efforts to provide low-cost housing for their citizens, remarking that “to European cities the obligation of decent housing is almost as pressing as the obligation of properly maintained streets, unpolluted water supplies or fire protection. For this reason, the American student finds quantities of important material, sermons in brick and concrete, all over Europe.”88Elisabeth Coit, “Notes on European Low-Cost Housing,” Radcliffe Quarterly 19, no. 10 (October 1935): 247.
While praising the intentions of European housing developers, Coit was skeptical about many of the modern design features that she observed, and keen to discern how residents actually used their homes. Of an apartment block in Brussels, she commented that the “rows of uninterrupted fenestration, exceedingly impressive until one notices that most of the windows are not only curtained but shuttered.”99Ibid., 245. She noted that “only the strongest cooperative instinct would keep all this glass shiny and pay for the coal to fight the heat leakage in winter”1010Ibid. and that the small balconies on many German apartment buildings were only large enough for a few flower pots or to dry laundry. She criticized this recurring design feature, arguing that when recessed, it darkened the apartment and, when extended out from the façade, it darkened the apartment below. Coit concluded, “a balcony is not a living space in these congested dwelling quarters, but rather an architectonic grace note proving the designer’s savoir faire and looking particularly jolly in the come-on plaster model displayed under a sun lamp.”1111Ibid. Her insistence on respecting the living patterns of working-class tenants would shape her approach to designing public housing for the next three decades.
Coit’s interest in low-income housing led her to become involved with the National Public Housing Conference (NPHC) in New York City during the 1930s. This organization brought together a number of college-educated women who wanted to improve urban life for working-class residents of cities. Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch served as its president, and housing reformer Edith Elmer Wood was a vice-president. As Eugenie Birch has argued, the NPHC took a distinctive approach to the cause of low-income housing. In addition to advocating for the government to solve the housing crisis, it encouraged grass-roots activism and rejected the popular notion that working-class citizens required moral reform.1212Eugenie Ladner Birch, “Woman-Made America: The Case of Early Public Housing Policy,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 44, no. 2 (April 1978): 136-41. The NPHC challenged the class bias that pervaded much philanthropic work in housing, and Coit’s own approach to public housing was informed by her early involvement with the organization.
Unlike some of her contemporaries, Coit’s professional identity was influenced by her support for women’s equality. Coit encouraged more women to become architects in an article published in 1936 by her alma mater. She began by outlining dispiriting statistics: only a dozen women were part of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), just two female members and one associate belonged to the New York Chapter of the AIA which had 450 members, and just one woman architect was a member of the Architectural League of New York.1313Elisabeth Coit, “Architecture as a Profession for Women,” Radcliffe Quarterly, 19, no. 5 (May 1936): 15. Coit then sketched the daily demands of the job and the fulfilling nature of the work. She ended the piece by remarking that:
I think no profession open to women compares with architecture in the extent and variety of satisfaction it offers to those who practice it. The field is wide. Architecture is at once ‘the work of nations,’ the record of religious and social aspirations and the most intimate of arts. . . . And, for good or ill, immortality is ours. We are like a city set on a hill: we cannot be hid. Town and countryside bear witness to our art, or lack of it. Even though the tower we planned to reach in heaven never did rend the stars apart, its scattered architects made themselves a babbling name. Which is only another way of saying that our opportunities are unlimited.1414Ibid., 18.
She repeatedly argued that gender should not be a barrier to entering the profession of architecture and praised the potential of architects to improve everyday life.
In 1937, at the age of 45, Coit applied for and won the American Institute of Architects’ Langley Fellowship for housing research, an award she received again the following year. This fellowship enabled her to travel across the United States, and, during these two years, she visited 120 co-operatives, philanthropic housing projects, large-scale housing built by life insurance companies, defense housing, and early United States Housing Authority developments.1515Elisabeth Coit, “Notes on the Design and Construction of the Dwelling Units for the Lower-Income Family,” The Octagon 13, no. 10 (October 1941): 10. In her application for the fellowship, Coit emphasized her interest in evaluating economical methods of designing and constructing low-cost housing.1616 Elisabeth Coit, Proposal of Candidate for an Edward Langley Scholarship, 1937, The American Institute of Architects Archives, The AIA Historical Directory of American Architects, s.v. “Coit, Elisabeth.”
She often visited early New Deal projects on her travels, noted instances of experimental construction, and spoke to tenants about their needs and desires for their homes. She wrote on the back of her photographs of houses in Greenbelt, Maryland that these were “experimental model homes” constructed using “prefab panels.”
Coit’s research led her to question the prevailing approach to designing working-class housing and the typical relationship between architect and resident. She published her conclusions in three 1941–42 articles, first a two-part report titled “Notes on the Design and Construction of the Dwelling Units for the Lower Income Family” in The Octagon, the AIA’s professional journal, and then in “Housing from the Tenant’s Viewpoint,” in Architectural Record. The article in Architectural Record began by reporting a lament from a housing manager of a low-income project who remarked that “they use their kitchen for things they ought to use their living room for.”1717Elisabeth Coit, “Housing from the Tenant’s Viewpoint,” Architectural Record 91, no. 4 (April 1942): 72.
Coit went on to dissect this disparity between design intention and use, but inverted the manager’s implication that the residents were at fault, and argued instead that design should follow tenants’ preferences.
The Octagon essay asserted that many low-income housing projects were shrunken versions of middle-class dwellings.1818Coit, “Notes on the Design and Construction of the Dwelling Units for the Lower-Income Family,” 20. Many of these apartments had tiny kitchens (following the example of Grete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen), which were accompanied by open-plan living-dining areas and tiny bedrooms. Coit argued that while this layout might work for middle-class apartments and single-family homes, when reproduced at a smaller scale and with inferior construction materials, it did not support the living habits of many working-class tenants. The living rooms, she explained, were “little used as such by low-income families,” and often redefined as bedrooms, and occasionally as dining rooms or reception rooms for guests.1919Coit, “Housing from the Tenant’s Viewpoint,” 73. Kitchens were the chief centers of activity, the place where families cooked, ate, studied, and did laundry. Coit proposed that they be enlarged to accommodate dining, light laundry, and play for younger children. Living rooms, she proposed, should be separate spaces and bedrooms enlarged to enable quiet activities like reading and study. Coit challenged the implicit bias of many American architects and planners who believed that middle-class living habits were superior to those of working-class residents and aimed to “improve” tenants by encouraging conformity to middle-class modes of life.
During and following these years of travel and research, Coit continued to design homes for private clients while also conducting national housing surveys for the Federal Public Housing Authority on an emergency war-time appointment. In February 1948, she began working part-time at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), and by June of that year she was appointed as a full-time Principal Project Planner. Although many NYCHA projects in the 1940s and ’50s replicated the floor plans that Coit had observed and criticized while on the Langley Fellowship, she was able to put her ideas into practice in the design of the Bronx River Houses (1951). The floor plans have a dining nook in the kitchen, enlarged bedrooms, and a separate living room.
In her role as a Principal Planner, Coit attempted to shape NYCHA designs according to the living habits of low-income residents. Her approach embodies her dissatisfaction with the use of public housing as a tool for the moral reform of low-income tenants, and instead aligns her practice with leftist feminist housing reformers like Edith Elmer Wood, who worked with tenants to improve the lives of the working poor in New York City. Coit’s enthusiasm for bottom-up planning and design efforts also anticipated Jane Jacobs’ broadside attack against the top-down planning methods of urban renewal in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Yet in her correspondence with Catherine Bauer, Coit voiced some frustrations with the use of tenant and home-owner reports to design mass housing. She wrote that when residents complained about specific details of their dwellings, their comments did not provide a clear basis for the design of new spatial configurations. Coit wanted to give tenants more agency, contending that it would be useful to “[give] a bunch of simple, ordinary families an unpartitioned space (let’s say the bath is enclosed, with plumbing lines for kitchen fixtures on one side of it) and a collection of boltable partitions to find out what families want in space relations.”2020Elisabeth Coit, letter to Catherine Bauer, May 2, 1949. Folder 14, Box 15, Series 2, Professional Papers of Catherine Bauer Wurster, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. My thanks to Barbara Penner for drawing my attention to this correspondence and to this passage. This freedom, she imagined, could result in varied configurations: “a large living room with dining space plus separate kitchen, or parlor plus dining-kitchen; bedroom combinations few and large or many and small, etc. etc. . . . Maybe monk’s cells for bedrooms with a common dressing and storage space, and a super living-dining-cooking space would come out, or no bedrooms at all, but a sleeping porch with cubicles, a chichi parlor and a commons.”2121Ibid.
Coit retired from NYCHA in 1962, but continued to work for other professional organizations and served on the Executive Committee of the New York chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) from 1967 until 1981. During this period, there was an emerging consensus that low-income housing had reached a “dreary deadlock,” as Catherine Bauer wrote in 1957.2222Catherine Bauer, “The Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing,” Architectural Forum 106, no. 5 (May 1957): 140–44, 219–20. Nonetheless, Coit continued to advocate for the necessity of state-funded low-income housing and closely followed developments in community-led planning. She edited the newsletter for the New York Metropolitan Chapter of NAHRO and regularly published pieces presenting positive case studies of urban planning and architecture in low- and middle-income communities. She commissioned an article by J. Max Bond Jr. on the work of the Architect’s Renewal Committee in Harlem and its tactics as an advocacy planning organization.2323 Elisabeth Coit, letter to J. Max Bond, March 7, 1968, Folder 84, Box 5, Elisabeth Coit Papers, Schlesinger Library. Coit also ran pieces assessing international affordable housing strategies, especially in Latin America and Europe, and protesting the layoffs of civil servants following New York City’s bankruptcy.
By the late 1960s, Coit’s philosophies of housing reform began to receive wider public recognition. In 1969, Coit was awarded a Pioneer in Architecture award from the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the following year Mayor John Lindsay appointed her to serve on the Landmark Preservation Committee; she took public transportation to each site under consideration well into her eighties.2424Kimberley Sims, “Elisabeth Coit,” Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century, ed. Susan Ware, vol. 5 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 133. The Boston Globe reported that she was “instrumental in preserving such landmarks as Grand Central Station, Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall.”2525“Elisabeth Coit, 94, Architect, Landmark Authority,” Boston Globe, April 1987, 43. In her last years, Coit divided her time between her apartment in Manhattan and her home in Rockport, Massachusetts. She died in a retirement home in Amherst, Massachusetts at the age of ninety-four.
In contrast to many women architects of her generation, Coit received numerous obituaries in both professional magazines and the general press, including the New York Times and Boston Globe. The Times wrote that her major contribution to the architecture of low-income housing was her insistence that the point of view of working-class residents should be the “primary concern in planning public housing.”2626“Elisabeth Coit, 94, Architect and a Specialist on Housing,” New York Times, April 8, 1987, D30.