By Despina Stratigakos, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
Elsa Gidoni (1899–1978; née Mandelstamm) was a Berlin-based architect who was among those who fled Nazi persecution and helped to bring European modernism to Palestine and the United States.
Early Life and Education
Gidoni was born in Riga, Latvia on March 12, 1899. Her family was part of the large Jewish community that existed in Riga before the Second World War. Her father, Paul, was a doctor; her mother, Minna, was a pianist.11Information from Edina Meyer-Maril, e-mails to the author, September 9 and 20, 2014. The author is grateful to Dr. Meyer-Maril for generously sharing her research. Educated, middle-class Jewish families in Europe tended to hold liberal attitudes toward their daughters’ educations, permitting them to study “masculine” professions, including architecture.22Despina Stratigakos, “‘I Myself Want to Build’: Women, Architectural Education and the Integration of Germany’s Technical Colleges,” Paedagogica Historica 43, no. 6 (2007): 727–56. Elsa attended the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg in Russia and received further training at the Berlin Technical University, but did not graduate with a degree. Her student records have yet to be located, leaving questions about her instructors and coursework.
Mandelstamm began to earn her living at the drafting board from the age of sixteen. In later years, she claimed that “she literally ‘grew up’ at the drafting board, getting her training in spurts as she could.”33Marilyn Hoffman, “Key Skills Linked,” Christian Science Monitor, April 27, 1960. In 1928, she opened an office for interior design under the name Elsa Gidoni-Mandelstamm at 7 Landshuter Street in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. In 1933, when Adolf Hitler seized power, her Jewish background put her in peril. She later recalled that “she had a skill—‘ten fingers and a pencil’—a mother, and a younger sister to support, nobody anywhere in the world to go to, and only the threat of destruction at their heels.”44Ibid.
In considering the countries to which she might emigrate, she later stated that it was important to her to be able to “follow a full professional and independent career as a woman.” Initially she planned to move to England, but at the suggestion of a friend, she went instead to Palestine, where she had heard new cities were being constructed and people with technical skills were needed.55Ibid.
Gidoni thus resettled in Tel Aviv, opening her own architecture office and maintaining it from 1933 to 1938. Both her design skills and the vision of a modern architecture that she had brought with her from Berlin were in demand. Tel Aviv was booming. In 1934, the city’s engineering department had approved building plans representing $12,500,000 in construction costs.66“Tel Aviv Reveals Figures on Growth,” Jewish Daily Bulletin, February 1, 1935. (By way of comparison, that amount surpassed the entire municipal budget for Yonkers, New York, that same year.)77“Tax Rise of 68 Cents Indicated in Yonkers: Tentative $12,000,000 Budget Adopted by Estimate Board Sets Levy at $3.79,” New York Times, January 15, 1934. The city was growing rapidly and was also developing a new style.
The new architecture was highly visible at the 1934 Levant Fair in Tel Aviv, an international exhibition that attracted dozens of participating countries. Gidoni designed three buildings for the fair in a modernist style: the Galina Café-Restaurant (with Shlomo Ginsburg and Genia Averbuch), the Swedish Pavilion, and the Women’s International Zionist Organization Pavilion. Gidoni also entered—and won—architectural competitions. Within a few years of her arrival in 1933, she had added apartment houses, a school, a hostel, and agricultural buildings to her list of built projects. Their clean modernist forms earned her international recognition as part of a new school of architecture in Palestine.
Gidoni’s plans were praised for their practicality and commitment to their users’ comfort. For example, the WIZO Domestic Science School near Tel Aviv (1935) integrated educational, administrative, and residential spaces for students and teachers in an L-shaped, two-story structure. Living accommodations on the top floor were arranged to give access to outdoor space. In keeping with the political commitment of many modernist architects, Gidoni emphasized that her buildings were not luxurious.88Myra Warhaftig, They Laid the Foundation: Lives and Works of German-Speaking Jewish Architects in Palestine, 1918–1948, trans. Andrea Lerner (Berlin: Wasmuth, 2007), 320–21.
Despite Gidoni’s professional success, the growing political unrest and violence under the British Mandate led her to decide to emigrate once more, this time to the United States.99Hoffman, “Key Skills Linked.” It was a familiar destination: members of Gidoni’s family had already immigrated to the United States, and Gidoni had made her first visit in 1922, staying with an aunt in Brooklyn.1010Elsa Mandelstamm, Passenger Record, The Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation.
In May 1938, Gidoni arrived in New York, where she struggled to find a position. Her first job was working for Norman Bel Geddes on General Motors’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. She designed small homes and other building types used for the model.1111Elsa Gidoni, “So Now They Are Sending Me Female Architects!” Case file for PR 13 CN 1988:252, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. During the war years, she was employed by Fellheimer and Wagner, the New York architectural firm known for its railroad stations in Beaux-Arts and art deco styles. After the war, she joined the highly successful New York architectural firm of Kahn and Jacobs, where she worked as the project designer on numerous large-scale commissions. These included the sixteen-story building of the Travelers Insurance Company in Boston and a new power plant for the Connecticut Light and Power Company in Norwalk Harbor. Gidoni enjoyed the challenges of designing major buildings and recognized the responsibilities involved, saying that “in this area of specialization, an architect’s concept may change the whole character of a neighborhood, and affect the lives of hundreds of people.”1212Hoffman, “Key Skills Linked.” Although Gidoni saw herself as a conscientious professional rather than a designer, Robert Jacobs, in an interview given near the end of his life, described her as “brilliant.”1313Robert Jacobs, interview with Jewel Stern, November 5, 1989. The author is grateful to John Stuart for this reference.
In 1960, in response to a reporter’s question, Gidoni dismissed the idea of a uniquely feminine touch in architecture as absurd. “It just doesn’t exist—there is no distinction,” she stated. “I am an architect and my being a woman has no bearing on my position.” She continued, “When you mention ‘the woman’s touch,’ aren’t there so many million women in the United States—and hasn’t each and every one her own individual touch or idea?” Yet despite her insistence, the reporter (or her editor) seems not to have heard her, since the title of the article emphasized Gidoni’s “quiet woman’s quiet touch.”1414Mary King, “There’s a Quiet Woman’s Quiet Touch in the Travelers Insurance Building,”Daily Boston Globe, April 3, 1960.
In 1943, Gidoni became one of the very few women members of the American Institute of Architects. By 1960, when she was interviewed by TheNew York Times, the numbers had not improved greatly. That year, the AIA had 13,000 members nationwide, but only a hundred of them were women. In the New York chapter, to which Gidoni belonged, there were only twelve female members who were fully accredited as licensed architects. The reporter concluded that “marriage, unless to another architect, often upsets their careers.”1515Thomas W. Ennis, “Women Gain Role in Architecture,” New York Times, March 13, 1960.
As she had done in Tel Aviv, Gidoni helped to introduce new audiences to the radical ideas about architecture she had been exposed to in Europe. Along with other émigré architects, she designed industrial buildings, department stores, office buildings, and houses in a modernist style. The term “style” is misleading, however, for Gidoni and other émigrés were concerned with a far more profound transformation. Advocating mass social reform through architecture, the modern movement in Europe sought to industrialize building construction and promoted experimentation with new materials and technologies. Around 1947, Gidoni was among a select group of émigré architects, including Walter Gropius and Richard Neutra, who were asked to create modular house designs using prefabricated panels that could be built cheaply and quickly.1616“The Industrialized House,” Architectural Forum 86, no. 2 (1947): 115–20. While historians have documented the contributions of European male architects to the growth of modernism in the United States, little has been written about their female counterparts, who were also part of this influential wave.1717Despina Stratigakos, “Reconstructing a Lost History: Exiled Jewish Women Architects in America,” Aufbau 68, no. 22 (2002): 14.
After fifty years at the drafting table, Gidoni retired from architectural practice in 1967. She died on April 19, 1978, and is interred at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, California.