By Kelly Hayes McAlonie, State University of New York at Buffalo, FAIA
Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856–1913) is widely considered to be the first woman to practice as a professional architect in the United States. She participated in the design of approximately one hundred fifty buildings in the Buffalo and New England areas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and was also the first woman member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the first woman to be honored as an AIA Fellow.
Early Life and Education
Jennie Louise Blanchard was born on July 21, 1856, in Waterloo, New York, to a family of educators. She grew up near Seneca Falls, the birthplace (in 1848) of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. Young Louise was taught at home until age eleven, when she attended school in Buffalo, New York. She later stated that a “caustic remark” made to her while in high school directed her attention to the study of architecture, and “an investigation, which was begun in a spirit of playful self-defense, soon became an absorbing interest.”11Frances E. Willard and Mary A. Livermore, A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life (Buffalo, N.Y.: Charles Wells Moulton, 1893, 81; reprint: Detroit: Gale Research, 1967).
There can be little doubt that while stubbornness may have led to a passion for the field, it was strength of character that enabled her to overcome obstacles placed in the way of her becoming an architect. After graduating from Buffalo High School in 1874, she spent two years preparing to attend the newly opened architecture program at Cornell University. In 1876, she accepted the offer of a position as an apprentice at the office of Richard Waite, one of the most prominent architecture firms in Buffalo. Among the projects she probably worked on during her tenure with Waite was the Pierce Palace Hotel, which opened in 1878 and was destroyed by fire in 1881. She also worked part-time for Buffalo architect F. W. Caulkins, making use of the libraries in both firms for independent study. After five years of hard work and self-directed study, she was ready to break out on her own.
In October 1881, she opened her own practice. Former Richard Waite colleague Robert Bethune soon joined her, and they were married in December of that year. The firm, now called Bethune & Bethune, was practicing during an auspicious time both for Buffalo and the architectural profession. The city was rapidly growing because of the economic boom unleashed by the opening of the Erie Canal. Business and civic leaders were investing in the infrastructure and high-caliber buildings expected of a world-class city. In addition, architects were breaking out of the master-builder tradition and reimagining the architect as a professional responsible for the health, safety, and welfare of the public, much like the legal and medical professions. There was ample work for architects and a need for strong organizers dedicated to the profession.
In 1885, Louise Bethune applied for membership in the Western Association of Architects (WAA). The board of directors’ enthusiastic approval of her application was based on her professional reputation and set a precedent for admitting other women to the association. Of particular note is the leadership exhibited by the executive committee, especially Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan, who were, respectively, the chairman and member of the board of directors at the time. When asked their opinion on the matter, Burnham said, “we are all agreed [that women should be admitted into the association]; we are very much in favor of it.” The board stated, “If the lady is practicing architecture and is in good standing, there is no reason why she should not be one of us. . . . She has done work by herself and been very successful. She is unanimously elected a member.”22“Women and Architecture,” Inland Architect and Builder 6, no. 5. (November 1885): 69.
Bethune was immediately placed on WAA’s committee of the organization of state associations as the first and only member from New York State in the WAA. The following year, she helped to organize the Buffalo Society of Architects (now AIA Buffalo/WNY), and served as vice president and treasurer of the chapter. In 1888, Bethune was the first woman elected to the American Institute of Architects. When the WAA and the AIA merged in 1889, she became the AIA’s first woman fellow.
Bethune took special interest in school design, probably because her parents were both teachers. Beginning in 1881, the Buffalo Public Schools District embarked upon an ambitious master plan under the direction of progressive superintendent James Crooker. Bethune & Bethune Architects successfully competed with other, more established firms, and designed eighteen schools during their term of practice.
In 1891, William Fuchs, a longtime draftsman with the firm, became the third partner. The portfolio of Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs included everything from small residential to institutional, commercial, and industrial work. Although this firm’s records have been lost, some understanding of Louise Bethune’s role can be gained from the 1893 article, “Some Distinguished Women of Buffalo,” which describes her work in this way:
Mrs. Bethune has for some years taken entire charge of the office work, and complete superintendence of one-third of the outside work. She has been the architect of many pretty dwellings, but gives her attention now to public buildings. She prepared the plans for the 74th Regiment Armory [later Elmwood Music Hall], a number of the Police Stations, and Niagara Storage House. Several of the public schools are her designs. School Houses are Mrs. Bethune’s favorite line of work, due possibly to her being one of a family of teachers.33“Some Distinguished Women of Buffalo,” American Women’s Illustrated World (October 7, 1893).
In 1893, Bethune noted that although she particularly enjoyed educational design, she did not specialize in it. She felt that it was her duty as the first professional woman architect to demonstrate capacity in all facets of architectural practice.
Most of the architectural styles employed by the firm were historically derivative, in keeping with standard practice at the time and the expectations of clients. The aforementioned 74th Regiment Armory (1886) is similar in style, materials, and scale to Waite’s Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (Buffalo, 1893), demonstrating a close connection between mentor and protégé. Indeed, much of the firm’s work was Romanesque in character, as was Waite’s.
While traditional in their revival styles, the designs of their schools were pioneering for their time, probably due to Superintendent James Crooker’s influence. Architects entered design competitions for this work, and Bethune & Bethune were among the first consultants with whom Superintendent Crooker worked. The planning strategies that they and their Buffalo peers devised were characterized by the segregation of children by age, egress stairs in case of fire, and indoor plumbing. These standards set the stage for educational design still in use today.
All the firm’s commissions were locally based, and none of them placed Bethune on a national stage. An opportunity did present itself in the 1891 design competition for the Women’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). Such a commission was expected to catapult the career of its architect, as had happened with other Exposition contributors, including Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan. Even so, Bethune refused to submit an entry primarily because she was opposed to design competitions, and also because the winning fee was much lower than the commission fee for male architects of the other Exposition buildings. Male architects were appointed to design major buildings and were paid $10,000 for design services. The cost for construction drawings was to be paid by the Exposition. Women architects, on the other hand, were asked to compete for the design commission, and the winning architect would provide construction documents for $1,000. In her view, “complete emancipation lies in ‘equal pay for equal service.’” As she explained, “The idea of a separate Woman’s Board expresses a sense of inferiority that business women are far from feeling. . . . It is unfortunate that it should be revived in its most objectionable form on this occasion by women and for women.”44Bethune, “Women and Architecture,” 21.
While she openly admitted that as a businesswoman she could not afford to appear as an antagonizing suffragette, she lived by her principles of equality.55Judith Paine, “Pioneer Women Architects,” in Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, ed. Susana Torre (New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1977), 62. Bethune also consistently supported the New York State Legislature’s Architects Licensing Bill, which enforced professional examinations for the practice of architecture. She stayed abreast of the status of women in the profession, encouraging educators around the country to offer coeducational opportunities for women interested in pursuing architecture as a career. In a speech given to the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union of Buffalo in 1891, she stated:
Women have entered the architectural profession at a much earlier state of its existence even before it has received legislative recognition. They meet no serious opposition from the profession nor the public. . . . The future of woman in the architectural profession is what she sees fit to make it.66Bethune, “Women and Architecture.”
The firm of Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs designed many types of buildings: institutional, commercial, industrial, hospitality, and residential depending on the needs of their clients and the local market. Despite the firm’s residential commissions, Louise Bethune insisted that women architects not pursue domestic projects exclusively and discouraged members of the public from preferring women to men for this type of design work. She believed in equal pay for equal work and was concerned that architects of residential work were not as well compensated as architects of other kinds of buildings. She also feared that women would become pigeonholed into this type of design. In an 1891 speech, she explained:
It is often proposed that she become exclusively a dwelling house architect. Pity her, and withdraw the suggestion. A specialist should become so from intrinsic fitness, not from extrinsic influence. Furthermore, the dwelling is the most pottering and worst-paid work an architect ever does. He always dreads it, not, as someone may have told you, because he must usually deal with a woman, but because he must strive to gratify the conflicting desires of an entire household, who dig up every hatchet for his benefit and hold daily powwows in his anteroom, and because he knows he loses money nearly every time. Dwelling house architecture, as a special branch for women, should be, at the present rate of remuneration, quite out of the question.77Bethune, “Women and Architecture.”
Bethune’s opportunity to create a nationally significant building came in the early 1900s with a commission for the Lafayette Hotel. Located in downtown Buffalo, the seven-story, 225-room Renaissance Revival hotel featured hot and cold water in all bathrooms and telephones in all rooms. It was praised as “one of the most perfectly appointed and magnificent hotels in the country” when it opened in 1904.88“Buffalo Hotel Opened,” The New York Times, June 2, 1904. An expansion of the Lafayette Hotel, also designed by Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs, was planned immediately after the hotel’s opening in 1912.
Bethune discontinued her AIA membership in 1904 yet maintained her duties at the firm. In particular, she led the Lafayette Hotel expansion project. In addition, she expanded her extracurricular activities to include the Buffalo Genealogy Club, the Buffalo Historical Society and, for a time, the Daughters of the American Revolution. Louise Blanchard Bethune died on December 18, 1913, at the age of 57, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. Her obituary stated that she was particularly proud of her work on the Lafayette Hotel. In 2012 the hotel was restored to its former glory. With the restoration of this building, important in Buffalo and American history, the legacy of a pioneer in the architectural profession and the women’s movement has been preserved.