By Gabrielle Esperdy, New Jersey Institute of Technology
Natalie Griffin de Blois (1921–2013) was a senior designer and associate partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where she was involved in the design of many of the firm’s most admired postwar buildings. Later in her career, she worked as an architect in Houston and Austin and taught at the University of Texas.
Early Life and Education
De Blois was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1921 and raised in the nearby suburb of Ridgewood. As a child, she ventured into New York City only on rare occasions; as an adult she would help transform the city’s skyline. By the time she was ten, de Blois had already decided to become an architect, a career path supported by her father, a civil engineer, who encouraged her early interest in buildings. While she was still in junior high school, her father secured her access to mechanical drawing classes usually reserved for male students (girls were expected to take home economics courses). The course helped Natalie cultivate the drafting skills that would serve her so well throughout her career, but it also exposed her to the gender bias she would confront throughout her professional life. Two other teenage experiences also left their mark: in 1937, her understanding of architecture’s social dimensions broadened when she walked through a full-scale, multistory model of a typical new-law tenement house constructed inside the nave of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine; in 1939, her vision of what modern architecture might look like expanded when she attended the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows.11Natalie de Blois recalls these experiences in Betty J. Blum, “Oral History of Natalie de Blois,” transcript (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004), 2–4. On the tenement exhibition, see “Slum Model Shown in Cathedral Nave,” New York Times, February 28, 1937, 1, 3.
Although her family was solidly middle-class, her parents felt the impact of the Great Depression keenly enough to require their five children to find scholarships to attend college, which is why de Blois began her undergraduate education at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her father’s alma mater, required two years of college for all students entering professional programs, while Western College allowed de Blois to study architecture from the outset. However, during her first year in Ohio, her father discovered that Columbia University had changed its admissions policy and now required only one year of college-level work as a prerequisite for admission to the architecture school. In addition, with the draft about to go into effect as the United States moved closer to entering World War II, professional programs at schools like Columbia were looking more favorably upon female applicants. Although the architecture program had admitted women since 1910, their numbers were still comparatively small. When de Blois graduated from Columbia in January 1944, five of her eighteen classmates were women.
To help pay for her tuition, de Blois worked as a draftsperson throughout her years at Columbia, mostly drafting; her projects ranged from technical drawings for Babcock and Wilcox boilers to presentation drawings for Frederick Kiesler, including his gallery for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century. She also taught drafting at Columbia to students destined for employment with wartime defense contractors. Looking back later on these diverse jobs and her time at Columbia, de Blois did not recall experiencing overt discrimination, but that would change when she entered the workforce full-time. Her first position after graduation was with the firm of Ketchum, Gina and Sharpe. Morris Ketchum, who had also trained at Columbia, frequently recruited architects straight out of the school. It was not surprising that de Blois came to Ketchum’s attention, as she had won two architecture prizes and had a recommendation from Dean Leopold Arnaud. What attracted de Blois to the firm was its resolute commitment to modern design, evident in some of the boldest stores built in New York at the time, including Lederer’s and Ciro’s.
For nine months, de Blois worked tirelessly (sometimes seven days a week) designing prototype storefront components (the firm had a contract with Kawneer) that would be put into production after the war. She enjoyed the whirlwind of the wartime city, socializing with other young architects, including Minoru Yamasaki, who was then working for Wallace K. Harrison, and with members of her own firm, one of whom would eventually turn on her. When she rebuffed the advances of this colleague, he complained to Morris Ketchum that de Blois’s presence in the office was a distraction and declared that he would not continue to work at the firm if she remained on the staff. Ketchum asked de Blois to leave immediately, without any investigation. Ketchum did, however, recommend de Blois to Louis Skidmore, who had an office in the same building, on East Fifty-Seventh Street. She was hired at once. As one door was closed in a gross display of sexism—de Blois later called it her “first shock”—another door opened, setting her on a path of professional success.22“Oral History of Natalie de Blois,” 20.
At Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), once de Blois’s talents were noticed, she rose through the ranks quickly, moving from technical lettering (for drawings for the Abraham Lincoln Houses in East Harlem) to designing the bathhouses at Jones Beach. In her early years at SOM, she was often loaned out to work on larger projects, including the United Nations and Lincoln Center, both of which were being supervised by Wallace Harrison’s office. Her first project as lead designer at SOM was for the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati. Completed in 1948, the hotel received national publicity for its stylish modernism and luxurious, high-tech amenities.33See Diana Rice, “News of the Field of Travel,” New York Times, July 18, 1948, section 2, 11. Aline B. Louchheim, “New Miro Mural Place on Display,” New York Times, March 3, 1948, 26. “Storetop Hotel,” Life magazine, September 20, 1948, 83–84. “Penthouse Hotel,” Architectural Forum 85 (December 1946): 100–108. See also Cincinnati Preservation Association, “The Terrace Plaza Hotel.” http://cincinnatipreservation.org/advocacy/modernism/the-terrace-plaza-hotel/ During the 1950s, de Blois was involved in the design of many of SOM’s most significant projects, including Lever House, the Union Carbide headquarters, the Pepsi-Cola building, and the Connecticut General campus. Although Gordon Bunshaft is the SOM partner whose name is most frequently associated with these buildings, it was de Blois who was usually the senior designer or project designer in charge of the teams responsible for drawings, details, specifications, and virtually all other aspects of the given job, from site planning to structural decisions to interior finishes.
Although frequently overshadowed by larger and better-known SOM buildings farther south on Park Avenue, the Pepsi-Cola building (no. 500, at Fifty-Ninth Street, completed in 1960) was one of de Blois’s most elegant essays in corporate modernism. At ten stories (plus a setback penthouse and two basement levels), it appears almost diminutive next to its prewar masonry-clad neighbors. One of its most striking features is the curtain wall made of matte-finished anodized aluminum and plate glass with continuous I-shaped mullions projecting for nine stories from the otherwise flat façade. The subtle verticality of this feature is further emphasized by the vertical blinds de Blois specified for the interiors. The thirteen-foot-wide glass panes filling the bays between the mullions were the largest available at the time. They give the building an astonishing transparency, an effect especially evident at night, when the main block (set off from the building to the south by a dark-clad service core) looks like a luminous, floating jewel box.
The Union Carbide headquarters, completed in 1960, was the largest project de Blois worked on in this period, an exemplar of what William Jordy called “the best of the architecture of bureaucracy.”44William Jordy, The Impact of European Modernism in the Mid-Twentieth Century, vol. 5 of American Buildings and Their Architects (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 276. With fifty-two stories and 1.5 million square feet of space, it was also one of the largest buildings erected in New York since before World War II. Its size and location (train tracks ran beneath its Park Avenue site) made Union Carbide the most structurally complex project de Blois had worked on to date. It also garnered her national media attention when she appeared on an episode of CBS’s To Tell the Truth, eventually revealing herself to the panelists as the building’s senior architectural designer.55“Oral History of Natalie de Blois,” 74. According to an online episode guide, de Blois appeared on the January 28, 1958, episode, alongside a tugboat captain and a gymnast. See “1956–67 Episode Guide, To Tell the Truth, CBS Nighttime Series,” http://www.ttttontheweb.com/ttttnighttimeguide.html
The last of the large projects de Blois worked on in SOM’s New York office was the campus of the Emhart Corporation, adjacent to Connecticut General Life Insurance Company in Bloomfield, near Hartford. Only Eero Saarinen’s work of the same period rivaled the standard de Blois set for the suburban office park, designing these so-called groundscrapers as unified compositions that merged modernist architecture, sylvan landscapes, and ample parking. When Emhart was finished in 1961, de Blois decided to move to Chicago. Although her motivations were primarily personal (involving arrangements for much-needed child care), professional advancement was also a factor; Bruce Graham, head of SOM’s Chicago office, offered to make her an associate partner.
Given the sexism that was part of her professional reality for many years (for example, after decades of service at SOM and many high-level responsibilities, she still had not been made a partner) and the difficulties she encountered as a divorced working woman with four children to support, it was perhaps inevitable that de Blois became an early advocate for women in architecture. She was a founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture, and her involvement with this group, along with her prominent role at SOM, led to her appointment to the AIA Taskforce on Women in Architecture in 1974, which issued a widely circulated and much-discussed affirmative action plan the following year. In the social ferment of the 1970s, de Blois became increasingly well known in feminist architecture circles. Her work was featured in Susanna Torre’s groundbreaking 1977 exhibition, Women in American Architecture, which originated at the Brooklyn Museum before traveling the country, and she was one of only three contemporary practitioners profiled in the accompanying book.66Judith Paine, “Natalie de Blois” in Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, ed. Susanna Torre (New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1977), 112–13.
It was in the midst of de Blois’s activist work on behalf of women in architecture that she left SOM. She had been with the firm for thirty years—overseeing projects from offices in New York, Germany, and Chicago—but she still had not been made a full partner. As she recalled thirty years later, few of her colleagues took note of her departure, and she received no retirement package. At the age of fifty-three, she decided to travel and spent twelve months cycling in Europe. Upon her return to the U.S. in 1975, de Blois accepted a job at Neuhaus & Taylor in Houston, a firm with a number of SOM veterans in its ranks, located in a city and state in the midst of an oil-fueled real estate boom. De Blois’s new position gave this seasoned professional a level of independence she had never felt at SOM: “There was nobody telling me what to do, really.”77“Oral History of Natalie de Blois,” 114–15. The largest project she worked on during her four years with Neuhaus & Taylor was Houston developer Gerald Hines’s Fifth Avenue Plaza in downtown Seattle. Completed in 1980, with forty-two stories and 1.2 million square feet, the aluminum-clad tower was tallest private office building in the city at the time.
In 1980, de Blois moved from Houston to Austin to teach at the University of Texas (UT). Although she had long wanted to teach, during her years in Chicago she had never found a position, which she attributed at least partly to gender discrimination. Though de Blois looked on her years as a UT architecture professor with great satisfaction, noting that her high-rise building studios were always popular with students, she was appalled at the institutionalized sexism she witnessed throughout the university, directed at both students and faculty members.88“Oral History of Natalie de Blois,” 123. That she rose above it, and helped pave the way for the next generation of women in Texas architecture, is reflected in her receiving a statewide architectural educator award and the establishment of a scholarship in her honor, given to a woman studying architecture at the University of Texas.
Natalie de Blois retired from teaching in 1993 and from practice the following year. She moved back to Chicago and remained there until her death in 2013, dividing her time between a flat in the Mies-designed Promontory Apartments and a house in the south of France. De Blois’s legacy is twofold, at once social and architectural: in breaking down barriers, if not quite shattering the glass ceiling, she demonstrated that women could compete, and succeed, at the highest levels of the architecture profession. Also, in contributing to the design of some of the most iconic U.S. buildings of the twentieth century, she helped define the sleek elegance that is universally associated with American modernism. Nathaniel Owings’ oft-quoted description of de Blois serves as a well-deserved epitaph: “Her mind and hands worked marvels in design—and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of SOM, owed much more to her than was attributed by either SOM. or the client.”99Nathaniel Alexander Owings, The Spaces in Between: An Architect’s Journey (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 264.