Theodate Pope (1867-1946) was one of the few women to gain professional status as an architect in the first third of the twentieth century. She worked exclusively in the mid-Atlantic region, specializing in residential and school projects. She founded, designed, and helped structure the curriculum of the Avon Old Farms School, a progressive educational institution for boys, inspired in part by English Arts and Crafts principles.
Early Life and Education
In the late nineteenth century, Effie Brooks Pope broke out of the comfortable Victorian cocoon into which she had been born to emerge as thoroughly modern Theodate. She challenged the expectations of her upbringing on posh Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, the confining assumptions of her elevated social class, and the status quo of the male-dominated profession of architecture to join the thin ranks of trailblazing women who fought for a footing in the practice. But even from the latter she stood out, for she had no formal professional education, and her family wealth meant that she never had to work for a living at a drafting board. Thus, she could enlist the aid of draftsmen in achieving her architectural goals, and she could work only on designs that interested her. Nevertheless, by 1915, with an office in New York City, she was considered prominent enough that a publishing company asked for her photograph, but refused to list her among architects when it discovered that she was a woman. She nonetheless became a highly respected, award-winning member of the American Institute of Architects and the first licensed female architect in Connecticut. She married John Wallace Riddle in 1916; when she joined the AIA two years later, she insisted that the institute list her under her professional name, Theodate Pope, as she had renamed herself at the age of nineteen in honor of her grandmother Theodate Stackpole.
Pope’s first commission, Hill-Stead, her parents’ house, as is so often the case with beginning architects, came from her family, more specifically her doting father, whom she talked into building a country place at Farmington, Connecticut. She had attended Miss Porter’s School there, and then refused to return to the dark, William Ralph Emerson–designed house in Ohio and her expected presentation to Society. Through the connections of her industrialist father, Alfred Atmore Pope, she enlisted the firm of McKim, Mead and White to draw and oversee the building of her conception of the family estate. Later (male) critics have usually given credit for the house to that office, with perhaps some interior details by Pope, but it is now clear from the study of surviving documents that the house was hers as much as any building can be assigned to one designer in a firm. In letters to McKim, Mead and White, she made it clear that “it is my plan, [and] I expect to decide all the details. . . . It will be a Pope house instead of a McKim, Mead and White [one].”11Theodate Pope to McKim, Mead and White, September 1898; McKim, Mead and White Records, New-York Historical Society. Many of her ideas can be traced to books still in her library in the house. The English Colonial Revival residence, the Alfred Pope house, now known as Hill-Stead, is an upscale version of a traditional rambling New England farmhouse fronted by a variation of the Mount Vernon–style portico. Within, it contained all of the state-of-the-art conveniences of the period. The eminent critic Barr Ferree characterized it as “at once scholarly and refined, modern and old.”22Barr Ferree, “Notable American Homes: ‘Hill-Stead,’ the Estate of Alfred Atmore Pope, Esq., Farmington, Conn.,” American Homes and Gardens 7 (February 1910), 45–51. Later critics have named it among the most important examples of the grand country house era. In the bright, sweeping interiors, Pope achieved an appropriately impressive setting for her father’s extraordinary collection of French impressionist paintings.
Travels to England and Scotland (on one voyage, from New York to Liverpool, she survived the torpedoing and sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915) opened her eyes to the domestic works of the Arts and Crafts Movement, especially those of C. F. A. (Charles) Voysey and Charles Rennie Mackintosh—this, too, demonstrated by her library at Hill-Stead. The result was her next and much different Joseph P. Chamberlain house at Middlebury, Connecticut (1909–14). “Highfield” is a cleverly planned American adaptation of the Voysian manner. Rather large at eighteen rooms plus baths, Pope reduced the house to apparent cottage scale by breaking it into three units: living-dining, guest quarters, and services. Steep gables, chimney pots, stucco walls, casements, and bay window all follow Voysey’s lead; on the exterior, she substituted for his stone details painted wooden ones. Carved portraits of the owners decorate external beam ends. Interior details are as crisp and flat as later modernist work. The summer house in the garden follows the lead of the main building in its sloping roof line and cozy fireplace, but, with its removable, glazed floor-to-eaves doors, it seems to some later eyes to anticipate her cousin Philip Johnson’s famous Glass House at New Canaan, Connecticut.
Pope’s buildings fall into two aspects of life traditionally associated with women: the domestic and the educational. Her schools are varied and exceptional. When photographs of the new Westover School for girls were exhibited at the Architectural League of New York in 1912, Cass Gilbert, a prominent male architect, called it “beautifully designed and beautifully planned.”33Cass Gilbert to Warren P. Laird, August 26, 1912, Theodate Pope Papers, Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, Conn. Created to house the pedagogical ideals of a friend, its square footprint wraps around a traditional quadrangle defined by an arcade of three-centered arches. The two-story main façade flattened beneath a steep roof stretches between a chapel and the headmistress’s house. The central entrance is marked by an ornamental pediment and crowning cupola. Its freely handled English Colonial details join Gothic forms in the chapel and English Arts and Crafts within. The asymmetrical front departs from the rigid compositional aims of contemporary Neo-Georgian work. It is a bold violation of classical decorum, one that enlivens the solid exterior ensemble. The main space within, the “Red Hall,” brings faintly to mind the work of Mackintosh.
The Avon Old Farms School for Boys (1918–29), which she dedicated to her father, is the crowning achievement of Pope’s career. She acted as both client and architect. Like Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, she formulated an ideal educational program and then embodied it in an extraordinary architectural layout, or, to use Jefferson’s term, an “academical village.” To John Dewey’s dictum “learn by doing,” Pope wedded John Ruskin’s and the Arts and Crafts dedication to handwork in both the buildings and the academic instruction they were to contain. There, form and function were to be one, for the students would be surrounded by the physical manifestation of classroom and shop learning. Like Taliesin, the Arts and Crafts–inspired educational community of Frank Lloyd Wright (Pope’s exact contemporary), Avon Old Farms grew and changed over the years but, alas, was never completed, as her vision outpaced her ability to build during worsening economic times.
Drawing on her firsthand knowledge of traditional and contemporary English work, Pope designed a series of buildings evoking a Cotswold village, erected according the Arts and Crafts principles. They were to be handwrought using natural materials, some gathered at the site, and put in place by imported and locally trained artisans. The men were to “dispense with all mechanical methods,” she commanded, “and wherever possible, use old tools and processes.” They were “to work by rule of thumb and to gauge all verticals by sight; as a natural variation in line and surface was far more desirable . . . than accuracy.” Whether or not the workmen faithfully followed these instructions, the result is a campus composed of irregular plastic shapes formed of natural materials enlivened by sunlight and shadow in contrast to the rigid flat planes of the machine-esthetic buildings of the contemporary International Style, which she abhorred. Avon Old Farms revels in swooping slate roofs with wobbly edges, irregularly placed dormers, fanciful orioles, massive sculpted chimneys, textured stone or brick walls, and hewn wood details.
Avon was Pope’s most dramatic challenge to the modernist works promoted by Philip Johnson and others. When she saw the International Style exhibition at Hartford in 1932, which featured Le Corbusier’s “machines for living in,” she observed that such work “was purely intellectual without regard to the emotions,” because it ignored a basic human need. “Men who worked with machinery during the day might rather not sleep in a machine at night,” she told The Hartford Times. Architectural historians since have championed the modern over all other approaches to design. This has produced a woefully lopsided story. No adequate understanding of America’s twentieth-century achievements in architecture can be had that way. The works of men and women such as Theodate Pope, long omitted from the canon, must be included if we are to properly assess the breadth of the period’s architectural history.