By Patricia Morton, University of California, Riverside
One of the most successful architects of her generation, Verna Cook Salomonsky Shipway (1890–1978) had two distinct careers: as a registered architect who specialized in historicist domestic architecture in the New York City suburbs, and as a noted author of five books on Mexican domestic architecture.
Early Life and Education
Verna Cook was born on October 19, 1890 in Spokane, Washington, the daughter of a newspaper editor and a concert singer. After she graduated from Spokane High School in 1908, her family sent Verna and her sister to Boston, where they studied for a year at the Commonwealth Avenue School for young ladies.11The Commonwealth Avenue School, Boston, Massachusetts, College Preparatory Course of Study Diploma, 1908, in Verna Cook Shipway Papers, MSS 0105 (cited in notes below as Shipway Papers), box 1, folder 4 (MC-043-17), Mandeville Special Collections Library, UCSD; and Catherine R. Ettinger McEnulty, “Verna Cook Shipway: La Mirada de una arquitecta estadounidense hacia México,” paper presented at the research seminar “Lecturas del espacio habitable en México: Memoria e historia,” (Readings on Living Space in Mexico—Recollections and History), Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, Mexico, July 16–17, 2009, published in Lectura y Recepción: La Modernidad espacial (San Luis Potosí: Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, 2012), 135. Instead of attending Wellesley College, a prestigious women’s school near Boston, she and a cousin, Louise Jarecka, traveled to Paris, where Cook enrolled in the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris and studied there from 1909 to 1911.22“Views of a Woman Architect,” New York Sun, May 15, 1937, 48. She ran out of funds at the end of her second year and had to return to the United States. In Salem, Oregon, she worked from the end of 1911 to mid-1914 for William Knighton (State Architect of Oregon, 1911–14), after which she had saved enough money to return to Paris and continue her training. However, in August 1914 when World War I began and the École Spéciale d’Architecture closed, she changed her plans and decided to attend Columbia University instead. While studying at Columbia,33Ibid. It is not known if she received a degree from Columbia University. Cook met Edgar Salomonsky, a fellow architecture student. From 1916 to 1919, she was employed as a junior architect for Dwight James Baum in New York City and did several months of freelance work for Howard Major in 1917 and for Electus D. Litchfield in 1918.44Sarah Allaback, The First Women Architects (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 214. In 1919, she married Salomonsky; he committed suicide in 1929.55The year of his death is given under the heading “Background” in the Shipway Papers collection overview . An announcement of his death, “Here and There in Westchester: Noted Architect A Suicide,” was published in The Bronxville Press, December 27, 1929, 1; see website in upper left corner of p. 1 (accessed April 28, 2015).
In 1920, the couple founded their own architecture firm, Edgar Salomonsky and Verna Cook Salomonsky, with offices on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Their firm specialized in Georgian, Colonial, and English style houses, many of which they built in suburban Westchester County, a short distance north of New York City. One of their small house plans was included in a 1921 compilation of prize-winning plans; and in 1928, they won second prize in a small house competition sponsored by House Beautiful magazine.66The small house plan from 1921 is at the Library of Congress, in the file “Architectural drawings for houses (‘Own Your Home Competition’) for Own A Home Exposition, Inc.,” 1920–21; (accessed September 30, 2015). On their later prize-winning small house, see “Won Prize for House,” Scarsdale Inquirer (November 11, 1927): 2, and Christine Chapman, “Archetype, Hybrid, and Prototype: Modernism and House Beautiful’s Small House Competition, 1928–1942” (M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2007), 32–33. On p. 33 of her thesis, Chapman included the plans and a photograph of the later house, which were published in House Beautiful 63, no. 2 (February 1928): 163–64. Together, they published a catalogue of furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that featured drawings of furniture styles.77Edgar and Verna Cook Salomonsky, An Exemplar of Antique Furniture Design: A Collection of Measured Drawings of Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Periodical Publishing Co., 1923). In the early 1920s, Verna began to write articles on home design, such as on the layout of service areas and space saving, for House and Garden and other home magazines.88See, for example, Verna Cook Salomonsky, “Putting the Service Entry to Work,” House and Garden (January 1922): 51. McEnulty, 135.
After Edgar’s death, Verna continued to lead her firm, which she renamed Verna Cook Salomonsky, Architect, and designed numerous houses in the suburbs of New York City. In 1930, she was registered as an architect in the state of New York,99Certificate of Registration, New York County, June 9, 1930, Shipway Papers, box 2, folder 8. and two years later, she became a registered architect in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. She joined the American Institute of Architects in 1937.1010Ibid.; and Allaback, First Women Architects, 214–15. Her commissions ranged from a $100,000 twenty-room house to a child’s lakeshore playhouse, but a ten-room house was the typical size of her projects.1111Anne Petersen, “Women Architects: Few but Versatile,” New York Times, April 11, 1937, 6.
In a 1937 article in the New York Times, Salomonsky attributed her success to “tireless shopping for the right materials to be used in construction, lighting fixtures, hardware, accessories, cabinets, tiles and flooring” and her ability to defuse disagreements with construction workers because “they can’t argue as violently with a woman as with a man.” As a measure of her accomplishments, the article noted that she was the only woman who had been admitted to the Architectural League of New York, having been invited to be a member in 1934.1212Ibid. See President of the Architectural League to Verna Cook Salomonsky, May 25, 1934. (accessed April 28, 2015). During this period, Salomonsky served as an architectural critic at the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia and at the New York School of Interior Decoration.1313Allaback, First Women Architects, 215. She also continued to write, publishing a study of American furniture, Masterpieces Of Furniture Design (1931).1414Verna Cook Salomonsky, Masterpieces of Furniture Design (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Periodical Publishing Co., 1931).
In 1935, House and Garden selected Salomonsky to design their first “Ideal House,” and published her plans in the July 1935 issue.1515“Six Experts Design Our Ideal House,” House and Garden 68, no. 7 (July 1935): 21–23. The Ideal House was constructed on Taunton Road in the Berkley neighborhood of Scarsdale, New York and cost $25,000 to build.1616“Our Ideal House,” House and Garden 69, no. 4 (April 1936): 38. The April and May 1936 issues of House and Garden documented the construction process, material and structural specifications, and interior decoration in detail.1717Ibid., and “The Ideal House Interiors Are Beautiful and Inviting,”Scarsdale Inquirer 8, no. 15 (May 15, 1936): 12. The house was open to the public through June 1936.1818“House and Garden’s Ideal House,” Scarsdale Inquirer 8, no. 12 (April 24, 1936): 1. This brief front-page notice and the article in the May 15 issue (see the preceding note) include a photograph of the house’s exterior.
A 1938 survey of eighteen architects who practiced in Westchester County, including Salomonsky, revealed a strong preference for Colonial styles and skepticism that a “modernistic tendency” would take hold in the next ten years. The only woman in the survey, Salomonsky, concurred with that viewpoint, asserting,
I cannot conceive . . . that in a decade we are to be weaned away from the finer heritages and in their places accept models or standardized design. That houses will be considered as automobiles, prefabricated and bought, as it were, off the shelf, is no doubt the logical prediction for some distant future . . . . I prophesy for the near-future homes of Westchester more simplicity in design, a great subtlety of color combinations and a more restrained use of ornamentation.1919“Architects Favor Colonial Styles,” New York Times, January 16, 1938, RE-2.
Her work reflected this preference for simplified historical styles, and it found a wide audience, featured in home magazines and in architectural journals such as American Architect, Architectural Forum, and Architectural Record. House and Garden published her Georgian-style C. Ernest Greenwood House (Scarsdale, New York, 1934) and noted that “the plans are handled with the architect’s usual skill.”2020“C. Ernest Greenwood House at Scarsdale, New York,” House and Garden (September 1936): 137. A portfolio of “Small and Medium Cost Houses” in Architectural Record included Salomonsky’s Clifford Walsh House (Scarsdale, 1933), a three-bedroom house with two maid’s rooms.
She was often quoted as a representative “woman architect” whose opinions reflected then-common attitudes about women and domestic life. According to a 1937 article in the New York Sun, Salomonsky, “one of the most successful women architects in this region of the country,” likened designing houses to having babies, both of which need a great deal of attention and bringing up. She believed that women understand better than men what made for comfortable living and what would reduce housework. “Besides, women’s natural talents for fussing over details and for tireless shopping can be turned to excellent account in this field, she pointed out.”2121“Views of a Woman Architect,” New York Sun, May 15, 1937, 48. She asserted that her gender made no difference to her clients. “[I]f a woman is willing to be a good sport and do her share of bending over drafting boards and climbing around among plaster and bricks there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be as successful as any one else. But she has to have lots of energy and be prepared for plenty of hard physical work without asking for special favors or consideration because of her sex.”2222Ibid.
For the Town of Tomorrow at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Shipway designed a “Garden Home” that had many of the traditional details and innovative planning of her suburban houses. The thirteenth of fifteen demonstration homes in the exhibit, Salomonsky’s design featured two bedrooms, a bathroom with a glass-block wall, and a conservatory; it was estimated to cost $13,000 to build.2323“Modern Houses Top N.Y. Fair,” Architectural Forum 71 (July 1939): 68.
The World’s Fair brochure, “Demonstration Home No. 13,” noted an air of “graciousness of living and hospitality” embodied by “the circular stairway and an open vista into the living room displaying the mantel treatments.”2424“Demonstration Home No. 13: The Garden Home,” The Town of Tomorrow, New York World’s Fair, 1939, (accessed September 29, 2015). In a survey taken of visitors to the fair by Architectural Forum, Salomonsky’s house scored third in popularity, particularly impressing women visitors with its latticed exterior of pink and white bricks, its arrangement of rooms, and the unusual bathroom wall of glass block and heavy plate glass.2525Ibid. Dwight and Kate Wade purchased the plans for the Garden Home from Better Homes and Gardens, with the intention of building it in 1940 in Sevierville, Tennessee.2626“Dwight & Kate Wade House.“ Construction was delayed by a dispute among the Tennessee Board of Architectural and Engineering Examiners, Salomonsky, and Better Homes and Gardens.2727Julian Overwarth to Verna Cook Salomonsky, April 1940, Shipway Papers, box 2, folder 8. When the board’s ruling that the house had been filed without the seal of an architect registered in the state was resolved, the Wades were permitted to build their house.2828In her reply to the board, Salomonsky noted that she was among the first architects to become registered by passing the National Board examination and that the house plans had been filed without her knowledge. She defended the practice of selling plans to magazines for purchase by small home owners; Salomonsky to Julian Overwarth, April 22, 1940, Shipway Papers, box 2, folder 8.
In June 1939, Salomonsky, suffering from severe eyestrain, retired and closed her architectural practice.2929Shipway to Edward B. Caldwell, Connecticut registration official, July 3, 1940, regarding her severe eyestrain, which caused her to retire from architectural practice, and asking if she could drop her license and renew it later; Shipway Papers, box 2, folder 8. She went to France, intending to live there, but the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939 forced her to return to the United States. In October 1939, soon after she returned, she married Warren Butler Shipway, a Princeton-trained architectural engineer and amateur photographer.3030McEnulty, ““Verna Cook Shipway,” 136; and “Warren Shipway,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 73 (January 30, 1973): 14. During the war, the Shipways lived in Washington, D.C., where Warren worked for the Lend Lease Administration.3131“Warren Shipway,” 14. Verna was a volunteer in the American Women’s Voluntary Services and, during the last year of the war, in the Red Cross Arts and Skills Corps; she taught art and decoupage to injured soldiers.3232“Mrs. Warren Shipway,” Times Herald, October 3, 1943, B-1; and Ann Ehrenburg, “An Athena of Architecture Emerges from the Archives,” San Diego Evening Tribune, August 22, 1979, A-26. When the war ended in 1945, Warren was assigned to work for the Lend Lease Administration from the American Embassy in London for a year, and the Shipways moved there.3333Travel Diary-London, October 23, 1945 to April 17, 1946, Shipway Papers, box 1, folder 1. While in London, Verna had no occupation, a condition she noted wryly in her diary: “When applying for a new passport last fall, I wrote thru habit ‘architect’ after the inquiry, Profession? Our State Dept. looked at my answer, raised his eyebrows and crossed it out to write ‘Housewife.’ I should like to measure up to this title but am far from a master of its technique.”3434Entry for Tuesday, January 8 , in Travel Diary-London, 1945-46.
In 1947, Warren got a job as a mortgage investment advisor at an American financial services company, Investors Syndicate (which changed its name to Investors Diversified Services in 1949), and the Shipways moved to Los Angeles.3535Princeton Alumni Weekly 73, (January 30, 1973): 14 After their move, Verna began the process of transferring her architect registration to California, which would have involved taking an examination on lateral forces and documenting her professional activities since 1937. She compiled a list of projects and drafted an explanation of the reasons why she had closed her practice in 1939, but there is no record that she filed the documents or became a registered architect in California.3636William Perkins to Verna Cook Shipway, Architect, NCARB No. 952, September 2, 1947, Shipway Papers, box 2, folder 8. In October 1947, the couple decided to live in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, and she designed the house.3737Mr. and Mrs. Warren Shipway Residence, 525 Saltair Avenue, Los Angeles, Shipway Papers, box 7, folder 43 (MC04309). It was a more modest version of the traditional houses she had authored before the war, having a façade with latticework reminiscent of the Garden House at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Warren developed heart problems that forced him to retire in the late 1950s.3838Princeton Alumni Weekly (January 30, 1973): 14. From Los Angeles, the Shipways moved to Rancho Santa Fe in northern San Diego County in 1957. She designed two Spanish Colonial–style houses in Rancho Santa Fe: the Ryway House (1957) and the Ryan House (1959), two of the only buildings from the later years of her career.3939See Ryway House, Shipway Papers, box 7, folder 44 (MC04310); and Ryan House, in box 7, folder 45 (MC04311). See also Notes, undated, in Shipway Papers, box 2, folder 8.
In 1958 and 1959, they visited friends in Cuernavaca, Mexico, trips that led to her second career: publishing books about Mexican houses. In a 1968 interview with the San Diego Evening Tribune, Verna related how she traveled in Mexico for nine months with drawing tools and a typewriter to document houses.4040Linda Dudley, “Husband and Wife Write on Mexico,” San Diego Evening Tribune, September 30, 1968, n.p. The Shipways wrote five books on Mexican domestic architecture and design: The Mexican House, Old and New (1960), Mexican Interiors (1962), Mexican Homes of Today (1964), Decorative Design in Mexican Homes (1966), and Houses of Mexico: Origins and Traditions (1970).4141Princeton Alumni Weekly (January 30, 1973), 14. Verna Cook Shipway and Warren Shipway, The Mexican House, Old and New (New York: Architectural Book Publishing, 1960); Mexican Interiors (New York: Architectural Book Publishing, 1962); Mexican Homes of Today (New York: Architectural Book Publishing, 1964); Decorative Design in Mexican Homes (New York: Architectural Book Publishing, 1966); Houses of Mexico: Origins and Traditions (New York: Architectural Book Publishing, 1970). The books were distributed widely in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and some were reprinted several times.
The books consist largely of Warren’s photographs with descriptive captions by Verna, accompanied by her line drawings of decorative details. There are no plans, nor are the houses documented in whole. The photographs and drawings are organized by building element— façades, patios, balconies, window shutters, interiors, chimneys, etc. Many of the houses that the Shipways documented were designed by Mexican and American architects; some are modernized historic structures, others are contemporary houses designed in a traditional style.
Their first book, The Mexican House, Old and New, also includes four pages on “native houses,” small, thatched dwellings and storage structures. In a review of The Mexican House, Old and New, essayist and cultural geographer J. B. Jackson called the result “curiously old-fashioned,” a record of restored and new Mexican houses remodeled for American style “gracious living.”4242J. B. Jackson, review of The Mexican House, Old and New, in Landscape 10, no. 3 (Spring 1961): 34. Shipway’s commitment to historical and revival styles found an outlet in her study of Mexican houses that had been built or renovated for clients who were similar to those she served in Westchester earlier in her life. After Warren’s death in 1972, she moved to La Jolla, California, where she died in 1978.
Shipway’s career spanned a transitional period in American architecture when modernism began entering mainstream architecture culture, but her work did not follow the trend. She remained faithful to her training in historicist architecture, applying her sharp eye for detail and sense of expansive living to the interwar suburban house and to the Mexican house equally.