clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

These Five Anonymous Women Helped Build New York City

New, 10 comments

Last week The New York Times, in alliance with the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, put out a call for names of the invisible women who "built New York." Other than midcentury urbanist Jane Jacobs, well known for fighting tooth and nail against vast urban renewal projects, early designers (read: pre-WWII) credited with New York City's urban fabric is a list of white men: Robert Moses, Edward Durell Stone, Frederick Law Olmsted, and more.

California had Julia Morgan and Ray Eames. France had Charlotte Perriand. England had Eileen Gray and Alison Smithson. The Midwest had Marion Mahoney Griffin. Brazil had the wildly talented Lina Bo Bardi. New York had Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first licensed African American female architect, until she left for the West Coast because no one would in New York would hire her. That's not to say that women didn't play a huge role in building NYC—simply that they did so under the radar. Many are interns, daughters, wives, or clients. Their influence was ingeniously negotiated; they've been listed as "unknown," they've created parks, and they've shuffled into interior design. A few examples:

Fay Kellogg

Most Famous Work: The Surrogate Court Building staircase

When she died in 1918, The New York Times wrote in Fay Kellogg's obituary that she was the "foremost woman architect in the United States." Kellogg began her study of architecture under a German tutor, who taught her drawing and math. After her father talked her out of becoming a doctor, she went to Brooklyn's Pratt Institute for two years and then to Paris, where she fought to get admitted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, which at the time only accepted men. She was unsuccessful for herself, though her protests are thought to have cleared the path for its first female graduate, famed California architect Julia Morgan, who graduated from the institution in 1902. She came back to the U.S. and began working with architect John R. Thomas, designing, among other things, the grand staircase in the city's Hall of Records (now known as the Surrogate's Court). What's more, she opened her own firm in 1903, and established herself as a "specialist in steel construction" (also according to the obituary) by renovating and designing seven buildings for Manhattan's American News Company. This was all before she died at 47—a very young age for any established architect.

Florence Knoll

Most Famous Work: CBS Building, alongside Eero Saarinen

Neither an architect nor engineer, designer Florence Knoll never technically "built" anything, but is still largely responsible for the look of midcentury (read: Mad Men) Manhattan—clean lines, geometric patterns, splashes of color. She trained under the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, Walter Gropius, and Marcel Breuer, but never joined their ranks. Still, her influence cannot be overstated. She convinced her husband Hans Knoll, with whom she founded midcentury furniture megalith Knoll, to work with Europe's expat architecture community, as well as curated New York's new minimalist aesthetic. What's more, she famously refused to be pigeon-holed as anything but a creator: "I am not a decorator," she said. "The only place I decorate is my own house."

Clara Coffey

Most Famous Work: Park Avenue Malls

As NYC's Chief of Tree Plantings, a position she nabbed in 1936, landscape architect Clara Coffey brought greenery to the Hutchinson River Parkway and swapped out the fences and hedges of the Park Avenue Malls with flowerbeds and kwanzan cherry trees.

Doris Dreyfuss

Most Famous Work: 20th Century Limited for the New York Central Railroad and 280 Park Avenue The adage "anonymous was a woman" is especially pertinent to Doris Dreyfuss—or, as she was known in her husband's office, "Mrs. Marks." The secret wife of skilled industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, Doris was unlicensed for the entirety of her career, despite the fact that Henry once remarked, "I wouldn't have a business without her."

Beatrix Farrand

Most Famous Work: Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

Landscape designer Beatrix Farrand's oeuvre encompasses everything from the grounds of private estates to the campuses of Ivy League universities like Yale and Princeton, but the NYC native's notable New York project is the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden in the Bronx. Farrand—who was the niece of another notable garden-grower, author Edith Wharton—began her career in 1895, starting with private residences (including the very first garden she designed, on the upper floor of her mother's brownstone in the East Village) because women were, at that point, shunned from public projects.

By Katherine Wisniewski and Amy Schellenbaum

· The Women Who Built New York [NYT]
· All Gender Studies posts [Curbed National]