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First Lady Lou Hoover Was Secretly an Amateur Architect

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The Lou Henry Hoover House at Stanford, via <a href=",_San_Juan_Hill,_Stanford,_Santa_Clara_County,_CA_HABS_CAL,43-STANF,7-22_%28CT%29.tif">Wikimedia Commons</a
The Lou Henry Hoover House at Stanford, via Wikimedia Commons

"Architecture is my delight," Thomas Jefferson once said. He was a celebrated gentleman architect: with no formal training, he built Monticello and planned the University of Virginia and the initial attempt at Washington, D.C. First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert, likely shared Jefferson's sentiment. Before her husband even took office, Hoover was studying the architectural plans of the White House in detail. This wasn't unusual behavior for Hoover. If in 1928 she had a mind to renovate the White House as incoming first lady, her ambitions were founded on experience. Nine years before Herbert Hoover's election, Lou Hoover had designed a sprawling 57-room estate.

A number of Presidents have pursued avocations in architecture—Franklin Delano Roosevelt designed Warm Springs Health Spa in Georgia in 1926 as well his own Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York—but Lou Hoover is the lone first lady architect. Like her male counterparts, Hoover received no formal training in the profession. She sketched architectural plans and elevations using just her extensive geological knowledge and an appreciation for the arts.

As a child, Hoover (then Lou Henry) fell in love with the land, culture, and history around her Northern California hometown of Monterey. Her love of the outdoors would be a theme in her life and her architectural work. In fact, Hoover would go on to study geology at Stanford University, becoming the first woman to graduate from the university with a degree in the field. After her marriage in 1899 to Herbert Hoover, then an engineer, she began to travel the world, including trips to North Africa and Europe, which would serve as the inspiration for her first architectural design.

That first project was the 1919 design for a new Hoover family home in Palo Alto, California. Two years prior, the Hoovers actually commissioned architect Louis Christian Mullgardt to design their new $50,000 home (a garish price tag amid the recession at the time). Mullgardt was unable to keep his newly acquired commission quiet, however, and was fired after he published a preliminary drawing of the house in Architect and Engineer and the San Francisco Examiner. The Hoovers then brought friend and Stanford Professor Arthur B. Clark and his son Birge on board as acting project leads. It was Lou Hoover, though, who truly designed the house. Though Arthur B. Clark's name appeared on the drawings as the official architect for the project, it was "understood from the start that Hoover was to 'act as the architect,'" according to Lou Henry Hoover biographer Paul Venable Turner. It was the first of many occasions on which Hoover's projects were designed under the auspices of a more seasoned male architect.

For the perch on San Juan Hill overlooking Stanford University, Hoover sketched plans and elevations for a whitewashed concrete, flat-roofed, asymmetrical cube home with Moorish influences. The home was so unusual that even Hoover's professional counterparts were often taken aback by her (and the home's) bold sensibilities. The attempts to curtail her designs were triumphantly shot down by Hoover herself, who insisted it was "time someone did them." The house was designed in the International style, which originated in Europe and embraced rectilinear forms, steel, long glass ribbon windows, and little, if any, ornamentation, in an architectural response to the overwrought Art Deco period. Hoover's home was a pioneering effort, as the style didn't truly flourish in America until the later 1920s and 1930s.

Hoover's designs were ambitious not only in style, but also in size. What was originally slated to be a seven-room house was, in the end, three floors and 57 rooms, according to Herbert Hoover biographer Kendrick A. Clements. Nearly every one of those rooms contained a terrace and fireplace. Both features were a testament to Hoover's love of the outdoors and a childhood spent camping with her father; and the fireplace would, in fact, become a signature of Hoover's. The 57-room house had an exterior that measured 192 feet by 65 feet. It would have been even larger if Hoover had had her way—she tried, to no avail, to purchase the house next door in order to make room for a swimming pool. Even without the additional lot, Hoover built a statement house. The mansion reached a final price tag of $170,000, thanks to its size and the soaring prices of materials such as glass, lumber, and hardware. The Lou Henry Hoover House, as it is known today, now serves as Stanford University's President's House and is a National Historic Landmark.

In 1924, Hoover took up her next project: to refine the look of her beloved Stanford University campus, specifically the faculty housing. She leased a plot of land across the street from campus and proposed eight houses. They were well-built yet inexpensive homes—small cottages of two bedrooms each. The collection of homes formed a U-shape, backing up to the street. The single story cottages featured red tile roofs with thick, stucco walls, and, of course, a fireplace. They were all a uniform Spanish mission style. It was a specific style chosen by Hoover to help carry on the look of the University's main quad, notes historian Marian Leib Adams. One cottage was built by Warren P. Skillings, but the other seven were built by Birge Clark, the very same young architect whom Hoover oversaw five years earlier during the construction of her Palo Alto residence.

Hoover next focused her efforts outside Stanford University, this time with a project for her other love: the Girl Scouts. Hoover's love of the outdoors and her friendship with Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low led to a position as national commissioner of the organization in 1917, and eventually to a post as the organization's president. In 1926 Hoover brought together her beloved organization with her beloved city when she established the west coast's first Girl Scout troop in Palo Alto. She proposed building a small house to serve as the troop's headquarters. This building was also built under the auspices of Birge Clark. Unsurprisingly, the building featured a fireplace as the focal point of the main activity room. The fireplace of the Lou Henry Hoover Meeting House, as it is known today, was constructed by stonemasons out of the sandstone which had fallen from an arch over Stanford's Palm Drive during the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The meeting house was log cabin-inspired and featured a gable roof. It was located on a plot of land large enough to take advantage of the outdoors with a picnic and play area. Local builders and craftsmen all pitched in to get the structure built. To this day, the Lou Henry Hoover Meeting House embodies that community spirit, as it remains the oldest active Girl Scout meeting house in the country.

The Girl Scout meeting house was her last project with the sponsorship of architect Birge Clark. After parting ways with Clark, the amateur architect bested her rugged Girl Scout house by designing an entire presidential fishing retreat set amid the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In 1929, Hoover drafted architectural and landscape renderings for Camp Rapidan, which became the Hoovers' weekend getaway. Nearly every weekend, the Hoovers escaped the commotion of the nation's capital and the troubles of the country's deep Depression at their 164-acre retreat in Shenandoah National Park.

The retreat was an intricately woven compound that included both landscape architecture and and structures. Hoover planted black-eyed Susans and larkspur to enhance the existing local mountain laurel. The compound's buildings were series of public gathering spaces, work spaces for the Secret Service, and 13 small log cabins. Each cabin had a porch and, of course, a fireplace made of stone. They were simple structures: like their Girl Scout predecessor, they were one-story, gable-roofed, brown-stained frame cabins. Lou Hoover's biographer Anne Beiser Allen notes that despite their simplicity, however, the first lady did ensure modern touches in each, like indoor plumbing, hot water, and electricity. Camp Rapidan was the first compound specifically designed as a Presidential retreat. (Camp David would not built for another six years.)

Hoover would prove to be quite the gentlewoman architect, cutting edge and flexible in scope and style. She moved from modern, European innovation to rugged, vernacular styles with ease. As a first lady, Hoover was quiet—during her time in the White House, she granted only one personal interview. But the buildings she left behind speak for themselves.

· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]