Finding a forgotten architect, Philadelphia’s Minerva Parker Nichols

A decade of research by Penn’s Molly Lester on the first woman to practice architecture independently is the foundation of new exhibition at the Architectural Archives.

three people standing in front of a table in the archives
More than a decade of research by Molly Lester (center) of the Weitzman School of Design is the foundation of a new exhibition at Penn’s Architectural Archives. Co-curated by Lester and the Archives’ William Whitaker (right) and Heather Schumacher (left), it focuses on Minerva Parker Nichols, the nation’s first woman to practice architecture independently.  (Image: Eric Sucar, University Communications)

Minerva Parker Nichols is the most famous architect you’ve never heard of, says Penn’s Margaret (Molly) Lester, who has been researching Nichols’ life and career for more than a decade.

It started with Lester’s thesis for a master’s degree in historic preservation from Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design in 2012. Since then Lester has created a website, a podcast called “What Minerva Built,” related video shorts, and several journal articles dedicated to Nichols, the first woman in the United States to practice architecture independently.

Now, Lester is the lead scholar and co-curator of the upcoming exhibition “Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect” at Penn’s Architectural Archives, working with the Archives’ William Whitaker, curator, and Heather Isbell Schumacher, archivist, as well as documentary photographer Elizabeth Felicella.

The exhibition, funded by a $360,000 grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, opens March 21 and will be on view through June 17.

Lester is the associate director of the Urban Heritage Project in the Weitzman School’s Graduate Program for Historic Preservation and PennPraxis. In that role, she helps community partners like the National Park Service research and develop long-range plans to preserve and manage significant cultural sites, primarily in Washington, D.C., from the Lincoln Memorial to about 300 parks in the area.

I’ve always been interested in how women have shaped the built environment,” Lester says, an interest that has driven her dedication to studying Nichols’ life and career.

three people talking in archives with bookshelves behind them and blueprints and a journal on a table in front of them
Lester (left) first started researching Nichols for her master's thesis in historic preservation. (Image: Eric Sucar, University Communications)

Nichols, who was born in 1862 and died in 1949, opened her practice in Philadelphia in 1889, after earning architectural certificates and completing an apprenticeship. She operated her Philadelphia business until 1896, attracting commissions and press coverage worldwide. Even after she married and had four children, she continued working in architecture. She designed at least 80 buildings, many homes in Philadelphia’s suburbs, and also schools, churches, hotels, and several women’s clubs. And yet only a fraction of her drawings survive, Lester says, and she is rarely included in historical assessments.

The exhibition includes Nichols’ personal and professional archives, and Elizabeth Felicella’s black-and-white photographs of the 30 surviving buildings, materials that have become part of the Architectural Archives’ collection. The photographs will be submitted to the Historic American Buildings Survey of the Library of Congress, the most comprehensive record of the country’s built environment. An exhibition-related book by the curatorial team will be the first reference that includes every project known that Nichols designed, Lester says.

“We are building an archive in the absence of one. We’ve stitched back together as much as we can find in the world that relates to Minerva,” Lester says. “They number in the hundreds, all these little fragments that piece back together, from really intensely personal things to parts of her professional files.”

The exhibition already has generated media buzz in the industry, with articles in ELLE Decor, Architectural Digest, Archinect, The Architect’s Newspaper, and e-flux Architecture.

Penn Today spoke with Lester about her research and the exhibition that reconsiders Nichols’ legacy.

Why did you study historic preservation?

Initially, I thought I wanted to be an architect, but I found I was much more interested in what we do with the buildings that we already have: what do they mean to us, and how do we care for them, and how do we plan for their future? That shifted me from thinking about new construction to thinking about architectural history and preservation.

Why do you think Nichols is important to learn about?

She carved a path, establishing a business model where there wasn’t one. There were a few other women involved in architecture when she got started, including most notably Louise Blanchard Bethune, but no other women were running their own firms. What did it mean for her to have to convince clients to hire her when she was on her own? What did it mean that she managed to line up as much architectural education as she did? There’s no clear path into practice for women at the time, and yet she manages to prove herself and ultimately, as far as we know, design over 80 buildings. I always pair confidence and competence when I talk about her. She had proven herself and her skills, not only in design, but also in supervising construction of buildings.

It’s a long-standing problem in architectural history that the contributions of women and nonbinary people have been underrepresented. Even today, as those populations have reached parity to some extent in architectural education, they haven’t necessarily reached that level when it comes to higher levels of practice. I think examining Minerva’s story is a way to examine those larger patterns. What does it mean to become somebody breaking into a field that hasn’t made space for them? Why do we forget people like her and the history of her involvement in the field?

The exhibition starts with the story of the New Century Club of Philadelphia, at 12th and Sansom streets; it was a women’s club, part of a growing movement in the late 19th century. Minerva designed the complex building with meeting spaces, lecture rooms, overnight accommodations, and a big auditorium, places where they could organize around social causes and promote the education of women. This was the first women’s club in the country with a headquarters that was designed by a woman. But that stunning building was demolished 50 years ago this spring. Now there is a parking deck there. At the time it was demolished, the building was photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey, but the inventory form didn’t even mention Minerva by name as the architect. What does it mean that she was forgotten, even in association with her own building, and that we would be willing to demolish something as significant as that?

How did the exhibition come about?

The Architectural Archives has some of her only surviving drawings and a set of specifications she wrote to direct the contractors on one of her projects. Bill Whitaker and I started talking about the exhibition around 2015 and started planning it in earnest around 2018. By that time I had met Minerva’s great-granddaughter and learned that the family saved a lot of Minerva’s papers. Bill brought on architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella, and, together with archivist Heather Schumacher, we began to think about Minerva in new ways, using her story to examine the tools in each of our disciplines and the ways we could expand beyond current practice to resurface the stories of people who have been omitted from architectural histories.

In 2019 the four of us visited several of Minerva’s houses in the area to familiarize ourselves with her work. In 2020, the Architectural Archives received a grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage for this exhibition. Elizabeth has photographed more than 30 of Minerva’s buildings, some interior and others from the exterior, as a way to document and record them, understand them in a deeper way, and complement and supplement the archival materials.

How did you connect with Nichols’ great-granddaughter?

I found a thesis written in the 1990s at the University of Delaware that cited some family papers. I contacted the author, and it turns out she’s related to the family by marriage, and she put me in touch with Carrie Baker, Minerva’s great-granddaughter. Baker is an author, lawyer, journalist, activist, and Smith College professor. Carrie grew up going to her grandmother’s house, which was designed by Minerva.

Carrie and her family are still finding things among their belongings. Any time she comes across something related to Minerva at her dad’s house, she’ll text and say: ‘Look at what I found!’ The family is donating a lot of her personal papers to the Archives: family photos, cards and letters, additional architectural drawings, the lettering guides that we think she used on her later works. They’ve got the slides that Minerva used to show off her work, including at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, so you can get a sense of her portfolio and how Minerva presented it to the world.

What are your hopes for your research and this exhibition?

I hope her buildings stay standing. And I hope that there’s a shared culture of appreciation around her in a way that informs the stewardship of her buildings. I’m trying to reach broad audiences and at the same time build relationships with the property owners. That’s as much a part of the work as anything, the ongoing relationship with the people who are living in her buildings day to day. Wherever possible, I want to write grants and find other partnerships so that they have support to help preserve those places.

I hope Minerva is known for the significant figure that she was in architecture. I hope people do additional research going forward. I hope they find things that we never did. I hope there are new interpretations of her. I see it continuing on in some way, shape, or form.


An opening reception and panel discussion by the curators is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 21, in the Weitzman School of Design’s Meyerson Hall, 210 S. 34th St., Philadelphia.