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Nichols, Minerva Parker (1860-1943)

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Nichols' plan

Front elevation and second floor plan, New Century Club for Women, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1893. Courtesy the Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

Biographical Sketches of Minerva Parker Nichols

An article about Nichols in Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary concludes,

Minerva Parker Nichols ranks with Louise Blanchard Bethune as one of the first American women to conduct a succesful architectural practice.

The American National Biography article specifies:

Minerva Parker Nichols was the second American woman architect to receive recognition. Unlike Louise Blanchard Bethune, who took her husband as her partner shortly after opening he buffalo office in 1881, Nichols established the first succesful American Architectual practice run by a woman working alone, without the assistance or partnership of a man. She was brought into national prominece by her design for the Queen Isabella Society. Her most significant public buildings were the New Century Clubs and the Browne and Nichols School.

Women in American Architecture, edited by Susana Torre in the Whitney Library of Design, 1977, summarizes her contribution as follows,

Minerva Parker Nichols devoted most of her career to domestic architecture because she felt that “specialists in architecture, as in medicine, are most assured of success.” After she trained with Frederick Thorn, Jr., in Philadelphia as a draftsperson, she took over his practice at 14 South Broad Street in 188. In Philadelphia and its suburbs of Radnor, Cynwood, Berwyn, Germantown, and Overbrooke, she designed homes in a variety of styles. In the early 1890s, she built two New Century for Women clubs-one in Philadelphia in the Renaissance style, recently demolished; another in Wilmington, Delaware, still extant.

Not all her work, however ,was residential. She planned two factory buildings for the Philadelphia spaghetti manufacturer Geano and Raggio, and a year after her marriage, in 1894, she designed the Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her chief obstacle, she believed, was not how to practice architecture, but how to obtain the technical and architectural training necessary to do her work well.

Minerva Parker Nichols

Minerva Parker Nichols assumed that, given a real chance, women architects would prove as capable as men:

It is time to put aside prejudice and sentimentalism, and judge women’s work by their ability. Let the conditions and restrictions be exactly the same as those under which men work, . . . so that the restriction shall be one of ability, and not sex. We do not need women as architects, we do not need men, but we do need brains enough to lift the architecture of this country beyond the grasp of unskilled and unqualified practictioners.

Nichols had come to architecture through an apprenticeship. After graduating from the Philadelphia Normal ArtSchool, she entered the office of Philadelphia architect Frederick Thorn, Jr., and while training with him took courses in architectural drawing and design at the Franklin Institute. When Thorn retired four years later, Nichols took over the business, continuing her education at the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Arts. Thus she did not go from the academy to the office, but rather, as was usual for men, supplemented her practical training with course work. The favorable aspects of her own academic experiences undoubtedly made Nichols idealistic about the options presented to women by the architecture schools. But the concern that she expressed, about the lack of practical expertise of school-trained women, realistically echoed the views of male architects who would be the colleagues and employers of women entering the field.

Nichols' font

Font elevation and second floor plan, New Century Club for Women, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1893. (Courtesy the Schlesinger Library, Harvard University)

To obtain the kind of practical experience that Nichols endorsed, however, women coming out of the schools (like men) had to enter what amounted to an “internship” in an architect’s office—a period the AIA would later formally define as the “candidacy.” The difficulty was that, in seeking to fulfill this requirement, women aspirants were back in the position of having to be accepted by an individual mentor, the very impediment that admission to an architecture school was supposed to eliminate.

Nichols was peculiarly optimistic about the chances for school trained women to continue their training in an office—”there are very few architects who would not be willing to offer a helping hand to any woman whom they saw earnestly attempting to join their ranks”—but her own circumstances had been fortuitous. After inheriting her mentor’s active Philadelphia practice, Nichols went on to have a prosperous, if relatively short, career as an architect best known for her suburban houses and for her work with women’s organizations. For our purposes, what is most significant about Nichols is the extravagant support she received from the builders’ community in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders Guide, which identified itself as “devoted to real estate, building, architectural and insurance interests,” gave an entire front page to Nichols’s career in 1890. Earlier this journal had proudly announced her entry into the profession as “the only [woman] in this city who has chosen this useful occupation,” and it followed her work until she left the city in 1896.

The PRERBG used Nichols’s established success to substantiate its claim that “a position [in architecture] is waiting for every woman [who] makes herself capable of filling it.” This article emphatically stated that gender had not been a factor in the fortunes of “the only woman architect in Philadelphia”:

Strange to say the fact of being a woman has never, at any time, been a serious drawback, nor in any way handicapped her while pursuing her line of work. On the contrary, words of encouragement and good fellowship have at all times been freely extended, both by the public in general and her fellow architects…. As to builders, mechanics, and all with whom she has come in contact, the only advantage any of them has taken in dealing with a woman has been added care on their part in executing the work called for by her plans and specifications.

The enthusiasm of the PRERBG shows the local builders’ community to be far more receptive to women at this time than the part of the profession that espoused the AIA model of architecture. Indeed, the builders actively recruited women into architectural practice.

However, as with the AIA model of the “qualified” architect, the definition of “capable” that the PRERBG offered in support of Nichols was specific and value-laden. Nichols was praised because she “[did] not come before the public with the plea that she is a woman, and therefore to be helped and supported, but as fully prepared as the generality of her colaborers.” In other words, this journal’s remarkable endorsement of Nichols lay not only in the fact that she was adequately trained, but also in the fact that she was trained in such a way as not to set her apart from the community in which she worked. For the PRERBG, this meant training through apprenticeship, not through an elite academic program.

The PRERBG clearly believed that apprenticeship trained a person to be an architect and not merely a builder. In its commentary on the results of the 1891 competition for the Woman’s Building, the journal predictably endorsed Minerva Parker Nichols’s design, but it also asserted that the other top competitors (Sophie Hayden, Lois Howe, Laura Hayes) were not “professional architects and therefore the competition cannot be classed as one based on true architectural merit.” Hayden and Howe had both recently graduated from MIT, and therefore, by PRERBG standards, lacked practical experience, and Laura Hayes had received no formal training in architecture at all. Among these women, only Nichols had come to the competition with full credentials.

In sum, Bethune’s and Nichols’s advocacy of academic education and practical experience for women derived from their belief that a woman’s success in the profession depended on her becoming a “complete architect.” But the professional struggles between architects and builders were in effect rendering that model of the architect meaningless. Instead of seeking a larger conception of the profession, each of these factions actually sought authority for its own more limited definition of the field. Women, not surprisingly, got caught in this male battle for professional turf.

Once these women graduated, they faced the difficulty of finding an office in which to intern, to acquire that “practical experience” they were assumed as a sex to be lacking, regardless of their previous education. It seems likely that if a woman applied for internship to an architect who valued school training, the “gentlemanly” model would work against her. On the other hand, if she sought employment from the ranks of architects who were not themselves academically trained, these practitioners would be suspicious, not only of her training but also of her inappropriate architectural ambitions. It was commonplace in this period, for instance, to assume that women who did the profession should “specialize” in domestic architecture. Yet schools, in their curricula and underlying philosophy, encouraged students to aspire to design buildings for the great cultural institutions of the country.

If a woman who wished to become an architect in this period understood from the start that the professional status promised by the academic degree was not intended for her, she could choose to try to enter an apprenticeship with an established, sympathetic architect. If she joined a small firm of local reputation and became a house designer, she could hope for professional acceptance and an active, profitable career. However, for some ambitious, middle class women—for whom professional identity was increasingly linked to higher education—this “traditional” route must have seemed an unattractive option. For, insofar as they embraced the AIA definition of the architect, these women might have seen apprenticeship as a process jeopardizing both their professional and class status.

Given the prospects that professionalization and academic education actually opened for women in this period, is it any wonder that, as Louise Bethune observed, most of the women who graduated from the schools “renounced ambition with the attainment of the degree” or that, according to the PRERBG, “In Philadelphia, while most of the trades and professions are ably represented by a number of bright and intelligent women, that of architecture has but one follower.”

— By Elizabeth G. Grossman and Lisa B. Reitzes. From Architecture: A Place for Women, edited by Ellen Perry Berkeley, 1989.

A Note on Unitarian Connections

The article about her in American National Biography states: “A longtime Unitarian, Minerva Parker married Reverend William Ichabod Nichols, Pastor of the Spring Garden Unitarian Church, Philadelphia . . . and restored the Unitarian Church in Deerfield, Massachusetts (1913) when her husband became its rector.”