philadelphia history

Women’s History Month: Celebrating Female Architects in Philadelphia

Architecture has long been a field dominated by men but women’s involvement in the profession can be traced back to 17th-century England. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that they began gaining recognition. As we close out Women’s History Month, we take a look at Philadelphia’s female architects, inspiring women who broke through barriers to create their own architecture firms and achieve national attention for their work. 

Philadelphia Women Architecture Pioneers 

Minerva Parker Nichols (1863-1949) was the first woman in the United States to practice architecture independently and open a solo practice in Philadelphia in the 1880s. When she was just 29, Nichols was already earning the equivalent of $215,000 in today’s currency. But it didn’t happen overnight. Nichols worked as a governess and housekeeper while learning architectural drafting, consistently advancing her technical skills.

In the mid-1880s, Minerva Parker Nichols apprenticed for Edwin W. Thorne at 14 S. Broad, designing residences in Mt Airy, Jenkintown, and Bryn Mawr before opening a firm in 1889 which she operated until 1896. Nichols’ specialty was residential homes and during her career, she designed over 80 projects. Most of her projects were in Philadelphia; you can still see them in various parts of the City. These include 3313 Hamilton Street in the Powelton section, 102 Grayling Ave. in Narberth, and 746 Conestoga Rd. in Berwyn. Unfortunately, her design for the New Century Club, one of the first women’s clubs in America at 124 S 12th St. was demolished in 1973.

Philadelphia School of Design for Women.

Nichols also designed schools, churches, and hotels. She taught courses on architectural ornament at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, the first art school for women in the U.S. which later merged with the Moore College of Art.

Cottage designed by Parker Nichols.

Elizabeth Fleisher (1892-1975) was the first female to be licensed as an architect in Philadelphia. She started her career working for Edward P. Simon who is credited with designing the Fidelity Philadelphia Trust Company at 123 S. Broad in 1928. Fleisher later became known for designing showrooms, theaters, and factories. In 1952, she designed the 14-story Parkway House at 2201 Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the first post-war luxury apartment buildings in the city, still a highly desired, mid-century apartment building.

 The Columbus Square pavilion was designed by Elizabeth Fleisher in the mid century modern style. Image: Philadelphia Department of Public Records

Contemporary Philadelphia Women Architects 

Philadelphia now has many architectural firms owned by women such as Daniela Holt Voith, founding partner and director of design at Voit & Mactavish. She has designed many buildings for Ivy League institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and is known for her historic preservation work for several 1920s movie theaters in and around Philadelphia, including Bryn Maw Film Institute, The Sedgwick, and the Colonial Theater in Doylestown. 

Daniela Voith honored by AIA.

Architect Linda O’Gwynn founded Purdy O’Gwynn, a small architecture firm, in 1994. Her team has worked on recognizable projects in the area, including the Chemical Heritage Foundation headquarters in Old City, now known as The Science History Institute, and residential homes throughout Philadelphia and the Main Line.

Ramla Benaissa, founder and principal of Ramla Benaissa Architects, earned her PhD at the Weitzman School of Design and has taught design and architectural history at University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Her projects include renovations at the Municipal Services Building at 15th and JFK Blvd., Olney Charter High School Athletic Facility, and renovations of units at the Dorchester on Rittenhouse Square.

Judy Robinson founded Continuum Architecture and Design in 2005 at 635 Addison St. The firm’s projects include La Colombe in Fishtown, and the ongoing St. Laurentius Church adaptive reuse project. Named one of the best Green Architects in Philadelphia, Robinson is a member of the US Green Building Council and is passionate about sustainability. She also won a Preservation Alliance Grand Jury Award for her work on the 1905 Crane Stable Building in Northern Liberties.

Kiki Bolender is the owner and principal designer at Bolender Architects, 2118 Locust. She co-founded the Healthy Rowhouse Project and is on the Board of Friends of Historic Sedgeley. In addition to designing Rittenhouse Square and Fitler Square homes, she renovated the 1869 Women’s Humane Society and converted a former firehouse in West Philadelphia into the Dock Street Brewery and Pub. Outside of Philadelphia, Bolender played a big role in the restoration of Asbury Boardwalk of Bruce Springsteen fame.

Architect Mary Holland founded Cicada Architecture and Planning in 1995. Women make up 60 percent of the firm’s professional staff. In addition to working on cultural institution projects like the sustainable Pennypack Environmental Center, Cicada has designed several affordable housing developments and residential homes throughout the city.

Gabrielle Canno, founder and partner of Canno Design, has designed multi-family properties on North Broad Street, Fairmount Ave., and Ridge Ave. She has also worked on popular bars and restaurants including Charlie Was a Sinner and Wishbone in the Gayborhood and Bar Hygge in Fairmont.

Janice Woodcock, founder of Woodcock Design, is a one-person architecture/interior design/planning firm. The former president of AIA Philadelphia and executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Woodcock was the designer of the new Fillmore in Fishtown. Her work includes a hi-rise at 1100 Delaware Ave., the Sponge Factory Lofts in South Kensington, and the Frankford Friends School. She has also designed renovations for luxury dwellings on Delancey Place. 

These are just a few of the outstanding Philadelphia female architects impacting our City’s design. Meanwhile, women lead all four Philadelphia architecture schools at Jefferson’s College of Architecture, the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, Temple’s School of Architecture & Design, and Drexel’s School of Architecture, Design and Urbanism. Interested in learning more about Philadephia’s women in architecture? Check out the Women in Architecture group on Facebook or reach out to Deborah, who holds a master’s degree in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.

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