Four Women Who Built Illinois
Landmarks Illinois—a membership-based preservation nonprofit organization serving the people of Illinois —recently debuted its Women Who Built Illinois database, the first-of-its-kind compilation of women in design and development fields and their contributions to the state’s built environment between 1879 and 1979. The online database contains information on more than 100 female architects, engineers, developers, designers, builders, landscape architects, interior designers, and clients.
The project is the result of an in-depth survey of women in architecture, real estate, and design-related fields that Landmarks Illinois publicly launched in 2020—a year that marked the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, upholding a United States citizen’s right to vote regardless of sex. The database was financially supported by generous donations from Women in Restoration & Engineering (WiRE); AIA Illinois; Kim Kerbis, in honor of Gertrude Lempp Kerbis; and the Kohler Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The women in this database have made incredible contributions to Illinois communities, helping create now historic and iconic skyscrapers and housing developments and gathering spaces. Many of these places are recognized as significant, with some listed on the National Register of Historic Places or locally landmarked. Yet the women behind the buildings beloved by residents and visitors alike—the women who helped design, build, and produce them—are largely unknown or are overshadowed. Here are just four of these women and their projects. Explore the Women Who Built Illinois database to discover many more.
Marion Mahony Griffin—Architect
Marion Mahony Griffin made history in 1898 when she became the first licensed woman architect in the state of Illinois. She was a prominent Prairie School architect and worked alongside Frank Lloyd Wright for more than a decade. Wright is often mistaken as the architect on a number of Griffin’s designs, including the Robert Mueller, Adolph Mueller, and Edward P. Irving houses in Decatur, Illinois, all built 1909 and 1910. Her husband, Walter Burley Griffin, is also credited as the sole architect for the National Register-listed Stinson Memorial Library, built 1914 in Anna, Illinois, though it is widely understood Mahony Griffin was responsible for designing many parts of the structure, including its characteristic square stained-glass windows.
A skilled artist, Mahony Griffin was also the creator of the iconic illustrations of Wright’s designs—artwork that helped establish Wright as an architectural force in the United States and influenced modernist architects in Europe like Mies van der Rohe.
Elizabeth Wood, born 1899 in Japan, moved to Chicago in the 1930s where she served as executive director of the Chicago Housing Authority. During her nearly 20-year tenure there, Wood advocated for high-quality public housing that featured beautiful architectural details and plenty of outdoor recreation space. She was instrumental in the creation of the recently rehabilitated Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a National Register-listed development of two- and three-story walkup row houses built in 1938 that today still provides affordable housing to hundreds of residents on Chicago’s North Side.
During her career as a developer and housing advocate, Wood also had a hand in many other affordable residential developments in Chicago like Altgeld Gardens on the South Side, built in the 1940s for returning African American war workers and their families. The Midcentury Modern development features homes, schools, and commercial structures designed by prominent architects like Naess & Murphy (now C.F. Murphy Associates), Keck & Keck, and John Christensen. Altgeld Gardens is also the birthplace of the national environmental justice movement and People for Community Recovery, which was founded in 1979 by Hazel Johnson and influenced leaders such as a young Barack Obama who began his early community organizing work at Altgeld.
Landmarks Illinois listed three structures at Altgeld Gardens on its 2021 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois list due to long-term vacancy and the need for rehabilitation. Today, a National Register of Historic Places nomination is underway for Altgeld Gardens in which the work of Wood, thankfully, will be acknowledged.
Georgia Louise Harris Brown—Architect & Engineer
Georgia Louise Harris Brown was a pioneering woman in the architecture and engineering fields. In 1944, she was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Kansas with a degree in architecture and engineering. Five years later, in 1949, Brown earned her architecture license in Illinois, making her only the second Black woman to become a licensed architect in the United States. Brown also spent time studying under the prominent architect Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She began her career at Frank J. Kornacker Associates, Inc., where, until her departure in 1953, she was said to be the only professional woman working at the firm’s office.
During her career, Brown developed structural calculations for many well-known reinforced steel and concrete buildings that populated the Chicago skyline in the middle of the 20th century, including:
- Promontory Apartments, built in 1949 and designed by Mies van der Rohe, his first residential high-rise. The building, featuring a unique exposed structural concrete skeletal frame, is a designated landmark in Chicago and included on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Prairie Court Apartments, built in 1950 and designed by Keck & Keck. The public housing development was constructed just south of Mies van der Rohe’s McCormick Place, the nation’s largest convention center. The high-rise apartment building faced south so the units could be warmed in part by the sun’s natural solar energy, and included breezeways in the halls, a feature intended to give residents an “outdoor feel” and one that would be copied at subsequent housing developments across the city.
The National Register-listed Denkmann-Hauberg Estate in Rock Island, Illinois—just across the Mississippi River from Davenport, Iowa—was designed by architect Robert C. Spencer and is widely adored for its Jens Jensen-designed gardens. But the Prairie Style home, constructed 1909-11, was the brainchild of Susanne Denkmann, daughter of a prominent local business owner. Denkmann and her husband, John Hauberg, were married in the home in 1911 and they remained active philanthropists in the Quad City region throughout their life. Denkmann later became a botanist, and in the estate’s gardens, grew vegetables and fruits that she would share with neighbors and community members.
Denkmann was also responsible for commissioning a number of other now-historic buildings in Rock Island, including two built in 1909: The West End Settlement, which provided much-needed housing and services to local families and residents living below the poverty level, and the Denkmann Memorial Library at Augustana College.
The Denkmann-Hauberg Estate was recently restored and was recognized with a 2019 Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award. It is now owned by the city of Rock Island and maintained by the nonprofit Friends of Hauberg Civic Center Foundation.
How You Can Help
Landmarks Illinois welcomes additional research on women not yet included in the Women Who Built Illinois database, as well as those listed but for whom more information is needed. The organization also welcomes photographs of women in these fields and their built works. Please send information to Lisa DiChiera, Landmarks Illinois' director of advocacy, at LDiChiera@Landmarks.org.
Along with DiChiera, the research and development of the database was led by Erica Ruggiero, principal at McGuire Igleski & Associates, Inc., and Landmarks Illinois intern Cray Kennedy. Additional research and peer review was provided by Julia Bachrach, a Chicago-based architectural historian, planner, and preservationist, and student volunteer Jared Saef, who also contributed research and photography.
This project is a part of the National Trust's commitment to share stories of women in preservation as part of the campaign for Where Women Made History.
Kaitlyn McAvoy is the communications manager at Landmarks Illinois.
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