How Molly Lester Is Helping to Revive the Story of a Trailblazing Architect
Over the past 12 years, architectural historian Molly Lester has devoted much of her spare time to researching and promoting the career of Minerva Parker Nichols, one of the first women architects in the United States. Now Lester, who serves as associate director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Urban Heritage Project, has teamed with curator William Whitaker, photographer Elizabeth Felicella, and archivist Heather Isbell Schumacher to create a comprehensive exhibit of Nichols’ work. Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect is on view through June 17 at the Kroiz Gallery at Penn’s Architectural Archives.
How did you become interested in Minerva Parker Nichols?
It started as an assignment for my graduate school program in historic preservation at Penn. I needed a thesis topic, and I always have been interested in how women have shaped the built environment in ways that are formal and informal. Then I graduated, but there were still so many unresolved questions that I wanted to keep going, so I kept researching after the fact.
Are many of Parker Nichols' buildings still standing?
At least a third of her buildings are still standing, but there are a lot that we don’t know about, because we can’t confirm the addresses. She specialized in residential architecture, so a lot of her buildings are private homes.
She also did several women’s clubs and several industrial or commercial buildings. Of those, I only know of one that’s still standing: the former New Century Club (1893) in Wilmington, Delaware, now the Delaware Children’s Theatre. A lot of the homes are in the Philadelphia area. But she did design coast to coast, and there’s a cluster in Connecticut.
What are the main pieces of the exhibition?
It will be a blend of archival materials—including her drawings and materials associated with her life that build out an understanding of her as a person—and then the new photographs [of her work] by Elizabeth Felicella.
The goal is to build an archive in the absence of one. Up until this point, there have been some papers at Harvard and some drawings at the Architectural Archives at Penn and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
But for the most part, what her descendants have is the biggest archive. A lot of it is going to be donated to the Architectural Archives as part of this exhibition project.
What do you hope the project will accomplish?
First and foremost, familiarizing people with Minerva more. She’s essentially left out of mainstream architectural history, despite the fact that she designed over 80 buildings and created a business model where there wasn’t one, as a woman practicing on her own consistently in the 1890s and beyond.
By my count, over 600 newspaper articles mentioned her. There’s a real distinction to be made between her earned respect during her lifetime and how much we’ve forgotten her since her death.
Hopefully, connecting with the owners of her houses will also inform their stewardship of these places and build community around them. Also, the photographs we’re taking for the exhibition will be donated to the Library of Congress. Combined with the archives that will live at Penn, there will be resources for more researchers to pick up her story and unpack things that we haven’t found yet.
What made Minerva Parker Nichols so successful?
She was very attentive to the details of how buildings should work. She had specific measurements for how wide a dining room should be if a servant needed to navigate the table with a tray. She had very specific thoughts about spaces for children, informed largely by the years she spent as a governess and working in her mother’s boardinghouse.
And then there’s the amount of storage she’s incorporating. These places continue to be seen as worthwhile to buy and maintain and live in because she was such an observant person bringing a lot of lived experience even before she started designing.
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