Minerva Parker Nichols: One Of Architecture's Unsung Pioneers
You’ve probably never heard of Minerva Parker Nichols. Even for architecture buffs, her legacy remains somewhat obscure.
But the architect—whose story touches the Civil War and the suffrage movement—was a pioneer in her field, not only because she was the first woman in the country to have her own independent practice, but also for the path she took to get there.
Much of what is available on Nichols’ career is from the work of one scholar, Molly Lester, and even she didn’t come across the story until needing a thesis topic for her Master's in Historic Preservation.
“I stumbled on to Minerva. There just wasn’t much out there on her,” Lester says. “Once I started digging a little bit I became more and more interested. She seemed to be a really fascinating individual. Some of her writings and quotes are just so confident in an era when there wasn’t a lot of room for women to be confident in the field of architecture.”
Nichols—who was born in 1862 and was most active in Philadelphia during the late 1880s and 1890s—had ample reason to be confident, even if the expectations of the time would’ve dictated otherwise. She honed her craft in a period when design trade programs were increasingly popular among women. For Nichols that meant studying at the Philadelphia Normal Art School and the Franklin Institute Drawing School.
Just as importantly, she spent three years as an apprentice to a local architect named Edwin W. Thorne. At a time when university programs were also admitting more women, Nichols had paved a way to success in the industry that was very much her own.
“Because she was trained through the building trades and had all of that on-the-ground experience, she was really respected,” Lester says. “There was a general acknowledgment that she knew what she was doing. More women are going to the university programs, but there’s also some disdain for that as like, they’re just in the ivory tower. With Minerva, there are quotes from building contractors and construction supervisors who all say, ‘She knows my job as well as hers.’”
Nichols’ father had died in the Civil War when she was still an infant, and in 1876, her family moved from Illinois to Philadelphia. Not long after, she started at the trade schools. In 1888, when Thorne picked up and moved his office from South Broad Street to elsewhere in the city, Nichols took over the office, most likely becoming the first female architect without a male partner in the practice. (Louise Blanchard Bethune is generally known as the first professional female architect, but she opened her practice with her future husband, Robert A. Bethune.)
A network of clients quickly developed around her, an impressive accomplishment for an architect working in a time when the avenues for professional connections were more limited for women. In fact, a number of her clients were Civil War widows.
While known records leave the number of Nichols’ buildings inconclusive, Lester puts her total number of commissions at over 60, mostly residences. But her most prominent projects were those attached to the women’s suffrage movement.
She designed two New Century clubs, first in Philadelphia and then in Wilmington, Delaware, where women’s groups convened. The Colonial Revival structure in Wilmington still stands, serving as the Delaware Children’s Theatre.
And in the Somerton neighborhood of Philadelphia, she was commissioned by Rachel Foster Avery—protégé of Susan B. Anthony—to design Mill-Rae, a residence, meeting place, and crash pad of sorts for suffragists.
While Nichols’ design never strayed too far from her contemporaries, buildings like the Shingle Style Mill-Rae show off her attention to detail and function.
“There are several rooms that can serve as meeting rooms, and they’re both intimate and interconnected. You could have a larger group meeting if you needed to and open the pocket doors, for instance,” Lester says. “Once you drill down there is an attention to detail that stands out, or at least demonstrates that it was designed by an architect as opposed to a pattern book.”
In 1896, Nichols moved to Brooklyn and eventually had four children, formally ending her practice but continuing to occasionally work for family and friends. Nichols died in 1949 at the age of 87.
Now, because of Lester’s ongoing research and others, Nichols is getting some of the acknowledgment she's long deserved. Mill-Rae was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January 2017.
“There just weren’t opportunities for women to network and get the clients that would sustain a practice,” Lester says. “So I think she really bridged those worlds well. That’s not to say she never experienced resistance, but she just claimed a place not based on the fact that she was a woman, but because she knew she was well trained.”