Minerva Parker Nichols, architect; New Century Club of Wilmington, 1892-93; Wilmington, Delaware; Extant. (Photo Elizabeth Felicella)
Minerva Parker Nichols, c.1893. Collection Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Photographer unknown.
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Philadelphia—The Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design presents Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect. On view from Tuesday, March 21 through Saturday, June 17, 2023 [and extended through July 22], the exhibition will tell the story of Minerva Parker Nichols (1862-1949), the first woman in the country to practice architecture independently, with an office in Philadelphia and commissions nationwide. The exhibition reflects more than a decade of research by Penn graduate Molly Lester and recent work by Elizabeth Felicella, who is photographing surviving buildings by Nichols, thus creating an archive in the absence of one.
Working during the suffrage movement, Nichols had numerous clients who were women. Her commissions included dozens of private residences, large and small, the New Century Clubs of Philadelphia and Wilmington, as well as the unbuilt Queen Isabella Association Pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The opening of her Philadelphia office in 1888 drew the attention of the Philadelphia press, and her death in 1949 warranted a headlined obituary in The New York Times. She supervised all her own construction, declaring “I don’t mind walking over scaffolding, but I draw the line on ladders.”
And yet, despite this legacy, Nichols is rarely included in the story of Philadelphia’s built environment or broader historical assessments. Her archival record is even more elusive, as only a handful of her drawings survive, and a large body of her work remains unknown. Of her surviving commissions, most are private residences; one of her residential designs has been converted to a non-profit retreat center, and her only surviving women’s club is now a children’s theater in Wilmington, Delaware.
The curatorial team is led by William Whitaker, curator and collections manager of the Architectural Archives. He has curated or co-curated exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, the Vitra Design Museum, and the Kimbell Art Museum, and contributed to numerous publications on modern architecture. Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect comes out of the decade of research undertaken by architectural historian and preservation planner Molly Lester (MSHP'12), who serves as lead scholar and co-curator for the show. The recipient of numerous grants and awards for her work on Nichols, Lester earned her Master of Science in Historic Preservation degree from Penn in 2012 and has lectured widely. Elizabeth Felicella, accomplished architectural photographer, specializes in the in-depth investigation and documentation of architecture and landscape with particular interests in public space and historic preservation. Heather Isbell Schumacher, archivist at the Architectural Archives, brings over a decade of experience in stewarding archival collections and critically examining the gaps in the historical record.
In addition to the exhibition, the project will explore questions about collecting, preserving, and writing history against the backdrop of contemporary cultural change through a series of dynamic public programs. A companion publication will be published in the spring of 2023 with a foreword by Despina Stratigakos; essays by Molly Lester, Heather Schumacher, Elizabeth Felicella, and Franca Trubiano, associate professor of architecture and chair of the graduate group in the Department of Architecture at Penn; and a catalogue raisonné by William Whitaker.
Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect will be on view from March 21–July 22, 2023 at the Harvey & Irwin Kroiz Gallery of the Architectural Archives, 220 South 34 Street, Philadelphia. (The exhibition was extended beyond the originally scheduled closing date.) Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00am to 4:00pm. Admission to the exhibition is free and open to the public.
Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
The Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania preserves the works of more than 400 designers from the 17th century to the present. Major collections include the comprehensive archives of a number of the twentieth century’s most significant designers, including: Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown; Lawrence Halprin; Ian L. McHarg; Edmund N. Bacon; Anne Griswold Tyng; and Louis I. Kahn. The research collections in the Archives are available to faculty, students, and scholars for independent study as well as to support teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.