Among the most recent additions to the National Register of Historic Places is Mill-Rae, a house designed in 1890 by Philadelphia architect Minerva Parker Nichols. Nichols was the first American woman to practice architecture without a man attached to her firm. Although her formal career in Philadelphia lasted just a decade, she continued to practice informally and intermittently and was responsible for over 60 commissions throughout her lifetime.
Born in Peoria County, Illinois in 1862, Nichols moved with her family several times before settling in 1875 in Philadelphia, where she attended several architectural drafting programs. Soon after her graduation in 1886, she landed in the office of residential architect Edwin W. Thorne. Two years later, when Thorne decided to relocate his office to 13th and Arch Streets, she stayed behind at 14 South Broad Street, becoming the first woman in the country to practice architecture independently.
Nichols was not the first woman to open an architectural practice; that superlative is generally accorded to Louise Blanchard, who opened a firm in Buffalo in 1881, in partnership with Robert Bethune. Nevertheless, an editorial in the August 14, 1889, edition of the Philadelphia Real Estate and Builder’s Guide announced that “It is with pleasure that we note the advent of another entrance into the profession of architecture, and the pleasure is deepened by the fact that it is a woman.”
Nichols’s portfolio was dominated by women’s clubs and residential commissions, including several for female clients. She was known for her practical experience and supervision of the construction process. A builder working on her design for the New Century Club in Wilmington declared that “he had never worked for an architect who better understood the business,” while another project’s contractor went one step further: “She knows not only her business, but mine too.”
Nichols’s commission for Mill-Rae, on behalf of client Rachel Foster Avery, was among her earliest advertised commissions as an independent architect. The design was distinct among her residential commissions, fulfilling both a private and public function for Avery, a nationally-known suffragist. Mill-Rae was designed with several bedrooms, large parlors, and sitting rooms to accommodate not only Rachel Foster Avery, her husband, and her children, but also fellow suffragists traveling to Philadelphia for meetings and conventions—including Avery’s close friend and mentor, Susan B. Anthony.
Mill-Rae proved to be a pivotal commission for Nichols for reasons that extended beyond this single project. Its use as a gathering space for women was critical to Nichols as she built her roster of clients; several of her subsequent commissions were for women who were involved alongside Nichols and Avery in the causes of suffrage and women’s rights. She continued to practice in Philadelphia until 1896, designing women’s clubs, residences, industrial buildings, and other projects before moving with her family to Brooklyn, New York. Over the next several decades until her death in 1949, she continued to design occasionally for family and friends; however, she never reopened or advertised a formal architecture practice. When she died at the age of 87, The New York Times published an obituary that praised her career and noted her lifelong involvement in architectural work and women’s causes.