When naming female architects, several greats immediately come to mind—Denise Scott Brown, Zaha Hadid, Eileen Gray, and Kazuyo Sejima, among others. One oft-forgotten name that should be on the list is Minerva Parker Nichols, the first woman in the United States to practice architecture on her own. Nichols is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, a show that will chronicle the architect’s life, legacy, and buildings.
Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect is the result of over a decade of research collaboration between architectural historian, preservation planner, and Penn graduate Molly Lester and photographer Elizabeth Felicella, who visually documented Nichols’s buildings. Not only is it the first exhibition to showcase Nichols’s work, but it will also create the first comprehensive archive of her buildings, a major feat given that surviving documentation of her work is limited and some projects she designed remain unknown.
Nichols was born in 1862 and much of her career was spent working during the early suffrage movement. She opened her office in Philadelphia in 1888 after apprenticing with architect Edwin W. Thorne. While her firm was only in operation until 1896, Nichols continued to work on commissions. Among her projects, predominantly located in and around Philadelphia, are mostly private residences and several women’s clubs, as well as a few churches, schools, and a hotel.
Alongside Lester and Felicella the curatorial team for the upcoming exhibition includes William Whitaker, curator and collections manager of the Architectural Archives, and Heather Isbell Schumacher, an archivist at the Architectural Archives.
More than just an exhibition, the endeavor to introduce the work and legacy of Nichols to a wider audience will be accompanied by public programming as well as a publication. In addition to a catalog of Nichols’s projects compiled by Whitaker, the book will include words from Lester; Despina Stratigakos, professor of architecture at University at Buffalo; and Franca Trubian, associate professor of architecture at University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design.
For those who can’t visit Philadelphia in time for the exhibition, Lester is sharing select materials online. She created a website with archival and biographical information on Nichols and produced a limited podcast series called What Minerva Built with the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation.
Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect will be on view from March 21 through June 17, 2023 at the Harvey & Irwin Kroiz Gallery of the Architectural Archives at University of Pennsylvania. More information can be found here.