Written by Gayle L. Goudy, PhD
One hundred years ago, women in design fields in Kansas City faced overt and unrepentant discrimination from men in the profession. Many women in this era chose gender-neutral professional names (N.E. Peters, A.E. Evans) to avoid discrimination when only their drawings or ideas were presented. Unfortunately, once her gender was known, professional names provided no protection. The all-male staff at A.E. Evans's first job vowed to walk out if a woman was employed there (the threat was never realized). In 1930, Evans won the American Institute of Architects' Kansas City Chapter's Honor Award in the residential design category for a house under her professional name with her gender unknown to the jury panel. At the awards banquet, Edward Tanner, an architect affiliated with the J.C. Nichols Company and president of the chapter, announced that women should not be in the architectural field and had her gender been previously apparent, she would never have received the award. Furthermore, the AIA denied Mary Rockwell Hook admission based on her gender. In reparation, on her 100th birthday, in 1977, they presented her with a plaque for distinguished service.
Last month I led a trolly tour through Kansas City, Missouri to honor and celebrate the work of these skilled architects. Read along to follow our tour and learn about four women who left their mark in the urban fabric of Kansas City despite considerable discrimination.
N.E. Peters (Nelle Elizabeth Peters) (1884-1974) had her own practice, designed nearly 1,000 buildings in Kansas City, and had her design for The King Cole Hotel featured in the Architectural Record (Vol. 67, March 1930, p. 244). In 1903, with an interest in mathematics and drawing and no formal training, she sought work in an architect's office in Sioux City, Iowa. After all the firms turned her down, she tenaciously went back to the offices that refused her. At Eisentrout, Colby & Pottenger, she recalled, “I talked and talked and at last I talked myself into a job.” Colby believed in her and made a bet with his partners. In 1909, she began her own practice in Kansas City and continued to 1965.
Peters firm specialized in apartment-hotels and was associated with builder and developer Charles Philips of the Philips Building Company from 1913 to 1948. They benefited from Kansas City's expanding housing needs due to a building hiatus imposed during World War I and a balooning population. Nelle E. Peters's signature design features several buildings grouped around a courtyard, which had two benefits. First, it allowed more windows per building and gave residents some green space. Second, since most of these hotels were built on speculation, individual buildings allowed the developer to pace each building with the rate that the new quarters were rented.
Along Broadway and Armour, we saw the Valentine Hotel (1927), Ambassador Hotel (1925) and the Ellison Apartments (1927). We then circled around and passed Roanoke Court (1923), which is a low-to-middle-income residential complex. At the end of the tour we saw the Poet District Buildings located on the Plaza - nine buildings named after poets built between 1928-1929.
Annie J. Scott (1876-unknown) grew up an orphan on a dairy farm. By age 14, she had enough saved to enroll herself in a teaching program at the State Normal School in Warrensburg, Missouri where she graduated in 1894. Three years later, she came to Kansas City to become a Methodist home missionary at the Scarritt Bible and Training School. Unfortunately, that same year she was hospitalized for work-related stress. She then refocused her energies and earned a degree in medicine at the University of Kansas in 1897, graduating third in her class. She then switched her energies again into real-estate.
In 1902, she invested $2000 into an 11-acre plot of land here at 43rd Street and State Line. She divided and sold the land earning $5000 net profit. She continued investing in land and began participating in all aspects of home building from drawing plans to overseeing material purchases and construction management. She even branched out and purchased her own stone quarry. From 1904 to 1909, she built and sold over 200 homes in the Kansas City area. She then married and retired from her professional life to focus on her family and her poor heath due to exhaustion. As we drove down the corridor between 43rd and 45th Street along State Line, the houses with foundations and first floors of stone are Scott's houses.
A. E. Evans (Amanda Elizabeth Evans Rivard) (1899-1988) was raised and educated in Lawrence, Kansas. Despite her ambition to study architecture, Evans enrolled in general studies at the University of Kansas. In 1916, due to a shortage of draftsmen, the university created new drafting classes for women and Evans took advantage of this opportunity. Her success in this course allowed for a summer internship as a drafter for MK&T Railroad in Parsons, Kansas. After returning to KU, she persuaded the chair of the Department of Architecture to allow her admission to the school with the declaration, “Let her in—she'll either sink or swim.” She won several university awards and awards from the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York. She spent her senior year internship at Hoit, Price & Barnes, the preeminent firm in Kansas City. However, despite their expanding firm, high-profile projects, and a national unemployment rate of only 3.3%, the firm was not able to offer her full-time employment after she graduated. She was the first woman to earn a Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Engineering at KU. She worked for R. J. Falkenberg, a residential design-build firm with a custom door and cabinet shop. In 1930, she married and continued her career on a part-time basis for another three years and retired to raise her three children.
Evans designed large, formal homes throughout Mission Hills, but toured through Westwood Hills to see the modest, intimate cottage homes that were closest to her heart. The AIA award that I mentioned earlier was for the house at 2024 West 49th Terrace completed in 1929. She built the house at 2101 West 49th Street for herself in 1926 and lived here until she passed away in February 1988. Many of her houses, such as 2108 and 2112 West 50th Street, tend to have a hard edge on one side with the other easing into the landscape, often with sleeping porches. The house at 2013 West 50th Street shows the basket weave brick detailing, one of her signatures.
Mary Rockwell Hook (1877-1978) was a lady-architect as Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman-architect—her social status made it inappropriate to accept payment for work. Mary was the middle daughter of five close-knit girls of a wealthy grain-trader in Junction City. Mary attended Dana Hall, a girl's preparatory school in Massachusetts. After graduating from Wellesley College in 1900, she traveled through Europe and to the Philippines where her uncle had been appointed military governor. She then met dignitaries with her father in Japan and China and stopped in Singapore, Ceylon, Malta, and the Suez Canal during her return travels. These travels inspired her to study architecture and in 1903, she enrolled at the the Art Institute in Chicago—the only woman in her architecture class. She continued her studies in 1905 at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Marcel Auburtin, who was engaged to (but never married) her sister, Kitty. Her sister Bertha married Italian architect Carlo Gino Venanzi. Although her father would not let her accept payment, she worked for Howe, Hoit & Cutler in 1907 (which would become Hoit, Price & Barnes after 1919). At the time, they were designing the “Corinthian Hall,” the Kansas City residence for lumberman Robert A. Long. After her studies were complete, she designed houses on lots that her father purchased. In 1921, at age 44, she married Ingram Hook, a Kansas City lawyer. After two years of marriage she tentatively asked her husband if he had “any objections” to her “doing architecture professionally.” With his blessing, she lead her own firm, Hook & Remington from 1924-1928 with her friend, Mac Remington.
We looked at a few of her early houses in the Sunset Hills area. The first house at 1004 West 52nd Street(1908-1909) was designed for her family. The columned portico demonstrates the Beaux-Arts influence, however the asymmetrical facade points to Rockwell's characteristic shifting planes that follow the contours of the site. The attic level contains a theater where the family would perform plays for each other.
Rockwell was the first Kansas City architect to incorporate natural terrain into the design of the house, which is demonstrated in the facade of 5011 Sunset Drive (1922-23). This house shares a backyard with two other houses which she designed for herself and her family. Stone from the site was incorporated into both the interior and exterior. The house at 4940 Summit Street was the first house to have a private swimming pool in Kansas City, which capitalized on the hole left from removing rocks from the site to use for the construction of the houses.
The Great Depression curtailed the careers of most architects of the early twentieth century—both male and female. Scott, Evans, and Rockwell retired to assume traditional roles within the home. Peters supplemented her design work as a seamstress, painted china and watercolors, wrote and sold crossword puzzles, and also became a published poet. As one of the most prolific architects of Kansas City, Peters died in obscurity in 1967 with virtually no acknowledgment of her accomplishments—she had not had an architectural commission in nearly 11 years.
Overall, the tour was a great way to acknowledge the contributions of Peters and her fellow women architects who persevered and contributed to the built environment of Kansas City.
Gayle L. Goudy earned a PhD in art history from the University of Oregon in 2010 with a dissertation on the work of Hoit, Price & Barnes. She will be a visiting instructor at the University of South Carolina in 2011-2012. Contact her via email at gaylegoudy (at) gmail.com.