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The Elusive Archive

Despina Stratigakos—

How I wish this book had existed when I was a student pursuing the fugitive histories of women architects! In the 1990s publications on women in architecture were rare, and few libraries had them on their bookshelves. When I traveled to Europe to begin dissertation research on Germany’s first women architects, I planned to visit archives and then write about what I had found. I never expected that their shelves would be bare as well.

For months, I traveled from archive to archive, only to hear the same response: we have no collections on women architects. With my funding running out, I worried that I would have to change my dissertation topic. How could I write about women architects if their traces were nowhere to be found in the archives?

Determined not to give up, I hunted for alternative sources. I pieced together personal and professional histories through flea market finds, family heirlooms and stories, women’s magazines, association newsletters, school records, and more. Whenever possible, I turned to the buildings themselves and their occupants, who sometimes possessed knowledge passed down from one owner to the next. I even bothered the neighbors, hoping they might remember long-gone builders and residents.

Archives themselves provided important contextual information: property records, directories, building codes, and so forth. In Berlin, where entire neighborhoods were destroyed by bombers during the Second World War, plans of nonextant buildings were transferred from municipal building offices to the regional archive. This made access to plans easier but did not change the fact that many of the buildings I sought were gone, erased from the landscape like the women who had designed them.

As I met the children and grandchildren of women architects, another archival hurdle arose: Families sometimes entrusted me with valuable historical materials, including family photographs and, in one case, an entire student portfolio. Where could these documents go? Finding archives to take them became an unforeseen extension of my work.

Today, in the United States, the number of local, university and regional archives that actively seek to collect materials on early women architects remains small. As a result, their histories are still largely unknown in the very places and contexts where they worked. Curious students continue the cycle of searching for answers, visiting archives, and leaving empty-handed.

Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect aims to address many of these challenges by reimagining the role of the archive as an active agent in the production of women’s architectural histories. Alongside its more traditionally understood function as a repository for found historical collections, the archive becomes a dynamic generator of new knowledge as well as a space to reflect critically on its own practices.

The project emerged from the decade-long research on Minerva Parker Nichols undertaken by architectural historian and preservation planner Molly Lester. For the exhibition, Lester collaborated with co-curators Elizabeth Felicella, an architectural photographer; Heather Isbell Schumacher, archivist at the Architectural Archives at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania; and William Whitaker, curator of the Architectural Archives. This interdisciplinary team consulted with local and visiting experts; investigated and mapped buildings; commissioned new archival objects, including Felicella’s photographs; and organized public programming to accompany the exhibition. The PewCenter for Arts and Heritage generously supported their efforts.

I hope that this innovative and exciting project becomes a model for other cities and archives. Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect reveals how histories of women architects can be recovered through creative and dedicated teamwork. Across our national landscape, many more such histories await the sleuths and storytellers to give them form.

Despina Stratigakos is an architectural historian, writer, and professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo.

From Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect, with contributions by Heather Isbell Schumacher, Molly Lester, Franca Trubiano and William Whitaker and a Foreword by Despina Stratigakos. Distributed by Yale University Press for the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania. Reproduced with permission.

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