Atlantic Cities
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Remembering America's First Female Architect

Remembering America's First Female Architect
Library of Congress

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Louise Blanchard Bethune was born on today's date 157 years ago. In fact, she was born on July 21, 1856. We regret the error.

Louise Blanchard Bethune was the first American woman known to have worked as a professional architect.

Bethune started her practice in 1881, opening shop in Buffalo at the age of 25 with her husband. Seven years later, she became the first female associate of the American Institute of Architects. 

Bethune had the chance to compete in a design competition for the 1891 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but unfair treatment to women led her to decline participation. Male contestants for the Fair's structures were paid $10,000 for their designs while women were offered $1,000.

Designing mostly industrial and public buildings in Buffalo, Bethune received her greatest commission in 1902, for the opulent Hotel Lafayette (top), a building eventually listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. 


The fully renovated interior in the Hotel Lafayette. Image courtesy Flickr user BeckyCG72.


The Hotel Lafayette today. Image courtesy Flickr user Reading Tom.

Long after Bethune's death in 1913, the building eventually fell into decades of neglectful ownership and disinvestment, becoming a highly visible symbol of her city's decline. Last year, the building reopened as a boutique hotel with lofts, retail, and restaurants, a more appropriate reflection of Bethune's vision.

The city has given her another posthumous gift of sorts through the renovation of a former industrial building reopening as the "Bethune Lofts" this summer. Although she didn't design it, the Buffalo Meter Building (built in 1915) was renamed "Bethune Hall" in her honor by SUNY Buffalo's department of art when it moved into the building in 1970. It too faced years of disinvestment after the department moved to the suburbs in the early '90s.


The former Bethune Hall being renovated into lofts in 2012. Image courtesy Pubdog/Wikimedia Commons.

America's first professional woman architect didn't get to see the demise of her work (or her city) in the late 20th century, but anyone who admired Bethune and what she represented should be pleased to see the only city in which she practiced architecture bringing her legacy and her name back to life a century after death.

Top image: Hotel Lafayette, 1908. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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