Happy Birthday Sophia Hayden (1868 – 1953)

Born in Santiago, Chile on October 17, 1868. Her father was an American from New England and her mother was South American. When Sophia was six, she was sent to Boston, Massachusetts to live with her paternal grandparents. She became interested in architecture in high school. In 1886 she was the first woman to be accepted to the architecture program at MIT; she graduated with honors in 1890.


Front elevation of Hayden’s thesis project: A Fine Arts Museum, 1890. (from MIT)

Floor Plan and Section, 1890. (from MIT)

 After graduating, Sophia could not find employment as an architect; she accepted a position teaching drawing at a Boston high school. The following year, she entered a design competition for the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Her design was for the Woman’s Building — a structure given to various social causes such as church groups, temperance societies, a model hospital ward and kindergarten, a sanitary kitchen and a library. It was also to house exhibitions of embroidery, knitting, lace, fans and crockery. Sophia won the competition with her design of a three-story, white building in the Italian Renaissance-Revival style with arches and columned terraces. For this she was paid a modest sum of $1,000 for her design, while men who one competitions for the fair were paid 10 times as much.


Exterior of The Women’s Building, period photograph (1894?) Boston College Digital Archive

Sophia traveled to Chicago to produce the final drawings, leaving the execution to Daniel Burnham. Burnham was very pleased with her work describing her as having great adaptability and being a hard worker. She returned six months later to direct the interior and exterior designs of the buildings. At that same time, she discovered another woman was involved in the project. Her name was Bertha Palmer, and she had other ideas.

 Bertha Honoré Palmer (1849-1918) Chicago History Museum

A statuesque socialite with well-coiffured wavy hair, Bertha Palmer was a power to be reckoned with. She was not easy to approach. She demanded calling cards be passed scrutinized and screened by several of her servants before any visitor could speak with her. Being of Huguenot descent, no one ever contradicted her. But that was to change once she met the twenty-one year old Sophia.

 Officers of Board of Lady Managers, portraits of 10 women. Key: 1. President Mrs. Potter Palmer 2. Mrs. Ralph Trautman 3. Mrs. Edwin C. Burleigh 4. Mrs. Charles Price 5. Mrs. Katherline L. Minor 6. Mrs. Beriah Wilkins 7. Mrs. Flora Beall Ginty 8.Mrs. Russell B. Harrison 9. Mrs. V.C. Merideth. 10.Susan Gale Cooke. 1896. (image via the Field Museum‘s flicker account.)


Mrs. Palmer was elected President of The Board of Lady Managers for the 1893 Fair. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Mrs. Palmer (née Honoré) met her husband, a wealthy dry goods owner, while she was shopping in Chicago with her mother. Potter Palmer was 23 years her senior. He moved into real estate and became immensely wealthy. Mrs. Palmer enjoyed their North Side mansion with a roof-top ballroom and picture gallery filled with Impressionist paintings she brought back from Paris. She also loved diamond jewelry.

Paul V Galvin Library: The book of the Fair

For Sophia’s building, Mrs. Palmer had invited prominent women to donate architectural elements to adorn the building. Mrs. Palmer believed the building would be better with these donations. Sophia disagreed. A mishmash of elements would dilute her vision, her concept and overall design aesthetic. As the doors, window grilles, columns, wood paneling, balustrades, slabs of onyx and black marble, granite steps, sculpted figures, and tapestries came pouring in, Sophia turned each one down. This hurt the feelings of the high-society donors, which didn’t sit very well with Mrs. Palmer. Sophia explained to Mrs. Palmer her schematic program for the structure — the exterior and interior — and why these random donated elements would not work. But Mrs. Palmer wouldn’t hear of it. She fired Sophia from the project and reassigned the final decoration to Candace Wheeler.

Paul V Galvin Library: The book of the Fair

Sophia walked into Burnham’s office, described what happened and from exhaustion began to cry. Burnham quickly called a doctor. Sophia was placed in an ambulance and driven away with the rubber wheels quietly crunching along the gravel road towards the sanitarium. Sophia was said to have a “… violent attack of high nervous excitement of the brain.”

(top image from Penn Libraries.)

The Board of Lady Managers ended up awarding Sophia a gold medal “for delicacy of style, artistic taste, and geniality and elegance of the interior hall.” There was a dedication ceremony for the buildings, but Sophia wasn’t there. Rumors began to spread that she suffered a mental breakdown, which plainly indicated why women should stay at home and not wander into the realm of men.

Critics dealt her another blow when they insisted the building was too feminine. One said regardless of her technical knowledge, the structure with its “graceful timidity or gentleness” was clearly designed by a woman.

The Women’s Building was torn down after the Exposition ended. Sophia, frustrated with the way she had been treated, retired from architecture. She later married William Blackstone Bennett, an artist. Sophia never designed another building after the 1893 fair, and lived a quiet life in Massachusetts until her death in 1953.

(first image: Exterior of The Women’s Building, period photograph, Boston College Digital Archive; second image: MIT)