Sophia Hayden designed the Women’s Building for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. It was beautiful, admired, and won an award, and even though she had an architecture degree from MIT, Sophia didn’t pursue her career as an architect after the Fair.
Sophia Gregoria Hayden was born on October 17, 1868, in Santiago, Chile, to Elezena Fernandez, from Peru, and George Henry Hayden, an American dentist from New England. When she was six, Sophie was sent to Boston to live with her paternal grandparents. She attended the Hillside school in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood and West Roxbury High School, where she became interested in architecture.
In 1886, Sophia became the first woman admitted to the architecture program at MIT and in 1890, graduated with honors. The program was developed by Eugène Létang, using principles from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and included planning of buildings and production of watercolor renderings, but also basic structural engineering. Unable to find a job in her chosen field, she began teaching mechanical drawing at a Boston high school.
In 1891, Sophia entered a competition to design the women’s building for the World’s Fair and won. The competition, advertised as “An Unusual Opportunity for Women Architects”, was sponsored by the Board of Lady Managers for the fair. She was paid $1000 for her design even though men were receiving $10,000 for similar work.
Daniel Burnham, the architect responsible for the overall design and construction of the fair, was pleased with her work and Sophia traveled to Chicago to complete the detailed scale drawings. She was paid $1500 for the work (and as you might expect men doing the same work were paid three to ten times more.) Although Burnham handled the actual construction, Sophia was involved in every aspect of the design, both interior and exterior. It was exacting work, but the Women’s Building was the first to begin construction and first to be completed.
The atmosphere was tense. Prior to the competition, the Board of Lady Managers had prevented the construction of a design by a rival organization, so there was pressure to justify this decision. Generally of good temper, Sophia was put to the test. Although she usually was able to implement her plans, she received a lot of pressure to incorporate elements that she deemed inappropriate for the design. The President of the Board of Lady Managers, Bertha Honoré Palmer, was a well-known socialite and philanthropist. In her capacity as President, she solicited donations from wealthy women to adorn the exterior and the interior of the Women’s Building. Sophia felt that many of these items would be inconsistent with her vision for the building and rejected them. Bertha’s decision to accept them held sway. Regardless of Sophia’s expert design, Mrs. Potter Palmer had more influence than a 23 year old woman from the east.
The pressure took its toll and Sophia didn’t supervise the final details. It was rumored that she had a “nervous collapse.” In The Devil in the White City, Larson says that Sophia was taken from the park to a sanitarium by an ambulance for a period of rest. According to Beasley, Palmer fired Sophia and replaced her with Candace Wheeler for the final interior design details. Regardless, she did return for the dedication of the building in October 1892, but did not return to the fair afterwards.
Although Sophia received an award for the “delicacy of style, artistic taste, and geniality and elegance of the interior hall”, she was also criticized for the femininity of her design at the same time her technical skills were acknowledged. Architect Henry Van Brunt said of the building that its “graceful timidity or gentleness, combined however with evident technical knowledge, at once differentiate[s] it from its colossal neighbors, and reveal[s] the sex of its author.”
The American Architect and Building News said that her “nervous collapse” gave “a much more telling argument against the wisdom of women entering this especial profession than anything else could.” Others thought her “frustration” was “evidence” of women’s “unfitness for supervising construction.” Whether or not her experience at the fair was the reason, Sophia didn’t work as an architect again.
In 1900, Sophia married William Blackstone Bennett, an artist and interior designer with one daughter from a previous marriage. They lived a quiet life in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Widowed in 1913, Sophia remained in Winthrop and census records list her occupation as artist. In 1953, she died of pneumonia at the Winthrop Convalescent Home.
In 1894, Sophia designed a memorial for women’s clubs in the United States, but it was never built. And like most of the other buildings of the fair, the women’s building was a temporary structure and was torn down. So, there is no standing legacy to her architectural talent.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
The First American Women Architects by Sarah Allaback
Notable American women, The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary, eds. Sicherman, Green, et al.
“Women in Design: Sophia Hayden (1868 – 1953)” by Soodie Beasley