Sophia Hayden: Architect of the Women’s Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

Women’s Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893 (cropped, source for original)

Women’s Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893 (cropped, source for original)

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.

Sophia Hayden c. 1892 (source)

Sophia Hayden c. 1892 (source)

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 c. 1890 (source)

Daniel Burnham c. 1890 (source)

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.

Bertha Honoré Palmer (source)

Bertha Honoré Palmer (source)

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

12 thoughts on “Sophia Hayden: Architect of the Women’s Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

  1. Interesting. Sad that Potter Palmer was so insensitive to the obstacles Sophia was trying to overcome. Mrs. Palmer was a tough, astute financier who was a substantial force in the development of Chicago and is worth a post or three herself. Te issue of women being trained then not working in the field (particularly in medicine) was still a subject much discussed when I was young back in the forties and fifties of the last century.

    • I’ll have to see if I can find out more about Mrs. Palmer. She does sound interesting. Quite a few of the women scientists I’ve read about had difficulty finding work and ended up working as assistants far below their ability level or working without pay just to be able to stay in the field. From what I’ve read, I don’t think it even started to change until WWII when there weren’t enough men to fill the positions. I’m sure there are far more than I’m aware of though. Thanks Gerald.

      • WWII didn’t really change much because as soon as the men returned home, the women were expected to go back to domestic concerns. When my mother went to work as a medical librarian in 1950 it was highly controversial in our western suburb of Chicago. The attitude that women should not be trained as doctors, etc was based on the idea that most women would get married and retire from the workforce to have children. The numerous widows and other single women were discounted as a result. That argument continued on into the sixties. By the seventies another generation of men were taking over and they were more open to possibilities, if not fair. The disparity continues even unto the present.

        • Interesting to hear you “talk” about your mother’s experience. My own mother worked from a young age, but in jobs that were traditionally filled by women, in a textile mill, then as a secretary. Then I was in the next generation you mention. Even though I was in the minority, in mathematics and then the telecom industry, jobs were open to me. I do remember overhearing a male colleague mention his salary and being shocked at how much more he made than I did, but the telecom industry was fairly progressive. I also got a huge “equity” raise at some point in the early 90s. But you’re right, the disparity continues for many. I love hearing about your experience. Thanks for the dialogue!

          • Making a comment or two is the least I can do in thanks for your great contributions. I have often tried to emphasize a couple points. First, how greatly things have changed just in my lifetime. ( I was born in 1938.) Second, how many things we take as true are ridiculous oversimplifications.

            I forgot to mention above, for instance, that Mom’s women friends were more critical than the men. The common thread was “Lester (my Dad) makes a good living. (Very definitely.) So why do you need to work? Leave the jobs for men supporting families.” My grandmother and two aunts lived in Chicago and were “Rosie the riveters” in airplane factories during WWII. There was nothing to spend that extra income on, as factories had been converted to war production. So in 1946-1950 there was terrific inflation as these accumulated dollars were spent on washing machines, cars, bicycles, toys, etc. For families like ours that inflation hurt a great deal. So there was another incentive for Mom to go to work, along with two boys (older brothers) entering university. Like I said, generalizations are just so much fog.

            In business I tried to promote women as I had opportunity, still fighting a bit of headwind from other men in the upper echelons. Just look at the I love Lucy episodes and then remember that she was one of the first to won her won production companies. Desi may have been unfaithful, a Latin womanizer, but he recognized the brains and acumen of his partner. Lucy set the stage for others, like Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett who also profited handsomely from ownership. It’s too bad there isn’t a common theme in college courses re sexual politics, esp as it pertains to the workforce. Remember the wars, Civil and WWI and WWIIC reated many widows and eliminated millions of potential mates forcing women into the workforce in huge numbers

            Sorry to ramble on so. Please keep up the great work.


          • Ramble all you like! And you are right. It is easy to over-simplify things, especially in short blog posts. There have always been women who had to work and did, but that hasn’t always been recognized. And there have always been men who were supportive, like you and Desi 🙂 Even in my generation, many women were raised with the assumption that they would get married and have kids and not have to work. But life doesn’t always work out that way. Because my mom lost her father at the age of 12 and had to go to work, she was determined that we would all go to college and be able to support ourselves. (I’m the oldest of three girls.) I am fortunate that my dad was in agreement.

  2. I was given a woman’s building pendant from my great, great, great grandmother. The other side has was seems to be initials!?! Does anyone know how I go about researching this??? I’m not having any luck!

    • Molly, can you describe it in a little more detail? Is the building identified, or is there a date on it? What are the initials? Don’t know if I can help, but maybe someone can.

        • I guess I will try again!

          The pendant is a penny sized coin with the picture on the original Woman’s Building on it (from what I can tell) on one side. The word WOMAN’S in written above the building and BUILDING is written below it. On the other side looks like initials, from what I can tell, it looks like F R H. I don’t know what kind of metal it is, but I know it is not silver or gold. On the top is a small open circle, where a solid looking paperclip is attached. My guess is that it was used to string through a necklace.

          I am 47 years old and just inherited a lot of old coins from my mom (76 years old). I am not into coins or antiques, but most of them are from the 1800’s or early 1900’s. There was a $200 coin, and $20 gold coin, and many other coins that a friend told me may be worth something?!? I don’t think the pendant is worth anything, but has caught my attention, as it was in one of the coin purses. I’m sure it has a neat story behind it. I had never heard of a Woman’s Building before finding this pendant. I am learning a little from google.

          Thanks for any input you may have, I appreciate your time and interest!

          • Molly, I’ll see what I can dig up. I don’t know much about coins either, but it sounds like it may have been a momento of some sort. I imagine there were other women’s buildings at expositions and the initials may help us figure out which one. Please let me know what you find out, and I’ll do the same.

  3. I did talk to my dad today (78 years old) and explained what I had found out on the internet and the Woman’s Building. He said he does remember his grandfather and grandmother talking about going to the world fair in Chicago. (Most of the coins I inherited come from my dad’s family. ) They originally immigrated from the Netherlands in their young twenties and started a successful business in Holland Michigan. They did travel all over the world and the timing seems about right. My guess is that it a souvenir my dad’s grandmother purchased from their trip. Their names were Gerbrand and Minnie Buis. That is probably all of the story I will ever get. I may get a chain and wear it once in awhile!!!

    Thanks again for your help!!!

Tell us what you think.