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Credit: Kylie Cooper

The Architectural Archives at Penn's Stuart Weitzman School of Design received a $300,000 grant for its exhibition, “What Minerva Built,” which will feature the story of Minerva Parker Nichols, a revolutionary woman architect based in Philadelphia.

Nichols was the first independent woman architect in the United States with an office in Philadelphia and commissions nationwide, according to a press release from the School of Design. While centered around the contemporary and archival materials of Nichols' work, the interdisciplinary project will also address questions about collecting, preserving, and writing history against the backdrop of contemporary cultural change. 

“We are deeply grateful for the support of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in introducing Minerva to a wider audience and documenting her work for future generations,” School of Design Dean Fritz Steiner told the School of Design. “Sadly, it’s as true today as it was in her time that women are massively underrepresented in architecture. We need more Minervas.”

"What Minerva Built" is the result of a decade of research by architectural historian and preservation planner Molly Lester, lead scholar and co-curator for the show. Despite Nichols' legacy, much of her work is omitted from the story of Philadelphia’s built environment and broader historical assessments, according to the press release.

Born in rural Illinois in 1862, Nichols was inspired by her mother and grandfather to pursue building and architecture. She studied architecture at the Franklin Institute Drawing School and later went on to work in the office of a residential architect before becoming the first independent women architect in the country, with an office at 14 South Broad Street.

The opening of her own office in 1888 drew attention from across Philadelphia, and her death in 1949 warranted a headlined obituary in The New York Times, according to the press release.

Nichols commissions included dozens of private residences, the New Century Club of Philadelphia, and the unbuilt Queen Isabella Association Pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, according to the press release. Nichols, who worked during the early suffrage movement, also had many clients who were women.

A large body of Nichols' work remains unknown and most of her surviving commissions are private residences, according to the press release. “What Minerva Built” will feature new photography of Nichols’ remaining commissions, creating an archive of her work.

“Thinking about the blind spots in design history is a compelling and important topic,” curatorial team leader William Whitaker told the School of Design. “Collections like the one we have at Penn — despite their great depth and significance — reflect on the practices that have resulted in the erasure of stories like Minerva’s. 'What Minerva Built' provides us with an opportunity to explore new ways of collecting, exhibiting, and thinking about our relationship with the past in the work that we do.”

According to the press release, the exhibition is expected to open in October 2022 in the Kroiz Gallery of the Architectural Archives, located on the lower level of the Fisher Fine Arts Building.