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 Sophia Hayden Bennett  (1868 - 1953)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/Illinois / Chile      Known for: architectural design

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Sophia Hayden Bennett (October 17, 1868 – February 3, 1953) was the first woman to receive an architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Bennett was born in Santiago, Chile. Her mother was Chilean and her father was an American dentist from Boston. When she was six she was sent to Boston to live with her grandparents. In high school she found an interest for architecture. She graduated from MIT in 1890 with a degree in architecture, with honors. She is best known for designing the Woman's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1892, designing the building when she was just 21. She received $1,000 at the time for the design, when male architects earned $10,000 for similar buildings. Bennett died in 1953 in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

After completing her studies Hayden may have had a hard time finding an entry level apprentice position as an architect because she was a woman so she accepted a position as a mechanical drawing teacher at a Boston high school. In 1891 she learned about a design competition. Women were invited to submit architectural drawings for the Woman's Building planned for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

Hayden's design won the competition. During construction, Hayden's design principles were compromised by incessant changes demanded by the construction committee, especially by the demands of Bertha Honore, head of the Fair's Board of Lady Managers, which governed all aspects of the fair having to do with women. As the wife of Potter Palmer and one of the most influenctial persons in Chicago at that time, she is described as "accustomed by wealth and absolute social dominance to having her own way" (Larson 142). 

Early summer of 1891, Hayden went to Chicago, leaving her final drawings with the Fair's managing architect, Daniel Burnham. She returned the following December and discovered that Bertha Palmer, especially receptive to prominent women, had re-directed her plans and had issued a general invitation to women everywhere to donate architectural ornaments for the building.  The response was columns, panels, sculpted figures, windows, doors and other exterior objects.  Hayden, sensing "aesthetic abomination" was furious, and declined many of the donations.  Palmer lobbied for assigning the building design to another woman, and Hayden walked into Burnham's office and had an emotional outburst.  Burnham was shocked and called for a doctor, and Hayden was driven away, described as having "melancholia" or mental depression.

Her frustration eventually was pointed to as typifying women's unfitness for supervising construction, although many architects sympathized with her position and defended her. In the end the rifts were made up, perhaps, and Hayden's building received an award for "Delicacy or style, artistic taste, and geniality and elegance of the interior."

Within a year or two, virtually all the Fair buildings were destroyed. Frustrated with the way she had been treated, Hayden may or may not have decided to retired from architecture, but she did not work again as an architect. Eight years later she married an artist, William Blackstone Bennett. She worked as an artist for years and lived a quiet life in Winthrop, Massachusetts until her death in 1953.

"Sophia Hayden Bennett", Wikipedia, //
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Sophia Hayden Bennett was born in 1868 in South America. She entered MIT in 1886 and in 1890, became the first woman to receive a degree in architecture from the Institute. The following year, she entered a design competition for a Woman's Building to depict the place of woman in the world of art for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

There is a striking resemblance between Bennett's thesis project for a A Fine Arts Museum and the Woman's Building. Both feature an Italian Renaissance detailing, straight-forward massing, and both make use of projecting pavilions and skylights. Eugène Létang's influence on her work is apparent. The similarities are also apparent in the plans. Both are compact and feature devices such as projecting and recessed pavilions.

Of the many buildings designed by former MIT students, the Woman's Building was quite significant in that all aspects of the building were planned by women. While the design of the building was not unusual for its time, the concept was. The Board of Lady Managers, headed by Mrs. Potter Palmer, not only held a competition and designated their architect, but women artists and artisans also carried out the decorative program, with notable artists like Mary Cassatt responsible for the murals.

"Sophia Hayden Bennett", Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (Accessed 3/4/2013)

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