By Johanna Hays. McFarland, January 2014. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780786476763 (pbk.), $40.00.
Reviewed July 2014
Louise “Jennie” Blanchard Bethune (1856-1913) was the first woman in the United States to become a professional architect, establishing her own practice in Buffalo, New York, in 1881. The successful firm she founded with her husband, Robert Armour Bethune, whom she married in 1881, became known as Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs in 1883, and produced more than a hundred schools, residences, and institutional, industrial, and commercial buildings. Elected to the American Institute of Architects in 1888, Bethune became a Fellow in 1889.
In writing the first monograph on Bethune, historian Johanna Hays relied largely on contemporary journals and directories as records of her reputation and buildings. Accounts of the architect’s public lectures survive, but no drawings or personal papers. Bethune has an American National Biography Online entry, but little else has been published about her, likely because so few documents of her career have survived. She is mainly noted for her unusual status as a woman architect who maintained a private practice during the nineteenth century, mentioned in histories of Buffalo architecture and studies of women architects. Hays includes a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, extensive notes, and an appendix listing documented buildings designed by Bethune—of which less than a quarter still existed in 2010.
Pioneer though she was, Bethune did not ally herself with the nascent women’s movement and chose not to apply when the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition sought a woman architect to design the Woman’s Building—protesting “ghettoization” before the term existed. Instead, she argued for equal pay for women architects, and introduced technological innovations in plumbing, power, ventilation, and safety.
This book began as Hays’ 2007 dissertation on Bethune for Auburn University, and its academic writing style bears evidence of those origins. The illustrations are sparse and generally of poor quality. This is partly attributable to Bethune’s era—only one known image exists of the architect herself. However, many Bethune buildings still exist, including her most prominent, the Hotel Lafayette, pictured on the cover. Surely some new photography could have been done to establish stronger visual references for Bethune’s architectural style. Published by McFarland, the book as a whole would have benefited from higher production values in editing, design, and photography. (For those seeking color images of the Hotel Lafayette, another book on Bethune, The Hotel Lafayette, Restoring Louise Bethune’s Masterpiece, was self-published this year by Buffalo photographer Jacqueline Albarella.)
Despite its limitations, this book is valuable for Hays’ careful research into Bethune’s career and for its contributions to the historical literature on the practice of American architecture during the nineteenth century.
© 2014 ARLIS/NA