Telling (Her)Story: Women Designers in Rhode Island

This tour focuses on the design-related work of women in Rhode Island from the late 19th century to the present day, exploring how women—as individuals and in collectives—practiced design in ways that were often oriented toward social progress and change. Women fulfilled an array of important roles as activists, entrepreneurs, inventors, and leaders. In confronting expectations of domesticity in a patriarchal society, these women gained recognition within their communities and took on an active role in changing their communities for the better.

Their stories have faded over the years, but archival resources in the region enable us to uncover the details of their activities: early professional women’s organization and networking; their right to vote; the development of feminist pedagogy within architectural practice; the struggle for gaining respect and recognition as professionals in their fields of design; education reform; the employment of World War I veterans; philanthropy; low-income housing; ecological conservation; sustainable development; and the planning of urban public spaces.

The locations visited on this tour—places where these women lived, worked, and organized, as well as aspects of the built and material environments that they designed—represent various spaces carved out by women of disparate social classes, with a shared emphasis on collaboration and gender equity. Given the fact that women’s work and recognition are less likely to survive in the historical record, built or otherwise, we focus on the spaces and ways in which women networked, shared ideas, and held dialogues to foster social and creative growth, in sites defined by collaboration rather than steel beams and concrete. Taking an expansive approach to both the concept of design and the idea of site, the tour brings these women’s diverse stories together to demonstrate the essential ways in which they have shaped Rhode Island.

A New Kind of School for Women

From August 13–26, 1978, 78 women from 17 states as well as Canada gathered at Roger Williams College (today Roger Williams University) in Bristol, RI, to discuss the integration of values and identities they held both as women and as designers.…

From Trash to Treasure

On any given summer day in the city of Providence, you’re likely to notice a steady flow of people—Rhode Island locals, university students, families and young children—making their way down North Main Street towards Wickenden St., in the Fox…

A House Designed for Architects (Demolished)

What should an architect’s new house look like in an historic neighborhood? This is the question that Margaret B. Kelly and J. Peter Geddes had to address when they were designing 29 Manning Street in the 1930s. The small, two-story, brick house…

A Shell for Knowledge at Mary C. Wheeler School

Frances Henley’s involvement in the construction of Wheeler School in Providence can be interpreted as a means of positioning herself in the collective memory of the city by linking her name with the values of education. Both Henley and Mary Colman…

The Legacy of the Rochambeau House

The house was named for Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807), the French General who fought alongside George Washington in several critical endeavors—including the siege of Yorktown and the Battle of the Chesapeake—in…

A Passion for Planning and Preservation

It might be hard to imagine that Benefit Street hasn’t always been considered a special historic area. Many groups worked for years to protect, preserve, and improve the architecture and historic character of the neighborhood. One woman, Margaret…

Historic Preservation in Miniature

“Over ten years ago, two women, both lovers of antique Colonial furniture, decided to popularize its beauty by making artistically perfect, made-to-scale doll’s furniture. Equipped with a child’s circular saw, they opened a tiny shop in the…

A Home on the Hill for Handicrafts

In 1904, ten women gathered together, led by former school teacher Julia Lippitt Mauran, to form a club in Providence devoted to “the promotion of interest in all kinds of handicraft and to provide a place where such work could be done.” This…

Ghost Architecture

The structure, six stories of Second Empire architecture, was the largest private building in the area when it was built at 55 Exchange Place in 1872, which had by 1893 had changed to 123 Westminster. (The Superman Building, which currently occupies…

Frances E. Henley and the Wilcox Building

In 1893, the talented and ambitious young Frances Evelyn Henley, refused to make a career in teaching, as suggested by her parents. Instead she chose to enroll at the Rhode Island School of Design, not in the decorative art department as one might…

Frances E. Henley and Providence Plantations Club

How to become respected and how to keep your femininity when doing a male's job? This was quite a burden for Rhode Island's first female architect, starting 1897 when she graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. Henley was probably…

A Touch of Modernity at Classical High School

Have you ever imagined yourself juggling six children’s needs, housework, and professional career? It may sound like a bit of a challenge; yet, these two women, Sarah (“Sally”) Harkness, a mother of seven, and Jean B. Fletcher, a mother of six,…

A. and L. Tirocchi Gowns

The Tirocchis began their dressmaking business downtown, and in only four years amassed enough elite clientele to move shop.The building they had been working in was beautiful, but it was also surrounded by the hustle and bustle of traffic, competing…

Women Building Buildings for Women

In 1978, three women engaged in a conversation about the role women professionals could play in changing women’s lives. Within 16 months, they had started a business: the Women’s Development Corporation. Katrin Adam, Susan Aitcheson, and Joan…

Elizabeth G. Pattee and her Ecology of Design

Upon entering the nineteenth-century stable that is now 48 Crestwood Road during the Great Depression, a visitor to the old Waterhouse estate ‘on the hill’ which lies between Warwick and East Greenwich would have found a gloomy, cavernous space.…

A Dash of Modernism In the Middle of the Woods

If you walk into the woods of East Greenwich, you would hear the shouts and laughter of children from the forest. Where is the sound coming from? A few more steps later, you would encounter not Hansel and Gretel's House, but surprisingly, a…