For many years I’ve been fascinated by the World’s Columbian Exposition (the official name of the Chicago World’s Fair), held in Chicago from May 1 to October 30, 1893.

I own a photograph booklet of all the buildings and at least one antique magazine with contemporary articles and photos of it, I’ve read The Devil in the White City, and numerous other books regarding the Exposition. Although I’m familiar with some of the buildings constructed (and then demolished) for the Fair, and some of the noted architects involved in creating them, I did not realize that the Women’s Building was, in fact, created by a female architect.

Miss Sophia G. Hayden was not only the first woman to graduate with a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was only 22 when she won the contest to design the Women’s Building.

From Chile to MIT

A black and white profile picture of Sophia Hayden Bennett looking to the left side of the frame.Sophia Hayden was born in Chile to Elezena Fernandez, and George Henry Hayden, who was an American dentist from Boston. She moved to Boston to live with her grandparents when she was six and there she attended Boston schools. Her family moved to Virginia after she graduated high school, but Sophia returned to Boston to attend MIT. She graduated from the school in 1890 with a degree in architecture, with honors. She was the first female graduate of MIT’s four-year architecture program.

Francis Walker, president of MIT at that time, was also the chairman of the state commission on the World’s Fair, so Sophia may have heard about the contest from him. He considered her an excellent student and claimed she was, “competent to build a railroad bridge, if necessary, as she has gone thoroughly into her work.”

“An Unusual Opportunity for Women Architects” was the headline of the contest, and it stated it was an, “advertisement to women architects for the design and construction of a public building.” Sophia was working as a mechanical drawing teacher at the Eliot School (still in operation today) when she applied for the contest.

The rules for the contest were many and strict:

The general outline of the building must follow closely the accompanying sketch plans, the extreme dimensions not exceeding two hundred by four hundred feet; exterior to be of some simple and definite style, classic lines preferred; the general effect of color to be in light tints. Staff, stucco, wood, iron, and equivalents to be used as building material, with discretion as to the disposition and ornamentation, so as not to render the building too costly. First story, eighteen feet high; second story, twenty-five foot high…

A poster advertising the World's Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893. The middle of the image showcases some of the buildings constructed for the Fair. At the bottom of the image, there is a key that labels three of the buildings: 1. Electrical Building, 2. Hall of Mines, and 3. Wisconsin State Building.

The Board of Lady Managers

The Board of Lady Managers were in charge of the Women’s Building and the exhibits that would be housed within it, and they wanted a building that would, “direct attention to [woman’s] progress and development, and her increased usefulness in the arts, sciences, manufactures, and industries of the world during the past four hundred years.”

The very act of hosting a competition of women architects for the design of the building was to highlight the achievements of women, since there currently wasn’t a pool of distinguished female architects from which to choose. It was felt the competition would draw attention to this newly-opened career for women.

board of lady managers

Portraits of the ten Officers of Board of Lady Managers. Key: 1. President Mrs. Potter Palmer 2. Mrs. Ralph Trautman 3. Mrs. Edwin C. Burleigh 4. Mrs. Charles Price 5. Mrs. Katherline L. Minor 6. Mrs. Beriah Wilkins 7. Mrs. Flora Beall Ginty 8.Mrs. Russell B. Harrison 9. Mrs. V.C. Merideth. 10.Susan Gale Cooke. (1896. Image courtesy of the Field Museum.)

On March 24, 1891, several drawings from female applicants were put in front of Mrs. Potter Palmer, head of the Lady Managers. The numbers were whittled down to five or six excellent applications; from these, Mrs. Palmer found one that had, “that harmony of grouping and gracefulness of detail which indicated the architectural scholar.” This was Sophia Hayden and the competition was closed.

She was informed of the Lady Managers’ choice and told she had won the first prize of $1,000 and that we would be needed in Chicago immediately. (Although this was a great deal of money for the time, she was paid 3 to 10 times less than male architects in the Exposition.) She resigned her post at the Eliot School and headed west. Winning first prize was just the beginning of the work she would undertake in order to make the Women’s Building a reality. It would extract quite a price from her.

Collaboration and Conflict with the Boards

When she got together with the Board of Lady Managers, she found that, as is typical of any group, several wanted to “incorporate into her building all sorts of bits of design and work, whether they harmonized…with it or not.” She also had to deal with the Board of Construction, who asked her to modify her plans. But that was just the beginning of her problems.

The Women’s Building was not originally supposed to be an exhibition building (it was too small), but it rapidly grew to be one, as exhibits that were not allowed in other buildings ended up there. Compared to the budget of the other buildings, the money set aside for it was negligible: $200,000. The budget for the Manufactured and Liberal Arts Building was one million dollars. As usual for the lot of women, Miss Hayden was creating something smaller than the buildings constructed by the men, and with a much smaller budget. Yet, she pressed on, even though the stress of it all was to cost her dearly.

INTERIOR 2 Woman’s Building with Candace Wheeler

Paul V Galvin Library: The book of the Fair

Her building was the first to appear on the site and it was filled with exhibits by women from all over the world, from watercolors done by Queen Victoria, to the sword of Queen Isabella of Spain, plus paintings by Mary Cassatt, needlework, and court laces from around the world.

The Opening of Chicago World’s Fair

When the fair opened in May 1893, Sophia Hayden was there for the inaugural celebration, despite reports that she had collapsed from the strain and stress of working on the project.

“Even more important than the discovery of Columbus, which we are gathered together to celebrate, is the fact that the General Government has just discovered woman,” remarked Mrs. Potter Palmer optimistically, if inaccurately, during the ceremony. With that, she drove a golden nail as the finishing touch to the building designed by a young woman barely out of her teens.

The Reviews Are In…

Perhaps the critics were partially to blame for Sophia Hayden’s breakdown after the building was completed. Some of the reviews were severe and patronizing. They took special pains to point out, as if it were a mark against the building, that it was designed and built by someone who was very young, and a woman at that. Yet, even Daniel Burnham, the Director of Works for the Fair, thought she was eminently qualified and urged her to open an office in Chicago. The building was criticized as being small and delicate, but many of the other architects and Mrs. Palmer were delighted with it.

INTERIOR Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893 larger view

Paul V Galvin Library: The book of the Fair

The building was a success and opened the doors to other women with dreams of design. Unfortunately, it seems that Sophia Hayden built no other buildings, despite preparing plans for a Memorial Building dedicated to women’s clubs across the country. The stress of being one of the first female architects apparently took too much of a toll on the young designer.

The design world owes a debt to Hayden, who advanced the cause of women to dream big dreams and make them a reality, despite the fact that her beautiful building in the “White City” now exists only in photographs.

If you’re curious to find out what’s left of the famed White City, please check out this link.