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Louise Blanchard Bethune: Buffalo Feminist and America's First Woman Architect
By Austin M. Fox
Reprinted with permission from Buffalo Spree, Summer 1986


Buffalo has the distinction, in Louise Blanchard Bethune, of having produced the first female member of the American Institute of Architects and the first woman to be made a Fellow of the A.I.A. Among her numerous architectural credits in Buffalo is the design for the Hotel Lafayette, and her name survives on Bethune Hall, the former Buffalo Motor Company Building at Main across from Hertel, now the School of Fine Arts building at U.B. She may also have been one of the first avowed feminists in Buffalo.

Bethune's place of birth probably had something to do with her feminist proclivities. She was born in 1856 in central New York State at Waterloo, just the next town away from Seneca Falls, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott had held the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848. Apparently Louise grew up within the orbit of the women's rights movement. When she opened her own architectural office in October of 1881, she evidently timed the move to coincide with the Women's Congress being held here at that time.

Louise was tutored at home in Waterloo until she was eleven. Her father, Dalson M. Blanchard, was principal of the Waterloo Union School, where he also taught mathematics. Some of her mathematical proficiency she apparently derived from him. Early in life she also showed an aptitude for planning houses and various other structures. The next we know about Louise she is attending high school in Buffalo. Her year of graduation was 1874.

For the two years following, Louise taught, traveled, and studied, hoping to prepare herself for the recently opened architectural school at Cornell.

Then, at the age of twenty, she was offered a job as a draftsman in the office of the prominent Buffalo architectural and building firm of Richard A. Waite and F.W. Caulkins. Since most architects in those days were trained in drafting offices, not in architectural schools, she decided to accept the opportunity.

For the five years between 1876 and 1881 Louise worked for Waite and Caulkins as a student apprentice and assistant, mastering the techniques of drafting and architectural design. Because of the strong local Richardson influence, she became adept at Romanesque design, and she worked on some of the early plans for the 174th Armory.

In the Waite and Caulkins office, she met a a fellow student, a Canadian draftsman named Robert Armour Bethune (photo), with whom she opened her architectural office in 1881. In December of that year they were married, and the firm became R.A. and L. Bethune. They became parents of a son, Charles W. Bethune, their only child, in 1883.

As the years passed, their practice flourished, and in 1890, they added William R. Fuchs (photo) to the firm, and its name became Bethune, Bethune, and Fuchs. She was also active in professional organizations, such as the local chapter of the A.I.A., and involved in women's issues.

According to architect Adriana Barbasch, associate with the local firm of Milstein, Wittek, and Associates, and a leading researcher of Bethune's work, Louise Bethune was the real principal and a strong partner of the firm. Although no reliable records of the firm's commissions appear to exist, known examples of their work do survive, some, unfortunately, in garish "modernized" form.

One source of information is the building permit ledgers in City Hall. However, they go back only as far as 1892, and architects' names are not attached to them until about 1897. The records show twenty-five building permits issued to the firm between 1897 and 1905, about the year when Louise retired from active practice, and the firm became simply Bethune and Fuchs. The work shows a variety of brick commercial buildings, ranging from three-story new constructions to store fronts added to older dwellings. Estimated costs run all the way from $800 for a store addition to $425,000 for the Hotel Lafayette.

In 1898 the firm was invited to plan the 225-room Hotel Lafayette that would, it was hoped, house visitors to the Pan-American Exposition. But financial problems delayed the opening until 1904. Louise apparently did most of the designing for the handsome, fireproof French Renaissance structure.

Among the stores designed by the firm was the attractive terra cotta decorated one for Denton, Cottier, & Daniels music store (now gone) at Court and Pearl Streets. It was one of the first Buffalo buildings with steel-frame construction and with poured concrete slabs to resist fire.

The list of permits shows an intriguing range of buildings, such as two grandstands for the Queen City Baseball and Amusement Company at East Ferry and Michigan, later the site of the former Offermann Stadium; the Wilson brick and terra cotta building at the southeast corner of Main and Tupper, and the nostalgic store and dwelling that housed the old Jehle's corner grocery store at Bryant and Ashland. With its sidewalk-overhanging shed roof and noble brick facade, it is one of the cherished landmarks of Buffalo's West Side. It now houses a charming little restaurant, Just Pasta, and an interesting flower shop called Design.

If Louise Bethune specializes in any form of architecture, it was in school buildings. She had an important hand in designing eighteen schools in Western New York, including Hamburg High School, Lockport High, and numerous public grammar schools in Buffalo. From the few of these grammar schools that survive, however, one would have to say that they are unsympathetic, educationally uninspiring buildings. They are heavy, squarish brick buildings with weighty stone window sills and lintels, high rough-cut granite watertables, and bleak stone entryways. An example is the old section of the boarded up former School 11, afterwards 48, on Edna Place near Michigan.

Despite her special interest in schools, Louise Bethune declined "to confine herself exclusively to that branch." She believed "that women who are pioneers in any profession should be proficient in every department, and that, now at least, women architects must be practical superintendents as well as designers and scientific constructors."

The dwelling she regarded as "the most pottering and worst -paid work an architect ever does." He always dreads it, "not, ... because he must usually deal with a woman, but because he must strive to gratify the conflicting desires of the entire household, who dig up every hatchet for his benefit and hold daily powwows in his anteroom, and because he knows he loses money nearly every time, dwelling house architecture, as a special branch for women, should be quite out of the question." She believed that "Women's complete emancipation " lay in "equal pay for equal service."

Bethune refused to enter the women's architectural design competition for the Women's Building at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. She did not believe in competitions, and the women's prizes were less than the men's.

Today, thanks to the trail-clearing of courageous women, such as Louise Bethune, women are increasingly entering the architectural profession. Almost every Buffalo architectural firm today employs women architects.

Louise Blanchard Bethune will be accorded special tribute here in Buffalo at the convention of the New York State Architectural Association, an affiliate of the A.I.A., to be held September 19-21 at the Buffalo Hyatt Regency.

Special thanks to Peter Filim for his assistance.
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