Remembering Sophia Hayden Bennett, Part 3
Sophia’s great moment
The 1892 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition was planned to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in North America. More importantly to those who pushed the Chicago site, it was meant to showcase the booming city of Chicago to the world. Many noted architects from leading firms were offered opportunities to design the impressive buildings and grounds needed for the huge 6-month event. For the Woman’s Building, the “Board of Lady Managers” insisted on a female architect, and launched a competition for the job.
Sophia’s entry won the competition. She was 21 years old.
She was paid $1000 for the job, far less than the male architects working on other buildings. She had a lot of work to do to prepare the plans and, being inexperienced, was surprised when fairly major changes were demanded in the midst of her work. As the building progressed, the Board of Lady Managers, led by prominent Chicago socialite Bertha Honore Palmer, wished to highlight the talent and workmanship of many artistic women, and so accepted loans of “women’s work” from many quarters of the world for inclusion in the building.
As the requests to accommodate these works caused more and more friction with Sophia, who was determined to produce a building that followed sound design principles, the crisis apparently came in the form of Sophia’s meltdown in the office of the Fair’s Chief of Construction, Daniel Burnham.
The meaning of this (a “nervous breakdown”?) and its aftermath are hard to pinpoint in the many accounts that have been written in the 120 years since. Sophia withdrew from most of the actual construction phase but returned later and was given a medal and various accolades. However the damage to her career was done since men used the upset to point out that women were incapable of managing construction.
Despite the almost incalculable pressures brought to bear on an inexperienced 22/23-year old, the fabulous building itself and its early completion were never proof enough of her competence in a world that wanted to doubt women’s strength. After her return to Boston, she was unable to find architectural work again, even though some of the architectural community had risen to her defense. This leaves people wondering if dropping out of architecture may have been her own choice. The Women’s Building was destroyed, along with most of the others, after the fair closed.
In an ironic twist, it should be noted that Mrs. Palmer’s goal was to use the Woman’s Building to change, forever, the perceived role of women in the workplace by showcasing their work; Sophia may have been one casualty in a complicated battle that was not, perhaps, actually lost.
Sophia returns to Boston
Once back in Boston Sophia pursued a career but was never offered a position in architecture. In 1900, she married my g-g-uncle William Blackstone Bennett, an artist. Here is where most architecture articles end the story, suggesting that she vanished into a sad obscurity. Given her enormous talents that may seem to be the case, but of course life goes on and I would like to know more about her life.
Next time, the few things I have learned.