Women who constructed Illinois

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we are highlighting trailblazing women in the Women Who Shaped Illinois Series. This four-part series began last week with the Women Who Taught Illinois, which details the work of influential female educators in the state of Illinois.

In this week’s installment, The Women Who Constructed Illinois, we will dive into the female architects who laid the groundwork for generations of women who would build the state we know today.  

Elisabeth Martini

Elisabeth Martini (1886-1984) was known for being the first female owner of an architecture firm in Chicago. She studied architecture at the Pratt Institute in 1908, followed by other courses at Columbia University.

Upon moving to Chicago in 1909, Elisabeth was rejected by over ninety architectural firms due to her gender. These rejections did not stop her from chasing her passion and instead began working as a secretary at an architectur
al firm, eventually leveraging that position into working in the drafting room. Elisabeth passed the Illinois licensing exam in 1913, making her the only licensed female architect in the state at that time.

In 1914, Elisabeth became the first woman to own an architectural firm in Chicago. Her work primarily focused on residential projects and rush work for other architects. In 1921, Elisabeth put an ad in the paper that read: "Only girl architect lonely. Wanted—to meet all the women architects in Chicago to form a club." This ad led to the Chicago Drafting Club, an all-female alliance of architects, which was the first of its kind in the city.

Elisabeth’s career was wildly influential for other aspiring female architects in Chicago. Her achievements led to her eventually being named to the American Institute of Architects.

Sophia Hayden Bennett
Sophia Hayden Bennett (1868-1953) is most well-known for designing the Women’s Building at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. While she was born in Santiago, Chile, she spent the majority of her childhood living with her grandparents in Boston.

In 1886, Sophia was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for abachelor’s in architecture. Following her graduation from MIT, Sophia could not find work as an apprentice. Eventually, she accepted a position as a mechanical drawing teacher at a local high school until she could work as an architect. 

In 1891, the Construction Department of the World’s Columbian Exposition announced that they would be holding a competition to find a designer for the construction of the Woman’s Building. At the age of 21, Sophia won the competition. However, she found it challenging to work in this field as a woman, citing a massive pay difference. The male architects who designed other buildings for the World’s Columbian Exposition were paid $10,000, while she only received $1,000.

Following the completion of the Women’s Building, Sophia retired, stating the constant struggles she faced in her field due to her gender had exhausted her. She and her husband, William Blackstone Bennett, moved to Massachusetts, where she passed away in 1953.

Beverly Lorraine Greene
Beverly Lorraine Greene (1915-1957) was born in Chicago Illinois. She attended the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering. One year later, Beverly received her master’s degree in city planning and housing.

Beverly began her career working for Kenneth Roderick O'Neal's architecture firm. Just over a year later, Beverly accepted a position with the Housing Authority and began her work with the Ida B. Wells Housing Project. This was a 1662-unit low-rise project on the South Side of Chicago, meant to be segregated and only house black families.

In 1942, she registered as an architect and was officially the first black female architect in the United States. Beverly moved to New York City in 1945 and worked on multiple significant projects, such as the UNESCO Headquarters, in Paris, France, the Arts Complex at Sarah Lawrence College, a New York University Building Complex (University Heights campus), and more.

Marion Mahony Griffin
Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961) was the first woman to be officially licensed as an architect in

Illinois. Marion was raised in Winnetka, Illinois, and was influenced to pursue architecture by her cousin, Dwight Perkins, who owned his own architecture firm. After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1894, Marion took her first job at her cousin’s firm. She was not only the first woman to be a licensed architect in Illinois but was also among the first few women who were licensed across the world.

Within a year of her graduation, Marion began working as a draftsman for Frank Lloyd Wright. Through her work with Frank, she influenced the style and development of his Prarie-style architecture. Many of Frank’s most notable and recognizable renderings were drafted by Marion, always without credit. Marion went on to work internationally in both India and Australia but returned home to Chicago upon retirement.

Her work is often noted as some of the best that has ever been produced. Marion was once regarded by a fellow staff member, Barry Byrne, as, “the most talented member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s staff, and I doubt that the studio, then or later, produced anyone superior.”