Louise Blanchard Bethune of Buffalo – best known for her 19th-century work on the recently restored Hotel @ the Lafayette with her firm, Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs – for years was one of many trailblazing women architects all but relegated to the dustbin of history in a male-dominated field.
Co-authors Carla Blank and Tania Martin have attempted to correct that historic wrong in “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel: Two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America” (Baraka Books, $29.95). Blank, an author who lives in Oakland, explored Bethune’s life and accomplishments, while Martin, a professor at Universite Laval School of Architecture in Canada, did the same on fellow Canadian Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
“If we don’t talk about women’s contributions to history, there is no inspiration or confirmation to young women growing up that they can do this,” Blank said in explaining the book’s larger mission. “If it’s only a male-created world, I think you feel you either have to be the first one, or there’s no comfort zone.”
Blank will talk about the book and Bethune’s life at 7 p.m. Thursday in Burchfield Penney Art Center. The free talk is sponsored by Just Buffalo Literary Center.
Blank used to accompany her husband, the poet Ishmael Reed, who grew up in Buffalo, to the Queen City to visit her late mother-in-law. Blank’s interest in Bethune began after Reed told her of a plaque about her that he read outside the hotel, several years before developer Rocco Termini restored the historic building.
That piqued Blank’s interest. So did her research findings.
“Going through basic architectural texts and indexes, I found how little was known about Louise Blanchard Bethune’s achievements, and how little she was recognized,” Blank said.
Bethune opened an office in Buffalo in 1881, after apprenticing with two well-known Buffalo architects. She was the first woman in the United States to be acknowledged by her peers as a professional architect after being voted into the Western Association of Architects. Later, she would be the first woman member of the American Institute of Architects, and the American Institute of Architects. Later, she married fellow architect Robert Bethune.
Blank said a lot of Bethune’s work doesn’t appear to have been attributed to her. There was also a lot of similarity to her work, although the same could be said of many male counterparts.
Bethune drew more attention for her design of school buildings and commercial space, which she preferred over residential dwellings.
“She used open space for plans with office and commercial buildings that was way before her time. She was an innovator, not just someone doing utilitarian, imitative work,” Blank said.
The more decorative Lafayette Hotel stood out.
“We think the Lafayette was the signature project, at least it’s the one that’s believed she considered her favorite,” she said.
Recognition has begun to come Bethune’s way in recent years. Along with her newfound identification with the Hotel @ the Lafayette, the former Buffalo Meter Company Building, now converted into apartments, was renamed the Bethune Lots.
Blank is glad to see the belated recognition coming, and hopes that will be the case for other women architects that history left behind.
“I think it’s important to get the word out about her life and work,” Blank said.