By BERT GAMBINI
Published March 14, 2023
A new book by a UB architect uncovers and explores through exhaustive research previously unknown aspects of the largely veiled life and career of Louise Blanchard Bethune, America’s first professional female architect.
Kelly Hayes McAlonie, director of campus planning, will discuss her new book, “Louise Blanchard Bethune: Every Woman Her Own Architect,” at 6 p.m. March 16 at Public Espresso Café in the Hotel Lafayette, 391 Washington St., Buffalo.
It’s fitting that Hotel Lafayette, a French Renaissance-style building designed principally by Bethune, a Buffalo native, will play host to Hayes McAlonie’s book launch. The event is free and open to the public.
Until now, Bethune’s accomplishments have never received thorough examination and treatment. Several factors have contributed to that obscurity, including the loss of Bethune’s personal and professional papers, along with her firm’s construction documents and office records. For years, only one photograph of her was known to exist. Male architects also had what Hayes McAlonie calls a “collective amnesia” regarding the early work of the women who broke the profession’s gender barrier.
But Hayes McAlonie’s discovery of new archival material has allowed her to develop the first full portrait of Bethune’s trailblazing career in the male-dominated architectural profession, a field that was rapidly growing from pastime to profession during the Gilded Age.
University Libraries will also open a companion exhibition in support of the book on March 28 in its Special Collections space in 420 Capen Hall. The libraries will also unveil the Zina Bethune Archive on Louise Bethune, a new collection of Bethune-related material generously donated to the university by Sean Feeley, whose late wife, Zina Bethune, was Louise Bethune’s great-granddaughter.
“Bethune was a woman of her time, but she remains a woman of our time, a historical figure with profound contemporary relevance,” says Hayes McAlonie, an architect and the 2021 recipient of the American Institute of Architects New York State (AIANYS) James William Kideney Award, the organization’s highest honor, celebrating lifetime contributions to the field. “I want readers to see a complicated woman of great strength who successfully navigated and rewrote the era’s strict rules for what women could attempt and ultimately attain.
“She is not a quaint Victorian reminder of how far women have come, but an inspiration today for what women are trying to accomplish for themselves.”
To arrive as the first in any profession is an achievement worthy of attention, but during the early- to mid-1880s, Bethune made history four times, including her pioneering role as a cyclist.
In 1881, she became the first professional woman to open an office; then, in 1885, she became the first woman to successfully apply for membership to the newly formed Western Association of Architects. Two years later, she was admitted to the AIA, the first woman to be accepted in that national organization, later becoming one of its leaders.
Membership in these organizations was critical for architects, a proxy for ethical standards, education and training at a time before professional licensing in the profession.
Bethune was also the first woman in Buffalo to own a bicycle, and was a founding member of the Buffalo Women’s Wheel and Athletic Club, only the second women’s cycling club in the United States.
“Bicycling impacted the women’s movement by challenging what women could do physically,” Hayes McAlonie explains. “Just as in the architectural profession, few women had previously adopted cycling as a sport and means of transportation because of the limitations of bicycle design, their bulky clothing and the general feeling that only men had the physical strength to ride long distances.”
Previous researchers have questioned Bethune’s commitment to feminist causes, but Hayes McAlonie’s research found many interviews and actions indicating that Bethune strongly supported women’s equality.
“She believed women should receive an education equal to men, were as capable as men professionally and should be paid equally to men, and should be free to pursue intellectual, athletic and social pursuits equal to men,” she says.
Hayes McAlonie says her connection to Bethune is more than the relationship between a biographer and her subject. The two in this case have parallel lives and careers.
“Architecture has always been my passion,” says Hayes McAlonie. “Living in Buffalo as an architect and learning that the first woman architect in the country was from this city proved a bold point of reference while writing the book. We share an interest in educational architecture and our mutual involvement with the AIA reminds me of the possibilities that we were involved in similar conversations.
“The more I got to know her during the process of researching and writing the book, the more I saw the similarities,” says Hayes McAlonie. “This has truly been a labor of love.”