Provocative Objects / Spaces

8 March 2022 -

Provocative Places: The Woman’s Building, Chicago World’s Fair

The Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, was held in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. After lobbying from female activists and reformers of the city’s upper-classes, it was agreed that the work of women could have an official place at the Fair and be exhibited in its own pavilion. In 1891 the Fair’s Construction Department held a design competition, open to women with formal architectural training, to design the Woman’s Building. The Board chose the design of 21-year-old architect Sophia Hayden, the first woman to achieve an architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A ‘Board of Lady Managers’ was assembled and put in charge of realising the Woman’s Building and its displays.

Hayden based her design on Renaissance principles, with a grand columned entrance under a pediment decorated by the sculptor Alice Rideout. The pediment depicted female personifications of feminine virtues and pursuits, including ‘Charity’, ‘Art’, and ‘Home Life’. The entrance led to a central hall with a glass ceiling and open arcades with classical columns to the first and second floors, which added to the sense of light and height. Interior decoration was overseen by Candace Wheeler, with murals by artists such as Mary Cassatt and Candace’s daughter, Dora Wheeler. The Woman’s Building contained exhibition spaces, a large assembly room, a library housing 7000 books by women, a model nursery, and a Hall of Honour, detailing accomplished women. The exhibits aimed to celebrate women across a variety of design fields, including fine art, applied art, music, and literature, as well as science, philanthropy, and history.

The Woman’s Building marked numerous successes for its organisers. It was the first time that a pavilion had been devoted to women and the display of their work in World’s Fair history, and it opened up the field in an unprecedented way to female designers. In addition, the Board sponsored the World’s Congress of Representative Women, at which thousands of visitors attended to listen to female speakers. The Woman’s Building also had an international influence, inspiring the Danish noblewoman Sophie Oxholm to organise a similar women’s exhibition in Copenhagen a few years later.

However, the Woman’s Building and the methods and ideals of the Board of Lady Managers and the wider World’s Fair Board were historic and, even at the time, considered outdated. The designs that were displayed were traditionally ‘feminine’: crafts such as pottery and ceramics, paper flowers, stained glass, embroidery and textiles; art such as watercolour paintings and murals; and, even when the crafts were not traditionally those practiced by women, such as woodwork, were described in the contemporary press as delicate and floral in subject matter. The separation of the work of men and women was also a contentious issue, and many women who displayed their art felt that it was seen as secondary to that created by men. The Woman’s Building provided a socially sanctioned space in which the work of women was, first and foremost, codified as feminine before considered for merit. Segregation was further apparent in the refusal to celebrate the accomplishments of women of colour. Activists such as Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass boycotted the Fair as a whole because of the lack of representation.

Should the Woman’s Building be celebrated as a platform for the advancement of women in design, or a segregation of their skills? Does this also apply when women’s histories are written about as ‘other’ or separate from male or mainstream histories? How have design histories gendered design and are certain areas of design still dismissed as ‘feminine’? Can the Woman’s Building be interpreted as a feminist building when it did not work to represent all women?

Please feel free to leave comments in response to this post below. If you would like to contribute a blog post for this series, please contact the DHS Administrator: We welcome posts on any place or space from any era, anywhere in the world.

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