Women in history

Chilean named one of most important female architects in history

Sophia Hayden Benett was recently named as one of the most overlooked women in architecture.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013  
Chilean architect Sophia Hayden Benett was the only woman to design a building for the famous White Chilean architect Sophia Hayden Benett was the only woman to design a building for the famous White City. Photo by F.A. Brockhaus

 

Women have long had a hand in the creation of the world´s most beautiful and revered buildings and designs, although they rarely received the credit they deserved before the mid-twentieth century.

Among the many overlooked women who helped shape our skylines was the talented Chilean architect Sophia Hayden Benett.

The daughter of a Chilean father and American mother, Sophia was born in Santiago in 1869. She followed her passions for structure and design to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she was the first woman to receive an architecture degree in 1890. Despite this accomplishment, she struggled to find employment as an architect, eventually settling for work as a teacher. She took a position teaching technical drawing at a local high school.

Benett, although not employed as an architect, did not give up on her dreams. A year after her graduation from MIT, she found an announcement looking for female architects. The organizers of Daniel Burnham´s World Columbian Exposition in Chicago were calling for designs from women architects for the event´s Woman´s Building.

Benett jumped at the opportunity, submitting a design based on her college thesis. The blueprint was for an Italian Renaissance style three-story structure. At twenty-one years old, Benett won first place for her design, beating out the other 12 entries. She was paid US $1,000, a fraction of what her male peers received.

Working as an architect for Chicago´s World Columbian Exposition was no easy feat for any of those who took on the task. Benett endured overwhelming stress, much of it due to the constant micro-managing of committee overseers. Eventually, she broke down, and had to take a period of enforced rest.

As one of the grandest undertakings in American architectural history, Burnham´s “White City”, unveiled in 1893, won acclaim and praise for Chicago and the United States.

Although Benett did not work as an architect after her time at the World Exposition, her skill as the only woman to contribute to the “White City” will forever make her one of the important female architects in the history of the field.

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis

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