March 2, 2019
By Susan Pikaart Bristol, AIA
In 1977, after deciding to apply to Architecture school, my parents thought that maybe I should actually meet an architect. But where are the Architects? We didn’t know anyone in our town who was an architect, nor did we know anyone who had ever hired one. I grew up in a suburban NJ neighborhood composed of ‘production’ housing by a developer and the schools were of the 1960’s ‘cookie cutter’ variety, sprinkled around town. The most interesting building that I routinely experienced was our church, built in 1903. It is a beautiful stone wall and timber roof structure. That is how we found an architect -we attended church with a couple who had hired one. You can imagine my excitement over being invited to visit their custom-designed home! It was a ‘California’ modern ranch house in the woods above a river. It turns out that I had hit the jackpot, as that house was designed by a woman – Eleanore Pettersen, FAIA, (1916-2003) who in 1950 became one of the first women to be licensed in NJ and the first to open her own architectural office.
Soon after my visit to her project, I met Eleanore Pettersen in her office in Saddle River, NJ. I was 17 years old and will never forget that day. There was a room full of draftsmen, all men as far as I could tell, but that didn’t seem weird at the time since I was the only girl in my high school drafting classes (within the Industrial Arts department). Ms. Pettersen not only inspired me to proceed with my decision to study architecture but also gave me some important advice. One was to learn as much about construction that you can as soon as you can. Since it was difficult for a girl to get on a construction site, I originally learned by volunteering for the Charlottesville Housing Improvement Program (CHIP) while in college. This put me in the field while connecting me to neighborhoods beyond the University. I did not, however, take ALL of her advice. One of her other recommendations was to pursue a 5-year professional degree rather than a 4-year architecture degree. This I did not do and do not regret it. I did not want to sacrifice a complete college education in order to study architecture- I wanted to do both. The University of Virginia was the perfect place for me and the perfect architectural environment.
Following my exceptional UVa education, I returned to NJ to practice, to reconnect with my roots and to pursue a bit more of my encounter with Eleanore Petterson. Just last month, after 30 years of practice, I went looking for and found that house by Pettersen that I had visited 40 years ago. My pilgrimage revealed a worn, poorly maintained and forgotten building. The magic of the wooded site was diminished by a parking lot next to a thin veil of trees along the driveway, and a grand Victorian house near-by had recently been demolished. The Wanaque River has flooded many times since (and maybe encroached upon the house?) and although mid-century modern design has made a comeback in some parts of the US, apparently not yet in North Jersey. The forlorn look of the house today in no way dimmed my memories of that impressionable first visit – light construction, bright space, design authenticity, honest materiality, and integration with the landscape. Perhaps the most important thing that I carry with me from her work is the relationship of architecture to site and the design of inside space that connects to outside space.
Last year, during another pilgrimage, I finally visited Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert masterpiece of marriage between landscape and architecture. When Eleanore Petterson mentioned apprenticing for him there (from 1940-1941), it stuck in my head because the only book we had about architecture in my high school library was about F.L. Wright. Now, I was finally experiencing the place that influenced her as a young aspiring architect of those days. She has been quoted as saying, “Mr. Wright was my architectural father and from him came my desire for excellence and architectural integrity.” My own pursuit of excellence and architectural integrity included professional practice, mentoring women and girls, and teaching architecture to a generation of NJ college students. I returned to the academy after practicing for about 15 years. Ironically, I began teaching at a 5-year professional degree program. So yes, Eleanore, I did go to a 5-year technical school after all, but not until I learned to build and construct!
Throughout my teaching at NJIT, the legacy of Eleanore Pettersen’s influence on me and my education is evident in the Garden State Studios (http://www.spbarchitecture.com/garden-state-studios.html) that I have created over a 15-year teaching career. These studio projects are 1. site specific 2. explore architectural design as emergent from site strategies and 3. engaging with NJ communities that have planning challenges. Our need to address the landscape, in this era of climate change, has become a necessity and has transformed design thinking toward redevelopment and environmental restoration. I have realized that teaching architecture now, must include design integrity in pursuit of sustainable design. It must also include more efforts toward achieving equity in the profession. When I went to architecture school, 40+ years ago, my class was almost 50% women, but there was not a woman professor in sight. Today at NJIT the female students are still often only 30% of a class. NJIT’s SoA once had an impressive number of women teaching (most as ‘special lecturers’ or part-time ‘adjuncts’) but now has so few women faculty, that a recent (and typical) female graduate has only had 2 female studio instructors out of 10 possible semesters. Ms. Pettersen was once on the board of the School of Architecture at NJIT and I can only imagine that this decrease in equity would shock and disappoint her and her generation.
Ms. Pettersen, in her advice to me, was right about something which is true now more than ever before. As a woman architect, you need to know construction and you need to build experience. However, even in 2019, after you earn that experience there will be attempts to dismiss it. There will be attempts to use a woman’s exceptional accomplishments to downgrade her opportunities. This I never imagined, but this I have witnessed. Maybe this explains why we have to continue to ask, ‘where are all the women architects?’ Why, when about 50% of architecture students in the US are female, is the percentage of practicing architects who are female about 18%? Fortunately, the pleasure, challenge and complexity of practicing architecture has usually distracted me from these sad facts and from noticing how little progress our profession has made. I am grateful that I did not know in the 1970’s how unusual it would be for me to pursue something that came naturally, and how rare it would be to meet a woman architect, even by chance, in 1978. Thank you, Ms. Pettersen, for your hospitality, blunt advice, and above all, inspiration.
Princeton Area Community Foundation, Princeton, NJ 2018
For more information on Eleanor Pettersen:
“A Girl Is a Fellow Here”: 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Pettersen’s accomplishments were myriad, and she pioneered many “firsts” for women. In 1978, she became the first woman elected president of the New Jersey Board of Architects. She became the first female president of the American Institute of Architects‘ (AIA) New Jersey chapter in 1985 and its first female regional director two years later. She was appointed to the AIA College of Fellows in 1991. In 1965, she was the first female recipient of Cooper Union‘s Professional Achievement Citation for Distinguished Accomplishments. She was the first woman appointed by the governor to the New Jersey State Board of Architects and subsequently its first woman president (1975–1976). In 1984, she became first female president of the New Jersey Society of Architects.
By Stacey Ruhle Kliesch, AIA, AIA NJ Advocacy Consultant | Posted in Diversity, Editorial, EquityInArchitecture, Women in Architecture | Tagged: #diversity, #EleanorePettersenFAIA, #equity, #FrankLloydWright, #Inclusion, #SusanPBristolAIA, #TaliesinWest, #UVA, #WIA, #womeninarchitecture, #WomensHistoryMonth, FLW, NJIT | Comments (0)
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