Jennifer Marsh, AIA, Finds a Niche Where Being A Woman Has A Great Advantage

March 27, 2019

Jennifer Marsh, AIA, Finds A Niche Where Being A Woman Has A Great Advantage

Some of my first childhood memories are of building with homemade wooden blocks and the prideful feeling of my parents labeling me a future architect.  It was the 70’s and probably not the first profession that would come to mind for a 5-year-old girl.  But I guess they saw something in me as I drew up plans for my own dream dollhouse.  So they kept saying it, and I kept believing it.  Both my parents were observers, whether it was my mom’s fine art books on the shelves or my dad’s admiration of nature on his hunting excursions.  They had me looking at things, which I think is the first step to being a good architect, and they must have seen something in me and I thank them for setting me on this path. 

 

It was also a bit of luck that my high school offered 4 years of architectural drafting.  I loved the studio environment so much more than any of my other classes.  The opportunity to draw and banter with my peers for an hour or so was a treat and I didn’t mind that there was only one other girl in the class.  I felt special to have found a place to belong amongst the boys and do some of the best work.  I owe a lot to that first teacher, Mr. Flowers, who made the time enjoyable and gave me the confidence to continue.    

Haris Kenjar Photography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then it was off to Penn State to earn a Bachelor of Architecture degree.  It was another lucky moment that the school that much of my family had attended also had an architecture program. It was the only school I wanted to go to and I treasure those years as some of the best in my life.  That’s not to say there weren’t times when I doubted myself.   In second year, I was very close to switching to engineering thinking that I just didn’t get ‘IT’ when it came to design and a mathematical career might be more straightforward.  But I took a look around and realized we were all struggling because that’s what architecture school is all about.  Stripping away what you think about the practice and forcing you to look at things differently for the sake of the art and craft in building.  I may have had my moments of doubt but at the end of those five years, I felt good about what I had accomplished.  After our final thesis crit, my favorite professor, Lou Inserra, told my mom, “You don’t have to worry about this kid.”   It was just the confidence boost I needed to start me on my career.   

 

Haris Kenjar Photography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So rather than go back to my little hometown of Carlisle PA, I decided to head to NYC where I was fortunate to land a job at Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer.  I will never forget my interviewer, Doug Moss, who said, “All it takes is being an eager beaver and you can do anything in this field!”  Such a good time to be young in the city, making models in the shop and just figuring out what it meant to be an adult.   To get another kind of experience, I moved to a small residential firm, where there was an appreciation for how beautiful drawings translate into beautiful buildings.    I learned a great deal but it was the second moment in my life when I doubted my career choice.  He was a tough boss and I was insecure.   But I took what I learned and moved on to a new chapter.   I got married, went on my honeymoon and came back to 5 interviews in 5 days and 4 job offers.  I started my new position at Davis Brody Bond working for Chris Grabe, who is still a good friend to this day.   He was tough in his own way, but had a great love of the architecture profession and was a valuable mentor to further my growth, giving me opportunities to lead on some sizable projects. 

 

Haris Kenjar Photography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then came the next chapter, family.  This is where it gets tricky for women.  How to do it all?!  I decided to stay home with our first child and fit in work where I could during naps and playdates.  It was not easy with some days feeling like I was a terrible mother AND a terrible architect and then other days feeling like an amazing mother AND an amazing architect!    I took on whatever small projects I could scrape together and made the most of them.  But the slow start gave me the chance to build a service niche in our town of Hoboken.  It was a great equation; lots of old housing stock and families ready to make a home.  This is where I think being a woman had a great advantage, the ability to have relatable conversations about their needs and deliver on them through a clear process with well thought out, high-quality results.   My husband, also an architect, joined me about 10 years into the practice and we’ve been growing our portfolio of work.  He has been my greatest champion since college, always there with a pep talk in the value of what we do, so those pesky insecurities don’t derail us.   

 

In writing this, I realize how much support and guidance I’ve been blessed with over the years.  From the first time I stepped into an architecture office looking for a college internship, I knew I wanted to be around architects.  They have a unique perspective on life and love to share it.   Interestingly though, ALL my mentors were men (except my mom!).  Now that I’m in the middle of my life as an architect, I’d like to work on opening up the dialog between women in this field and across others, like interiors and engineering.  I’ve had the fortune to work with some amazing women over the years in all facets of design and it just reinforces the value we bring to the profession.  So it looks like I found my new chapter!  Who wants to meet up for coffee?

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