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Modern Women: Architecture and Design in 20th Century Cincinnati

In 1997, Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) awarded the design of its new building downtown to woman architect Zaha Hadid (1950-2016). Although the Iraqi-born, London-based Hadid was already the most famous woman architect in the world, the CAC commission was her first built project in the United States. It elevated her international reputation and in 2004 she became the first woman to receive the Pritzker Prize, called "the Nobel Prize of architecture." The Cincinnati building played a significant role in advancing her career.

Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati. OH, by Zaha Hadid, 1997-2003. Photograph by Alice Weston. ca. 2000. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

However, a full half-century before Hadid's building put Cincinnati on the map for its pioneering patronizing of a woman architect, the city already had a number of notable Mid-Century Modern buildings strongly influenced by women. Cincinnati women notably acted as clients and patrons of Modernism while in rare cases, Cincinnati Modern buildings were actually designed by trained women architects.

Cincinnati Women as Clients and Patrons of Modernism

Women have always had a considerable, but rarely documented, influence on architecture as clients and patrons. Scholar Alice Friedman, in her perceptive book, Women and the Making of the Modern House (1998 and later eds.), observes that women clients, who have historically been very involved in the creation of domestic architecture, actually proved more adventurous than male clients and gave Modernist architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerrit Rietveld, and Mies van der Rohe commissions for Modernist houses that quickly became famous and advanced not only the male architects careers, but the development of Modernism itself. Cincinnati presents some notable examples of women who acted as influential clients and patrons of Modernist buildings.

Patricia Corbett and architect John de Koven Hill

Patricia Corbett (1909-2008) is famous for her patronage of music and art in Cincinnati. In addition to supporting the Cincinnati's Symphony, Ballet, and Opera.

Patricia Corbett

The Corbett Foundation gave millions to the arts in Cincinnati and endowed an auditorium at the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) at the University of Cincinnati. Corbett Auditorium is an innovative Modernist building of concrete (later altered), designed by architect Edward J. Schulte.

In 1958-60, Patricia and her husband, J. Ralph Corbett, built an extraordinary modern house on Grandin Road in Cincinnati that featured a high-tech musical performance area as part of its living space.

J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett House, Grandin Road, Hyde Park, Cincinnati, OH, by John deKoven Hill; Landscaping by Henry F. Kinney, 1958-60. View of house looking south. Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. From House Beautiful, February 1960

Patricia's husband, J. Ralph Corbett, manufactured "NuTone" household electronics and appliances, such as doorbells, kitchen and bath exhaust fans, household stereo and intercom systems, and much more. The Corbett house was partly conceived as a showcase of NuTone electronics. But one senses that Patricia Corbett's musical interests drove the overall layout and functional program of the house.

The Corbett's architect was John de Koven Hill (1920-66), a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright and a Taliesin Fellow (Taliesin was Wright's school-home-office in Wisconsin, with a later "winter campus," Taliesin West, in Arizona). Hill took a leave of absence from Taliesin in the 1950s to work as an architectural editor at House Beautiful Magazine under Elizabeth Gordon, the magazine's formidable chief editor. Gordon advocated the American, "organic" Modernism of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, which she promoted in the magazine with Hill's help (by contrast, she controversially disparaged International Style Modernism as "foreign" and "socialist"). Gordon initiated a "Pace-Setter House" program for House Beautiful Magazine, partly as a vehicle for promoting her advertisers. The Corbett House was the 1960 "Pace-Setter House of the Year," spread dramatically across many pages in the February and March issues of the magazine. Partly due to Wright's death in 1959, John de Koven Hill returned to Taliesin in the early 1960s to rejoin the Taliesin team. The Corbett House in Cincinnati was his only major independent commission.

The principal functions of the house centered on Patricia Corbett's musical patronage. She hosted musical benefits and parties, featuring visiting musicians and guests. To accommodate the musicians, the house had a dedicated performance area; for guests the kitchen produced quantities of refreshments.

At one end of the Corbett House living room is a raised stage on which musicians (including Patricia Corbett, herself a trained musician) could perform while guests occupied the living room.

Corbett House, the living area and Patricia Corbett's musical "stage." Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer. 2008. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

The stage held a grand piano and an organ, but also had quantities of NuTone electronics, including a built-in stereo system with turntable and tape deck, concealed speakers, and large storage compartments for vinyl records, tapes, sheet music and scores. Special resonating chambers, "stage lighting," and a television with a projector completed this musical space that occupied the center of the house.

Corbett House, the stereo cabinet, and schematic.Schematic drawing from House Beautiful, February 1960. Center photograph by Elizabeth Meyer. 2008 From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries, .

The kitchen, at one end of the house, was designed to accommodate large parties, with electronic mixers, slicers, dicers, ovens, waste disposers, and multiple refrigerators, freezers, sinks and storage areas. For both its layout and its electronics, the kitchen was probably the most advanced in the U.S. for a house of its date. While husband J. Ralph Corbett benefitted by having his company's NuTone electronics so prominently displayed, the layout and functional program of the house responded directly to Patricia Corbett's musical philanthropy. The Corbett House is a late and high-tech Wrightian-style design, especially organized to accommodate the musical interests of Patricia Corbett.

Corbett House, kitchen appliances. Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto. From House Beautiful, February 1960

Elizabeth Stone and architects Strauss and Roush

Elizabeth Asbury Stone came from a family that bred thoroughbred horses and she has a great appreciation of landscape and the outdoors. In 1951, she married James H. Stone who, in 1952, founded the Stone Oil Company of Cincinnati.

Elizabeth Stone

In 1958-59, James and Elizabeth Stone built one of Cincinnati's most progressive and sophisticated Modernist houses, designed by the city's best-known firm of modern architects, Carl Strauss and Ray Roush. The house is perhaps Strauss and Roush's finest domestic design and was chosen the ARCHITECTURAL RECORD's house for 1960.

Stone House, Hyde Park, Cincinnati, OH, by Strauss & Roush, 1958. From In its place : the architecture of Carl Strauss and Ray Roush [an exhibition], January 12-March 2, 1985

It is sited over the crown of a hill on Grandin Terrace, with spectacular views of the Ohio River Valley. The Stone House is unusual in Cincinnati for its uncompromising use of International Style steel framing and glass, complemented by opaque, white-painted brick infill. The entrance front is of one story and mostly closed, except for high, clerestory windows. The river front, by contrast, opens downhill into two stories with an exposed steel grid and large plate glass windows.

Sone House, view of the Ohio River. Photograph by Alice Weston. 1990s. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries and the Collection of Cincinnati Museum Center-Cincinnati Historical Society Library

Both the composition and materials of the Stone House recall German modern architect Mies van der Rohe's pioneering Tugendhat House of 1928-30 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, a building that Carl Strauss visited shortly after its completion.

Tugendhat in Brno, Czechoslovakia by Mies van der Rohe, completed in 1930. From Wikimedia Commons

However, on the entrance front of the Stone House, the symmetrical, U-shaped automobile forecourt and its twin carports has a restrained, Palladian-classical quality reflecting Carl Strauss's fascination with Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Strauss wrote a thesis on Palladio while at Harvard and visited his villas in Italy. This combination of progressive modern forms and materials with an abstract, underlying classicism and an incomparable site and landscape views, makes the Stone House one of the most appealing Modernist houses in the U. S. It was a daring example of architectural patronage in a conservative city like Cincinnati in the 1950s.

Elizabeth Stone has engaged in much philanthropy in Cincinnati, supporting such institutions as the Contemporary Arts Center and the Cincinnati Parks Foundation. She formed a close relationship with Strauss and Roush and commissioned a second house for herself from them in 1976-78. Located on Corbin Drive, it is of brick with prominent diagonal roofs and a dramatic, open interior.

Elizabeth Stone proved a significant friend of her favorite modern architects. She chaired the steering committee for the 1985 exhibition of the work of Strauss and Roush at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. The exhibit catalogue ("In Its Place: The Architecture of Carl Strauss and Ray Roush"), authored by architectural historian Jayne Merkel, was the first publication on Cincinnati modernist architecture and contains valuable essays, photos, lists of buildings and interviews with both architects. This exhibit and catalogue made Strauss and Roush the best-known architects for Mid-Century Modernism in Cincinnati.

Mary E. Johnston and Woodie Garbe

As a patron of both modern art and architecture, Mary Johnston (1890-1967) is unexcelled in Cincinnati. She was a favorite niece of William Cooper Procter (one of the founders of the Procter and Gamble Company), who encouraged her to seek out beautiful things and to study the architecture she saw on her travels. She spent the years 1916-18 in France helping to nurse the wounded in World War I; thereafter she studied nursing in Cincinnati and volunteered for a year at a hospital in the Philippines. She also studied art in a three-year course at the Cincinnati Art Museum where one of her instructors, Carl Zimmerman, called her feeling for paint "fearless, strong, [and] colorful." From the mid-1930s onward she assembled an extraordinary collection of modern paintings by artists such as Modigliani, Cezanne, van Gogh, Bonnard, Matisse, Mondrian, Klee, Brancusi, Braques, and Picasso. She also collected abstract paintings by notable women modernists such as Charmion Von Weigand and Maria-Helena Vieira da Silva. Mary Johnston donated most of her paintings to the Cincinnati Art Museum and they form the core of its modern art collection.

Mary E. Johnston

In addition to forming a major collection of modern art, Mary Johnston also patronized Cincinnati's most progressive Modernist architect, Woodie Garber (1913-94). Both Johnston and Garber were from the Cincinnati suburb of Glendale. While Garber's unswerving devotion to the most experimental Modernist forms and materials in his buildings alienated many Cincinnatians, Mary Johnston's patronage of Garber allowed him to design some of his most creative buildings, helped him financially, and encouraged others to hire him.

Woodie Garbr with Procter Hall rendering on the wall. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Christ Church Additions, Glendale, 1959

Mary Johnston donated money for additions to her own church, Christ Church Episcopal in Glendale, with the stipulation that Woodie Garber be retained as the architect. Garber added a new children's chapel, Sunday school rooms, and offices to the existing Victorian Gothic Revival church (by Anderson and Hannaford, 1869). Garber's Modernist additions took the form of wings surrounding a cloister-like courtyard. The Garber additions connected two older buildings with floors at different levels; the architect solved this problem with cantilevered balconies and beautifully detailed floating steel staircases to connect the multiple levels.

Christ Church Glendale Additions, Glendale, OH, by Woodie Garber, 1959. Architect's Prospectus. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Christ Church Glendale Additions, staircase, by Woodie Garber, 1959. Architect's Prospectus. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries Garber encircled the Children's Chapel with rough-textured limestone walls that echoed the walls of the Gothic Revival church.

A folded plate roof admits a dramatic, raking light through colored windows made of Blenko Glass. Wooden benches affixed in multi-colored slate floors faced a monolithic altar of white marble, an arrangement that recalled in miniature the fittings of Modernist architect Le Corbusier's pilgrimage chapel of Ronchamp in France (1950-54).

Christ Church Glendale Additions, Children's Chapel with Blenko glass. 1959. Photograph by Maryam Fotouhi. 2009. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Christ Church Glendale Additions, Children's Chapel, 1959. Architect's Prospectus. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Although given to Christ Church by Mary Johnston, its most prominent benefactor, the Garber-designed modern additions were never popular with the congregation. They were demolished in 2014 and replaced by new construction.

Procter Hall, School of Health and Nursing, University of Cincinnati, 1968

Mary Johnston's own training and work in nursing prompted her to donate a new nursing building, named in honor of her uncle, William Cooper Procter, for the University of Cincinnati medical campus. Procter Hall showed Garber at his most creative and experimental. The building's site, on the corner of MLK and McMillan, was lower than the surrounding streets. This inspired Garber to bridge up from the street-level sidewalk on the west to the upper story of the new building. This meant that visitors entered at the top and worked their way down. This entry sequence reversed the usual ground-level entries for most public buildings (an idea that may have come to Garber from Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum of the 1950s in New York, where the entrance is at street level, but visitors are intended to take elevators to the top and walk down a sloping, circular ramp to view the art).

William Cooper Procter Hall, Cincinnati, OH, by Woodie Garber, 1968. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Proctor Hall also contained innovative environmental features. Although the building took advantage of new air-conditioning technologies, Garber enhanced its shading capabilities with vertical, hinged louvres of thin steel, driven by electric motors on photosensitive cells to open or close in order to control the amount of light and heat admitted to the building.

William Cooper Procter Hall, louvers designed by Woodie Garber, 1968. Photograph by Patrick Snadon. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

These shutter-like louvres were attached like screens in front of the window walls of the building's skeletal steel frame and echo, in a higher-tech vein, Le Corbusier's heavy, fixed concrete sun screens in his later buildings. Accounts of Procter Hall recall visiting architects standing entranced in front of it, watching its walls close as the sun came out and open as it disappeared. Opaque walls at Procter Hall consisted of both thin, metal infill panels and panels of sparkling, white milk-glass chips embedded in concrete and epoxy. These fixed panels were also intended to cool the building by reflecting sunlight. Procter Hall's suspended metal screens and environmental features are highly predictive of current architectural sensibilities. But despite its topical relevance, the University of Cincinnati reclad the building in 2010, erasing its most innovative features.

Garber House, Glendale, c. 1966

With Mary Johnston's encouragement, Woodie Garber built a progressive, International Style house for himself and his family in Glendale--an otherwise rather conservative suburb of Cincinnati. A brilliant white rectangle with sparkling, milk-glass panels, the house exhibits its structural frame and controls sunlight through deep recessed porches. Clerestory windows help to exhaust heat. Set into a sloping, wooded site above a creek, the house is of one level on its garden front and two levels on its entrance front which, with inset carports and garages at the lower level, recalls Le Corbusier's Modernist Villa Savoye of 1932 in France. Garber pressed his wife and children into service in constructing the house and landscaping its site. These female contributions to the house are vividly recalled by his daughter, Elizabeth W. Garber, in her recent book, Implosion: Memoirs of an Architect's Daughter (2018). Her account of living with her Modernist-obsessed father in a glass house with an open floor plan makes for revealing reading on Mid-Century-Modernism.

Garber Residence, Glendale, OH, by Woodie Garber, 1966. Photograph by James Keller. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Cincinnati Buildings by Women Architects

One thinks of Mid-Century Modern architectural practice as an heroic, male-dominated endeavor and, for the most part, it was. But women managed to break into the field in small numbers, particularly during World War II, when so many of the nation's young men were away in service. In order to keep enrollments up, architecture schools admitted women students, while firms, needing young designers and draftspeople, hired them.

India Boyer

Cincinnati architect India Boyer blazed a trail earlier than most female architects in the Midwest. She received her degree from Ohio State University in 1930, the first woman to graduate from the architecture program. The combined effects of the Great Depression and the prejudice against women kept her from finding an architectural job, so she passed the exam for joining the Army Corps of Engineers.

Vogt, Ivers and Associates Engineers and Architects (VIA)., India Boyers 5th from left at top. From the India Boyer papers from the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

She designed local projects, like Cincinnati's Beechmont Levee, in the wake of the 1937 Ohio River Flood. In 1939, she became head of the Army Corps' architecture department. In 1941, she became the first woman to pass the architectural registration exam in Ohio, making her the state's first licensed female architect. In 1945, she and colleagues left the Army Corps to form the Cincinnati architecture firm of Vogt, Ivers and Associates Engineers and Architects (VIA). Although not listed in the firm name, Boyer was a partner and eventually became head of the office. She designed buildings with VIA until her retirement in the mid-1970s. While Boyer's buildings were not always Modernist (she designed park structures and other buildings in a progressive Arts and Crafts style) most of VIA's buildings were Modernist designs.

A lost example of Boyer's and VIA's commercial Modernism was Rollman's Department Store, at 5th and Vine Streets on Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati. In 1947 Boyer and VIA extended and remodeled an earlier, classicizing building (by Detroit architect Albert Kahn) by encasing the lower floors in blue-tinted, cast concrete panels with plate glass show windows at the sidewalk. "Rollman's" appeared above the display windows in a modern, sans-serif text. The effect was that of a crisp, new International Style Modern building. It was demolished in the 1960s.

Rollman's Department Store, completed in 1947. Photograph dated 1948. From the India Boyer papers from the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Natalie DeBlois and the Terrace Plaza Hotel

A woman designed Cincinnati's most important Modernist building. It is the Terrace Plaza Hotel of 1946-48, downtown on Sixth Street between Race and Vine Streets near Fountain Square. The architects of record for the building were Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) of New York, working for Cincinnati developer John J. Emery. Because the design process began during WW II, most of SOM's male designers, like the young Gordon Bunshaft, were away in the service. The design fell to a talented young woman architect in the SOM office: Natalie DeBlois, who had graduated from the architecture program at Columbia University.

Natalie DeBlois

The program for the building included two department stores, Bond's and J. C. Penny's, that occupied the first seven floors. Except for show windows at street level, the department store block was veneered in brick, giving it an opaque and hard-edged Modernist quality. The 12-story hotel began on the eighth floor, the rooftop of the department store block forming its landscaped "terrace." The hotel rose atop this terrace-base in a tall, narrow slab with multiple horizontal windows. At the top of the hotel block was a circular, glass restaurant, the Gourmet Room. SOM continued to use and refine this composition for steel-frame skyscrapers--a vertical slab atop a horizontal, terraced base--as, for example, in Lever House in New York City of 1952.

The Terrace Plaza Hotel, Cincinnati, OH, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, completed in 1948.

The Terrace Plaza was the most progressive modern hotel in the world of its day and received much attention in the architectural press. It was SOM's first major project to be extensively published. It had scores of new electronic devices, from push-button elevators (the hotel lobby was at the eighth floor) to walls that rolled up to make single rooms into suites. The building included an extensive program of modern art, including murals by Joan Miro and Saul Steinberg and a mobile in the lobby by Alexander Calder; it was lauded as the most successful combination of modern architecture and art in its day. SOM's design team for the hotel included other women, such as interior designer Phyllis Hoffseimer and Scandinavian textile designer Marianne Strengell.

Marianne Strengell. From Dwell, 2009.

The Terrace Plaza Hotel, guest room with fabric by Marianne Strengell. Photograph by Ezra Stoller ©Esto.

Natalie DeBlois, was a rare, woman modern architect at mid-century, who could not achieve the same status as the men in the office. SOM never brought her to Cincinnati to see the site or the building during its construction and, when meetings occurred with the clients in New York, they were often held at men's clubs where she was either excluded or forced to arrive via back stairs or freight elevators.

The Terrace Plaza is one of the most significant American Modernist buildings to survive from the mid-20th-century. Yet despite

its importance, it faces an uncertain future. Numerous plans to restore and rehabilitate it have come to naught. It has remained shuttered, empty, and deteriorating for years. A sensitive reuse and restoration of it would bring fame to Cincinnati, while to lose it would be a major casualty for the City's history and culture.


Scholar Beatriz Colomina rather pessimistically wrote in 2010: "Women are the ghosts of modern architecture, everywhere present, crucial, but strangely invisible. Unacknowledged, they are destined to haunt the field forever." * Women have made significant contributions to Modernism in Cincinnati, a topic that deserves far more research and publicity than it has received. While it is unlikely that other trained women architects who practiced in Cincinnati at mid-20th-century will be discovered, the number of those who patronized, promoted, and influenced modernism in the city, as collaborators in the complex act of building, is far greater than this essay suggests.

[* Beatriz Colomina, "With or without you: The Ghosts of Modern Architecture." In: Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz, eds., Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art (NY: The Museum of Modern Art, 2016, pp. 216-31)]


Cincinnati Art Museum. THE MARY E. JOHNSTON COLLECTION. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum, 1972. (Mary Johnston and her modern art collection).

CINCINNATI POST, "Saluting the City's Top Career Women: India Boyer, Architect. May 11, 1952.

Garber, Elizabeth W. IMPLOSION: A MEMOIR OF AN ARCHITECT'S DAUGHTER. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2018. (On architect Woodie Garber, by his daughter).

Garber, Elizabeth W. "Dismantling Modernism: The Fate of Proctor Hall, University of Cincinnati." Nov. 16, 2017., Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.

Greinacher, Udo, Elizabeth Meyer, et. al. 50 FROM THE 50s: MODERN ARCHITECTURE AND INTERIORS IN CINCINNATI. Cincinnati: Urban Currents Press / Lulu Press, 2008. (General Modernism in Cincinnati).

Gordon, Elizabeth, ed. HOUSE BEAUTIFUL (Magazine), February and March, 1960, Vol. 102, Nos. 2-3. (Corbett House).

Gordon, Elizabeth. HOUSE BEAUTIFUL (Magazine), "Threat to the Next America". April 1953, Vol. 95, p.126-130.

Merkel, Jayne, ed. IN ITS PLACE; THE ARCHITECTURE OF CARL STRAUSS AND RAY ROUSH. Cincinnati: The Contemporary Arts Center 1984. (Catalogue of CAC Strauss and Roush Exhibit, with Stone House).

Penick, Monica. TASTEMAKER: ELIZABETH GORDON, HOUSE BEAUTIFUL, AND THE POSTWAR AMERICAN HOUSE. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017. (Corbett House).

Simpson, Scott T. "Building A2: The Underappreciated Spectacle of Crosley Tower". 2021, Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.

Tubb, Shawn Patrick. CINCINNATI'S TERRACE PLAZA HOTEL: AN ICON OF AMERICAN MODERNISM. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Book Publishers, 2013. (Terrace Plaza Hotel and Natalie de Blois).


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