Natalie de Blois, 1921-2013

  • Natalie-de-Blois-designed-the-Equitable-Building-WWP

Woman Category: Academy & Education, Activism & Feminism, and ArtsWoman Tags: Architect, Chicago Metro Area Women, and Educator

  • HerStory

    A pioneer architect, an educator, and an activist. Several of her designs are included in the tallest woman-designed buildings in the world.

    Natalie de Blois was born in Paterson, New Jersey, her father was a civil engineer, and her mother was a teacher. From an early age, she had an interest in buildings, and by the age of 10, she decided to become an architect. In junior high school, she refused to participate in a cooking and sewing class mandatory for girls. instead, with her parents’ support, she took mechanical drawing classes, the only girl in the class. After high school, she attended the Western College for Women for a year, which allowed her to enroll in architecture studies at Columbia University. To pay for her tuition, she worked as a draftsperson and taught drafting to fellow students.
    At 23, de Blois moved to NYC and began working at Ketchum, Gina, and Sharpe, but was fired nine months later because she rejected one of her male colleagues’ courting. She then joined Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), where she started at the technical lettering and later became the first woman at the firm to hold the senior designer position. Her first lead project was the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, which received national publicity for its modernism. Afterward, she was assigned to various major projects, including the Union Carbide Building, the Pepsi building, and the Connecticut General campus. Although she had great success and gain respect from other architects, she still suffered from harsh sexism, been excluded from office lunches, and even once asked not to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony because “she looked pregnant.”
    At 42, de Blois got divorced and moved with her four sons to Chicago to work at the local branch of SOM. Within two years, she was named an associate partner.
    As a woman surrounded by men, as well as a single mother, de Blois was well aware of the bias against female architects, and in 1973 she co-founded the Chicago Women in Architecture – an organization that advances the status of women in the profession. Throughout her career, she spoke out of the importance of recognizing women as just architects, rather than “female architects,” and she promoted an initiative for the American Institute of Architects to interview female students across the country.
    At the age of 54, she moved to Houston, Texas, where she joined Neuhaus & Taylor firm. Her largest project there was the Fifth Avenue Plaza in downtown Seattle, which at the time was the tallest private office building in the city. A few years later, she began teaching at the University of Texas School of Architecture as a faculty member. In 1993, at the age of 72, she retired from teaching. A year later, she also gave up the practice and returned to Chicago. She passed away when she was 92 years old.

    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She had 4 siblings.
    • At 53, she took a year off and spent it cycling through Europe.
    • In the 60s’ she appeared on the television show “To Tell the Truth,” in which the audience had to guess between her and two other women who designed the new Union Carbide Building.
    • The Natalie de Blois scholarship is named in her honor.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * Edward J. Romieniec Award for Outstanding Educational Contributions (1998)
    * Her work was featured in the 1977 exhibition Women in American Architecture

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Natalie de Blois (1921-2013) Visits the Terrace Plaza

    Architect Natalie de Blois designed the Terrace Plaza in 1946 while working for SOM. She never visited this important modernist work of architecture until 2008. Cincinnati Preservation Association hosted her visit. We are proud to have provided some of the recognition she deserved while she was living. You can see the delight she had in visiting her first major work. The clip is an excerpt from a preservation about Modernism in Cincinnati by faculty at DAAP University of Cincinnati.

  • The Equitable Building, which was co-designed by de Blois. Photo credit - WWP team