Heritage Moments: Louise Blanchard Bethune, Buffalo’s gift to architecture and women’s rights

Feb 29, 2016

Buffalonians often talk about famous architects like H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright who came to town, executed a commission or three, then left. They say little about such accomplished home-grown architects as Richard A. Waite, who designed the Ontario provincial parliament building in Toronto; James A. Johnson and E.B. Green, who designed many of Buffalo’s civic landmarks; or John Wade, designer of Buffalo’s greatest building, City Hall.


Nor do they say much about the most significant architect Buffalo ever produced: Louise Blanchard Bethune – America’s first female professional architect, and a woman who designed many of the city’s signature edifices.

Born in 1856 in the Finger Lakes town of Waterloo, Louise Blanchard and her family moved to Buffalo when she was 12. She graduated from Central High School (at the time the city’s only public secondary school) intent on pursuing a career in architecture – something unheard of for a woman of the era. At 20 she was hired as a draftsman – or more properly, draftswoman – by Waite and his design partner, F.W. Caulkins.

Her career rise was meteoric. Just five years later, at the Ninth Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, she announced that she was forming her own firm. Later in 1881 she started the firm, Bethune & Bethune with her new husband, fellow architect Richard Bethune. In 1885, with the backing of Sullivan, she was named a member of the Western Association of Architects. In 1888 she became the first female member of the American Institute of Architects, and in 1889, she was named a fellow of the organization. Whatever restrictions she faced because of her gender, thanks to her prodigious ability she quickly overcame them – usually with the enthusiastic backing of some of the most prominent male architects of her time.

Bethune & Bethune designed a multitude of major buildings in Buffalo and Western New York during the late 19th century and early 20th, with Louise Blanchard Bethune often taking the lead. The firm put up 18 public schools, several factories and commercial buildings, a regimental armory, a women’s prison, the baseball ground on East Ferry and Michigan that would later become Offermann Stadium, and her own crowning work, the Hotel Lafayette, which still stands proudly on Lafayette Square today. By the time she retired in in 1908, the number of working female architects in America had risen to nearly 50.

Louise Blanchard Bethune not only walked the walk; she also talked the talk, and that was important. In 1891 she refused to take part in the competition to design the women’s pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Her objection: the prize for the winning design was some 10 times lower than that for any of the other buildings at the exposition. She summed up her guiding principle in a speech on “Women in Architecture” given to the Buffalo chapter of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union on March 6, 1891:

“This brings us to another all-important point. The open sesame to the favor of our compeers and the respect of the public is ‘equal remuneration for equal service,’ and a strict observance of all the honorable traditions of our profession….”

It is a goal that even today has not yet been fully realized. Louise Blanchard Bethune was a remarkable woman, far ahead of her time.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Questioner: Krystina D. Lucas
Louise Blanchard Bethune: Margo Davis
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Post-production: Kim Ferullo (Chameleon Communications, 510 Franklin St., Buffalo)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)
Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, Buffalo State Theater Dept., 2014-15 academic year)

Special thanks to:

Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year
Connor De Junco, WBNY production director, 2014-15 academic year
Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State
Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept.

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein