Cracking the Glass Ceiling

27 min readApr 2, 2015

A look back at the career of trailblazing architect Natalie de Blois

The following interview with Natalie de Blois was conducted by Detlef Mertins and published in 2006. It originally appeared in SOM Journal 4, the fourth edition in an ongoing book series that highlights the conceptual undercurrents being developed at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the leading architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world. The introduction has been updated and the story has been edited for length.

Natalie de Blois was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on April 2, 1921, and died on July 22, 2013, in Chicago. She completed her professional degree in Architecture at Columbia University in 1944 and began a 50-year career in architecture working initially with Ketchum, Gina & Sharp in New York. She joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in September 1944 and worked as a designer with Gordon Bunshaft on many significant projects, including Lever House, Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters, and Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters. During this period, de Blois achieved national recognition for her designs. From 1962 to 1974, she worked in the Chicago offices of SOM, where she became an associate partner in 1964. During the 1970s, de Blois became active in promoting greater awareness of women’s issues within the profession and was celebrated as an outstanding figure in the field. From 1980 to 1993, she taught at the University of Texas at Austin, where a scholarship was created in her name. She became a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1974 and in 1998 received the Romieniec Award of the Texas AIA for distinguished achievement in education.

Detlef Mertins was born on October 14, 1954, in Stuttgart, Germany, and died on January 13, 2011, in New York City. He wrote extensively on the history of modernism in the 20th century, including a monograph on Mies van Der Rohe and exhibition essays for the Museum of Modern Art, the Canadian Center for Architecture, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was Professor of Architecture and Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

Detlef Mertins: What was it that drew you into architecture?

Natalie de Blois: My father was a civil engineer with a big family and I was brought up during the Depression. My parents wanted all their children to go to college, but they didn’t have any money. They worked on getting us interested in going to college and expected that we all would. Mostly my father, but even my mother encouraged me as a young girl.

DM: Specifically to study architecture?

NdB: My father was an engineer, as were his father and grandfather. My mother was a schoolteacher. I was selected to be the one that would go into art. I told my father that I wanted to be an architect from the age of ten or twelve. He was always encouraging.

DM: You went to Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, to begin with.

NdB: I went there on a scholarship for one year only and then transferred to Columbia. My father wanted me to go to MIT. Of course, he didn’t have any money. At that time you had to take two years of college to get into an architectural school. Columbia was still an undergraduate program.

So my father kept tabs on Columbia as an alternative. I had letters to the school and talked to them. They changed their rules that year to require only one year of college instead of two. It was during the War in 1940. The fact was that they wanted women. We had foreign and 4-F students in the program. It wasn’t a large class. There were eighteen students including five women.

That was when I decided,
“You’re a woman and you’re in a man’s profession.
You better get a degree.”

Mario Salvadori, Natalie de Blois, and Philip Johnson. Photo courtesy of Natalie de Blois

DM: What was it like at Columbia?

NdB: I liked it. But already after my first year I thought, “Well, I want to get out of school and start working.” But I didn’t. I stayed. That was when I decided, “You’re a woman and you’re in a man’s profession. You better get a degree.” So I enjoyed my experience at Columbia. It was a good education. It wasn’t a Beaux Arts school. We took a survey course in math, descriptive geometry, and statistics as well as an introduction to design and history. There were yearly courses in materials and methods of construction. And we always had painting and sculpture in the art school. Professor Lally was the structural engineer. He invented the Lally column, so who better than Professor Lally. We got an awful lot of background in technical subjects — in structures and mechanical engineering, and I was given an award for my ability to understand structures. It was a New York State exam award, and I got that for the school, for the graduating class.

DM: Had you already started working at that time?

NdB: Yes. During the War everybody had to work. We had to work to eat. The Navy was stationed at Columbia — they had classes there. I earned money by teaching drafting. At summer break I worked at Babcock & Wilcox, who made boilers for the Russian Navy during the War. Their offices were in the Singer Sewing Machine Building in downtown New York. That was a great deal of fun. They wanted me to stay, and I vacillated but decided I’d go back to school.

During the school year, I worked for Frederick Kiesler. He was an architect and theater-set designer who taught at Columbia. He was able to draw well enough to get what he wanted built, like the chairs for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, but he didn’t know how to finalize his drawings. So he hired me. He was a short little man and lived in an apartment house — a penthouse on 23rd and 10th or 11th Avenue. He had his penthouse scaled for himself. I remember being much impressed that the furniture was small. I worked in his apartment.

I don’t think I ever saw the gallery finished, but I went up there with him in the service elevator. I remember one day as Mr. Kiesler walked me to the subway, he stopped and talked to somebody named Marcel Duchamp. He introduced me to him and afterwards said, “He’s the man who painted Nude Descending a Staircase.”

We worked every day, every night. We worked Saturday.
We worked Sunday. We worked holidays — everything.

DM: How did you get from school to Skidmore?

NdB: When I graduated in January 1944, I didn’t have to look for a job. Morris Ketchum was a graduate of Columbia and he wanted to hire someone from my class, so I was chosen. Ketchum rented space from Wally Harrison in the International Building at Radio City. It was just a little room, about ten by fifteen feet. Ketchum had a desk at one end and Stanley Sharp and I were at the other end with the window.

Ketchum had done two spectacular modern shops on Fifth Avenue, Lederer’s and Ciro’s. They were some of the earliest modern architecture in New York City. So I was excited to work for Ketchum, because I knew he did modern architecture. I didn’t want to do what we called eclectic architecture.

We worked every day, every night. We worked Saturday. We worked Sunday. We worked holidays — everything. We got $25 a week. That was good money.

It was a wonderful experience. Very intense. His office got bigger when he had enough work. He moved to a penthouse at 5 East 57th Street, which was where Skidmore was. I worked for Ketchum nine months. So it was probably after five or six months that we moved. There was a fellow architect who joined the office. He used to take me out dancing to hear Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. I went out with him quite often. He was very fond of me, but he was not encouraged. So he went to Mr. Ketchum and told him that he just couldn’t work with me there. Mr. Ketchum called me over to his desk. We were all in one room. He said he was sorry, I’d have to leave. Just like that. Of course, I hadn’t experienced a shock like that before.

DM: You were just starting. You had been an excellent student, were doing good work, and suddenly…

NdB: It all happened within a day. He said, “Well, I’ll call up Mr. Skidmore. He’s downstairs — see if he needs anybody.” So he called up Skidmore and told me to go down there. There was no, “Sorry to see you go,” or anything like that. Just “Pack up your things and move downstairs.” So that’s how I got to Skidmore. I went down to Skidmore crushed, and was hired to do drafting on the Abraham Lincoln housing project. I worked just doing lettering and erasing and all those things. Of course, there was lots to learn. Then before I knew it, Skidmore was asking me to work on design projects for him. There were no designers in those days.

The Terrace Plaza Hotel. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

DM: Were you the first designer then?

NdB: Well, I think I was. I was the first designer that the New York office had, other than the partners. In the beginning I worked on the bathhouses at Jones Beach. Of course, he got that because he had contacts with Robert Moses. Skidmore was very much the society person. Always very nice, I thought. I knew his wife and met his children. Later he always talked to me about my family. When the Cincinnati Hotel job came in…

DM: The Terrace Plaza Hotel.

NdB: Even before the Terrace Plaza we worked on the United Nations. Skidmore was a technical advisor to Wally Harrison on the UN headquarters. I was shipped down there for a while, and brought back to 5 East 57th Street to work on a renovation of the New York State Building from the 1939 World’s Fair. In October 1946 the General Assembly meeting was held there. That was my design. I was on the front page of The New York Herald Tribune. This is how exciting it was. I worked on the renovation and the translations booth and the dais. I did a lot of drawing, and studies of alternatives. You realize there are millions of solutions.

The General Assembly of the United Nations meets at its temporary headquarters: the renovated New York State Building, now the Queens Museum

For the Terrace Plaza, it was a mixed-use building, which is interesting for that time. Thomas Emery Sons owned the Netherland Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati. They purchased a nearby half-block and made long-term leases with two department stores, J.C. Penney and Bond’s Men’s Clothing. The hotel was built above these. I was never sent to Cincinnati.

DM: This is a project where you did everything. You did the planning, designed the structure and the interiors.

NdB: The scheme of the two commercial buildings and the hotel was worked out with the client. The sketches are all by me. I did the works. Skidmore said they’d never done a hotel, and that’s true. The Oak Ridge project in Tennessee gave the firm credibility. It was a very secret project. When it came time to locate a small dining room on the top of the building, I came up with six or eight different schemes. Mr. Skidmore took them all down to Cincinnati and they decided they liked the one with the circular plan. Mr. Skidmore called me up and said, “Natalie, they like the round one. Go ahead…”

The Terrace Plaza Hotel. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

DM: Was it your favorite too?

NdB: No, it wasn’t my favorite. Mine was rectangular. It wasn’t cantilevered like that. It really went out like the rest of the building.

Joan Miró’s work for the Terrace Plaza Hotel as featured in the New York Herald Tribune

John Emery was the head of the Cincinnati Museum of Art and he hired Miró to do a mural in that room. Miró came to New York and painted it up in Harlem. I went to see it. It was in a great, big, open kind of space, maybe a garage. Before sending it to Cincinnati, they exhibited it at the Museum of Modern Art. This was in 1950. They put my rendering of the space next to Miró’s painting. Here I was in the Museum of Modern Art and there was an article about it in The New York Herald Tribune: “Miró Has Fun Painting Cincinnati Mural.” It includes the picture. I imagine Skidmore’s name was on it, but my name wasn’t. I designed it all, did the planning and the sections and the elevations, and it was published all over.

DM: When Gordon [Bunshaft] came into the office after the War, did you start working with him right away?

NdB: No, we were still working on the hotel. Gordon was very interested in the art program — the Steinberg mural in the dining room and the Stuart Davis sculpture in the bar, the Miró mural, and the Calder in the lobby.

DM: Was the art program for the hotel Emery’s idea?

NdB: Emery hired Miró. I don’t think Skidmore would have gone out and hired Miró or even have suggested it. Certainly Bill Brown wouldn’t have. So I’m sure that Emery started it, and then Skidmore hired Bill Baldwin, an architect, to work on some of the interiors. He worked on the bar. I worked on the lounge, cafeteria, and the hotel rooms — everything else. You asked about Gordon, I remember he introduced me to Sandy Calder and we went out to lunch. He used Calder on many other buildings too that I worked on. I was busy when he came into the office, and he started working on the Veterans Hospital in Brooklyn. I didn’t work on that.

New York University Medical Center and the cover of MoMA’s bulletin about its exhibition on SOM in 1950. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto, image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

DM: What was the first project the two of you worked on?

NdB: It was the New York University Medical Center.

DM: The hospital was in the 1950 MoMA show as a project.

NdB: Yes. We worked initially on the rehabilitation building. After the war, rehabilitation was a big thing. Then I worked with Gordon on the alumni center and the other elements of the complex.

DM: The photograph of the model is interesting because it shows how it fit into the city around it.

NdB: Yes. The project included a school, a library and dormitories, doctors’ offices, and a hospital.

DM: Did you do the programming for it?

NdB: No, Bob Cutler had a staff who did the program. Roy Schmauder did hospital programming, which became very specialized. He also did laboratory programming.

DM: In this project, like the hotel, every piece of the program is given its own expression and then combined into an ensemble. It’s an enormous project, so this design strategy seems to work well. It lets you develop or change a part without affecting the whole.

The first thing you saw was the model of Lever House.
It was small but spectacular.

NdB: The big overall project was developed so that they could go out and raise money. I’m not sure that I even worked on it later. There were so many projects coming up one right after the other.

DM: Did you see the exhibition at MoMA?

NdB: Yes, I did. The first thing you saw was the model of Lever House. It was small but spectacular. I hadn’t seen the model before. Of course, this is 1950, so there were lots of hospitals and schools and shopping centers. I designed shopping centers. Then Gordon and I did some work for the First National Bank in Fort Worth, Texas.

Louis Skidmore (left) presents a model of the Lever House. Photo © Leo Trachtenberg

DM: Gordon called you his best designer when he introduced you to his clients.

NdB: Yes.

DM: What was it about your work that he liked?

NdB: He often liked my ideas and I understood what he wanted.

DM: Were you sensibilities closely attuned?

NdB: I wouldn’t quite say that. I always thought it was wonderful that Gordon was a modernist. Most of the architects in New York weren’t doing modern architecture at that time.

DM: Did you clash?

NdB: No, we didn’t clash. We never clashed. He would do things that were strange, perhaps. We had a big meeting about the Kennedy International Airport job. Calder was doing a big mobile in it. We had a presentation board that was enormous, in several pieces. We were getting ready for that meeting. Gordon looked at me and he said, “You can’t come to the meeting unless you go home first and change your clothes. I don’t like green.” So I went home and changed my clothes and then went to the meeting.

DM: Did he ever say that to a man?

NdB: No, of course not. These were things that had to do with being female, I guess. Another time a mock-up was made in Westchester, which is north of New York City. He said, “Meet me Saturday at such-and-such an hour,” because he wanted to look at the mockup, and he wanted me to be there so I would know what he wanted. So I drove from Connecticut on a Saturday. I had three or four children in the back seat of my car. We went to the mockup site. Gordon was there with Nina, his wife, and their dog. He had the dog running in an outside area. He said, “Don’t bring your kids in here Natalie. They can’t come in here because the dog is here.” I had to leave my children out in the car in the parking lot.

But he was supportive too. I applied for a Fulbright in 1950 when I was working on the Istanbul Hilton Hotel. I thought, “Wouldn’t this be great.” I had one child at that time. Gordon wrote glowing letters. I had to include pictures of what I was working on. He said, “Tell them you designed it all.” He was very supportive of me in this fashion, professionally. But his treatment of me as a woman was typical of that time.

Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

DM: Let’s talk a bit about Connecticut General. How did you come to the idea that you would make a single mass instead of composing with different building masses — just one very, very large floor plan with courtyards in it. That seems like a new idea at that point.

NdB: I came back from Germany in 1953, after I was on the Fulbright, and the programming for Connecticut General had just been finished by Roger Radford. Roger came up with alternate schemes — a high-rise building, a low-rise building, and multi-buildings. I never saw these alternatives. The client selected the low-rise scheme. Then I diagrammed and assigned areas. The courtyards were located in this low-rise scheme so that no employee had a workstation more than thirty feet from a window. Roger was put on another project. I worked the whole time on the building after that. It was the first job where we worked with Isamu Noguchi.

Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

DM: It’s interesting that the building is lifted up off the ground, creating an expansive and open ground plane with landscaped courtyards. Were you thinking of this as a public space? Other projects also have this kind of public ground plane.

NdB: Many Skidmore projects had open public ground planes inspired by Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier. But at Connecticut General the ground floor was not thought to be public space, since it had other functions like employee recreation and services, dining, and a large computer facility. With the Dusseldorf Consulate, we had a good excuse for lifting the building off the ground. That was security. In fact, we were ahead of the game in terms of security. The outdoor terrace was designed by Noguchi, who I worked with on the Lever House and Emhart projects. Gordon didn’t like one of the four courts designed by Noguchi. He showed me what Noguchi had done and said, “Now Natalie you design this one.” So I designed the fourth one.

DM: These are great buildings. I wanted to also ask you about the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul which you worked on. There are a number of buildings from the 1950s that have a grid-like façade. The building appears like a cage.

NdB: This building was a concrete box frame. I did research, and decided that’s the way it should be done. When we did Terrace Plaza Hotel, we had beams between rooms or between every other room at thirty-foot intervals. I thought, “We have to get rid of these dropped beams.” I had seen some other hotels with box frames in publications. It’s good acoustically and structurally. I said that’s what I wanted to do, and Gordon said, “Sure.”

Istanbul Hilton Hotel. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

DM: How did you feel about the fluid relationship that you had to many projects — that you might come and go on a project and others did too? Was that kind of teamwork satisfying?

NdB: I never had any problems. To begin with, on some of the buildings, other people did the programming. Or people were already on it, but you worked with them.

DM: It seems generous for work to be shared that way, and that various people can make contributions according to their own strengths and interests, but then it’s a collective project.

Basically I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of how you put things together.

NdB: Oh, it is a collective project. In the beginning of the job, we would sit around and talk about the materials, the degree of finish, and the cost. I counted on civil and mechanical engineers. Some of my best experiences were working with someone like Mr. Weiskopf who died years and years ago. Because basically I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of how you put things together. In Chicago they didn’t quite understand what I wanted.

DM: How did you get along with them if you wanted to have more involvement in the nuts and bolts? What happened during the construction stage?

NdB: Shop drawings and site supervision were important. A lot of these projects, like Connecticut General, were done with people I worked with over and over again.

DM: You got to know each other really well.

NdB: Yes, for sure. New York was different than Chicago. Chicago had mechanical and structural engineers in the office. In New York, we were in a small office and went out for the engineers.

DM: You also did Pepsi-Cola, which is an extraordinary essay in lightness and transparency — crisp, orthogonal, almost levitating. Is that the kind of architecture you preferred?

NdB: Yes, I loved doing it. Bob Cutler was the project manager. He was a friend of the president.

Pepsi-Cola World Corporation Headquarters. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

DM: What were you trying to achieve at Pepsi-Cola?

NdB: Gordon asked me, “What can we do there,” and so I did the zoning and massing studies of the building. I had come up with the zoning. There were no alternatives. The zoning was affected by the small site and the height of the adjacent buildings. Gordon came up with the structural concept so that there were no columns on the exterior walls. It was a smooth box.

When we first started on it, we worked on the site as though it included five extra pieces of property along 58th Street that were later built into an apartment house by James Polshek. Pepsi-Cola couldn’t acquire them. So we went ahead with the small site. It could have come out further along 59th Street, but then it would have had to step back. Gordon decided against that.

Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters. Photos © Ezra Stoller | Esto

DM: How did you decide that the ground plan should be so open — that the building should appear to be levitating?

NdB: That was what we all liked and what we did often.

DM: How did the design of the curtain wall come about?

NdB: The curtain wall is in twelve-foot modules. Not five feet, not six feet, but twelve feet. You can’t do twelve-foot modules and give a client flexibility with the layout of offices. Once we found out how big the building was and how many twelve-foot offices we could put in, we came up with a scheme for movable mullions so that you could have fifteen-foot offices, or nine-foot offices without breaking up the exterior. I felt it was interesting that Gordon was going to impose that on this client. I think it was a good idea for this client. He wasn’t really that concerned about the offices. The columns were set back along 59th Street to accommodate secretarial space. We made the glass just about as big as you could make it at that time. We always did custom window walls, because if you’re doing a whole building, there is no point in using stock elements. I think General Bronze did the window wall fabrication.

DM: Tell me about the time you were on television.

NdB: Around 1960, I was selected to be the lead person on the television show “To Tell the Truth.” I was on stage with several other women and we were asked by Dorothy Kilgalin and Don Ameche and others to guess which one of us was the woman who designed the recent Union Carbide Building. A couple of them guessed correctly, and a couple of them didn’t. The next day, Mr. Owens called me from California. He had heard I was on TV. He asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to be on TV?” so he could have seen it. His taxi driver in San Francisco said he had just seen somebody from Skidmore Owings & Merrill on TV. All kinds of people — the man who was in charge of Connecticut General had seen it and wrote me a letter.

Natalie de Blois featured in the January 1958 issue of Fortune magazine

DM: That would have been about the same time as the article on SOM in Fortune magazine that included you..

NdB: Yes, it was.

DM: It’s interesting that in the late 1950s your work was publicly recognized. You were closely identified with specific buildings.

NdB: Yes, I had a lot of publicity. Later, when I was living in Austin, Texas, one of my neighbors went on a guided tour of New York City, where they pointed out this building [Union Carbide] and said it was designed by a woman architect, Natalie de Blois. She came back and couldn’t believe that she was living in the neighborhood with somebody who had designed that building in New York. So I was always given a lot of the credit for that as the project designer.

Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters. Photo © Wolfgang Hoyt | Esto

DM: What were the big challenges for you on the Union Carbide tower?

NdB: It was on the railroad tracks, so we had problems with where to put the mechanical and electrical services. You couldn’t put them in the basement. We had a little bit of a basement on Madison Avenue. But it couldn’t have served this building because there was no way of getting across the tracks. So that was a challenge.

DM: Did you do the zoning on that project?

NdB: Yes, I did. Gordon wanted the building to go straight up. Based on that, we determined where the columns had to be. So that was very interesting. Then we did a lot of detailed studies about materials and the lighting system inside and out.

DM: The photograph of the office interiors with the luminous ceiling has become an icon of the period.

NdB: We integrated the air diffusers and lights with the partitions. We had to have it all tested. You don’t get a chance to design the light fixtures in most buildings. You don’t see any grills for the air. That was very special.

Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

DM: Did you make a full-scale mockup of the interiors as you did on other projects?

NdB: We always did mockups. The design had to be tested, technically and visually.

DM: How would you describe the team of people working with you?

NdB: It was a good-sized team. We had people working on partition systems and air conditioning. We had structural and mechanical engineers.

DM: But before you got to the construction drawings…

NdB: Structural and mechanical requirements influenced design development, especially on this project. I often had a team who worked for me all the time. They would go from one job to another.

DM: That would give you a lot of consistency. You worked with the same job captain and with Gordon as the partner. You had your own staff. Even though a lot of people moved around within the firm, there was also a lot of continuity. The team was able to move from one project to another.

NdB: Moving around happens because clients can’t make up their minds, or change their minds. The project stops for a while or you wait for decisions. Given all the projects that other people were working on, you had to be prepared to move around, back and forth.

He said, “You can go out to Chicago if you want.
If you go, you must realize that you’ll never be a partner.”

DM: What were the circumstances that led you to leave New York?

NdB: After I had my fourth child, I divorced my husband. He remarried and moved to Chicago. His second wife wrote that she’d like to help take care of the children. So in the summer of 1962 I brought the two younger boys out to Chicago. I wanted to take the two older boys to Greece and Turkey. That was the first time I saw the hotel in Istanbul. That was when I walked into the Skidmore office in Chicago.

DM: What did you think when Bruce Graham asked you to come and work with him?

NdB: I said I would think about it, and I spoke to Gordon. Gordon told me three things. He said, “You can go out to Chicago if you want. If you go, you must realize that you’ll never be a partner.” I wasn’t aiming to be a partner. I was perfectly happy doing what I was doing. There was an article published that had said, “Isn’t it funny she’s never become a partner.” That’s maybe how that idea started. Secondly, he said I’d never get along with Bruce, and thirdly, I could always come back. Then I had to make up my mind. There were other reasons for going too; New York was comparatively slow then.

Equitable Life Assurance Company. Photo © SOM, Wurts Brothers

DM: What was your first building in Chicago?

NdB: Equitable Life Assurance was the first. The concept had already been developed and the project was under contract. But there was still a lot of work to do. At first in Chicago, I worked with Bruce on Horizon House, a Tishman construction project. I first worked with developers on the Emhart project.

DM: That was in the 1960s when the development industry really began to take shape. Was it better than working for clients who would occupy the buildings?

NdB: No, not better, but certainly different. They had different aims. One was trying to make money, and the other was trying to satisfy their client.

DM: Did the developers take over a lot of decision-making from the architects?

NdB: Oh yes. There is no question about that.

DM: Why do you say then that it was good to work with them?

NdB: Because you learned a lot.

DM: What did you learn?

NdB: You learn how much things cost and about new technology. They had new ideas. It was good fun. They were so quick. Materials and methods of construction were changing and the developers were sharp. And you knew where you stood.

Emhart Manufacturing Company. Photo © Ezra Stoller | Esto

DM: How did you get involved with women’s organizations in the early 1970s?

NdB: In 1973 I was one of the founding members of the “Chicago Women in Architecture.” When we first started those meetings, for two or three years, we were going strong. We had a group of about ten loyal women, including Carol Barney and Margaret Young. I thought it was an issue of getting together with like women and supporting them in whatever way we could.

Consciousness-raising was just a little bit over my head. I didn’t go for that. In 1973, I was invited to Washington University. One of our members had gone to Washington University in St. Louis. They planned to have a “Women and Minorities” conference and this woman asked me if I’d speak.

DM: You gave two papers, I believe.

NdB: Yes. That was the first time I went to this sort of meeting. And I was just amazed! There were all these people out there, men and women, asking questions and, saying “How did you do this?” and “How did you do that?”

DM: You were just on the verge of leaving the firm. You left the next year.

NdB: Yes, in 1974, after thirty years. At the “Women and Minorities” conference I ran into my friend Judy Edelman, who had gone to Columbia and was in the class behind me. Judy was involved in the National Women in Architecture Task Force of the American Institute of Architects, which had been started. She asked me to take Joan Sprague’s place in 1975. So I went to Washington and took part in the task force. The task force had specific aims and goals that concerned women in the profession.

Between 1973 and 1975 I also attended several conferences put on by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. I took part in some reviews at Chicago Circle Campus and decided I would like to teach. While I was still in Chicago, I also went to New York to talk with Susana Torre and Judith Paine who were writing a book and planning an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum called Women in Architecture. It traveled around the U.S. and was very influential. The show came to Houston when I was there, and I took part in making that possible.

Lincoln Center Library. Photo © Alexandre Georges

DM: What did you do when you left SOM?

NdB: I took a long vacation and rode my bicycle around France and Germany. And I traveled through England. I had always had three weeks vacation. After I moved to Chicago, I used to take my children to Europe in those weeks. We traveled in small areas.

DM: Were your children with you in 1974 too?

NdB: No. I went by myself, and then joined my oldest son who was studying in Tübingen, Germany.

DM: At that point they must have been grown up. Raising four children through all this was an extraordinary accomplishment. Were the people in the office aware of the fact that you had four children and that you were responsible for your family as well as your work?

NdB: A few did who I knew quite well. But I didn’t have pictures of my children on my desk.

DM: How did your children feel about you being a professional woman spending so much time working?

NdB: You’d have to ask them. They are very supportive and proud of their mother.

DM: What did you do after leaving SOM and after your bicycle trip to Europe?

NdB: I had to work. At that time there were quite a few people leaving SOM. The office was trimming down. There wasn’t a lot of work. Work was slow in New York too. So I went to Houston because that is where there was a lot of work. There were about six or eight Skidmore people in the office of Neuhaus and Taylor, later called 3-D International. They asked me if I would come down. So I went to Houston for an interview. I had never looked for a job before. Ketchum had come to me and then Skidmore was given to me.

So I took the SOM book to an interview in Houston. Of course, they loved it and they hired me. They did a lot of overseas work. I went to Riyadh and designed the Pan-American Hotel, which was never built. That was fun. I enjoyed that. But every single year there was a different partner in charge of design. People got fired. People got hired. People left. Harwood Taylor, who had hired me, committed suicide. So after four years, I left. My youngest son had started engineering school at the University of Texas, so I went to Austin. Austin is a nice city. We got on our bikes and kept going and going. I liked that. So I came back again and bought a house.

I bought the house from a real estate agent in Austin whose husband was the Dean of the architecture school there — Hal Box. The agent went home and told her husband that she had sold a house to a woman architect. He said, “Who?” She said, “Natalie De Blois.” I had met him at conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture at Cranbrook. He called me up and asked me to teach at the school. I could teach when I wanted, as long as I wanted, and whatever I wanted.

I just loved to teach. I loved the students. I had such a wonderful time.

DM: What an offer!

NdB: I started out by teaching part-time. I just loved to teach. I loved the students. I had such a wonderful time. It was also very educational for me because I no longer could count on structural engineers and civil engineers, and people at my beck and call to answer all my questions. I had to teach everything.

When I went down there, Hal Box said he didn’t think that the students would like doing high-rise buildings. But the students loved doing high-rise buildings. They came to the class once and they wanted to take it the next year and the next. I had some students who were able to wrangle themselves into my class three years running. They just thought it was the best thing in the world.

Natalie de Blois examining a skyscraper model with her students at the UT-Austin School of Architecture in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin

This was Texas. They didn’t know anything about elevators. The teachers did houses. So they used to say, “Come teach my students how to design an office building.” I enjoyed it. After I had been there maybe five or six years, I found out that if I stayed for ten years, I could get retirement pay. So I stayed thirteen years. I quit when I was seventy-three. I could have stayed. At the time, I was also working as a consultant for a fellow named David Graeber, who had been one of the four people in charge of design at 3-D International. That’s where I met him. He was just a great friend and a very exciting person to work for. His spirit and his interest in what I was doing was great. So he hired me as a consultant on several jobs while I was teaching part-time.

DM: You stopped teaching in 1993, which is really not that long ago. It’s a little over ten years now. Are you still in touch with any of the students?

NdB: Oh lots of them. That’s a wonderful thing. They call me when they open up their offices, or get married. There’s a picture of me with four former students seventeen years ago in the New York office of SOM. The former UT students were all working at Skidmore. You see, they wanted to go and work at Skidmore too.

Natalie de Blois with former students in 1988 at the New York offices of SOM. Photo courtesy of Natalie de Blois




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