Sophia Hayden and the World Columbian Exposition

miss sophia hayden

Sophia Hayden (1868 – 1953) designed the Women’s Building for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. It was beautiful, admired, and won an award, and even though she had an architecture degree from MIT, Sophia didn’t pursue her career as an architect after the Fair.

Sophia was born in Santiago, Chile, to a Chilean mother and an American father. When she was six, she was sent to Boston to live with her grandparents and to receive her education. She became interested in architecture while she was in high school and was admitted to the architecture program at MIT after graduation. In 1890, she graduated with honors as the first woman to receive an architecture degree from the school.

Unable to find a job in her chosen field, Sophia began teaching drawing at a Boston high school. In 1891, she entered a competition to design the women’s building for the World’s Fair and won. She was paid $1000 for her design even though men were receiving $10,000 for similar work. Daniel Burnham, the architect responsible for the overall design of the fair, was pleased with her work. Execution of the construction was left with Burnham, but Sophia returned to finalize the interior and exterior designs.

Women's Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893
Women’s Building at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893

Although Sophia received an award for the “delicacy of style, artistic taste, and geniality and elegance of the interior hall” there were conflicts. Her design principles were compromised because of many changes demanded by the committees in charge. She was also criticized for the feminity of her design at the same time her technical skills were acknowledged. Her frustration was pointed to as “evidence” of women’s “unfitness for supervising construction.”

Bertha Palmer
Bertha Palmer

All of Sophia’s problems at the Fair can’t be attributed to the men, however. Bertha Honoré Palmer, a well-known socialite and philanthropist, was selected to be the President of the Board of Lady Managers. In her capacity as President, she solicited donations from wealthy women to adorn the exterior and the interior of the Women’s Building. Sophia felt that these items would be inconsistent with her vision for the building and rejected them. Bertha’s decision to accept them held sway. Regardless of Sophia’s expert design, Mrs. Potter Palmer had more influence than a 23 year old woman from the east.

Whether or not her experience at the fair was the reason, Sophia didn’t work as an architect again. She married William Blackstone Bennett, an artist, and lived a quiet life until her death in 1953.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

3 thoughts on “Sophia Hayden and the World Columbian Exposition

  • May 21, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    That is a very interesting but somewhat sad story Susan, it looks a very fine building and she obviously had real talent. I also love the post above, with the bird’s-eye view of the whole Fair complex, wonderful.

    • May 21, 2013 at 9:11 pm

      I agree Arran, it is sad. Thank you for being the first to comment on my new experiment. 🙂 I love this time period and there are a lot of great cartoons and graphics. Thanks for reading!

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