A Posthumous Tribute to an Unsung Architect (Natalie de Blois, 1921 – 2013)

On 11.05.13, AIA Chicago will be honoring the life of Natalie de Blois, FAIA, the 2010 AIA Chicago Lifetime Achievement Award winner, who passed away on 07.22.13 at the age of 92. Speakers at the tribute will include former Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) colleague John Zils, FAIA, Craig Dykers, AIA, a former student at University of Texas, and her son, Robert.

Born in Paterson, NJ, in 1921, de Blois set her sights on architecture at a young age. In 1944, she graduated from Columbia University with a degree in architecture. She worked briefly with Ketchum, Gina and Sharp in New York City, but was fired after resisting the advances of a colleague. She later joined SOM, where she was promoted to associate partner in 1964.

At SOM, de Blois left her mark on some of the Modern movement’s most iconic structures, including New York’s Lever House and Chicago’s Equitable Building. She built up an impressive portfolio of national and international work, with projects from Connecticut to Germany and Turkey.

De Blois was a pioneering female presence in the male-dominated world of architecture. Despite her achievements, the profession’s glass ceiling impeded her from reaching top levels of recognition. At SOM, her contributions received little acknowledgement. She was denied access to the Union League Club, was told not to show up at an opening when she was pregnant, and lost her seniority after taking maternity leave. She eventually left the firm in 1975 and moved to Houston, where she joined Neuhaus and Taylor. In Texas, de Blois also began her career as a beloved professor of architecture at the University of Texas in Austin.

De Blois said of her career during an interview for Chicago Architect in 2010: “I didn’t have it easy, but I sure had a good time…I had already gotten my reward at Skidmore. I knew what I had done. They couldn’t take that away from me.”

In spite of the setbacks she faced, the attitude of de Blois bears a striking resemblance to that of another female architect: Denise Scott Brown, RIBA, Int. FRIBA. At a luncheon at the Center for Architecture in support of a petition to revise the criteria for the AIA Gold Medal to include collaborating teams, Scott Brown stated: “I have had ecstasy working as an architect. I’ve had all these problems but it’s really been worth it and I have managed, Pritzker or not, AIA Gold Medal or not, to win my own self-respect.”

Paying tribute to the life and work of de Blois means not only recognizing her immense passion for and dedication to her work, but also working to put an end to the gender inequalities that kept her name in the dark and continue to create hardships for women in the field. De Blois was a founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture and served on the AIA Women in Architecture Task Force in Washington, DC. She also founded the Chicago Women in Architecture Scholarship Fund, an organization which annually awards monetary gifts to outstanding women students in architecture at the University of Illinois and the Illinois Institute of Technology. To make a contribution in her honor, please mail to the Chicago Women in Architecture Foundation, PO Box 10788, Chicago, Il 60610.