Louise Blanchard Bethune is widely considered to be the first woman to practice as a professional architect in the United States. She participated in the design of approximately 150 buildings in the Buffalo and New England areas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and was also the first woman member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the first woman to be honored as an AIA Fellow.
She was born in 1856 in Waterloo New York and schooled at home until age 11. Her father, Dalson Blanchard, was principal of the Waterloo Union School, where he also taught mathematics. During her childhood, Louise loved drawing and constructing models of buildings and different structures. Her family moved to Buffalo, where she graduated from high school in 1874. For the two years following, she taught, traveled, and studied, hoping to prepare herself for the architectural school at Cornell.
Then, at the age of 20, she was offered a job as a draftsman in the office of the prominent Buffalo architectural and building firm of Richard A. Waite and F. W. Caulkins. She worked for them for five years as a student apprentice and assistant, mastering the techniques of drafting and architectural design.
During her employment there Louise met a fellow student, a Canadian draftsman named Robert Armour Bethune. The couple soon opened an architectural office together in 1881. This move was timed to coincide with the Women’s Congress being held here at that time, so both of Louise’s interests intertwined.
In December of that year the couple was married, and the firm became R.A. and L. Bethune. Soon after their marriage they welcomed a son Charles W. Bethune, their only child in 1883.
As the years passed, the practice flourished, and in 1890, they added William R. Fuchs to the firm, and our name became Bethune, Bethune, and Fuchs. During this time, Louise believed that women’s complete emancipation lay in equal pay for equal service. In 1893, she refused to enter the women’s architectural design competition for the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair. She didn’t believe in competitions, and to make matters even worse, the women’s prizes were less than the men’s!
If Louise specialized in any form of architecture, it was in school buildings. She had a hand in designing 18 schools in Western New York, including Hamburg High School, Lockport High school and several grammar schools in Buffalo. Despite her interest in schools, she refused to confine myself to just one interest. She truly believed that women who are pioneers in any profession should be proficient in every department, and that women architects must be practical superintendents as well as designers and scientific constructors.
In 1898, the Bethune’s firm was invited to plan the 225-room Hotel Lafayette that was hoping to house visitors to the Pan-American Exposition. But financial problems delayed the opening until 1904. Louise worked on most of the design for the fireproof French renaissance structure.
Among the buildings designed by their firm was the beautiful terra cotta construction for Denton, Cottier & Daniels music store at Court and Pearl Streets. It was one of the first Buffalo buildings with steel-frame construction and with poured concrete slabs to resist fire. While that building is no longer there, other examples of her work still remain throughout Buffalo and Western New York such as Hamburg and Lockport High schools, the former Queen city baseball and amusement company on East Ferry and Michigan and 307 Bryant street which now houses a popular west side restaurant.
Louise Blanchard Bethune died on December 18, 1913, at the age of 57, and is buried in Forest Lawn.