Obituary: Natalie de Blois (1921 - 2013)
Natalie De Blois, who played a lead role in many of Chicago’s modernist buildings while working at SOM has died, aged 92
Born in New Jersey in 1921, she famously worked on New York’s minimalist Lever House and the Pepsi Cola Headquarters at 500 Park Avenue.
De Blois’ father was a civil engineer and he was responsible for beginning her interest in buildings. She studied architecture at Columbia University, graduating in 1944. Studying during the war, the university wanted to encourage more women into the profession. There were eighteen students in her class, of which five were women.
She began her career at the New York-based practice, Ketchum, Gina, and Sharpe, but was made redundant after dismissing the interests of a fellow colleague. In an interview from 2004 (which appears in part here) she remembered: ‘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.’
After leaving Ketchum, Gina, and Sharpe, De Blois joined Skidmore Owings and Merrill in 1944, which was downstairs from the practice. She began by working as a draftsman on the Abraham Lincoln housing project.
As a senior designer at the practice, de Blois played a lead role in many projects then credited to male architects. Speaking about her work on the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, she said: ‘I imagine Skidmore’s name was on the project, but my name wasn’t. I designed it all, did the planning and the sections and the elevations, and it was published all over.’
While at SOM’s New York office she worked on New York’s Lever House, the Connecticut General Life Insurance headquarters and the Pepsi-Cola headquarters on New York’s Park Avenue. She moved to the practice’s Chicago office where she was promoted to associate partner in 1964.
In the early seventies de Blois founded the Chicago Women in Architecture non-profit group, alongside fellow female architects Gertude Lempp Kerbis, Carol Ross Barney and Cynthia Weese. The group which was dedicated to advancing the status of women in architecture still exists today.
De Blois left SOM in 1974 to work for the Houston architecture firm Neuhaus and Taylor.
She also taught architecture at the University of Texas from 1980 until 1993. Her teaching was recognised by the Edward J. Romieniec Award from the Texas Society of Architects.
She died of cancer at her home in Chicago earlier this week.
Marsha Spencer, past president, Chicago Women in Architecture
‘We have lost an extraordinary woman architect and founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture (CWA). Natalie de Blois, who blazed a path for many women in architecture, has passed away leaving behind a brilliant architectural legacy. In 1974, de Blois was one of several women in the architecture profession who founded CWA and who even recently remained involved and attended meetings and events like the annual holiday party.
‘Many of CWA’s members both work in architecture, (still a male-dominated profession), and have families. de Blois was a pioneer in this regard, working at a senior level at SOM, while finding time to raise four children. Her story is one that continues to live in the many women who rise to the challenge to be both a successful architect and parent/family member, but find ways to make it work.
‘The women who founded the organization in the 1970’s saw the need to have a support network that understood not only their love of architecture, but also their lives and families. The support of fellow female architects is part of the legacy of CWA and a strong reason we see women joining the organization today. CWA continues to be a supportive forum where its members increase their knowledge and skills in the profession, but also understand their strength.
‘Natalie de Blois took the role of presenter at an event in 2010 and shared numerous stories of her work and experiences at SOM. Many of these stories would shock the younger generation to believe that such things actually happened, but it was with understated triumph that she spoke: ‘Being a woman architect is not the important thing to me. I’ve always been singled out because I’m the one who did large buildings, but architecture is a building profession.”