Skip to Content

Bethune Exhibition


Loading the player...


Louise Blanchard Bethune (1856–1913) is widely considered to be the first woman to practice as a professional architect in the United States. In her architectural work, her family life, and her public and private behavior, Louise spoke to a new generation of professional women. She played a key role in the architectural firm that she founded, going beyond simply designing buildings to supervising budgets and overseeing onsite work—a highly unusual role for a woman at that time. A strong advocate of a woman’s right to work outside the home, she firmly believed in equitable compensation for women.

Louise Bethune’s most significant structure is the Hotel Lafayette. Located in the heart of downtown Buffalo, the hotel was initially conceived in 1899 in anticipation of the 1901 Pan American Exposition. Restored in 2012, the Hotel Lafayette was the first building in New York State to be saved using state and federal historic tax credits. Its restoration coincided with the most substantial economic expansion the City of Buffalo had witnessed in decades. Today, this restored opus embodies Louise’s finest work during Buffalo’s finest years. The Hotel Lafayette stands as an elegant reminder of the past and a hopeful symbol of the future.

Loading the player...

Becoming Louise: (1856-1881)

Born Jennie Louise Blanchard on July 21, 1856 in Waterloo, New York, her parents, Dalson Wallace Blanchard and Emma Melina (Williams) Blanchard were both educators. Louise’s early life occurred during a period of great innovation and expansion in the United States, especially in New York State where the terminus of the Erie Canal in Western New York fostered industry and entrepreneurial activity. Social movements, including abolitionism and women’s rights, also flourished in the region during this period.

As a young girl, Louise dreamed of becoming an architect. In 1867, when she was eleven years old, the Blanchard family settled in Buffalo and Louise began attending public school. She graduated from Buffalo Central High School with honors in 1874. By 1875, she had decided to pursue an architectural career and was preparing to enroll in the newly opened architectural school at Cornell University. Her plans changed in 1876 when architect Richard Waite offered her a position as an apprentice in his office, one of Buffalo’s most prominent architecture firms. It is not known how or why this offer was extended; however, Waite must have been impressed by Louise.

Loading the player...

Home Work: (1881-1890)

After spending five years working in the architecture office of Richard Waite, Louise opened her own practice in October 1881, becoming the first professional woman architect in the United States. Robert Armour Bethune, a former colleague from the office of Richard Waite, soon joined her firm. Louise and Robert married in December 1881; a decade later, Bethune & Bethune Architects was one of Buffalo’s busiest and most prominent architectural firms.

Robert and Louise each assumed design responsibility, production of construction documents, and administration of their individual projects. Louise was responsible for all the “dwelling houses”, and she also enjoyed designing schools. She managed the office and was the primary financial stakeholder in the firm. Robert handled public relations and led most of the public projects.

Although there was little support at the time for women interested in pursuing a career in architecture, the natural connection between women and residential design was often described. Initially, Louise was enthusiastic about designing houses; however, by the 1890s she had cooled to residential work because of the low architect’s fees. Nonetheless, she continued to design houses; of Bethune & Bethune’s 180 known projects, 79 were single-family dwellings or mixed-use buildings with a residential component.

Loading the player...

A Toast to the Lady Member: (1885-1900)

In 1885, Louise Bethune applied for membership to the Western Association of Architects (WAA). Daniel Burnham, board chairman, and Louis Sullivan, treasurer, actively supported her application, and the WAA changed its membership rules to admit women.

Louise established the Buffalo Society of Architects in 1885, serving as the organization’s secretary and first vice president. In 1888, she successfully applied to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), becoming its first woman member.

A significant milestone for Louise occurred in 1891 when she decided not to participate in the competition for the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition. While male architects were handpicked and offered commissions for their work, the architect of the Women’s Building was expected to enter a design competition at her own expense. The winning female entrant would receive a commission one-tenth the amount offered to male architects.

While Louise’s decision to reject these terms robbed her of the opportunity to work with prominent AIA colleagues on the most ambitious project of their careers, it provided her with a platform to voice her strong belief in pay equity for women.

Loading the player...

Wheeling: (1890-1900)

In 1888, Louise Bethune was a founding member of the Buffalo Women’s Wheel and Athletic Club, the second women’s bicycling club in the United States. She purchased the first woman's bicycle sold in Buffalo for $150, and her role in this new, controversial pastime demonstrated her maverick spirit and commitment to women’s equality.

With their uniforms, the club’s founding members made a statement about fairness and equality. Keeping hats on, hair in place, shirtwaists tidy, and skirts at the ankle was paramount to reinforcing their image of respectability. The uniforms of the Club members and their counterparts would, ultimately, revolutionize women’s dress.

At its peak, the Buffalo Women’s Wheel and Athletic Club had over 60 members. Although the club disbanded in 1897, the members had accomplished their goal. Women wheelers were no longer frowned upon, and the club enjoyed press and acceptance in the city on equal terms with the men’s clubs.

Loading the player...

Innovation: (1890-1900)

By the late 1880s, Louise and Robert Bethune’s firm had expanded beyond residential work to include educational and commercial projects. Their longtime protégé and employee, William Fuchs, became the firm’s third partner in 1891. By 1900, the firm was winning multiple significant commissions and growing its portfolio to include multi-family residences and schools, factories, offices, and commercial buildings in the Flemish, Italian, and French Renaissance Revival styles.

This period was a time of seismic shifts in most aspects of American society and Louise was part of a movement of inventors and entrepreneurs who recognized new opportunities in emerging fields. Women continued to pursue careers in architecture and each decade of the twentieth century saw women make significant contributions to the built environment.

Momentum continues to build today for women architects to attain a footing in the profession equal to their male counterparts. In 2018, 25 percent of all licensed architects were women. As Louise Bethune noted in 1891: “The future of woman in the architectural profession is what she herself sees fit to make it.”

Loading the player...

Hotel Lafayette and Beyond: (1900-1913)

The grand opening of the Hotel Lafayette, on June 2, 1904, was a momentous occasion for the City of Buffalo; the New York Times described it as “one of the most perfectly appointed and magnificent hotels in this country.” The hotel’s design became Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs most important project. With the Hotel Lafayette, Louise demonstrated her design abilities on a project that was worthy of national attention.

A pamphlet for the Hotel Lafayette described the exterior “of dark red vitreous brick and trimmings of semi-glazed white terra cotta” and the “marquise carriage porch and window balconies” of wrought iron. The first-floor exterior façade was composed entirely of terra cotta. The arched openings over the store-front windows and doors had a Romanesque aesthetic that was common in the Italianate and French Renaissance styles.

The beveled corner of the building that faced the intersection of Washington and Clinton Streets was the focus of the building, serving as the main entrance. The frieze detailing the roofline provided the greatest ornamentation, with terra cotta corbels and classical egg-and-dart sculpture. Three lion’s heads...kept watch over the main was noted that there was “nothing like it between New York and Chicago.”

Loading the player...