Demetrius Freeman: An Architect Whose Work Stood Out, Even if She Did Not
Almost invisibly in her own day, Natalie de Blois, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, helped guide the design of three of the most important corporate landmarks of the 1950s and ‘60s — the headquarters of Lever Brothers, Pepsi-Cola and Union Carbide — whose suave steel-and-glass facades still exude the cool confidence of postwar Park Avenue. “There wasn’t anybody in the country quite like Natalie, because there was no one else working for a firm quite like Skidmore,” said Beverly Willis, the founder and chairwoman of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundationin New York, which seeks to raise the general consciousness about the role of women in the building industry. “At that point, there were only five or six women across the U.S. who had a substantial architectural practice,” Ms. Willis said. “And, of course, Natalie was doing bigger buildings, and she was doing them in the heart of Manhattan. These were celebrated buildings that the press fawned over, but Natalie’s name was never mentioned.”
Gordon Bunshaft was the Skidmore partner whose name is most closely associated with the Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters of 1960, 270 Park Avenue, now the headquarters of JPMorgan Chase & Company; Lever House of 1952, 390 Park Avenue; and the former Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters of 1960, 500 Park Avenue. “Natalie and Gordon Bunshaft were a team,” Ms. Willis said. “He took all the credit and she did all the work.” Debates can always be had about the provenance of almost any significant architectural project, particularly one coming out of an office as large and collaborative as Skidmore (where my father was a partner until his death in 1973). No one person can ever wholly claim credit. But there is little doubt that Ms. de Blois, who died last week, was long denied her due. That was acknowledged 40 years ago by Nathaniel A. Owings, a founding partner of the firm, in his autobiography, “The Spaces In Between: An Architect’s Journey.” Of Ms. de Blois, he wrote: “Her mind and hands worked marvels in design — and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of S.O.M., owed much more to her than was attributed by either S.O.M. or the client.” God knew she was often slighted.
Just before a meeting about the International Arrivals Building planned at Idlewild Airport (now Kennedy International), Mr. Bunshaft looked at Ms. de Blois and said: “You can’t come to the meeting unless you go home first and change your clothes. I don’t like green.” Ms. de Blois did just that, she recalled in a 2004 interview in the S.O.M. Journal.Ms. de Blois was pregnant with the third of her four sons — Frank, Robert, Patrick and Nicholas — when she was invited to the opening of the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters in Bloomfield, Conn., on which she had worked. “You know,” Mr. Bunshaft said, “don’t come to the opening if you haven’t had that baby yet.”
Perhaps she persevered in the face of such treatment because construction ran in her blood. She was born on April 2, 1921, in Paterson, N.J. Her father, an engineer like his father and his father’s father, encouraged his daughter when she dreamed of becoming an architect. After she received an architecture degree from Columbia University in 1944, Ms. de Blois began working at a small firm on East 57th Street. When she resisted a colleague’s romantic advances, she was let go because he said he couldn’t concentrate with her around. But her boss did her a favor: he introduced her to Louis Skidmore, whose office was downstairs. Mr. Skidmore hired her. She practiced in New York until the early 1960s, when she moved to Skidmore’s Chicago office, where she was made an associate partner. Over time, her portfolio included the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul and the Equitable Building in Chicago. She left the firm in 1974, having never been elevated to full partnership. By then, however, her reputation had begun to catch up with her achievements.
“When I was a young architect in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there weren’t that many older women architects who had worked on a scale other than domestic,” said Sara Caples, a principal in Caples Jefferson Architects in Long Island City, Queens. “It was definitely encouraging to know that was out there.”
The more she learned, Ms. Caples said, the more she appreciated the fact that Ms. de Blois was not simply a female architect, but a good one. “She was a designer who was a great practitioner of lightness in architecture,” Ms. Caples said, “with an elegant sense of proportion.”
Ms. de Blois died on July 22 in Chicago, at 92. Her buildings survive. Beautifully.