Devil in White
It starts with a worried word. “Architect” stems from the Greek “arkhitekton,” which means, “master builder.” “Master” carries with it a dominant historical context of maleness: all images of slave masters recognize the male; all sentiments of a master in a D/s relationship refer to “his” slave; from a search on Urban Dictionary, “one being king of his domain.” In the past few years, the homebuilding industry has been undergoing a movement to refute the phrase “master bedroom” for its racist and sexist connotations, although the solution, “owner’s bedroom,” doesn’t let up on patriarchal biases. Emily Dickinson charges foreplay of her senses to a “Master” or “Sir.” Yet “arkhitekton,” which names the master, is considered one of the most beautiful Latin and Ancient Greek architectural words, prized before “caryatid,” a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support, probably because of its audible resemblance to rhododendron. A female architect cannot thrive under such a predominantly masculine titling of her profession, especially in the late 19th century, when women are still nothing more than young kittens and old maids. For Sophia Hayden, the word is her unraveling.
The Devil in the White City, the popular novel by Erik Larson, captures in meticulous detail the landscape of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1892-93. The landscape he draws stretches beyond the carefully crafted canals and walks of green to the cigar-loading heads behind the fair’s architecture. In the book, each male architect, assigned to a specific building in the Court of Honor, receives a fair amount of space to present his character and design. Every “he” argues with the director of works, Daniel Burnham, travels back and forth from New York, attends meetings, writes letters, etc. On the contrary, Sophia Hayden, who, at the mere age of twenty-three, wins the nation-wide contest that calls for women architects to design the Women’s building, exists in Larson’s text as a picture frame on the wall. Contrary to her importance, Larson paints her as a surprise non-human and leaves word only of a misfortunate, adulterated end. This isn’t to say she isn’t treated equally as unfairly in the reality behind the novel. When it comes time to decorate the interior of her building, one she has spent inglorious battles designing and defending, she loses authority to the president of the Ladies’ Board, a wealthy, influential woman who possesses her own vision of the ideal product. She fires Hayden, which spurs the architect to recede into a mental illness and never again pursue her passion.
“Hayden fought the arrangement in her quiet, stubborn way until she could take it no longer. She walked into Burnham’s office, began to tell him her story, and promptly, literally, went mad: tears, heaving sobs, cries of anguish, all of it. 'A severe breakdown,' an acquaintance called it, 'with a violent attack of high nervous excitement of the brain.' Burnham, stunned, summoned one of the exposition surgeons. Hayden was discreetly driven from the park in one of the fair’s innovative English ambulances with quiet rubber tires and placed in a sanitarium for a period of enforced rest. She lapsed into 'melancholia,' a sweet name for depression.”
Call it an “arrangement,” when people with a higher status snatch her life’s aspirations.
Call it prompt, literal madness, when she shows passion and hurt in front of someone who can actually help her.
Call it an “acquaintance,” who is not a viable source.
Call it “discreetly driven” in an “innovative English ambulance with rubber tires.”
Surgeons to dissect the depression in her brain.
Celebratory confetti for removal of debatable woman.
Call it sweet.
She, the queen of the fair, Sophia Rhododendron, is boring. After being the first woman to graduate with a degree in architecture from MIT, she settles for a job teaching drawing to adolescents because men do not trust her to produce pencil marks when they need to be validated with math. Approved by “caryatid,” women “support” solely with their still bodies. After winning the contest and roughing the social and economic warfare of Chicago, Hayden receives ten times less monetary gratitude than her male counterparts. Easily enough, when homebuilding with male colleagues, she becomes the product: too feminine, too delicate, too timid, too plain, too unassertive in a man’s time. “The Woman's Building, by Miss Hayden...is rightly effeminate in its architecture.” Time to dissect his rhododendron, the coddled cigar, while he suffers applause for a lapsed design and debates the extent of the woman’s resemblance to a building. Her resemblance to melancholia, a sweet puffy cactus below dripping juices into the diagnosis. Maybe all she needs is a vacation from the patriarchy, but with ten times less pay, she can’t afford a getaway. More fly than an ambulance.
header image: "woman's building," james w shepp and daniel b shepp / wikimedia commons