an Austin connection to early Modernism: Natalie de Blois

Natalie used to be a neighbor. She lived four or five houses down the street from our old house. She was active in the neighborhood association, so I met and talked with her several times, some 20 years ago. A sweet lady. Thoughtful. Concerned about the neighborhood. I had no idea that she was an architect. I had no idea that I was talking to history...

Natalie de Blois was born in New Jersey in 1921 and passed away in 2013. It was upon her passing, and the noting of her passing by architects on the listserv in our old neighborhood, that I became aware of who she was and her place in architectural history.

In short, while working at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, she designed the Lever House, an icon of early skyscraper modernism completed in 1952, in New York City (Mies van der Rohe, six years later, built the Seagram building kitty corner across from it). She also designed the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters (1957), the Pepsi Building (New York City, 1960), the Union Carbide Building (New York City, 1961), and the Equitable Building (Chicago, 1965), among others. She was unique at the time as a woman designing high-rises and helped paved a path for other women to enter the industry. A teaching position at The University of Texas brought her to Austin from 1980 to 1993 (we interacted with her in 1992 and 1993 before she moved back to Chicago). [here's a nice summary of her life]

As time passed, she slowly started to get credit for her prominent yet hidden role in the application of the International Style on corporate buildings. And her obits noted her silent contributions in the New York Times, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and Architizer. She struggled as a female designer in the Mad Men era with credit for her work going to the partners she worked for, a collection of men that could never bring themselves to make her a partner. This is why history is perpetually rewritten: it's secrets are revealed slowly, reality delayed by the biases of the times.

In an oral history, de Blois mentions the modern buildings at the 1939 World's Fair in New York influencing her to become not only an architect but a modern architect. Fittingly, upon her passing, she lived in Mies van der Rohe's Promontory Apartments (1950), his first high-rise.

(photos from SOM)

Lever House (1952)

Pepsi Building (1960)

Pepsi Building (1960)

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