In a field long dominated by men, self-taught Theodate Pope Riddle emerged as an important and influential architect whose designs included the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington and the college preparatory school Avon Old Farms. Riddle’s architectural designs reflected her progressive philosophy and her legacy as an important architect of the early twentieth century.
Theodate Pope was a strong-willed young woman born into privilege and wealth in Salem, Ohio. She refused to answer to her given name, Effie, and wanted to be an architect, not a debutante. After graduating from Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., founded in 1847 by Sarah Porter, she spent two years on the Grand Tour of Europe with her parents. Charmed and intrigued by the architectural styles of England, Theodate Pope returned to Connecticut where she restored an 18th-century cottage, which she named “The O’Rourkery” and attached a small house to it. Her experience with the restoration of the house marked the beginning of her career as a practicing architect.
Pope’s next project was a retirement home for her parents on a 250-acre tract of land near The O’Rourkery. The large clapboard home, now known as the Hill-Stead Museum, was sited on the crest of a hill and featured up-to-date, modern conveniences. The firm of McKim, Mead and White prepared working drawings from her designs, effectively providing her with an apprenticeship in architecture.
A practicing architect for the next 30 years, Pope's projects included designing adequate housing for her own employees, several country estates and the reconstruction of Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace in Manhattan. A relationship established at Miss Porter’s with her former teacher Mary Hillard led to the design of one of her most extensive projects, the Westover School in Middlebury, Conn. The school’s architecture, with its gabled central entrance pavilion, continues to receive high praise. In 1916, she designed the Hop Brook School in Naugatuck, and in 1920 she bought the land on which she would found and build a school for boys, Avon Old Farms, the project which occupied the rest of her professional life. Pope's unusual design for Avon was intended to reflect a progressive and highly individualistic philosophy of education. In addition to the buildings at the school, which opened in 1927, she helped develop curriculum and hire staff. During World War II, Pope, a friend of President Roosevelt, closed the school and converted it into the Old Farms Convalescent Hospital for blinded Army veterans. The school re-opened in 1947. Pope’s stone and oak architecture is still recognized as a work of genius.
Theodate Pope became a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1918. She was also a major figure in the American Society for Psychical Research, along with her friend William James. In addition, she was an active member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Connecticut.
In May 1915, Pope traveled to England aboard the HMS Lusitania and was one of the few survivors when a German U-Boat torpedoed the ship off the coast of Ireland. The following year, she married John Riddle, a 52-year-old diplomat who had served in Russia. She and her husband traveled extensively, and she accompanied him to Argentina after his appointment as ambassador.
Theodate Pope Riddle died in 1946, leaving instructions that Hill-Stead was to be preserved as a public museum and stipulating that the house and its contents be kept intact and unchanged. The Hill-Stead Museum now houses a significant art collection and is a stop on the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail.
During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform
When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.
Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”
The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.
In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.
Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.
An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.