The unprotected area South of Union Square has no shortage of trailblazers in the arts and architecture, in commerce, and in the arena of equality or advancement for women. But all those strains of the neighborhood’s pioneering and history-making spirit come together at one building where a largely forgotten figure in our city’s history toiled to remake New York’s cityscape and left behind some of its most beloved landmarks.
78 Fifth Avenue is a Neo-Rennasiance style loft building constructed in 1896 designed by Albert Wagner. This building had many lives, including serving as the corporate offices of the department store Bloomingdales. But the building also notably served as the office for Purdy & Henderson, a civil engineering firm whose work includes some of the most iconic and beloved landmarks of New York.
Purdy & Henderson was founded in Chicago and moved its headquarters to New York City in 1896. Their company expanded to Boston, Seattle, and even Havana, Cuba, where they constructed such works as the Plaza Hotel and the El Capitolio. In New York City they are known for constructing such buildings as the Flatiron and 40 Wall Street.
Though Purdy & Henderson were prominent figures in the field of civil engineering field, an important piece of their history nevertheless has gone largely unnoticed. The firm employed one of the first and very few at the time female civil engineers, who helped construct many of these great New York City landmarks in this almost entirely male-dominated field at the turn of the last century.
Marion S. Parker graduated from the University of Michigan in 1895 and was the first woman to receive a B.S in Civil Engineering from their School of Architecture and Civil Engineering. In a University of Michigan alumni publication, she was referred to as a “strong student in all technical subjects, especially in strength and resistance of materials.”
In 1897, at 20 years old, Parker was the only woman engineer in the United States. She was hired to be the civil engineer for the construction of the Astoria Hotel (eventually the Waldorf Astoria Hotel), one of the most prestigious hotels in all of New York City until it was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building in 1929.
In 1900, Parker joined the office of Purdy & Henderson at 78 Fifth Avenue. She soon went to work on helping to design and construct what would be one of the most iconic buildings in New York City, the Flatiron Building at 23rd Street and Broadway. That building is of course both a New York City and a National Historic Landmark.
From there, she designed everything from the “foundation to the roof” of The Broad Exchange building at 25 Broad Street in the Financial District. Parker worked alongside the powerhouse George A. Fuller Company, the general contractor for the building, and Clinton & Russell, the architects on the project. She was also responsible for the structural design of the original Whitehall Building at Battery Place, for which George A. Fuller Company was also the general contractor. In an interview with the New York Press in July of 1905, Ms. Parker recalled her coworkers saying she “works like a man” and she was okay with that.
In 1905, The New York Press wrote “It may at first sound like an extraordinary statement to say that the solidarity of the largest office building in this city and in the world depends upon the mechanical ability of a young woman, yet that is a fact.”
Marion S. Parker’s work from 78 Fifth Avenue was transformative, especially for women who came after her. Parker’s work still stands across the city, thanks to her knowledge and skill in the field of civil engineering. Yet there has been little to no acknowledgment of her accomplishments in the designations of these buildings.
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