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“Hidden Figures” #SouthOfUnionSquare: The Unsung Female Engineers Who Built Some of NYC’s Greatest Landmarks

The unprotected area South of Union Square for which we are seeking landmark status has no shortage of trailblazers in the arts and architecture, in commerce, and those who fought in the arena for equality and advancement. Some were very prominent figures like W.E.B. DuBois, Jackson Pollock, Billie Holliday, and Martha Graham. Others, however, made a mark in fields traditionally considered closed to women, advancing science or industry with widely-known and respected accomplishments, but doing so in obscurity, denied the credit for their groundbreaking work they were due.

“Hidden Figures”

Like the African American female NASA mathematicians of the book and film ‘Hidden Figures’ who helped launch John Glenn on his historic voyage into space, South of Union Square has its own true-life unsung female heroes, who helped engineer and build some of New York’s most treasured landmarks. But their remarkable accomplishments barely get a mention in the history books.

72, 74-76, 78, 80 Fifth Avenue

We have previously written about one of those two women, Marion Sara Parker. 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 1900, Parker moved to New York City and joined the office of Purdy & Henderson at 78 Fifth Avenue, between 13th and 14th Streets, south of Union Square. She soon went to work on helping design and construct one of the most iconic buildings in New York City, the Flatiron Building at 23rd Street and Broadway. 

Marion S. Parker with her graduating class, courtesy of University of Michigan Aerospace Twitter

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 1907, Purdy & Henderson hired another woman to “work like a man”: Elmina Wilson, the first woman to earn a master’s degree in engineering, and the first woman to become a full-time professor of civil engineering.  

Elmina Wilson, Graudation Photo 1892

Elmina Wilson received her master’s from Iowa State University (ISU) in 1894, and her sister earned a bachelor’s in civil engineering at the same time. Upon graduation, Elmina became a professor at ISU until 1903, when she took a sabbatical to study architecture in Europe. In 1904, she returned to New York City, working for the James E. Brooks Company. In 1906, after briefly working for the Department of Agriculture, she came to also work for Purdy & Henderson, still located at 78 Fifth Avenue south of Union Square.

Some of the major buildings Wilson worked on while here included the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower and the monumental Manhattan Municipal Building, where the Landmarks Preservation Commission and a whole host of city agencies are located today. While at 78 Fifth Avenue, Wilson worked on the structural engineering for the Whitehall Annex building. This is particularly striking because four years earlier, while also working at 78 Fifth Avenue, Marion Parker worked on the structural engineering for the original Whitehall building to which the annex was connected, both of which are now New York City landmarks. 

Municipal Building, c. 1910

These women, responsible for the design that made many of our landmarks possible and kept them standing for over a century, both blazed trails for women and in the field of engineering from the offices of Purdy & Henderson at 78 Fifth Avenue. Purdy & Henderson saw the value these women brought to the field in the early 20th century, yet these women have gone largely unrecognized for their contributions. Our efforts to landmark this area go hand in hand with highlighting these inspiring and critically important but overlooked contributions.

Follow along this month as we highlight tremendous women around our neighborhoods. And to learn more, explore women’s history in the area South of Union Square and in the Greenwich Village Historic District.

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