A Woman Can Keep a Home and Build It
According to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, only 14% of engineers in the United States are women. In 2022, though the number of women in S.T.E.M (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields is ever increasing, it’s shocking to hear that women still make up such a low percentage of engineers. Perhaps this is a result of the resistance, dismissal, and neglect women have met since the very first women dared to enter the field more than a century ago. Many of these daring and educated young women were drawn to our neighborhoods — particularly the area South of Union Square — hoping to make their mark on not only their chosen profession, but our city.
We have written extensively about the two female engineers who broke down barriers South of Union Square. Marion Parker and Elmina Wilson, who practiced with the prominent firm of Purdy & Henderson at 78 FIfth Avenue, are all but absent from any historical record of their impact on the city. One of the few tangible traces of their existence is newspaper articles — often sensationalizing that a woman is doing a man’s job, or that a woman can be smart and beautiful (who knew?)
A 1929 article by The Courier-Journal on Elmina Wilson featured in a full-page spread titled What Consistutes Feminine Beauty, describing Wilson’s work and her success. But it also states “Miss Wilson and her sister….prove that women in business can be excellent housekeepers.” An 1897 article about Marion Parker printed in the Boston Globe, reprinted nationally, is titled Only Woman Engineer. The article opens with, “She is a slight, young girl, apparently about 20 years of age, and has a womanly, gracious manner, that makes her very charming.”
Marion Parker and Elmina Wilson weren’t the only women blazing new trails in engineering in our neighborhoods. Alice M. Durkin (also known as Alice Durkin Walsh after a short-lived marriage) started her apprenticeship in the late 19th century with Charles H. Pecksworth, a builder. Pecksworth’s company was located at 415 Hudson Street, an 1890 loft building located between Leroy and Hudson Streets across from today’s J.J. Walker Park, which since its conversion to residences in 1979 has been known as ‘The Printing House.’ While doing the books for the company, Durkin became increasingly interested in the building trade and decided she was “going to be a builder, a contractor, not the subordinate of the busy men.” She stayed at Peckworth’s for eight years, studied the books closely, and learned all she needed to know about the various trades and contracts. She then announced (to everyone’s surprise) that she was leaving to start her own company.
When Durkin first left, she wasn’t yet quite experienced enough to start her own business, so she joined an established one as the secretary, treasurer, and eventually executive head, winning all the company’s contracts. At this point she finally felt able to start her own business, eventually taking on a partner and calling it Durkin & Lass. Her first contract was Public School 39 in the Bronx. When the Board of Education, the Building Trades Association, and the public found out it was a woman who won the contract, there was considerable shock. Alice told the NY Times in December of 1934: “There really is nothing surprising about my getting this public school contract…’I’ve been competing with men for years, and the men are used to me now.” Durkin & Lass went on to put in bids on such large projects as the reconstruction of Bryant Park. Her company would go on to build many more public schools, such as Public School no. 40 pictured below, and the impressive Kings County Hospital and Nurses Home in Brooklyn. At the company’s height, Durkin had up to 1,000 laborers working for her, and she completed an estimated 150 buildings. Alice M. Durkin was, for a time, the only female member of the Building Trades Association; she became a member by invitation, though she declined their invitation to speak at their annual dinner.
Closing out her 1934 interview with the NY Times, Durkin gave a quote about women’s roles that rings true nearly a century later. She said “A woman isn’t any less of a woman because she puts up a building any more than she is less a woman because she washes and irons. I much prefer the former in the list of feminine occupations!”
Women like Marion Parker, Elmina Wilson, and Alice Durkin entered and excelled in a male-dominated field, driven by passion, skill, and intelligence. And though they regularly faced doubt and skepticism, they persevered and blazed a trail for the women who would later follow in their footsteps.
Click here to explore our women’s history tour South of Union Square and click here to explore our transformative women tour in the Greenwich Village Historic District.