Every now and then, the mailman delivers news that hits home. Just ask Rachel and Dan Solomon, or Matt and Rebecca Lisowski, who recently discovered via postmarked letters that their families’ residences were designed by Minerva Parker Nichols.
If Nichols’s name doesn’t register—it didn’t for the Solomons or the Lisowskis—you’re not alone. Molly Lester, who has been researching Nichols’s life and career for more than a decade, calls her "the most famous architect you’ve never heard of," despite being the first woman in the United States to practice architecture independently.
Over her lifetime, Nichols, who was born in 1862 and died in 1949, received more than six hundred mentions in newspapers around the world. When she was just 28—one year after opening her own practice in Philadelphia—her name was printed on average every third day. "These are the markers that show she was really respected," says Lester, associate director of the Urban Heritage Project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. "They deepen our understanding of how long women have been actively shaping the built environment."
Now, Lester is exposing Nichols’s impact on architecture with an exhibition at UPenn, Minerva Parker Nichols: The Search for a Forgotten Architect. As lead scholar and cocurator, Lester traces a line through Nichols’s prolific career, detailing her designs of more than 80 buildings that include schools, churches, hotels, women’s clubs, and family homes.
Today, thirty surviving buildings have been identified. Recently, with the help of records and intel from Nichols’s descendants, Molly and her cocurator, Bill Whitaker, were able to connect the late architect to the historic Lubrecht Residence in Westport, Connecticut. That’s where the Solomon family has lived since 2016.
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Built between 1935 and 1936, it’s one of the later projects in Nichols’s extensive portfolio. While some prospective buyers were dissuaded by the tight kitchen, wall-to-wall carpeting, and out-of-code knob-and-tube electrical, Rachel and Dan Solomon embraced the home’s leaded glass doors in the foyer, the big bay window overlooking the Saugatuck River, and the double-panel barn door that opens to an expansive front lawn where their children now play.
"Candidly we were not at all familiar with Minerva’s work," says Rachel of receiving the news. "We are so grateful to Molly for bringing her story to life and filling us in on the significant impact she had on architecture and women’s history."
"It’s unusual to get any real mail these days, so when we saw this, we weren’t sure what to make of it."
Since their discovery, the couple has come to know the house more intimately. "We see her fingerprints everywhere, from the design of the dowels on the staircase to the flow of the upstairs bedrooms," Rachel says. She and her husband have overseen a few surface-level restoration projects, including retiling the bathrooms, removing old carpets, and refinishing the original white oak floors. One of their bigger projects was turning the library and sitting room into a speakeasy-style space where they could host friends or chat after putting their kids to bed. They replaced the room’s original built-in bookshelves with a bar, a regret after having learned through Lester’s podcast, What Minerva Built, that bookshelves accessible to children were one of the architect’s hallmarks. "We were mortified," remembers Rachel. "As a result of that, we think long and hard before doing anything."
While the Solomons own one of Nichols’s later residential projects, Matt and Rebecca Lisowski are residing in one of her earliest, a design that predates her establishing her own firm. In 2021, the Lisowskis purchased the Ashmead House, built in 1888 for a Civil War cavalry soldier and now part of a scenic suburb in Philadelphia. Soon after, the family received a letter from UPenn notifying them of the property’s notable origins. "It’s unusual to get any real mail these days, so when we saw this, we weren’t sure what to make of it," says Matt. "We had no idea about the significance of our house, let alone how it related to Minerva’s broader portfolio."
Like the Solomons, the Lisowskis just loved the home’s details: its beautiful wrap-around porch, multiple bay windows overlooking the lawn, and an east-facing pane of stained glass that creates a rainbow of light every morning. They knew immediately when they toured the property that this would be the house where they’d grow their burgeoning family. Says Rebecca, "What we saw in this house wasn’t just a beautiful residence, but a lifetime of memories."
Nichols regularly designed for women clients, and she had a particular affinity for children, too. Details like low-set windows, such as the ones in the historic Ashmead House, welcome their gaze. "She designed these homes as places that would inspire imagination," says Matt, now having learned a thing or two from Lester. "The fact that her focus was so squarely on kids is not surprising at all as those are the things we love about the house."
The home’s Victorian wooded siding made the Lisowskis feel as if they were in "a castle of our own, set at the top of the hill, in a sea of trees, birds, rabbits, and deer." This, says Lester, was a significant hallmark of Nichols’s work. "An important value of her architecture was that it be integrated into its context," she explains. "That included [giving equal attention to] all four sides of the house, so all are of quality."
Today, the Lisowskis are making each space in the home their own, including the old carriage house-turned-garage that Matt uses for his various hobbies. Along the way, they’ve unearthed a few surprises, including a hidden set of pocket doors that partition the main entryway from the first living area. Additionally, while redoing the electrical, they found a loose panel on the third floor that gave way to a small crawl space in the roof. There, they discovered a long-forgotten hideout, complete with monopoly pieces and checkers.
"Things like this make it feel like we are constantly discovering and rediscovering the home," Rebecca says. Granted, the greatest discovery of all has been connecting with Nichols’s story and channeling her pioneering ethos. "The home captures a spirit we hope to instill in our daughters, that they can do and be anything they want," she says. "Just as Minerva dedicated her life to the pursuit and knowledge of architecture, we hope living in a place like this will instill in them wisdom and confidence to find what’ll make their lives meaningful."