Four Female Architects Who Shaped Chicago

Female architects have shaped Chicago for generations, yet their work is frequently overlooked and under-appreciated. In Chicago, the architects mentioned in history books tend to be “great men” like William Le Baron Jenney, Daniel Burnham, and Frank Lloyd Wright. That’s finally changing, with female architects like local legend Jeanne Gang capturing attention worldwide. Still, a career like Gang’s is standing on the shoulders of less well-known female architects of Chicago’s past. In honor of Women’s History Month and in the spirit of our Badass Women of Chicago History virtual event, we’re honoring four female architects who shaped Chicago.

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Sophia Hayden

Women's building Sophia Hayden 1893 World's Fair tour questions
The interior of Sophia Hayden’s Women’s Building at the 1893 World’s Fair. Image via Wikimedia

The first female architect to make a big splash in Chicago was Sophia Hayden. She was the daughter of a Chilean mother and a Bostonian dentist. In 1890 she became the first woman to graduate from MIT’s architecture program. That fame contributed to her winning the commission for the Women’s Building at the 1893 World’s Fair. (You can learn more about her contribution during one of our virtual tours of the 1893 World’s Fair.) As we’ve written before, this structure “was proposed as a forum to show the artistic and social achievements of American women.” The design was endlessly tinkered with by socialite Bertha Palmer. Palmer eventually fired Hayden from the project. Still, architects at the fair widely admired Hayden’s design and she won an award for her work. That said, the difficulties she faced meant this early female architect never designed another building.

Marion Mahony Griffin

Marion Mahony Griffin A Fireproof House Frank Lloyd Wright female architects Chicago
Griffin’s renderings of the designs she and Wright collaborated on solidified his reputation. Image via Wikimedia.

You know that saying “Behind every great male architect is a female architect doing all the drawings but getting none of the credit?” That might not be exactly the saying, but in any case, it’s based on Marion Mahony Griffin. She was born in Chicago mere months before the Great Fire ravaged that First City in 1871. Griffin was the second female architect to graduate from MIT, after Hayden, of course. She then returned to Chicago to become the first employee of Frank Lloyd Wright’s newly-independent practice.

Griffin collaborated with Wright on the groundbreaking designs which emerged from the studio in Oak Park. Perhaps most consequentially, she created the renderings of Wright’s designs, employing Japanese influences in the gorgeous and lovely watercolors. Her work became the focal point of the famous Wasmuth Portfolio that established Wright’s worldwide reputation.

Wright, being the cantankerous and proud type, kept all credit for himself. His self-promotion erased Griffin’s immense contribution to the burgeoning Prairie School of architecture. Despite their 15 years of shared work, and Griffin’s later collaboration with her husband Walter Burley Griffin on the design of Canberra, the Prairie School capital of Australia, this female architect is almost unknown in Chicago.

Georgia Louise Harris Brown and Beverly Loraine Greene

860 880 Lake Shore Drive Georgia Louise Harris Brown female architects Chicago
The startlingly modern style of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive was enabled by a black woman’s architectural skills. Photo by Ronald Sarayudej via flickr.

If Chicago had scant few female architects, then there were even fewer women of color in the field. Yet women of color, especially black women, have played an under-appreciated role in building this cityscape. Georgia Louise Harris Brown and Beverly Loraine Greene were pioneering black female architects in Chicago’s modernist era who achieved more success outside of Chicago.

As Zach Mortice recently mapped out, Georgia Louise Harris Brown made enormous contributions to the Modernist style which became known as the Second Chicago School of Architecture. She studied under Mies van der Rohe at IIT, then later worked for Frank J. Kornacker Associates, the engineering firm Mies employed. Notably, she helped calculate the structural engineering of the landmark 860–880 Lake Shore Drive. Those famous residential towers made Mies into an absolutely towering figure in American architecture, though little credit went to the black female architect who’d contributed. Such difficulties prompted Brown to restart her career in Brazil, where she designed enormous government and corporate commissions.

The roadblocks of sexism and racism affected Greene even more. A native-born Chicagoan, she studied at the University of Illinois and obtained an IL architecture license in 1942. She got a job at the Chicago Housing Authority, but found her work stymied by prejudice. Greene relocated to New York, where she found success designing projects from Arkansas to Paris. Sadly, she died in New York in 1957, only 41 years old.

Carol Ross Barney

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The Riverwalk may be the most massive single work by a female architect in Chicago history. Photo by Amanda Scotese.

It felt appropriate to end our tribute to female architects in Chicago with a woman whose designs shape the urban experience every day. Carol Ross Barney is another native Chicagoan who studied at Urbana-Champaign. Unlike Greene, though, Barney has had a career of low-key triumphs. Barney worked on the restoration of the beloved Cultural Center when she was employed by Holabird and Root in the ’70s. Her independent firm, founded in the ’80s, is most famous for designing the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Her design replaced the one destroyed by white supremacist terrorists in 1995. She also made a mark as a leader for other women in the profession, as one of the seven founders of the organization Chicago Women in Architecture in 1974.

Locally, though, Ross Barney Associates have made a spectacular impact on Chicago’s cityscape. Zach Mortice called her “Chicago’s new Daniel Burnham,” which is a hell of a compliment. Barney’s firm designed notable new ‘L’ stations, like the Morgan stop in Fulton Market and Cermak-McCormick Place in the South Loop. Her most tangible and, presumably, long-lasting design is the Chicago Riverwalk. Already a classic feature of the 21st century city, this grand public space, divided into distinct “rooms,” has brought countless people right to the river–the historical origin point of the city itself. She will likely never have the fame of Jeanne Gang–skyscrapers still get outsize love and attention. Yet I’d wager that Barney’s work will affect more people’s experience of the city in the end.

Badass Female Architects of Chicago History

The women I highlighted here are not the full story of women working in Chicago architecture, of course. They’re just a slice, but even that is rare. The big names you tend to hear in this city’s architectural history are giants, but they’re also almost all men. We have always tended to see men as the only history-makers, when that’s never actually been the case. One of our missions is giving space to such stories, especially during our “Badass Women of Chicago History” virtual events. Reach out to us to learn more about booking that or any of our other private tours or custom content creations.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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