Jewish Alliance for Women in Science
In memoriam of Judith Edelman, a firebrand Architect
By DOUGLAS MARTIN OCT. 18, 2014
At the 1974 national convention of the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, Judith Edelman presented data showing that 1.2 percent of registered architects in the United States were women. Only coal miners and steelworkers, she suggested, counted a lower proportion.
These survey results, she said, “clearly demonstrate that the alleged grievances are not all in the heads of some paranoid chicks.” She then agreed to lead a task force to tackle the issue, out of fear that someone “insufficiently stubborn” would get the job.
Ms. Edelman died of a heart attack at 91 on Oct. 4 at her home in Manhattan, her son Marc said. Her legacy includes designing housing for the needy, health clinics and other buildings throughout New York City, as well as drafting many respected planning studies.
But it was as a firebrand for women in architecture — she said she came to be called Dragon Lady at A.I.A. headquarters in Washington — that Ms. Edelman established a broader reputation. In the early 1970s, as feminism challenged many institutions, she pointed out that women were far less likely to be in architecture schools or partners in firms than men, and were paid less.
In 1974, Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for The New York Times, wrote that it was “appalling” that the institute’s national membership consisted of 24,000 men and 300 women. When Life magazine in 1976 surveyed women in professions, it said that “none even today is a more exclusively male preserve than architecture.”
In 1971, Ms. Edelman became the first woman elected to the executive committee of the New York chapter of the institute, with the goal of persuading what she termed “an exclusive gentleman’s club” to elevate women. She also fought for change from outside the establishment, helping found the Alliance of Women in Architecture in 1972.
In designing buildings, Ms. Edelman was clearly successful. The firm she started with her husband built more than 1,500 apartment units and commercial enterprises between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges; devised a way to preserve the facades of nine brownstones on the Upper West Side to fashion a single multiunit building, where Jackie Robinson was one of the first residents; restored the La MaMa theater on the Lower East Side; and built many affordable housing projects. It won awards from the City Club of New York, the Municipal Art Society and the American Institute of Architects.
Her great feminist cause has fared less well. Although women now account for half of all graduates of American architecture schools, they represent only 20 percent of licensed practitioners and an even lower proportion of partners in firms, according to the blog of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, which chronicles women’s past and present contributions to the industry.
Judith Deena Hochberg was born on Sept. 16, 1923, in Brooklyn to immigrants from Eastern Europe. Her childhood fascination with building turned into a desire to become an architect when she visited an architect’s office as a junior in high school. The desire solidified when an injury prevented her from dancing, her first love.
Her politics came from her upbringing. “I was raised in a very lefty environment,” she said in an interview with the blog of ESKW/A, the current name of her firm. (The initials stand for Edelman Sultan Knox Wood.)
She attended Connecticut College and New York University before earning an architecture degree from Columbia. Her class was mostly women and Latin Americans, because American men were fighting in World War II. In the interview, she said she had led a successful rebellion to include more modernist architecture in the curriculum.
Columbia professors, she recalled, often said, “We’re wasting our time on you girls.” Asked by her interviewer if they said that to the women directly, she replied, “Oh, yes.”
When Ms. Edelman started looking for a job, she heard something similar. “We don’t hire girls,” one potential employer after another said.
She finally found work drawing designs for brickwork for mental hospitals. She was then hired by the architect Huson Jackson, who had an office in Greenwich Village, where she lived. Mr. Jackson, a professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, was a leader in bringing the International Style from Europe to the United States.
“He was a great thinker, but he couldn’t draw, interestingly enough,” Ms. Edelman said. “He’d draw a squiggle and say, ‘Turn this into a building.’ ”
In 1947, she married Harold Edelman, and they spent a year traveling in Europe on a fellowship she had won from Columbia. After returning to the United States, they formed a partnership with Stanley Salzman, who had worked with Walter Gropius, a giant of the profession who founded the Bauhaus architectural school. Mr. Salzman left the firm in 1979 and died in 1991.
Mr. Edelman died in 1999. In addition to her son Marc, Ms. Edelman is survived by another son, Joshua; her sister, Joan Gitlow; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Ms. Edelman, who attended a design criticism session two weeks before her death and then walked more than a dozen blocks home, was the model for a 1974 children’s book, “What Can She Be? An Architect.” The authors, Gloria and Esther Goldreich, changed the character’s name to Susan Brody.
As a young architect, Ms. Edelman did not know of Julia Morgan, the great California architect who designed San Simeon, the home of William Randolph Hearst, and more than 700 other buildings. She made that admission in a speech accepting the Woman of Vision award from the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1989.
Later generations knew about Ms. Edelman. In that same speech, she talked about a young female architect, unknown to her, who years ago had said she named her cat Judy Edelman.
“Astonished, I asked why,” she said.
The woman, she said, answered, “What other role models are there?”
A version of this article appears in print on October 19, 2014, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: Judith Edelman, Architect, 91, Is Dead; Firebrand in a Male-Dominated Field. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe
Judith Edelman about 1974. At the outset of her architecture career, potential employers often told her, “We don’t hire girls.” Credit: Robert Ipcar