Traditional or Modern? Two Suffragists
Make Their Architectural Choices
By Anthony W. Robins
Why do architects design buildings in one style and not another? Sometimes fashion trumps all other considerations, but sometimes there is a message to be sent, and a choice to be made of the architectural language in which to send it.
New York in the interwar years saw two approaches to architectural design: historicist and modernist. The former drew inspiration from the past, while the latter preferred to imagine the future. Architects argued the merits of the approaches, and buildings went up following each, including two Midtown Manhattan landmarks we celebrate during the Year of the Woman: Panhellenic House (later Panhellenic Tower and then Beekman Tower) at 3 Mitchell Place (John Mead Howells, 1927–28), and the Women’s National Republican Club at 3 West 51st Street (Frederic Rhinelander King, 1932–34).
The two building projects have a great deal in common. Each was commissioned by a former leader of the suffrage movement in the years following the adoption of the 19th Amendment, and each was meant to support a next step in women’s empowerment. Emily Eaton Hepburn commissioned Panhellenic House to be a club and residence for young women either in college preparing for careers or already in the workforce. Henrietta Wells Livermore commissioned the Women’s National Republican Club as an institution for the political education of newly enfranchised women. Each institution had educational aspirations, and each building housed social and residential facilities.
Yet, though built for similar purposes, under similar circumstances, and a few years apart, when it came to architectural style one building looked to the future while the other looked to the past. Perhaps surprisingly, it is Panhellenic House, the earlier one, that chose modernism. The Women’s National Republican Club, designed five years later, is a neo-Classical gem redolent of early American Colonial. Those stylistic choices have much to say about the two women and the institutions they founded.
Ornamentation on the chamfered corner of Panhellenic House.. Photo: Meghan Weatherby
Vertical window bays tucked between uninterrupted brick piers that highlight the verticality of Panhellenic House.
Photo: Meghan Weatherby
Emily Eaton Hepburn and Panhellenic House
Emily Eaton (1865–1956) grew up on a farm in Vermont. After graduating from St. Lawrence College, she moved with her husband, banker Barton Hepburn, to New York City. Hepburn rose through the ranks to become president and chairman of Chase National Bank. Emily Eaton Hepburn stayed home to raise four children, but she also continued her education, studying botany and chemistry at Barnard College, and carved out a significant role for herself in the political and social life of the city.
As an active suffragist, Hepburn hosted meetings at her home, marched in parades with the likes of Carrie Chapman Catt, and traveled the state supporting the cause. Following the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the death of her husband in 1922, she turned to other efforts, including, in 1930, breaking a glass ceiling in banking as what The Wall Street Journal referred to as “the first Wall Street woman bank director.”2
Construction photo of “The Panhellenic” featured on a postcard postmarked 1929.
Early postcard view of the Women’s National Republican Club. Photo: From the collection of the author
But her interests took her far beyond finance. She donated funds to her alma mater for construction of the Hepburn Hall of Chemistry, dedicated in a 1929 ceremony by no less than Marie Curie. The French government honored Hepburn for her support of Reid Hall, a residence and educational center for university women in Paris.3 She directed the City History Club of New York, led the effort to restore President Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood home on East 20th Street, and placed Peter Stuyvesant’s statue in Stuyvesant Square.4
Panhellenic House brought together two of Hepburn’s passions: education and women’s professional advancement. The 1920s saw major changes in women’s roles: while in earlier generations most women college graduates became teachers, the new generation also looked to business for their working lives. As early as 1920, the New York Chapter of the Panhellenic Association—so named for the Greek-letter sororities of college life—planned a tall building combining residential and social uses specifically to shelter young women still in college or new to the workforce. The project made little progress until 1926, when Hepburn became the majority stockholder of the Association. She acquired the site on First Avenue at Mitchell Place, just around the corner from Beekman Place; she selected the architect, John Mead Howells; and she built the tower. As she later wrote, the project would “prove that women could do big business.”5
The original group at the Panhellenic Association had chosen Donn Barber—a staunchly tradition-minded architect—but Barber had died in 1925. By choosing to replace Barber with John Mead Howells, Hepburn ensured that her modern institution would have a suitably modernistic home—the modernism we call Art Deco. Though Howells too had once been a traditionalist, in 1922 he had joined forces with Raymond Hood to win the Chicago Tribune competition, and the two went on to design such modernist monuments as the Daily News Building on East 42nd Street.
Howells himself described Panhellenic House as “modernistic” and in “the vertical style”—words we now associate with Art Deco:
The simple composition of verticals, which some like to call modernistic, seems to me to be ‘indicated’ . . . for the design of steel cage buildings. It is the simplest and most straightforward clothing of the steel cage itself, in masonry . . . 6
The tower’s verticality, typically Deco, comes from its recessed vertical window bays tucked between uninterrupted brick piers rising straight to the roof. Chamfered corners on First Avenue encourage viewers to see the tower in three dimensions, rather than focus on just a single façade. The spare ornament, designed by Rene Chambellan, includes a panel at one corner portraying lush foliage perched atop an octagon, uniting the two standard Deco ornamental tropes: geometry and stylized floral patterns.
The critics gushed over the tower in architectural journals, as well as The New Yorker and The New York Times—the latter called it “an outstanding example of American skyscraper architecture.”7 And so it is—but it owes its existence quite as much to Emily Eaton Hepburn as to John Mead Howells. In 1931, having established Panhellenic House on Mitchell Place, Hepburn commissioned a neighboring apartment building around the corner at 2 Beekman Place—and in so doing helped transform Beekman Place into an exclusive wealthy residential enclave. Architect Rosario Candela, though generally known for grand, traditionally styled apartment buildings, designed Hepburn’s new building as another Art Deco gem—not quite as modernistic as Howells’s tower, but unquestionably related in style. Hepburn then moved into the penthouse apartment where she lived out her days as “the Grand Old Lady of Beekman Hill.”
In 1955, shortly before her death, the Times profiled Emily Eaton Hepburn:
At 90, Emily Hepburn doesn’t get around too much. She may go to Gracie Mansion for tea, sit in on a Beekman Towers board meeting, attend City History Club meetings . . . This Vermonter who adopted New York . . . built Beekman Towers [sic] and 2 Beekman Place back in the 20s, when no other real estate man [also sic] would risk money in that dead-end area . . .
On spring and summer evenings, when the rivers are liquid gold plate, Emily Hepburn sits in her roof garden, misty-eyed and dreamy, knowing afresh the glittering wonder of the city coming alight as the sun goes down. Then she is a white-haired dowager queen surveying her eight million subjects—scurrying ants on the pavement, under her tower.8
Henrietta Wells Livermore and the Women’s National Republican Club
As the Brooklyn Eagle described Henrietta Wells Livermore (1864–1933) in 1925:
If the dictionary were searched for the one word that would best describe Henrietta W. Livermore, better known in Republican circles as Mrs. Arthur L. Livermore, that word would unmistakably be “pioneer.” The pioneer spirit . . . has made her the best known woman in New York State Republican politics, and one of the best known in the United States . . .10
In 1933 The New York Times described her as “a close friend of former Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover . . . and a national figure for years in the campaign that finally triumphed for women’s suffrage.”11 Livermore held major positions in the suffrage movement: member of the National Woman Suffrage Committee, vice president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, and member of the New York State Board of the Women’s Suffrage Party. Besides general leadership, she excelled as a writer, credited with so much of the movement’s literature that she became known as “Old Litt.” Her publications included A Suffrage Training School (1916), The Blue Book Suffrage School (1916), and How To Raise Money For Suffrage (1917).
One year after ratification of the 19th Amendment, Livermore founded the Women’s National Republican Club as “a Club House for Republican women, where they may help form intelligent political opinions, that they may be of greater service to the Republican Party and to the Nation.”12 As she later wrote:
I realized more and more that the women voters would need a long course in political education, would need an organization of their own which would build up their political morale and stimulate their interest, and that they would also need a meeting place where they could become acquainted with other women voters who had like interest and problems.13
The WNRC was considered the first women’s political organization of its kind anywhere in the country. Herbert Hoover addressed its opening meeting, and Florence Harding, wife of the president-elect, accepted honorary membership. The Club started out in a small loft on West 39th Street, then moved to Murray Hill.14 By the end of the decade the Club had outgrown its quarters and determined to build a new home in the heart of Midtown, at 3 West 51st Street. Livermore, working with another former Club president, Maude Wetmore, piloted the project. As Wetmore wrote:
This Club House is to be a symbol of a new movement among Republican women nationally . . . Republican women . . . have a great contribution to make and I know that as organization Republicans, the time will come when that contribution will be of great value and we will want to share in the victory of future elections.15
The spare, stone-faced façade of the Women’s National Republican Club. Photo: Meghan Weatherby
American eagles on the façade of the Women’s National Republican Club. Photo: Meghan Weatherby
Raising money for the new clubhouse—especially following the 1929 stock market crash—proved challenging, but in November 1931 Livermore announced the acquisition of the site in a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria. As described in the Times:
The new clubhouse will contain a large assembly room, lounges, a library, a private dining room, and thirty bedrooms, each with a private bath. The architect is Frederic R. King . . . 16
Frederic Rhinelander King, scion of a socially prominent family that traced its roots to Peter Stuyvesant, studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and took positions at McKim, Mead & White and later at Carrère & Hastings, both firms immersed in traditionalist design. Going out on his own in 1920, he continued in the same architectural vein, along with partner Marion Sims Wyeth. For the Club, King brought in Theodore E. Blake, who, perhaps not coincidentally, “had much to do with the designing of the House and Senate Office Buildings in Washington.”17
King gave the club a spare, stone-faced façade in a neo-Classical style suggesting Georgian inspiration. Its ornament includes severe stone moldings, simple molded keystones, and a pair of American eagles. As a modern club, the building rises nine stories—but a shallow setback at the fifth floor leaves the lower stories suggesting a Georgian-style townhouse that wouldn’t look out of place among the row houses on Washington Square.
The Club never called its building’s architectural style neo-Classical, always referring to it instead as “Colonial.” The design was specifically meant to suggest “early American history,”18 matching the Club’s large collection of early American furnishings. As the Times reported:
The Colonial atmosphere will be carried out, down to the smallest detail of the interior furnishings. Many valuable Colonial antiques belonging to the club, and now in the . . . headquarters, will be moved shortly to the new building.19
The contrast with Howells’s vertical tower could not be greater.
So, here we have two buildings with so much in common. Each housed a new institution that reflected the beliefs and plans of a founder prominent in the suffrage movement, eager to take the next step in women’s empowerment. Each founder cared greatly for the city’s history and the country’s—witness the Club’s furniture collection, and Emily Hepburn’s involvement with Stuyvesant, Roosevelt, and the City History Club. Moreover, each founder was prominent in Republican political circles: no sooner had Panhellenic House opened than it hosted what the Times called “the first rally of the Women’s National Committee for Hoover,” at which “Mrs. A. Barton Hepburn . . . will preside,” the rally to be followed with “instruction in the use of voting machines.” The same article closed by noting that “Mrs. Arthur L. Livermore yesterday warned all Republican women not to be ‘bluffed out of their right to register.’ “20
And yet what different directions these two women took when it came to their buildings’ design. The Women’s National Republican Club certainly planned for the future, with the education of newly registered women voters, but saw itself resting on the solid foundations of past glories, of its roots in “early American history”—a vision clearly reflected in its “Colonial atmosphere . . . down to the smallest detail.” Panhellenic House focused on the future too, on opening new horizons for young women, but without looking backwards—a vision mirrored in its “modernistic” tower design. And while these two buildings vividly demonstrate the architectural tug-of-war of their times, they also remind us that architectural choices reflect more than the professional proclivities of architects. They reflect their times, and they reflect their clients’ vision. And that explains how two staunch suffragists, basking in their political success and building on it for future generations, could take diametrically opposed views as to what their buildings should look like—and what message those buildings’ appearance should convey to the wider world.
About the Author:
Anthony W. Robins, ADSNY’s Vice President, is a historian, writer, and educator specializing in New York architecture. A 20-year veteran of New York’s Landmarks Commission, he has a passion for Deco that is reflected in his most recent book, Art Deco New York: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture.
1. Much of this history is based on the Landmarks Commission’s Panhellenic Tower Designation Report prepared in 1988 by my former colleague Gale Harris.
2. “Daring To Be A Woman in Finance,” The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 1930, p. 4.
3. “Mrs. A.B. Hepburn, a Civic Leader, 90,” The New York Times, August 16, 1956, p. 25.
5. Isabel Savelle, Daughter of Vermont: A Biography of Emily Eaton Hepburn (North River Press, 1952), p. 132.
6. John Mead Howells, “The Verticality of the Skyscraper,” American Architect 134, December 20, 1928, pp. 787–810.
7. “Beauty Invades the Community House,” The New York Times, December 30, 1928, p. 66.
8. Meyer Berger, “About New York,” The New York Times, June 1, 1955, p. 35.
9. Much of this history is based on the author’s nomination of the building to the National Register of Historic Places.
10. “Delivering the Vote’ Is Real Secret of Political Power, Says Mrs. Livermore,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 4, 1925, p. 97.
11. “Mrs. A.L. Livermore is Dead in Yonkers,” The New York Times, October 16, 1933, p. 17.
12. From Livermore’s opening speech to the club membership in 1921; “Alumnae Notes,” Wellesley Alumnae Quarterly, April 1921, p. 203.
13. Henrietta Livermore, “Presidents’ Reports,” The Guidon – A Political Review, February 1931, p. 8.
14. “Women’s National Republican Club to Open Its New Home, Feb. 11,” The New York Times, February 3, 1924, p. RE2.
16. “Republican Women Are Ready to Build,” The New York Times, November 11, 1931, p. 24.
17. “Theodore E. Blake,” The New York Times, July 4, 1949, p. 13.
18. “A National Club for Republican Women,” Republican Woman, October 1927; cited by Catherine E. Rymph in Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism (University of North Caroline Press, 2006), p. 47 (footnote 23).
19. “Final Work Under Way on Home for Republican Women’s Club,” The New York Times, March 4, 1934, p. RE1.
20. "Women Turning to Registration All This Week," New York Herald Tribune, October 7, 1928, p.21.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Winter 2020. View a digital version of the full journal here.