Although Her Name Is All But Forgotten, Tucson's First Female Architect Left Her Mark.
By Margaret Regan
JANUARY 31, 2000: AS EASILY AS an architect erases her lines, Annie Graham Rockfellow was virtually rubbed out of the historical record in Tucson.
For 22 years, she was the chief designer in the offices of Henry O. Jaastad, a prolific architect whose firm is credited with some 500 buildings in Tucson and elsewhere in southern Arizona. (Jaastad was also mayor for 18 years). Rockfellow was reasonably well known around town in her day, occasionally meriting attention in the local press.
"Woman Architect Has Local Career of Unusual Interest," proclaimed a 1933 Arizona Daily Star headline. The story, by one Kathleen O'Donnell, doubtless a reporter on the women's beat, respectfully detailed Rockfellow's accomplishments. It was news when Rockfellow retired and moved to Santa Barbara in 1938, and it was front page news when she paid a short visit to Tucson in 1949 for a niece's wedding. Over the years, as living memory of Rockfellow faded, her buildings were routinely attributed to her boss. Nowadays, very few locals know her name.
Last spring, Rockfellow resurfaced when her Safford School won first place in the historic architecture category in a contest co-sponsored by the University of Arizona College of Architecture and the Tucson Weekly. Scholars at the UA are reconstructing her life and oeuvre, and they credited her with the school. They're undertaking complex detective work -- sorting through building plans, diaries and an unpublished 1994 thesis by student Kimberly Kunasek -- to determine which of the buildings credited to Jaastad are really Rockfellow's. This arduous task is still under way.
Luckily, Rockfellow herself made deft photographs of her buildings; she's the camerawoman for most of the pictures in this article. And she left a paper trail to complement her stucco and adobe, which, this being Tucson, has not all survived. (Her prize building, the El Conquistador Hotel, a Spanish Mission Revival fantasy built in 1928, was demolished in 1968 to make way for the city's first shopping center, El Con. Its clipped name matched its design, a dispiriting exercise in unimaginative (modernism). She wrote two separate biographical sketches, one in 1933 at the request of the Arizona Historical and Pioneer Society, and the other, a cheery précis of her career called "The Professional Life of a Pioneer Co-Ed," in 1938. She also left behind the texts of three radio addresses she gave in the 1930s, and a lengthy account of a camping adventure on the Tohono O'Odham reservation. The biographical information she provides is rich, and gives much insight into how a young girl of the 19th century became a leading architect in the 20th.
Born in Mount Morris, New York, on March 12, 1866, just after the end of the Civil War, Annie Graham Rockfellow was the second child and first daughter of Julia C. and Samuel L. Rockfellow. Her older brother, John, nine years her senior, lit out for the territories when Annie was just 12. He went first to California and then on to Arizona, where he established a silver claim south of Tucson and started up a ranch near Cochise Stronghold. It was John who first lured Annie to Tucson.
As a young child, she lived in Mount Morris, a small town not far from Rochester. Her father was a shopkeeper, but when Annie was 5 he sold the store and went into the plant nursery business in Rochester, "being advised to live an outdoor life to strengthen his vitality." Some of his daughter's later sensitivity to landscape as an architect may have come from the pleasure she took in frolicking outside at her father's business.
"I recall playing among the packing boxes in the nursery, wading in the creek that ran through the property, seeing father cut the yard grass with a scythe...And SNOW!! Real winters, when I was well wrapped and placed on my Christmas sled."
The Rockfellow family apparently valued travel as an educational tool. When Annie was 6 they went to North Carolina for the winter for Julia Rockfellow's health, but they made stops in New York, Washington and Richmond along the way. It was the first of many trips that taught Annie how variations in vernacular architecture create a sense of place. She remembered going to school in a renovated slave house with an outside stairway, and whitewashed walls inside and out. The main house, where the four teachers lived, was a former governor's mansion in a "colonial design and the oak paneling in the main rooms was brought from England in a sailing vessel." A few years later Samuel Rockfellow took his 10-year-old daughter to see the famous Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.
The family moved back to Mount Morris when Annie was 12. Her parents seem to have given her an unusual amount of freedom; she "roamed about the city, and on the beaches of Lake Ontario, in summer; skated, and built snow 'igloos' in winter."
Idyllic it may have been to a child, but Mount Morris also lay in the part of western New York that nurtured so many pioneering American feminists. Susan B. Anthony lived in Rochester, and not far to the east was Seneca Falls, site of the first Woman's Rights Convention. The woman considered to be America's first professional female architect, Louise Bethune, opened her architectural practice in Buffalo, west of Mount Morris, in 1881, when Annie was 15 years old. Bethune announced the opening of the new business at the grandly named Ninth Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, held in Buffalo the same year. It's impossible to know whether any of these intellectual cross-currents helped form Rockfellow's ambition, but it's certainly likely that a bright girl living nearby would at least have heard of them.
The growing girl was eventually packed off to boarding school, where a classmate first showed her an MIT catalogue. Around the same time, an architect visiting the family looked over some of Annie's recent house sketches, "later-than-doll house plans." This gentleman advised her to enroll in MIT's architecture program, and promised her a job when she got out. (MIT had opened its architecture school to women in 1883, following the example of Cornell, Syracuse and Illinois. The nation's five other architecture schools banned women.) Entering in 1885, Rockfellow was MIT's first female architecture student.
Rockfellow always presented herself in public and in her writings as a Yankee can-do kind of gal, with the devil-may-care nickname of Rocksy. Typically, she puts a humorous spin on any difficulties she encountered as a "pioneer co-ed." She tells of a mouse unleashed in the design studio. "Whether or not the boys herded it my way I do not know, but every head was turned in my direction, evidently expecting a feminine screech." If so they were disappointed. Rocksy "calmly watch(ed) the mouse run around the corner.
"...I was the only girl in the architectural department, and almost the only one in Tech...Naturally, I was a surprise to 'the boys' and somewhat so to the professors. We got along very well. There were some fellow students that I think at first mildly resented me, but most of them were good comrades, helpful and friendly." She adds a significant disclaimer to this plucky accounting: "I felt that the reputation of my sex was on my shoulders and worked long and hard...Co-eds were not so numerous, nor so popular, in those days, but my business was study."
Rockfellow got her diploma in 1887, and true to his word, the Rochester architect hired her. His staff was mostly friendly, though there was the occasional conflict with a "new, young draftsman (who) was not quite pleased at taking suggestions from a woman" and "some clients who were a little dubious when they found their plans were being prepared by a woman." Often, Rockfellow would be mistaken for an interior decorator, but she kept her good humor. "My reply usually was that I was glad to specialize in interior decoration at a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner."
After six years, when a depression triggered a slump in new construction, the young architect lost her first job. By this time, her enterprising brother had landed a berth as a math professor at the fledgling University of Arizona. In 1895, John wangled his sister a position there teaching English and drawing. She already knew about the Territory her brother lived in -- he regularly sent colorful letters back home chock full of elaborate tales of horse-wrangling and narrow escapes from Apaches. The railroad had arrived in Tucson 15 years before Annie did, and she found Tucson builders already leaning toward imported building styles of imported brick and wood.
Rockfellow disapproved. She reveled in the earliest Mexican buildings, the simple adobes unlike anything she had ever seen back home. In a radio address of 1933 she said, "I am an admirer of what I term the Tucson-Mexican style of architecture for this part of the country -- the early thick-walled adobe one story buildings showing the influence of Mexico and seeming to 'belong' in this topography and climate, AND very much in favor of preserving and using the best of those still standing."
The peripatetic Rockfellow lasted just two years as a college prof. She enjoyed the one architecture student in her classes, but she didn't take to teaching. Instead, she took her earnings and the profit she had turned on some cattle at her brother's ranch, and took herself to Europe. Always an intrepid traveler, the 31-year-old Annie roamed Great Britain and the Continent by bicycle and "of course with an eye to architecture."
After four months wheeling around looking at the architectural treasures of the Continent, Rockfellow went back home to western New York to re-start her career. Her mother died in 1900, and Rockfellow dutifully assumed the daughterly tasks expected of a single woman of her day, keeping house for her father. But she didn't abandon architecture.
Sometimes her presence on the job site created a sensation. When Rockfellow designed a house for a friend, she learned that the contractor had asked the client's father "if he had seen The Female Architect. When told in the affirmative he seemed quite impressed."
Other times the impression was decidedly negative. Once, as she watched, an elderly mason sloppily dumped in stones for a porch support. When Rockfellow asked him to adhere to the specs, "he threw in another rock, picked up his shovel and walked off." The architect then enlisted the man's son, who explained that old dad was " 'putchicky' and didn't like women." The son, apparently more open-minded, did the work.
Rockfellow's buildings began to attract national attention. Illustrated articles in Good Housekeeping won her commissions in distant places, one from as far away as Moose Jaw, Canada. She worked in Buffalo, where Bethune was active, and in Detroit as well, but her father's failing health finally forced a sabbatical from her profession. Samuel Rockfellow had moved to Tombstone to live with his son John, his wife and their three children, and Annie came out to care for him in 1909. She stayed until his death in 1911.
She worked again in the East for a few years after that, but restlessly. In 1915, "thinking I would like a warmer climate," she tried Nashville, where she had an offer of a partnership. When Nashville didn't pan out, she came out to Arizona again. She planned to visit with her family for just two months.
"I was happy, after four winters of sleet and ice and sore-throat, to arrive once more in sunny Tucson," she remembered.
She had already designed a house for her brother's family, apparently in Tucson, and it was constructed under the supervision of local architect Henry O. Jaastad. The connection was fortuitous. During her visit, Jaastad asked Rockfellow to help out on some drawings for a competition for a YMCA building in Miami, Arizona. Her elegant water color design won the commission for Jaastad, and he offered her a full-time job. Busy with a project she had picked up in Nashville, Rockfellow declined.
Besides, she had places to go. She was intent on getting to San Diego to visit the California-Panama Exposition. What she saw there would affect the way Tucson would look for years to come. The fair showcased regional historical styles, and nearly all the pavilions were either Pueblo style, soft-edged adobe with flat roofs and vigas, or Spanish Colonial Revival, full of stuccoed porticos, rounded pediments and red-tile roofs.
R. Brooks Jeffery, curator of the UA Architectural Archives, says that Tucson architect David Holmes had already introduced the Old Pueblo to the style in the Corbett House, now part of the Tucson Museum of Art complex, but that the fair was influential.
"The fair legitimized the use of Southwest Revival architecture," Jeffery says, and it mesmerized Rockfellow, who would become one of the foremost practitioners of the style in her adopted hometown. (Other, better-known Tucsonans skilled at Mission Revival were Josias Joesler and Roy Place.)
"I was much pleased and impressed with the architecture of the Fair buildings," Rockwell later wrote, "and found the 'lessons' very helpful for southwestern adaptation."
Indeed. When Rockfellow came back to Tucson in 1916, she dropped by Jaastad's office. He offered her a job again, saying that one of his designers was leaving. Rockfellow hesitated and asked, "When, Monday?" "Sooner if you can." "All right, I'll be back after lunch."
With that simple exchange, scholars believe, Rockfellow became Arizona's first resident female architect. She was preceded only by Mary Colter, the architect and designer employed by the Fred Harvey company. Colter's Hopi House, inspired by Native American styles, had gone up on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1905. But though Colter worked intermittently on Arizona projects for years, including five more buildings at the Grand Canyon, she lived in Kansas City, traveling to her jobs up and down the Santa Fe rail line.
Not only was Tucson lucky to get Rockfellow, so was Jaastad.
"Rockfellow came in from MIT with this Beaux Arts training and with a sophistication that she incorporated into her buildings," Jeffery says. "She did so much Mission Revival...Jaastad was a glorified carpenter. He was not sophisticated."
Jaastad's credentials couldn't match those of his chief designer. He was a Norwegian immigrant who had moved on to architecture from cabinet-making after taking a correspondence course, though he studied electrical engineering at the UA. Some architectural critics, not knowing of Rockfellow's contributions, saw a dramatic change for the better in Jaastad's work after 1915. The astute Lawrence Cheek, writing for the Tucson Citizen in 1981, comments that "his first decade or so was no great shakes. He designed dozens of rather shy Victorian and bungalow houses around Armory Park and the West University neighborhood...But around 1915 something began to click."
That something was Annie Graham Rockfellow. Her first major project on the new job was the 1918 Safford School, which Cheek described as "easily the most beautiful school building in Tucson." Still a working school today, Safford is a resplendent example of the Spanish Mission Revival, jazzed up with Arizona grace notes. Three curved porticoes top three separate facades that protrude from the main building, which is roofed in red tile. Two domed towers on either side of the main entrance echo the towers of nearby San Agustín cathedral on Stone Avenue, and the one completed tower of Mission San Xavier. (Rockfellow loved San Xavier. "Thanks be," she once wrote, "our precious San Xavier still stands.")
The intricate carvings on each of Safford's facades likewise recall San Xavier. Jeffery says this kind of ornamentation does not appear on California Mission Revival. One touch is especially fine: a carving of a young girl reading a book, perhaps a memory of Rockfellow herself as a studious kid.
The building is at once a response to the local climate -- tile awnings over the windows and a courtyard offer protection from the sun -- and to the local architecture, distilled in the Beaux Arts principles of proportion and symmetry. It set a standard that Rockfellow would match again and again.
She was delighted with her new life. She settled into a house at 602 N. Seventh Ave., and dove into her job.
"The work proved so interesting that I stayed, as chief designer, ten years before I went back to New York State, and then only to greet my friends and sell everything but the cemetery lot, and returned to the Tucson office. In all I was there twenty-two years, taking part in all the work and supervision, but principally the designing."
In some ways, Rockfellow liked having Jaastad in charge. It left her freer to concentrate on the most interesting work. "Without the responsibility of an entire commission I was able to give better attention to design and the needs in plans." And the designs in this busy office was varied.
"We 'did' many school houses in various parts of the state, hotels, sanitariums, and every class of building." Early women architects often found themselves pigeon-holed into domestic design, but "I cared least for residence work...too much time spent in prolongued (sic) conferences and too many changes."
More than anything, Rockfellow loved adapting indigenous styles. She traveled every summer with architectural purpose, each year inspecting the vernacular buildings in such places as Mesa Verde, Mexico, the Pueblo villages of New Mexico, and Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion national parks. (She also traveled far afield, to Alaska, Hawaii, Panama and Cuba.) She loved the "Indian Renaissance" of Santa Fe, and judging by her photos, she delighted in local rock work, photographing a shelter made of native stone in Tucson Mountain Park.
One time, she thought of local rock for a school she was designing for an unnamed Arizona mining town. The trustees wanted a conventional classical school, and a disappointed Rockfellow gave them what they wanted, complete with bricks and columns. Later she lamented, "A studied carelessness in building with the native stone could be made so appropriate and picturesque." The insistence on non-regional style "really gave me a headache."
Rockfellow used what she called Hopi style in 1926 for the Desert Sanitarium, the precursor of Tucson Medical Center. Meant to cure tuberculosis by "direct solar radiation," the complex of necessity had to have a good relationship with the outdoors. "All of the patients' rooms and porches were orientated to face the east and the building was so designed that the rays of the sun cannot fall upon the outside walls of any patient's room," the hospital's satisfied president, Dr. B.L. Wyatt, told visiting doctors. Most of the complex gradually was leveled to make way for TMC, but a half dozen of Rockfellow's buildings remain in use on the campus. Clustered near Beverly and Grant, the structures include the old director's house and a water tower.
Her next major project brought her back to Spanish Mission Revival. The sumptuous El Conquistador Hotel went up on East Broadway in 1928, complete with Rockfellow's by now trademark tower, carved facade and a long gallery of open arches. It was beautifully sited among desert plants, and "both the north and south sides of the lobby open on sun porches and afford magnificent views of desert foreground and unsurpassed mountain vistas," a reporter enthused. Sleeping porches allowed guests to take advantage of fine weather. Her next big project, the Young Women's Christian Association, built in 1930 at the corner of Fifth Avenue and University, is a pared-down version, undoubtedly constructed on a more modest budget. Nevertheless, Rockfellow managed to incorporate fanciful twisted pillars into its unusual three-arched entrance, and a generous patio for the young women to enjoy the outdoors.
Other major Tucson buildings included the Southern Arizona Bank and Trust Co., Christian Science church, La Fonda Buen Provecho Inn, "and many residences within and without the city limits." Sometimes Rockfellow was able to talk families wanting a new house into what she called "appropriate" style, meaning either Mission Revival or Pueblo. One family home, far east of town, was a sensually curving "Indian" affair, complete with courtyard, wooden vigas and lintels, and soft adobe edges. Known at the time of its 1932 construction as the R.P. Boss House, the house was prominently featured in the Whoopi Goldberg movie Boys on the Side.
By the 1930s, Rockfellow, worried about the fate of the town's old Mexican buildings, went on the radio to argue for their preservation. This was at a time when, as Jeffery puts it, "The boosters were saying, 'As long as we've got those mud shacks downtown, we're never gonna be Los Angeles.' " Rockfellow, well-traveled as she was, had a better idea of the attractions of a sense of place.
"Do people from the north and east and from foreign countries come out to our southwest to see copies of their different eras of architecture?" she asked in a 1932 broadcast. "On the contrary our most appreciative guests enjoy what is left of the early Spanish-Mexican and Indian types and deplore the passing of the comfortable, appropriate and quaint adobe buildings."
Rockfellow publicly campaigned for the revival of the original San Agustín church -- near where La Placita now stands -- and for the restoration of its plaza. Lined with cafes and shops, the zocalo would be a town center for locals and visitors alike. She also wanted to rehab a historic adobe at the northeast corner of Alameda and Court to serve as a museum for the Arizona Historical and Pioneer Society.
She failed on both counts, of course. Today the site of the lovely adobe is occupied by the parking garage of the Transamerica Building; the old church plaza has long since been sliced up Broadway Boulevard and the county government buildings. The heart of the old Mexican barrio was leveled in the late 1960s, to be replaced by a sprawling Tucson Community Center. The fine El Conquistador Hotel went under in 1968.
But she didn't live to see these travesties. By the late 1930s, Rockfellow was an old woman. The new ideas of international modernism were coming in, sweeping aside as "quaint" and "decorative" the vernacular styles she had argued for passionately all her career. She retired in 1938, at the age of 72, and moved to Santa Barbara, a city almost entirely given over to Spanish Mission Revival. In her final years, according to the Santa Barbara News, she could be seen "hiking in a riding costume or walking along the waterfront wearing a skipper's cap." And she frequently gave lectures while wearing Arizona Indian costumes.
Annie Rockfellow died in 1954 at the age of 87. She was soon to be forgotten, but at least her obituary offered a final tribute. The Santa Barbara News writer admiringly told of her status as the first woman architect to be trained at MIT, and praised her long career in Tucson, noting, "She was a leader in the ideas embodying the historical and scenic feeling of Arizona architecture."
Sources for this story include Annie Graham Rockfellow's writings, housed at the Arizona Historical Society; Annie Graham Rockfellow, an unpublished 1994 thesis by Kimberly Kunasek; and Architecture: A Place for Women, edited by Ellen Perry Berkeley, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
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