An appreciation of the trailblazing architect behind some of Park Avenue’s most iconic buildings
The piece of information about Union Carbide that seems to have struck a nerve, however, is that Union Carbide was designed by a woman—a towering accomplishment.
“How do you bring women as designers back into the conversation while not misreading the way buildings have always emerged?” says Gabrielle Esperdy, a professor at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and author of the new biographical essay on de Bloisfor the Pioneering Women of American Architecture site. Accounts that write Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, her employer, and Gordon Bunshaft, her boss, out of the narrative are no more correct than past architecture histories which do not mention de Blois at all—or new ones, like this recent New York Times op-ed, that argue the corporation is the architect. The 21st century way is more names, not fewer. De Blois was not a widget but a valued collaborator even if, as a woman in the 1950s, she could never make partner.
On the January 21, 1958 episode of To Tell the Truth, a quiz show in which a panel of actors attempt to tell which of three contestants is the real deal, three women in sensible skirt suits introduce themselves. “My name is Natalie de Blois.” “My name is Natalie de Blois.” “My name is Natalie de Blois.” All three pronounce it “de Bloy.”
The true de Blois, the announcer says, is a registered architect, a member of the American Institute of Architects, has designed two American consulates and a Hilton hotel, and is now senior designer for a little project that is once again in the news: the block-wide, 50-story Union Carbide Building on Park Avenue. She is also, he notes, the married mother of four.
The three women sit down, ready for questions that should reveal which of them is actually an architect. But the panelists prove too ignorant about architecture to ask anything incisive: a third of the questions involve Frank Lloyd Wright. Which Hollywood actress is his granddaughter? What’s the name of his house and what town is it in? What’s special about his Tokyo Imperial Hotel?
The first question is the best one: What is the name of the building torn down in order to build Union Carbide? Contestant #1, the real de Blois, answers easily, “Hotel Marguery.”