Student Research on Dorothy Pebworth

Third year architecture student Emma Gallagher speaks about her research, on Dorothy Pebworth Morgan Billmyer, recently displayed at Cowgill Hall’s lobby.

How did you find out about this architect?

I wanted to do research and asked my professor Paola Zellner Bassett to suggest who I could do research on. She recommended I look into Dorothy Pebworth, whose work has barely been recorded, and encouraged me to travel to Norfolk to find and photograph her work. The International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) has a small collection of Pebworth’s work, and in a folder I found a handwritten document [from Dorothy] essentially saying “I did a house over here and then these people asked me if I could do their house. There were a lot more houses but I just can’t remember.” From there I went down to Norfolk to find out more about her and meet with her kids.

What made you interested in this female architect?

The first thing that inspired me to do the research and travel to Norfolk was that she said she had designed over 200 homes and a restaurant named “The Circle.” The only project that had any kind of documentation was the restaurant. I thought “you’re affecting people’s lives by building their houses and its awful that this isn’t documented.” She was born in 1914 and she practiced architecture from the late 30s to the early 50s. These houses are very old, so some of them have been torn down already. I wanted to document her work before there was nothing left. There were other things that I found out along the way that interested me. For instance, she had always known that she was interested in architecture. She even had to fight to get into a mechanical drafting class in eighth grade. They wouldn’t let her in because she was a girl, which is ridiculous! Even though she encountered opposition and resistance at every turn she kept going and I found that inspiring.

What time in her life was she practicing?

Early twenties until her fifties. According to one of her sons, she stopped practicing because in order to make copies of drawing sets for permits and construction it was required that you give your drawings to the blueprint maker, but he eventually told her that he couldn’t make her blueprints anymore. The male architects in the area basically threatened him, “If you keep making blueprints for Dorothy, we’re going to boycott you. She’s a woman without any employees, she works out of her own office, she’s not the primary breadwinner of her house and is undercutting our prices. If you continue to make her blueprints we’re not going to use you anymore.” The blueprint maker unfortunately couldn’t work with her anymore and she was forced to stop practicing architecture.

How was your research process?

When I found Dot (Dorothy) she was perfect. A pioneering woman architect. She’s also distant cousins to Jack Davis, a third year professor too! He kindly offered some clues and bits of information. There was already small fragments of information on her in the IAWA as well. After gathering all the available information I planned a trip to Norfolk, VA where Dorothy did most of her work. I stopped in Richmond first to meet Dot’s daughter, Sue. She shared art and drawings [Dot drew]. I talked with her for a long time and proceeded to Norfolk. I tried calling ahead to the houses I knew the address for but only one person responded to me. I had an appointment to go to Dorothy’s own house, and then also to go visit with Dot’s daughter-in-law, Susan (married to her son David). Other than that meeting, I had five additional days free in Norfolk so I went around knock[ing] on doors saying “Hi, I’m Emma. I’m an architecture student and I’m studying the architect who designed your house!” A number of them weren’t home, but many called me back within a couple of days saying “come on by whenever!” I just went into these strangers’ homes and they were happy to show me around. I took many pictures and everyone was very friendly. It was wonderful when I told them that I was studying the architect that designed their house. They would respond with “Oh my gosh! An architect designed my house?” I went to another woman’s house and 30 minutes into the conversation she told me that when they had bought the house they had it torn down to build a new one. I soon realized why this house looks so different. Some of them were a little unsuccessful while others were very successful. People were excited to find out that there was something special about their house and it was interesting to hear all the different stories. [I] observed how she changed her architecture over time, from one house to another, and how she made improvements.

Is there any advice you can give to people that want to do research?

Don’t be afraid. I was concerned that when I approached people at their houses they would respond with, “what are you doing? You can’t come into my house!” Everyone ended up being very open and inviting, “come on in! you can take pictures. Here’s my email and we can keep in touch!” Don’t be afraid to go out there, find something you’re interested in and pursue it.

Anything you want to add about your experience?

The whole time I was thinking “Dot was in a certain position because she was a woman, there’s always going to be some sort of a force against us historically.” However, after entering all these peoples’ homes I realized they may not have done this if I was a man. I think being a young woman had its advantages when I was in Norfolk and I think people tend to trust young women a little more. Everything depends on how you look at it. She led this life where she had a lot of opposition, but things have changed where being a woman has helped me see her point of view as well as show me that it’s not all bad.

And don’t you think that when people want someone to work on their homes they want to put it in the hands of someone they trust, and she ultimately was entrusted to do all these homes?

Yes, it’s awesome. I think also she got the projects because she designed her friend’s house which led to her friend showing off to everyone saying “Dot built this for me!” I think that’s the networking women oftentimes do best.

 

I’m thankful to the Norfolk homeowners for their hospitality as well as Dot’s family for being so kind and for sharing so much with me. Thank you to Chris Pritchett and Paola Zellner Bassett for their support, and to my mom for helping me set up my exhibition.