Women Who Built Illinois Database: PRESS RELEASE

(Above image: Jane Johnson (Graham), Head of Interiors Department SOM 1957-1960. Courtesy SOM.)


Kaitlyn McAvoy
Communications Manager, Landmarks Illinois


August 18, 2021

New Landmarks Illinois database highlights over 100 women who built Illinois

CHICAGO – Landmarks Illinois has published an online database, Women Who Built Illinois, which includes information on over 100 female architects, engineers, developers, designers, builders, landscape architects, interior designers and clients and their projects between 1879 and 1979.

The first-of-its-kind database is the result of an in-depth survey of women in architecture, real estate and design-related fields that Landmarks Illinois publicly launched in 2020 — a year that marked the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, upholding a U.S. citizen’s right to vote regardless of sex. The database calls attention to the women who helped to create places that today are cherished by communities and property owners across Illinois, yet many remain unprotected without local landmark status or lack National Register designation that would provide opportunities for important financial preservation incentives.

“This new database recognizes those who laid the path for women today and who continue to impact the built environment of Illinois and Chicago,” said Lisa DiChiera, Landmarks Illinois Director of Advocacy, who spearheaded the project. “We hope students and professionals in architecture, planning and public history will be inspired to study these women, their careers and built works.”

The new database can be found on the Landmarks Illinois website at www.landmarks.org/womenwhobuiltillinois/.

(Natalie de Blois with students at UT-Austin in the 1980s. Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin.)

Women in the database

Among the more than 100 people in the Women Who Built Illinois database are:

  • Georgia Louise Harris Brown, the second African American woman to become a licensed architect and engineer in the United States and who did structural calculations for many projects and important firms, including Mies van der Rohe’s Promontory Apartments in Chicago.
  • Marion Mahony Griffin, an important member of Frank Lloyd Wright’s office for more than a decade and a prominent Prairie School architect who designed the Robert Mueller and Adolph Mueller houses in Decatur.
  • Gertrude Lempp Kerbis, an architect who opened her own firm, Lempp Kerbis, in 1967 following experience studying with architect Mies van der Rohe and working at many high profile architecture firms in Chicago, including C.F. Murphy Associates and Skidmore Owings & Merrill. Kerbis designed the 1962 O’Hare Airport Rotunda, which Landmarks Illinois included on its 2017 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois due to its uncertain future amid O’Hare terminal expansion.
  • Greta Lederer, a suburban home builder who in the 1950s developed the neighborhoods of Strawberry Hill, Westwood Acres and Skokie Ridge in Glencoe and additional homes in Highland Park and Northbrook. A 1957 Chicago Daily Tribune article attributed to her $10 million worth of home development on the North Shore.

(Margaret Zirkel Young at River Plaza from Building Design and Construction (1976).)

Retired architect Margaret Zirkel Young, who is also included in the Women Who Built Illinois database, said she hopes the project will inspire and motivate more women to enter the architecture profession. Zirkel Young was project architect at Ezra Gordon-Jack M. Levin & Associates for the firm’s 1970s design commissions of Chicago’s Newberry Plaza, River Plaza and the East Bank Club, to name a few.

“I never questioned being in a room with all men and no women,” said Zirkel Young of her career. “I knew from the time of my first drafting class at Senn High School I wanted to be an architect. A favorite Goethe quote I would return to throughout my career was, ‘Boldness has genius.’”

Call for action & crowdsourced information

Landmarks Illinois encourages local historic preservation commissions and municipal planning departments to evaluate and prioritize places identified in the Women Who Built Illinois survey for local landmark and/or National Register designations. Landmarks Illinois also welcomes additional research on women in the survey for whom more information is needed. Please send information on existing women in the database and/or of additional women in these fields who were active in Illinois prior to 1979 to LDiChiera@Landmarks.org.

Georgia Louise Harris Brown, the only woman in the room, in the Kornacker Offices, circa 1940s. Courtesy of the Brown Family.

Database researchers & partners

Research for and development of the database was led by DiChiera of Landmarks Illinois and Erica Ruggiero, Principal at McGuire Igleski & Associates, Inc., and Landmarks Illinois intern Cray Kennedy. Additional research and peer review was provided by Julia Bachrach, a Chicago-based architectural historian, planner and preservationist, and student volunteer Jared Saef, who also contributed research and photography.

The database is made possible thanks to generous financial support from: Women in Restoration & Engineering (WiRE), AIA Illinois, the Kohler Fund for the Midwest of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Kim Kerbis, in honor of architect Gertrude Lempp Kerbis.

“I am so impressed by this pursuit to research and document the women who are so important to the history of our state and our built world,” said Kim Kerbis, project donor and daughter of late architect Gertrude Lempp Kerbis. “Some of these inspiring women are known, many are unknown, but all are underappreciated, under recognized and undervalued. The work Landmarks Illinois and its team of researchers and historians are doing is fascinating and long overdue.”

Gert_Chris Deford (3)

Gertrude Lempp Kerbis in the O’Hare Rotunda, which she designed in 1962. Courtesy of Chris Deford.

About Landmarks Illinois

We are People Saving Places for People. Landmarks Illinois, now celebrating its 50th Anniversary, is a membership-based nonprofit organization serving the people of Illinois. We inspire and empower stakeholders to save places that matter to them by providing free guidance, practical and financial resources and access to strategic partnerships. For more information, visit www.Landmarks.org.


Explore the Women Who Built Illinois Database

Support our advocacy

Be a voice for the future of our communities by supporting Landmarks Illinois. Our work enhances communities, empowers citizens, promotes local economic development and offers environmentally sound solutions.

Become A Member