Mary Louisa Page seems to have been the first woman to graduate with a degree in architecture in North America.1 Born in Metamora, IL, in 1849, she attended Illinois Industrial University (later University of Illinois) beginning in 1874, receiving a Certificate in Architecture in 1878 and a B.S. in Architecture in 1879.2 At the university she served as a senator in student government, in the all-female Alethenai Literary Society and another group called “Mystery of the Seven Sisters.” Two of her siblings, Emma and Martha, attended Illinois at the same time. Mary Page forged bonds with fellow students, including Dr. Avis Elida Smith, an obstetrician who, with other female physicians, would go on to found the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.
Upon graduation Mary Page worked as a teacher for two years before finding employment in architecture, first in Illinois, then in Kansas City in the mid 1880’s, and finally in Olympia, Washington, where in 1887 she joined her former Illinois classmate (and her older sister Martha’s husband) Robert Farwell Whitham to offer engineering, drafting, blueprint, and (land title) abstracting services under the company name Whitham & Page, with Whitham serving as civil engineer and city surveyor and Mary Page as draftsman.3 A rare hand-colored map of Olympia and surroundings dated 1890, one of the earliest cadastral maps of the area, testifies to the precise draftsmanship that Whitham and Page produced during this period.4
Around 1895 Mary Page appears to have shifted away from architectural work, returning to teaching and taking leadership roles in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She served as president of the Western Washington chapter and Vice President at Large of the national organization. By then the multi-racial chapter was involved in women’s rights and suffrage, a hard-fought battle in the Pacific Northwest at the time. Emma Page had already been a prominent member of the group for some years.5 In her work with WCTU, Mary Page embraced humane causes: the treatment of people with disabilities and of animals. She published WCTU documents and her own essays, including a prescient one entitled “The Relationship of Cruelty to Food Supply.”
The 1910 Federal Census identifies Mary Page at age 60, employed as a teacher, and living with an adopted daghter, O. Davida, age 3, in rented accommodations on Harstine Island, in the southern part of Puget Sound, to the north of Olympia. Wooded and sparsely populated, the island had no regular connection to the mainland at the time. That same year Emma Page died, followed five years later by Martha. By 1920, Mary and Davida Page were living with Mary’s youngest sister, Belle Page Whetstone, in Pomona, Kansas. Mary Page died in 1921 in Kansas City, where she had taken Davida for her education. Among those at her funeral was Dr. Avis Smith.
Biographical Information contributed by Rebecca Williamson
1 Sarah Allaback, The First American Women Architects, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 24.
2 Frank William Scott, ed. The Alumni Record of the University of Illinois at Urbana (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1906), 32-3, 35, and 40-41. See also Catalogue and Circular of the University of Illinois, 1885-6 (Champaign, IL 1886) 94 (degree nomenclature), and 102-4 (list of graduates 1877-8).
3 R.L. Polk, publisher, Directory of Olympia, Port Townsend, Fairhaven, New Whatcom and Whatcom 1890, Volume 1. [Olympia, Washington?] 68.
4 Whitham & Page’s map of Olympia and surroundings: Thurston Co., Washington, 1890 by Paul Page Whitham; G B Scammell; G F Conger; L.H. Everts & Co. [Olympia, Washington?] : Scammell & Conger, . (The map appears to be attributed to Mary Page’s nephew, Paul Page Whitham).
5 Emma Page, who was blind since childhood, received a Master of Letters (M.L.) degree from Illinois in 1878. She supported herself as a music teacher at Eureka College, St. Louis from 1879 to 1881 and later taught music in Ottowa, Kansas, and Kansas City Missouri before moving to Manvilled, Wyoming with her parents in 1888. (See Elmira Jane Dickinson, ed. A History of Eurkea College (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company, 1894) 206-7.) After a period homesteading in Wyoming, Emma Page was actively lecturing for the WCTU by 1894. Some time after this Emma Page, along with her parents, moved to the Olympia area and joined the WCTU of Western Washington.