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Mary Rockwell Hook

Mary Rockwell Hook, Architect [1877-1978]

Entering the field of architecture in the first decades of the 20th century was a difficult accomplishment for women. Only five women architects were working in Kansas City, Missouri from ca. 1910 to 1930, and only Mary Rockwell Hook [†] (who produced fewer works) gained any measure of public recognition. Born into a wealthy and cosmopolitan family for who education and travel were essentials of life, Mrs. Hook (1877-1978) found the incentive for her career in her schooling trips abroad. However, she managed to meld the practice of architecture with marriage, motherhood, active participation in civic affairs and a busy social life. As a woman and a practicing architect, Mary Rockwell Hook was a pioneer, opening a path for other women to follow and thus making significant contribution to the history of American architecture.

Mary's father, Bertrand Rockwell, settled in Junction City, Kansas adjacent to Fort Riley upon being mustered out of the Union Army in 1865. There he prospered, founding a mercantile company, a grain company, and becoming a bank president. He also fathered 5 daughters, of whom Mrs. Hook was the middle one, born in 1877. When Mrs. Hook was 13, the Rockwell family began a peripatetic life, first spending a year in Santa Rosa, California, followed by a year in Wellesley, Massachusetts, both moves ostensibly due to Mr. Rockwell's health. However, the second expedition was also motivated by Mr. Rockwell's desire, unusual for the time, to have his daughters educated in the superior schools of the northeast part of the country. Mrs. Hook was sent to Dana Hall, a girls' preparatory school located in Wellesley. After four years of preparation there, Mrs. Hook was admitted to Wellesley College in 1896 and was graduated in 1900.

At approximately the same time as the Rockwell family began its sojourn in Massachusetts, they also began traveling often to Europe. Shorter vacations were spent in various areas of New England, along the Canadian seacoast, and in the large metropolises of the northeast. In 1901, the seven family members spent eight months in Italy and Switzerland. They had scarcely returned to Junction City when they were invited to the Philippines Islands to visit a relative, recently appointed the military governor of the newly-acquired American territory. Mrs. Hook, her father, and her oldest sister accepted the invitation, which enabled them to stop in Guam, tour most of the islands of the Philippines group, and make a side trip to Japan and China on a Japanese steamboat. En route home, Mrs. Hook visited Singapore and Ceylon and pass through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, returning to the United States toward the end of 1902.

In an abbreviated autobiography, written in 1970, Mrs. Hook noted that, on the trip home from the Philippines, she resolved to study architecture, giving the idealistic rationalization that "someone needed to improve the design of buildings used by our government abroad." In 1903, at the age of 26, she spent the year in Chicago studying in the architecture department of the Art Institute of Chicago. After a term of teaching English in Puerto Rico and trips to Venezuela and Sicily, Mrs. Hook's second period of architectural instruction came in Paris in 1905. Along with seven American men she enrolled in an atelier preparatoire, directed by a recent graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Also, along with the 7 men, she failed to pass the first qualifying examination. Mrs. Hook does not mention any further classes for herself.

Two years later, in 1908, Mrs. Hook's father purchased for her a lot at 54 East 53rd Terrace, on which she designed her first house, a bungalow. She next planned a house for her oldest sister, who was married and living in Santa Rosa, California, and one in Wellesley, Massachusetts, for a friend. Also, in 1908, she began work on a large residence for the Rockwell family. From 1913 on, she planned a number of buildings for the Pine Mountain School, a settlement school for underprivileged children in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She spent most of 1914 visiting her sister, Bertha, who was married to an Italian art professor and living in Assisi. While there Mrs. Hook helped her brother-in-law in his restoration of a former monastery in the environs of Assisi. During 1915 she was in Kansas City, building a home for her youngest sister. In addition, her memoirs indicate that, during this period of her life, sports, golf, tennis, and especially horseback riding, occupied a great deal of her time.

During 1917-1918, Mrs. Hook lived in Greenwich Village and worked at the New York Post Office, translating what she described as "Spanish trade mail." The following summer, 1919, she built a primitive cabin on some scenic property she had purchased near Estes Park, Colorado. In the spring of 1920, Mrs. Hook joined the American Committee for Devastated France, organized by the philanthropic daughter of J.P. Morgan, and went to Blerancourt, northeast of Paris, an area ravaged by the war. Hospitals, schools and technical assistance programs for the peasant-farmers of the district were being organized. Miss Morgan selected Mrs. Hook to supervise part of the work. After a year, Mrs. Hook, then still Miss Rockwell, returned to the United States to marry a Kansas City lawyer, Inghram D. Hook. Mrs. Hook settled into the routine of an affluent, suburban matron, mother of two adopted sons. She was active in community organizations and amateur dramatics, traveling often about the country. The only unusual aspect of her life was her career as an architect, which was at its busiest and most fruitful stage during the first years of her marriage.

From 1924 until 1929, Mrs. Hook maintained an architectural partnership with Eric Douglas MacWilliam Remington. The firm of Hook and Remington completed the house at 5011 Sunset Drive, 5050 Sunset Drive, and the Hooks's own residence plus a farm house east of the City, although the extent of Remington's contribution to these designs is unknown.

Among other works undertaken during this period were 2 homes in suburban areas of Kansas City, which are located a few blocks into the State of Kansas. The first, 6435 Indian Lane, constructed in 1923, is a large Italianate house of native stone, rather similar to 5011 Sunset Drive. The second, 2105 Drury Lane, bears some resemblance to 5050 Sunset Drive and was built in 1926, the year following its counterpart. Also in 1926, Hook and Remington drew the plans for the mansarded mansion in Woodside, California, south of San Francisco, for a sister and brother-in-law of Mrs. Hook.

In 1935 Mrs. Hook purchased 55 acres of shore property on Siesta Key in Sarasota, Florida. Here, over a period of 15 years, Mrs. Hook designed an informal resort hotel, 2 vacation homes, and a guest house. Then, past seventy years of age, Mary Rockwell Hook ended her architectural career. However, she lived another 30, mostly active years, dying on her 101st birthday in 1978.

† Sherry Piland and Elaine Ryder, Landmarks Commission of Kansas City, MO, Residential Structures by Mary Rockwell Hook, nomination document, 1983, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.