How to Design a Feminist Monument

Declaration of Sentiments Waterwall

Declaration of Sentiments Waterwall

July 20, 2016

“What are my goals? To live, for architecture is my life.”

This is how Ray Kinoshita Mann described her professional goals when she applied for AAUW’s Selected Professions Fellowship in 1986. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University, she was on her way to a master’s degree in architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design. She looked to AAUW for help in funding her education. The Selected Professions Fellowship assists women graduate students who enter subjects in which women are underrepresented, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math fields like architecture.

After being selected for the fellowship, Mann reported back to AAUW with remarkable news.

A year earlier, the National Park Service had acquired Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, and the surrounding land, the site of the first national women’s rights convention in 1848. The chapel had seen dramatic changes in the intervening years. It had been repurposed for an assortment of businesses but never preserved. Precious little of the original building remained intact. So when the time came for the NPS to memorialize the site in the new Women’s Rights National Historical Park, the service chose to go with something entirely new. The chance to design the monument would be open to the public.

Young African American girl dressed up like a doctor reading an x-rayThe competition saw 217 entries from professionals and amateurs alike. In the end, the NPS selected a design submitted by Mann and her schoolmate Ann Wills Marshall. Mann was at the midpoint of the first semester of her fellowship year when she learned that she had beaten one of her own professors in the national competition. First place came with a $15,000 prize as well as national acclaim. Mann and Marshall were 27 and 28 respectively at the time.

Mann described her approach to design as “strongly integrational,” an expression of her “desire to respond to sociocultural issues in a meaningful way.” This was certainly true of the memorial. In the artists’ statement accompanying an NPS press release, Mann and Marshall describe how they strove to incorporate the ideals of the feminist movement into the structure and hinted at their own feminist approach to architecture.

The sense of the continuum must transcend the celebration of a moment in time. The monument must put forth a specific message while allowing individual interpretation.

It is our design intention to mediate these dualities … because it represents an ideological position towards design. Some feminists believe that the mediation of opposites is a feminine characteristic. We do not attempt to verify this position, but we note that it is a consistent tendency in our work.

The finished design presents the chapel as an open space. Two partial original walls still stand, supported by steel. The windows are left without frames. At a distance are new walls made of smooth stone, featuring wide open doorways. The edifice is topped with exposed wooden rafters and a transparent, peaked roof. One face of the building opens onto a set of stone benches, which face a natural amphitheater and an art piece known as the Waterwall. On the wall is inscribed the entirety of the Declaration of Sentiments, a resolution asserting women’s rights that was written at the 1848 convention. A steady current of water flows over the words written during the First Wave of feminism, acting as “a metaphor for that which is alive and ever-changing,” according to the artists’ statement.

This type of open, living design was something entirely new for a national monument. Mann and Marshall take note of this in their statement: “What makes this project significant is not only that we as women have won but also that it is a work by women that perhaps challenges a status quo idea of a monument — and that the value of that work has been recognized.”

A representative of AAUW was invited to the park’s grand opening in 1980. Since then, Mann has opened her own design firm, RK Studio. She presently works as a tenured associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she also serves as architecture program development committee chair.

This post was written by AAUW Archives Intern Teal Gregory


By:   |   July 20, 2016


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  24. Susie Stanley says:

    Thanks to Mann and Marshall for creating the phenomenal national monument which beautifully symbolizes the first woman’s rights convention. When I made my pilgrimage there, I was overwhelmed by the metaphor of the water running over the words of the Declaration of Sentiments. The manner in which they preserved the church which hosted the convention was brilliant. I had seen the church several years before when it had been incorporated into a laundromat. The transformation was awe-inspiring! I could imagine Frederick Douglass supporting Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s plea for including suffrage in the Declaration.

    As a professor of both the history of the woman’s movement and also church history, I was impressed by the accuracy depicted by the monument. People, sometimes even historians, are unaware of the role of the church in inaugurating the woman’s movement. In fact, many church members signed the Declaration of Sentiments.

    I was so impressed with the landmark that I could hardly tear myself away. Many years later, the memory is still fresh in my mind.

    Thanks again to Mann and Marshall for their important work.

    Susie Stanley

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