Those Amazing Architects

by Tony P. Wrenn, Hon. AIA

Few professions have practitioners more diverse in what they do well as does architecture.

Consider Georgina Pope Yeatman, AIA (1902-1982). The daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania geologist, she was piloting a plane before she was 20, using a landing field the family built for her at their dairy in New Hampshire. She earned an AB degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1922, where she continued studies for an architecture degree, which she earned in 1924, the first woman to complete the architecture program at Pennsylvania.

The university refused to award the degree to a woman, however, and Yeatman continued her studies at MIT, where she earned a BS in architecture in 1925. She became the first woman to practice in Pennsylvania, joined the AIA in 1930, and by 1936 was director of architecture for the City of Philadelphia. In 1937, the University of Pennsylvania relented and awarded Yeatman the architecture degree she had earned in 1924.

Yeatman continued to pilot her own plane and, while flying over coastal North Carolina, was attracted to a flat, open tract of land she thought might be useful for dairying—her family raised Guernsey cows at their farm in New Hampshire. In 1935, she began to acquire land in Cateret County, N.C., near Beaufort. She named her acquisitions Open Grounds, moved to North Carolina, and became the first woman licensed to practice architecture in the state (although the only buildings she designed and constructed in North Carolina were for her own farm). From the mid-1930s on, she was better known by most as a farmer than as an architect and was named, in 1967, North Carolina Farm Manager of the Year, the first woman to earn that honor.

The Open Grounds farm ultimately covered more than 45,000 acres and had 210 miles of dirt roads and a thousand miles of straight drainage ditches and canals that would have crossed both North Carolina and Tennessee if laid end-to-end. The dairy operation moved from New Hampshire to North Carolina, where the cows provided milk for Maola Dairies, specially marked “Golden Guernsey” (denoting pure Guernsey milk, renowned for its fawn color, rich taste, and high butterfat and protein content). Yeatman intended to raise cattle also, but it was not as successful as dairying, which continued at Open Grounds (although four-wheel drive vehicles eventually replaced horses as mounts for her farmhands).

Yeatman was a major donor to the North Carolina State University School of Architecture, East Carolina University, and, at Open Grounds, along with these and other schools and organizations, she began the farm’s legacy in experimenting with acceptable land use and soil remediation, which ultimately became the major purpose of Yeatman’s farm.

Yeatman, who said her times at Open Grounds as a farmer were among the happiest of her life, died there in 1982 and is buried in Morehead City, N.C., near the Beaufort farm. Open Grounds still servives as an experimental farm and attraction.

For more information on the women architects in North Carolina, visit the Triangle Modernist Houses Web site.

Tony Wrenn was the 2007 recipient of the VSAIA Architecture Medal for Virginia Service. Retired as an architectural historian and archivist in 1998—his 45-year career included tenures at both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the AIA national component—he continues as a researcher, presenter, and writer on the history and value of architecture and is an emeritus advisor to the International Archive of Women in Architecture.

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