Photo by Joe Del Tufo
Architect Minerva Parker Nichols designed one of the country’s earliest women’s clubs, now home to the Delaware Children’s Theatre. This month, an exhibition in her honor opens at the University of Pennsylvania.
Future president Woodrow Wilson, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and a child actor from Delaware who went on to win a Tony have all appeared at a Wilmington structure designed by the first woman to work independently as an architect in the United States.
Minerva Parker Nichols was commissioned in 1892 to draw up the New Century Club building at 1014 Delaware Ave. to house one of the earliest women’s clubs in the country. For the past 40 years, the charming historic building has been home to the Delaware Children’s Theatre (DCT) company.
“Minerva was the first woman to open and run a sustained solo practice anywhere,” says Molly Lester, associate director of the Urban Heritage Project at University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design, who is co-curating the first exhibition on Nichols this month at Penn. The exhibit will be open through June 17.
“I’ve presented on Minerva many times over the years, but the exhibit will be new content entirely,” Lester says. “We’re producing new architectural photography… and objects [include those] from the private family collections that have not been on view publicly before.”
Originally based in Philadelphia, Nichols designed more than 70 structures, mostly residences, in several states. The DCT building—added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983—is her only public edifice still standing.
“A side wing was added in the 20th century, and the front steps and porch area [were] altered from Minerva’s original design, but [the rest is] otherwise largely intact, and it’s a striking design,” Lester points out.
Nichols earned the Wilmington commission based on how well received her design was for the New Century Club’s Philadelphia chapter. “It’s a Colonial Revival design, a style that she favored based on its ‘honesty’ and relative simplicity,” Lester continues. It features Palladian windows and a gambrel roof. A theater for traveling shows and guest speakers, such as Wilson, was included, and today is used by the DCT.
Wilmington native John Gallagher Jr. took to its stage to play Tom Sawyer. He won a 2006 Tony for best actor in a musical, in Spring Awakening, and appeared on the HBO series The Newsroom.
Around 1892, Nichols designed one other project in Wilmington: a Sunday school addition for the First Unitarian Church at 8th and West streets that was later demolished. (Nichols was a Unitarian and married a minister around the time she designed the extension.)
The New Century Club was a group of progressive, mostly white, upper-class women committed to improved living conditions, charity and women’s suffrage.
It occupied the building until 1975. Then it was home to the Delaware Dinner Theatre and Delaware Ballet Company until 1982, when it was purchased by John and Marie Swajeski. The couple wanted to save it from demolition and use it as a permanent home for a children’s theater company Marie had founded, explains their daughter, Donna Swajeski, who succeeded Marie as DCT’s artistic director. “She knew the [club] since my father worked at DuPont right down the street and was an admirer of the building,” Donna says, noting her admiration for Nichols’ work.
Donna Swajeski has directed most of the company’s shows and has written and presented seven original musicals at the theater. Her brother, David, is president of DCT’s board.
“It is a family-run organization,” she says. “This way we can keep the theater always focused on families and children, and follow our mother’s wishes.”