Now that we appear on the verge of electing our first female president, let's recall the early activists who made this watershed possible. When women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton weren't barnstorming around the country, demanding that women be given the right to vote, they would retreat to a corner of Northeast Philadelphia to relax and strategize in a cozy stone house that was designed in 1891 by a female architect for a female client.
With its rich assortment of picturesque details and a base of gray Wissahickon schist, the three-story, Shingle-style house in the Somerton section is in many ways typical of the era and the region. Now the home of the Cranaleith Spiritual Center, it features the same high-spirited mash-up of gables, bays, asymmetrical dormers, and porches that you see on many Philadelphia-area houses from the late Victorian period. But it was designed by Minerva Parker Nichols, the first female architect in the U.S. to start her own practice.
Nichols came of age at a time when women were being encouraged to study visual and industrial arts in the belief that they could help elevate popular taste. After graduating from Philadelphia Normal School, the precursor to Girls High, in 1882, Nichols took a two-year course in architectural drawing at the School of Design for Women, which became the Moore College of Art. As recounted by architectural historian Molly Lester in her masters thesis, Nichols' strong drafting skills won her a job with architect Edwin W. Thorne. After he gave up his office on South Broad Street in 1890, she took over the space and established her own firm. Considering that this was a time when people believed women didn't have the stamina to oversee construction projects (sound familiar?), it was an act of unusual self-confidence.
One of Nichols' first commissions came from another woman, Rachel Foster Avery, a disciple of Anthony and Stanton. Although newly married, she controlled her own money. Avery found a site in Northeast Philadelphia, then a rural area of gentle hills. Because the location was within walking distance from the Somerton train station, the house was easily accessible from downtown Philadelphia and New York (via Trenton). That made it an attractive meeting place for leaders of the suffrage movement, who retreated there to rest and plan their marches.
Nichols placed the house at the top of the hill, giving it sweeping views of farm fields. An early believer in the health benefits of airy, sunlit rooms, Nichols gave the house (which Avery called Mill-Rae) large windows and generous hallways. There are porches on the front and back, including a curving front porch that is echoed inside by a curved stairwell.
With nine bedrooms, Mill-Rae was nearly always filled with visitors. Anthony, who never earned much money, spent her last years as a frequent guest. In 1906, Mill-Rae was sold to the Trainer family, who were prominent in Philadelphia's Republican Party. They renamed it Cranaleith.
In 1996, the house was donated to the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy. Fittingly, they decided to honor its original use by turning the house and grounds into a conference center for nonprofits. Once again, Nichols' wide halls are filled with visitors plotting campaigns for the social good.
Nichols, according to several printed accounts, died in 1949, after climbing atop a house to inspect a new roof. She was 87.
Cranaleith Spiritual Center is at the intersection of Proctor Road and Edison Avenue. From Center City, take the West Trenton Line to Somerton Station. The walk takes less than 10 minutes.