March 21, 1908
I stumbled across the story of Penelope Murdoch yesterday but didn’t have time to pursue it until now. This photograph and few inches of
type from The Times may be all that remains of the aspirations of a Polytechnic High School student who hoped to become an architect. I can
find no further record of her.
Sadly, the anonymous Times reporter treats Penelope with humorous scorn and amused disdain, as if she’s a trained circus seal that can play a tune on bicycle horns and now has grand plans to write a symphony.
“One day, when other girls
were dreaming of party dresses and conquests, Miss Penelope, very
serious and very busy, up in the architect department, pursed her
pretty mouth and wrinkled her smooth young forehead.”
“But with the same demure calmness with which she might tell you how
she had decided on a ‘Merry Widow’ instead of a ‘Military’ for her
summer hat, she explained all about the relation of the Mission to the
Moorish style, and made bewildering allusions to Gothic arches and
Ionic columns and Dravidian pyramids, and told why you must never,
never use a fluted column on one sort of architecture–I forget what.”
Chiseling away these writerly aerobatics and pompous digressions is slow, frustrating work and leaves the careful researcher with precious little information. We don’t even know, for example, Penelope’s age or
whether she was a freshman or a senior (bonus fact: Polytechnic was 4 years old and about to graduate its first class–not that you’d learn it from The Times).
What we do know is that there was a young woman who believed in herself and hoped to be an architect. She received the encouragement of
educators–if not The Times–and we can hope she achieved some success. The absence of her name in later editions of the paper is disquieting,
as if a spotlight shone on a young person of promise for a moment and then left her in the dark.