A woman with curly hair wearing a black dress smiles and stands in front of a plain white backgroundMolly Lester is an architectural historian and preservation planner, with a particular interest in the ways women shaped the built environment in the 19th and early 20th centuries – whether we recognize their contributions or not. She is the Associate Director of the Urban Heritage Project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

If you attended the 2020 Statewide Conference on Heritage, you may have heard Molly talk about her work to preserve the legacy of Minerva Parker Nichols, who was the founder of the nation’s first solo female architecture practice. Learn more about Molly’s project at the end of the post, with links to the podcasts and more.

Molly is also working on a Building Ghosts project, documenting and researching absent buildings and their ghosts (remnants of paint, wallpaper or the patterns of vanished floors and stairs) evident on the party walls of adjacent buildings.

Here’s Molly’s valentine to a very special place.

Cranaleith Spiritual Center (historically: Mill-Rae)

Black and white photograph of a woman in 3/4 profile. She is wearing a hat with feathers, a brooch at her neck and a jacket with puffy sleeves and a trimmed collar
Photographic portrait of American architect Minerva Parker Nichols (1860–1945). From American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies with Over 1,400 Portraits, Frances E. Willard and Mary A. Livermore, editors. Mast, Crowell & Kirkpatrick, 1897 (revised edition from 1893), vol. 2, p. 536

The house known as Mill-Rae was constructed in 1890 for suffragist Rachel Foster Avery and her family and was designed by Minerva Parker Nichols (1862-1949), the first woman in the country to open her own architecture practice. Located just outside of Philadelphia, the house was used as a meeting site for several prominent suffrage activists as they advocated for national women’s suffrage, planned exhibits and conventions at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and established a pension fund to support Susan B. Anthony (a personal friend and mentor to Avery, and a frequent guest at Mill-Rae) in her ongoing activism.

Mill-Rae was a pivotal early commission for Nichols, giving her a foothold for future commissions and clients and elevating her national profile. At the time, it was an unusual case of a home that was designed to accommodate both a private function as Avery’s family home and a public function as a locus for women’s associations and activism. Such accommodations and gathering spaces for women’s organizations were rare in the late 19th century. The house is used as a retreat center today.

The house uses local schist and other materials, and its Shingle Style design fits right into the Pennsylvania architecture of its time. It is located on the outer fringe of Philadelphia–this was intentional from the start, designed to capitalize on the nearby train connections but offer a retreat from the metropolis.

Interior of Cranaleith (Mill-Rae), designed by Minerva Parker Nichols in 1890. Photo credit: Molly Lester
A white, gabled house with a large porch
Cranaleith (Mill-Rae) was a commission for Rachel Foster Avery in 1890. Avery was a national figure in the suffrage movement and the house was designed to accommodate suffrage meetings and host overnight guests. Photo credit: Molly Lester

I discovered Cranaleith/Mill-Rae about a decade ago, in the course of researching Minerva Parker Nichols. The retreat center was already well aware of its connections to Rachel Foster Avery, but I was able to establish Nichols as the architect of the house, which adds a new dimension of significance.

It’s an ongoing stewardship challenge to care for a century-old property, and I am eager to support Cranaleith in caring for the historic house. I nominated the property to the National Register in 2016 and am working with Cranaleith right now to include them in an exhibit about Nichols’ career and significance.

The house has amazing continuity today with its original purpose: in many ways, it was designed as a retreat for suffragists, and it operates as a spiritual retreat center today. It still feels like an oasis in North Philadelphia, and Minerva Parker Nichols’ design for Rachel Foster Avery’s family is still so intact.

It’s worth visiting to learn more about the women behind the house and to experience its calm presence as a retreat center today.

Preserving Minerva

Thanks to Molly Lester’s tremendous efforts (and some generous funders), there are lots of ways to discover the work and legacy of Minerva Parker Nichols.

Preserving Minerva website

What Minerva Built podcasts (on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts)

What Minerva Built videos

@WhatMinervaBuilt on Instagram

And, in 2022, an exhibit dedicated to the pioneering work of this architect and her [often female] clients.

Cranaleith Spiritual Center

Gaelic for “sanctuary of trees,” Cranaleith is a retreat and conference center for those who wish to reflect on what matters deeply in their lives, renew their spirit for life and work, or restore themselves from life’s traumas. Individuals and groups are invited to participate in retreats and other programs in a spirit-rekindling environment of well-being, respect, and harmony.

While closed at this time due to COVID-19, Cranaleith offers virtual programming and support. Once re-opened, the site will resume service as a host site for retreats and conferences. The site offers tours, for those who would like to study the building and think of the suffragists who once organized within its walls. Visit the website to learn more.

Building Ghosts

MOLLY LESTER WAS WALKING AROUND north Philadelphia a few years ago when she saw a ghost. The specter was haunting the alabaster remains of 1513 North Second Street, a former townhouse. Lester took a picture, the first of what has become a spirited collection of Philly building ghosts—the imprints of demolished rowhouses that linger on their neighboring buildings’ exterior walls.

This particular apparition included a white plaster outline where there had once been three floors of rooms, stairs, and built-in closets. As an architectural historian and preservation planner, Lester usually studies buildings that are still around—but she was intrigued by this shadowy stencil. She wanted to mentally reconstruct this invisible house and learn more about the people who once slept under its now-obliterated roof.

Read the rest of the Atlas Obscura article and find out more about the Building Ghosts project by Molly Lester and Michael Bixler. Follow the project on Instagram, and stay tuned for their Building Ghosts website!

Preservation Passions

Molly Lester joined us at the 2020 Pennsylvania Statewide Conference on Heritage as part of an inspiring panel discussion to showcase the ways one person can pursue a passion and make a difference in the preservation world. The session featured Molly Lester speaking about her Preserving Minerva project; JaQuay Edward Carter on his efforts to revive the history of his Pittsburgh neighborhood by founding the Greater Hazelwood Historical Society; and Bob Skiba, who was inspired by the National Park Service LGBTQ Theme Study and started a project to research, map and highlight Philadelphia sites and their history. Not surprisingly, each of them work on additional projects at the same time! Enjoy the session, below.