Brian Vanden Brink
When The Architects Collaborative opened in 1945, Sally Harkness had goals that transcended her pioneering role in a firm that, by including two women among its eight founders, flouted gender conventions in a profession dominated by men.
She was among seven young architects who launched the firm with Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus art and architecture school in Germany, and their ambitions were grand.
“The atmosphere was very exciting, to remake the world,” she said in “Still Standing,” a 2006 documentary about the firm. As for herself: “I was determined to do something that was real and something where I could say I was something.”
An inspirational figure for women in architecture, Mrs. Harkness died May 22 in a house she and her husband designed 65 years ago as part of Lexington’s Six Moon Hill neighborhood. She was 98 and a stroke had caused her health to fail.
“I think that even though she was self-effacing, she was a monumental presence in our profession,” said Perry Neubauer, a former president of The Architects Collaborative, which closed in 1995.
The Boston Society of Architects honored her career in 1991, and through the years Mrs. Harkness collected several other awards, including some for designing schools in Bedford, N.Y., and Deerfield. She served as a director of the American Institute of Architects, New England, from 1973 to 1976, and as vice president in 1977 and 1978.
At the firm in Cambridge, meanwhile, her contributions extended beyond designing acumen.
“Sally was more of a theorist, more of a thinker, more of a person who questioned why we do the things that we do, rather than just plunge in,” Neubauer said.
In New England, her most prominent bricks and mortar accomplishments were at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where she was a principal designer for the Olin Arts Center and designed the Ladd Library.
Mrs. Harkness also left a significant legacy by virtue of her career. She raised seven children while working at The Architects Collaborative, designing a work life in the 1940s and ’50s that was as modern as any structure she created.
In 1947, the Globe profiled Mrs. Harkness and Jean Fletcher, the firm’s other female founder. Both their husbands were also among the eight original architects, and both raised children while working. Some sense of what they faced as women in architecture, and women in the working world, can be seen in this passage of the Globe article, where the language merges their individual identities into one person:
“As for the old ‘career versus a home’ argument, both girls believe it is obsolete. ‘A man wouldn’t want to stay in his office 24 hours a day,’ they said, ‘and there is no reason a woman should stay home all that time.’ ”
Although Mrs. Harkness essentially designed doors others would pass through when it came to dual roles at home and in the office, “she didn’t see herself as fighting for women’s rights,” said her son Jock of Jamaica Plain “She was extremely humble about all of that. She was just doing architecture.”
Born Sarah Pillsbury in Swampscott, Mrs. Harkness was the second of three children and was always known as Sally. Her parents were Samuel Hale Pillsbury, a lawyer, and the former Helen Farrington Watters.
Growing up in Boston’s Charles River Square, she graduated from the private Winsor School before studying at The Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, which was affiliated with Smith College. She also received a master’s certificate in architecture.
Although she had been an art student at the Winsor School, “she wanted to do something that was real, that was her word,” said her daughter Alice of Edmonton, Alberta. “Architecture fit that bill. It was in the world. It wasn’t painting pictures that would go on a wall somewhere.”
In 1941, she married John Cheesman Harkness, an architect known as Chip. They lived for a time in New York City, where she worked for a furniture designer. A conscientious objector, he drove an ambulance during World War II, and afterward the couple joined six others to form The Architects Collaborative.
Even in later years when her eyesight failed, Mrs. Harkness kept designing, if only in her mind.
“She couldn’t stop designing for one moment. She’d walk into a place and have to evaluate the whole thing,” said her daughter Joan Harkness Hantz of Rockland, Maine.
In addition to her daughters Joan and Alice and her son Jock, Mrs. Harkness leaves her husband, of Vinalhaven Island, Maine; another son, Fred, of Amesbury; two other daughters, Sara of Woodstock, Conn., and Nell of Arlington; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
A service will be held at a later date.
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