What Natalie Adelman Taub faced as a pioneering woman in Boston’s construction field was clear from the cover of New England Construction magazine’s January 1953 issue.
A 23-year-old civil engineering graduate of MIT, she was photographed at a construction site, leaning over blueprints spread atop a table, ready to see the project to completion. But the headline in the lower corner, which also ran atop the feature inside, reflected the industry’s attitude toward women in supervisory roles: “They’ve Got a Dame Running the Job!”
Mrs. Taub, who was 89 and living in Waltham when she died March 23, didn’t stop with overseeing projects. When New England Construction checked in with her in 1956, she was running her own firm — N.J. Adelman Construction Co.
“The field is interesting and challenging. More women should enter it,” she told the magazine in 1994, when the headline in a “Women in Construction” issue announced, “She’s Still on the Job!” — 41 years after that first profile began not with a description of her first-rate credentials, but with: “Young, pretty Natalie Adelman . . . ”
For her, it was always about the work. She was from a family that had long plied the construction trades.
“My father is a contractor,” she said in a WBZ radio interview in the early 1950s. “And my grandfather and great-grandfathers, too, for five generations were carpenters and builders.”
She followed in their footsteps, never considering another path.
“Why should construction be exclusively a man’s field? There are many fine women architects, designers, and decorators, so why not women contactors? After all, the big money is at the top,” she told The Associated Press in 1954 after founding her own firm.
She was one of only six women in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 1950 graduating class, and she was the only woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in building engineering and construction.
“Tiny MIT Girl Bosses Malden Building Job,” a local newspaper headline would say three years later.
While at MIT, she had been the only woman elected to Chi Epsilon, the national honor society for civil engineers. “The fraternity boys called her ‘Brother Natalie,’ ” the Boston Sunday Herald noted in 1954.
“I do not believe that her being the only woman on the job fazed her,” said her youngest child, Julie Vogel of Lexington. “I think she saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate her capabilities while pursuing a field from which she drew immense satisfaction. I never heard her complain in a meaningful way about injustices that may have arisen on the job, or about the way she may have been treated because she was a woman.”
Reporters in the 1950s, women and men alike, repeatedly focused on Mrs. Taub’s looks and what she wore. “Clad in dungarees, Natalie inspects and directs work, scampers up and down ladders,” the Herald reported in 1954.
“Some people might be squeamish about climbing high, but now I’m used to it,” she told the Herald. “In fact, the higher I have to climb the better I like it because I know the building is growing.”
Watching a blueprint evolve into a finished structure, she added, is “fascinating work, especially when you see a building completed – the answer to your efforts.”
The oldest of three children, Natalie J. Adelman was born in Boston in 1929 and spent her early years in Dorchester until her family moved to Brookline.
Her mother, Rose Travis, was a homemaker. Her father, Albert Adelman, was born in Grodno, which is part of Belarus. He emigrated to the United States as a child, graduated from Harvard College, and was chief engineer for Coleman Brothers Corp.
“He was a major influence on her,” Julie said. “He deserves credit in that time period for taking his teenage daughter, who was interested in science and math, to construction jobs.”
When Mrs. Taub graduated from Brookline High School, at 16, the class yearbook said her aspiration was “to be an engineer, just like daddy.”
In 2010, the MIT Technology Review said that while she was still in high school, “an MIT admissions officer phoned her father to say the Institute wanted to boost female enrollment — would he encourage Natalie to apply?”
At MIT, the Review said, “Taub shone. Her spatial aptitude was extraordinary.”
After graduating, and before launching her own firm, she took a job at Coleman Brothers. At one point, she worked part time while studying construction law at Harvard Law School.
Though she was “getting all this recognition as a powerhouse in the construction industry,” her daughter Julie said, “what she wanted more than anything was a family.”
One day while walking along Revere Beach, “she looked down at her hand and saw her MIT ring, and she wished it was a wedding ring,” Julie said, “and she took it off and threw it into the ocean.”
When she was 27, she met Dr. Z. Stanley Taub, a physician. They married in 1957 and within a year “he developed multiple sclerosis, while they were living in Germany,” Julie said. “She often used her engineering and building skills to make his life better.”
Because he loved to swim in the ocean when they went out in their boat from their Chatham summer home, Mrs. Taub designed and rigged a lift to hoist him in and out of the water. After their children were grown and they moved from Sudbury to a smaller home in Marlborough, she designed the house to accommodate his declining mobility. Dr. Taub died in 2007.
Mrs. Taub took time away from work to raise her children, and in the late 1970s she began working for the US Environmental Protection Agency, focusing on water quality issues. She also graduated from Northeastern University with a master’s in environmental engineering.
One day in the early 1980s, Joseph Michelson, then president of J. Slotnik Construction, met her for lunch and promptly hired her. Serving as vice president of the company, over the next decade she managed millions of dollars worth of projects, including stores at Copley Place, laboratories in Bar Harbor, Maine, a VA hospital building in White River Junction, Vt., and the Coast Guard facility in Boston.
“She could see the issues and was very organized about putting things together,” Michelson said. “She had a wonderful way to get along with people. The supervisors we had were all men, and they respected her tremendously.”
A service has been held for Mrs. Taub, who in addition to her daughter Julie, leaves a son, Ethan of Framingham; another daughter, Lauren Berman of Newton; a sister, Lilla Waltch of Cambridge; and six grandchildren.
When Mrs. Taub turned 80, she and her children’s families took a walking tour of Boston buildings whose construction she had overseen. In advance, her family secretly arranged for an inside visit at the Coast Guard facility.
Mrs. Taub was delighted to see how the building turned out. “She said, ‘This is just how I imagined how it would be used. I always wondered how this stairwell would work out, but it seems fine,’ ” Julie recalled.
She added that “getting the job done and done well was really the driving force for her.”
In the 1950s, Mrs. Taub told a newspaper reporter there was nothing more satisfying than working in construction: “You take a plot of land and three months later, there’s a building on it.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.