It may look distinctive, but not many people notice the weather vane perched on a home on 11th Street in Garden City. Probably few who have spotted the design — a young woman holding a caliper and sitting astride a T-square — realize it sits atop the former home of Olive Tjaden, an innovative architect shrewd enough to always know which way the wind was blowing.
“She was a success in her field, and that was in the 1930s,” says Natalie Naylor, a professor emeritus at Hofstra University and the author of “Women in Long Island’s Past,” published in 2012. “That was during the Great Depression, so it couldn’t have been easy.”
Three of Tjaden’s creations are on the market now, all stately Tudors containing some of her trademark touches, such as grand foyers and leaded glass windows. Finding examples of her work isn’t hard in Garden City, where she designed an estimated 400 homes.
“I don’t know of any architect in her area who did as much as she did,” says Sarah Allaback, Massachusetts-based author of “The First American Women Architects,” published in 2008. “She was a genius, clearly. I wouldn’t call her a pioneer because there were other women architects before her, but she was pioneering in that she was a businesswoman designing in a different way than other women. She was a wheeler-dealer.”
Little about Tjaden (who lived from 1904 to 1997) was ordinary, making her a good example of a trailblazing female to spotlight in March, for Women’s History Month. A precocious child, she graduated from Jamaica High School and applied to Columbia University’s architectural program at the age of 15.
Rejected because she was too young, she waited a year to meet the age requirements for Cornell University’s School of Architecture, then completed the five-year course in four years.
On a recommendation of the dean, she was hired by a Mineola architecture firm and began designing “distinctive homes for people of moderate means.” The homes were meant to sell for around $12,000. She was so prolific, the Garden City mayor suggested (maybe humorously) in the 1930s that the community be renamed Tjaden City in her honor.
“She would sometimes do a whole block of homes using five or six kinds of styles,” says Millicent Vollono, a retired librarian who, along with her historical preservationist daughter, Lauren Drapala, wrote an article last year about Tjaden for the Nassau County Historical Society Journal. “When you go through those neighborhoods now, the homes look different, but they all fit together.”
During Tjaden’s lifetime, she either designed or helped build more than 2,000 projects, including churches, civic centers and commercial buildings. She probably is best known for creating some of the finest homes in Garden City, many replete with flourishes such as formal breakfast rooms or sweeping staircases. One of her most admired elements was her use of stained glass windows, particularly a colorful peacock door designed by her and constructed in England.
“These homes are from a bygone era with a different lifestyle,” says Laura Rich, a real estate agent who is selling one of the Tjaden homes now on the market. “I love it when people restore them to keep that feeling. You don’t get a chance to walk into a home with a foyer anymore, so you don’t get that grand entrance.”
Among her noteworthy creations was a modernistic building for a car dealership in Hempstead (recently demolished) that included in-house service and repair departments, considered innovations at the time.
A Tudor mansion she designed in Woodmere for a distiller was featured in a 1935 edition of “Good Housekeeping” magazine. An estate she designed for the distiller’s brother had a greenhouse, a pumping station and gardens so extensive they contained 10,000 tulips. Her demonstration home entered in the 1939 New York World’s Fair nationwide competition for a home in the “The Town of Tomorrow” was admired, but failed to make the final cut.
She networked through women’s clubs and held social events at her home, which served as both a laboratory and an advertisement — especially so with the weather vane.
“It was the most personalized thing she could say about herself,” Vollono says.
Despite her thriving career, Tjaden was keenly aware of gender barriers in her male-dominated profession. (For years, she was the only female member of the American Institute of Architects in Nassau County.)
At one point, she decided to roll up her sleeves and do some physical labor herself on her home, which she designed and built in 1928, saying in a newspaper interview that she did the work “as a test of my ability, to see if what I did on paper was practical for construction. I laid brick and cut glass and learned to tell others how, experiencing of course the age-old resentment against a girl telling older men what to do.”
But she also knew how to attract clients by playing the gender card herself. “Men do not appreciate how large the closet must be or the space between shelves,” she said. “Kitchen comfort is purely a woman’s job.”
Tjaden’s career wound down after she moved to Florida in 1945 with her first husband. She no longer worked on individual homes, although she wrote a column for an architectural journal, was active in women’s clubs and continued to design garden apartments.
She was twice married, had no children and died at the age of 92. She left most of her $12 million estate to Cornell. A building housing part of Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning was named in her honor in 1981.
An attorney, George Mamos, bought her French chateau-style home in 1990, only later finding out about its history. His daughter traveled to Cornell and discovered plans for the house, which is filled with imported tiles, ironwork and stained glass windows, including her original peacock door, he says.
She was one of the most important architects of her time, Allaback says: “I think it’s important to de-emphasize her gender, because she certainly had standing on her own.”