The Forgotten Female Architects Who Changed the Face of Pre-state Israel

Elsa Gidoni's buildings in New York and Berlin became famous, but her work in 1930s Tel Aviv was largely forgotten. Now Gidoni and other female pioneering architects receive the spotlight

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Women planting a vegetable garden outside the Domestic Science School in Tel Aviv, designed by Elsa Gidoni, in Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Yitzhak neighborhood, 1936.
Women planting a vegetable garden outside the Domestic Science School in Tel Aviv, designed by Elsa Gidoni, in Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Yitzhak neighborhood, 1936.Credit: Personal archives of David Frenkel/Walter Christaller
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Genia Averbuch immigrated to Palestine from Ukraine as a child in 1911 and grew up to design nothing less than Tel Aviv's famous Dizengoff Square. She also planned numerous apartment houses in the city, the offices of women’s organizations and three synagogues, including Midrashiyat Noam in Pardes Hannah. Averbuch has been mentioned in many publications and is also the only female architect appearing in Nitza Metzger-Szmuk’s 1993 book “Houses from the Sand: International Style Architecture in Tel Aviv” – a milestone in the designation of Tel Aviv as the White City.

Lotte Cohn was the first female architect in the country: For five decades, starting in 1921, she designed numerous projects that became icons in the history of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community), among them the agricultural school in Nahalal, a public kitchen that was the first to operate on electricity, the Kaete Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv and that city's Rasco neighborhood. Cohn’s work has been cited by German scholar Ines Sonder and others.

The building at 1407 Broadway in Manhattan that Elsa Gidoni designed when working for Kahn and Jacobs.Credit: Sigal Davidi

Today, women are an inseparable part of the world of architecture and hold top positions in architecture firms in Israel, but few people are aware of the important role they played during the British Mandate period. Architect and architectural historian Sigal Davidi has spent two decades researching that topic, and the culmination is a recently published book called “Building a New Land: Women Architects and Women's Organizations in Mandatory Palestine” (published in Hebrew by the Open University Press; edited by Dr. Nomi Heger).

Dr. Davidi's book surveys the collaborations between female architects and women’s organizations in 1920s and '30s Palestine, offering an overview of the work of 12 female architects. It is one of a small number of scholarly works published on this subject in Israel (among them, the catalog from the Tel Aviv Museum retrospective show “Dora Gad: The Israeli Presence in Interior Design”; Dr. Myra Warhaftig’s book on German-Israeli architects, which included three women; and a chapter on female architects by Dr. Edina Meyer-Maril that appears in Dr. Ruth Markus’ book “Women Artists in Israel: 1920-1970”).

But while Genia Averbuch and Lotte Cohen may be known to some aficionados of Israeli architecture, the third female architect Davidi highlights is hardly known in the country: Elsa Mandelstamm-Gidoni. Born in Riga, she studied architecture in Berlin and immigrated to Palestine in 1933; she worked there for just five years before moving to New York, where she remained until her death in 1978. Her contribution to the development of architecture in Israel, says author Davidi, is no less important than that of the male architects of that period.

“I first learned about her when I wrote my thesis on the Levant Fair (Yarid Hamizrah, in Hebrew),” Davidi tells Haaretz. “The Levant Fair was an international event that was held for the first time in 1934 on the ‘Yarkoni Peninsula’ (now the Tel Aviv Port complex) and it was a turning point in the acceptance of the International Style as being representative of the Yishuv, since dozens of structures and pavilions were built for the fair by the best modernist architects of the era.”

Gidoni designed five buildings for the fair, which generally resembled the World's Fairs abroad and was held in the 1920s and '30s, either alone or with partners. But unlike the male architects who designed projects there, such as Richard Kauffmann, Aryeh Elhanani, Joseph Neufeld and Arieh Sharon, she did not get any recognition.

“Over the years, I searched for and collected information about her from the press of that period and in archives, and I started contacting other researchers abroad. I gradually came to see how significant her work was. And I found out that she is much better known abroad than she is in Israel.” That may explain why Wikipedia has entries on Gidoni in German, Spanish, English, Russian and Arabic – but not in Hebrew.

Anomaly in Berlin

Gidoni was born in 1901 in Riga. Her father, Paul Mandelstamm, was a doctor; her mother, Mina, was a pianist. Elsa went to high school in Berlin and attended art school in St. Petersburg, before studying architecture at the Technical University in Berlin in the early 1920s. In 1924, she took a trip to New York, where she met Alexander Gidoni and married him. Born in Kaunas, Lithuania and 14 years older than her, Gidoni was a Jewish journalist, playwright and translator, who was active in theater, literary and art circles in Berlin, New York and Paris. The couple divorced in 1928 and he vanished in 1943 during the Holocaust.

Riga-born architect Elsa Gidoni. Lived in Palestine for five years before moving to New York. Credit: Sigal Davidi

Although they were married for only three-and-a-half years, Elsa Gidoni decided to keep her married name, since that was the one she was known by in the field of architecture. In the late 1920s, she returned to Berlin, where she worked with Jewish modernist architect Leo Nachtlicht. In 1929, she also opened a private interior design firm. One of her designs, a modern cabinet for household items, was featured in a Berlin magazine in 1930. The design offered convenient storage solutions – shelves designated for glass items, sliver and porcelain, and a section with hangers for tablecloths and towels “to keep them from wrinkling.”

Gidoni’s designs attested to her deep understanding of household management and how up-to-date she was on the most innovative trends in the field. “From the works she designed in Germany, you can see that she was familiar with the new ideas of homemaking,” Davidi says. In her book, she describes how these ideas were meant to liberate women from routine chores and give homemaking the image of challenging work done with pleasure and without physical effort.

“I’m drowning in work. I’m living well, I have a terrific job with a famous Berlin architect,” Gidoni writes to her sister-in-law Genia in a letter from that period, which Davidi found. “And I am gradually getting private projects too. I’m content in every way, but just tired.” This was an unusual type of life for a woman in the 1920s and '30s, Davidi points out. “She worked until 5 P.M. in the office, and then came home to her private projects. This is a time when the profession is under male hegemony, but she is ambitious and career-oriented and designing projects for the upper middle class in Germany.”

When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, she immigrated to Palestine like a number of other German-Jewish architects. These first-generation female architects in the country, Davidi writes, adopted the model of educated and financially independent, professional woman. “They broke the boundaries of the female stereotype as a ‘helpmeet’ that was common in the Zionist utopias. They ran their own architecture firms and worked in total dedication to their profession.” It’s not surprising that most of these women lived alone or were married without children.

An article about Elsa Gidoni in the Architectural Record in 1948, showcasing her workCredit: Sigal Davidi/University of California

Blossoming at the fair

When she arrived in Palestine, Gidoni was hired to work in the technical office of the Levant Fair, for which she designed five buildings. The best-known of these was Café Galina, which she worked on together with architects Genia Averbuch and Shlomo Ginsburg. The building faced the sea and was partly rounded and partly square. She also designed the WIZO pavilion, the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association pavilion, the Swedish pavilion and the second Pavilion of Nations. All five of the structures were eventually demolished.

In an article published in 1935 in the Doar Hayom newspaper, which was apparently translated from German, she described her immigration experience: “When I got off the ship, in the fall of 1933, I didn’t know a soul in Eretz Yisrael. The next day I happened to hear about the preparations being made for the fair. I offered my services there.”

Beit Hehalutzot (The Women Pioneers house) on King George street in Tel Aviv. One of her few projects in Tel Aviv to still stand. Credit: Personal archives of David Frenkel/Walter Christaller

Gidoni spent her first nine months in the country working on the fair. It is possible to get work even “without recommendations,” she said, “because Eretz Yisrael is not a land of lazy people, nor is it a paradise where pastries and expensive clothing grows on trees; but the land will not be built without work. And with a little patience, a woman here can also do well and earn a good salary and to become known too.”

In the wake of her work for the Levant Fair, when she was in her mid-thirties, Gidoni began receiving invitations to compete in public building design contests. She won the opportunity to design the Domestic Science School of homemaking and agriculture, run by the WIZO women's organization in the Nahalat Yitzhak neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and opened a private firm together with engineer Eliezer Zeisler.

Gidoni was also invited to enter the competition to design Beit Hehalutzot (the Women Pioneers’ House), located on King George Street in Tel Aviv. She competed against the leading architects of the time – Arieh Sharon, Jacob Pinkerfeld, Yosef Neufeld and Carl Rubin – and won. The building she designed was widely praised in the press. Later declared a building for preservation, it is owned by the Na’amat women's organization and, despite a bit of neglect and some minor external changes, remains largely as it was. In 1937, Gidoni won another competition to design a building in Ramot Hashavim, but the project was scrapped.

Along with Zeisler, Gidoni planned a number of residential buildings in Tel Aviv, among them the one at 87 Ben-Gurion Boulevard that was demolished last summer, one at 5 Jabotinsky Street and another at 12 Reines Street that is slated for preservation.

In 1937 she was injured and hospitalized; a year later, despite her professional and financial success in Palestine, she moved to New York. Perhaps it was to advance her career, or perhaps it was because the architect was lonely and her mother and sisters lived there. Of the demolition of many of her buildings, Davidi says now that “if the research on her had been better known, it’s possible some of them would have been saved. Those that remain are in a shocking state. She must be returned to the canon.”

The cover of the new book 'Building a New Land: Women Architects and Women's Organizations in Mandatory Palestine.'

Gidon began her career in the United States at the firm of Norman Bel Geddes, architect of the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. After four years she obtained U.S. citizenship and married Dr. Alexis Gluckman, an immigrant from France. That same year she applied for membership in the American Institute of Architects, but presented herself as a senior designer and draftsman and not as an architect, since she had never earned a formal academic degree in architecture. Her application portrays her as a woman of the world; she writes that she had visited Russia, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Italy, France and other countries, and that she was fluent in German, English, French and Russian. She did not mention Hebrew; perhaps she wasn’t very fluent in it.

The building at 445 Park Avenue in Manhattan that Elsa Gidoni designed.Credit: Sigal Davidi

'Professionally admired'

In 1945, in Manhattan, Gidoni began working at the noted architectural firm Kahn and Jacobs, and remained there until her retirement in 1967. There she planned high-rises throughout the city, among the buildings at 445 and 700 Park Avenue and 1407 Broadway. “Her name appeared as the buildings’ planner in the newspapers of the time and in a book about the firm,” Davidi explains. “She was respected and professionally admired.” In 1947 Gidoni was part of a select group of immigrant architects, among them Walter Gropius of Germany and Richard Neutra of Austria, who were asked to design modular homes using prefabricated plates that could be replicated and built quickly and inexpensively.

She became increasingly well known. In 1944 she was a member of the editorial team of the architectural magazine TASK. In 1946 a library she planned was featured in The Architectural Forum; in the introduction, among the photos of all the architects appearing in the magazine, she was the only woman.

In 1948 Gidoni was among the 10 architects featured in a piece the American journal Architectural Record, out of the more than 1,000 architects in the country. The article also featured some of her projects in Tel Aviv – Café Galina and the buildings on Reines and Jabotinsky streets. She was also quoted as saying that architecture “is a fine field for women, but it’s not what you think when you are 18 and in college.”

“When a man succeeds in making his way in his profession, he’ll describe himself as an expert in his field,” the article about Gidoni in Doar Hayom begins. “But when a woman succeeds in gaining fame in her field – especially when that field is not one of the usual ones – that fact testifies that she’s particularly exceptional.”

Apparently not much has changed since the British Mandate period.

“Gidoni was an excellent architect whose work has been suppressed and erased from the historiography of Israeli architecture, like the work of other female architects,” concludes Davidi. “We must work to preserve their legacy.”

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