Davidson’s Pioneering Architect
Harriet Morrison Irwin, the daughter of Davidson College’s first president Robert Hall Morrison and his wife Mary Graham, was the first woman in the United States to patent an architectural design.
Harriet Morrison was born in Davidson on September 18, 1828. She was a frail child, and during her early years, she was educated at home by her father. She later attended Salem Academy in Winston-Salem, and in 1849, she married planter and merchant James Patton Irwin, who was then living in Mobile, Alabama. They began their married life in Mobile, but after three years they moved back to Charlotte. Despite her continuing frail health, Harriet and James Irwin had nine children, five of whom survived to adulthood. In addition to caring for her family, she was a writer and publisher, contributing to several publications, including her brother-in-law D.H. Hill’s Our Land.
Harriet was interested in math and engineering, but no such courses were available to women at the time. To use her talents, she began to experiment with architecture, and in 1869 she patented a design for a hexagonal house. Her design featured a central chimney, three entrances, a mansard roof, pointed windows, and sometimes a central stair. She had studied octagonal houses, but noted that such buildings were only octagonal on the outside. Her hexagonal design extended to the interior rooms, allowing them to fit together in a way that square rooms could not. According to her patent application, the intent of her design was “the economizing of space and building materials, the obtaining of economical heating mediums, thorough lighting and ventilation, and facilities for inexpensive ornamentation…without the aid of the ordinary passage, and its consequent waste of the interior of the building, I at the same time have afforded every facility of communication between the different rooms.” Her design was especially suited to what she called the “invalid housekeeper,” as the lack of sharp corners made it easier to clean.
In 1871 Harriet Irwin wrote a novel, The Hermit of Petraea, about a frail youth sent to live in a hexagonal house for health reasons. That same year, she joined her husband and D.H. Hill in forming the Hill and Irwin Land Agency, which specialized in hexagonal houses. She and her husband lived in a house of her design at 912 West Fifth Street in Charlotte; it featured a central tower, projecting wings, and a porch. Several other hexagonal houses were built in Charlotte, but none survive. Harriet Irwin Morrison died in Charlotte on January 27, 1897, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.