Theodate Pope Riddle

Theodate Pope Riddle

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1867

Died: 1946

Inducted: 1994

Town: Farmington

In a field long dominated by men, self-taught Theodate Pope Riddle emerged as an important and influential architect whose designs included the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington and the college preparatory school Avon Old Farms. Riddle’s architectural designs reflected her progressive philosophy and her legacy as an important architect of the early twentieth century.

Theodate Pope was a strong-willed young woman born into privilege and wealth in Salem, Ohio. She refused to answer to her given name, Effie, and wanted to be an architect, not a debutante. After graduating from Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., founded in 1847 by Sarah Porter, she spent two years on the Grand Tour of Europe with her parents. Charmed and intrigued by the architectural styles of England, Theodate Pope returned to Connecticut where she restored an 18th-century cottage, which she named “The O’Rourkery” and attached a small house to it. Her experience with the restoration of the house marked the beginning of her career as a practicing architect.

Pope’s next project was a retirement home for her parents on a 250-acre tract of land near The O’Rourkery. The large clapboard home, now known as the Hill-Stead Museum, was sited on the crest of a hill and featured up-to-date, modern conveniences. The firm of McKim, Mead and White prepared working drawings from her designs, effectively providing her with an apprenticeship in architecture.

A practicing architect for the next 30 years, Pope's projects included designing adequate housing for her own employees, several country estates and the reconstruction of Theodore Roosevelt's birthplace in Manhattan. A relationship established at Miss Porter’s with her former teacher Mary Hillard led to the design of one of her most extensive projects, the Westover School in Middlebury, Conn. The school’s architecture, with its gabled central entrance pavilion, continues to receive high praise. In 1916, she designed the Hop Brook School in Naugatuck, and in 1920 she bought the land on which she would found and build a school for boys, Avon Old Farms, the project which occupied the rest of her professional life. Pope's unusual design for Avon was intended to reflect a progressive and highly individualistic philosophy of education. In addition to the buildings at the school, which opened in 1927, she helped develop curriculum and hire staff. During World War II, Pope, a friend of President Roosevelt, closed the school and converted it into the Old Farms Convalescent Hospital for blinded Army veterans. The school re-opened in 1947. Pope’s stone and oak architecture is still recognized as a work of genius.

Theodate Pope became a member of the American Institute of Architects in 1918. She was also a major figure in the American Society for Psychical Research, along with her friend William James. In addition, she was an active member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Connecticut.

In May 1915, Pope traveled to England aboard the HMS Lusitania and was one of the few survivors when a German U-Boat torpedoed the ship off the coast of Ireland. The following year, she married John Riddle, a 52-year-old diplomat who had served in Russia. She and her husband traveled extensively, and she accompanied him to Argentina after his appointment as ambassador.

Theodate Pope Riddle died in 1946, leaving instructions that Hill-Stead was to be preserved as a public museum and stipulating that the house and its contents be kept intact and unchanged. The Hill-Stead Museum now houses a significant art collection and is a stop on the Connecticut Women’s Heritage Trail.

During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform