Woman's Pavilion

By: Nancy Baker Jones

Type: General Entry

Published: March 4, 2021

Updated: April 30, 2022

The Woman’s Pavilion was designed by San Antonio architect Cyrus Wagner to “tell the exciting story of the contributions of women to the Americas” during HemisFair ’68, the first officially designated international exposition in the Southwestern United States. The brick, exposed concrete, and glass structure, classified as brutalist architecture, measures 12,000 square feet over four levels and was intended to resemble a mid-century-modern home. In the history of women’s pavilions at world’s fairs and expositions, the first was built in Philadelphia in 1876 for the nation’s Centennial Exposition and became a forum for debating woman suffrage. The Woman’s Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition is the best-known. It was designed by female architect Sophia Hayden and directed by a Board of Lady Managers who represented every state and a national network of women’s clubs; it also sponsored the Women’s Congress, which offered numerous lectures about women’s contributions to life and thought. The HemisFair ‘68 Woman’s Pavilion did not address, as these two did, any potential challenges to mainstream cultural notions about gender roles. It is, however, one of the few world’s fair women’s pavilions left standing in the twenty-first century.

The Woman’s Pavilion was not included in the original planning for HemisFair ‘68 that began in the late 1950s by the state’s leading businessmen and politicians. The idea emerged in 1966 when Eugenia Davis, chair of one of the fair’s educational committees, invited hundreds of members of various San Antonio women’s clubs to discuss a pavilion about women and raising $2 million to fund it. “This was huge,” said founder and first pavilion executive director Sherry Kafka Wagner years later. “There was nothing in the city that spoke about women. . . .We just wanted a place where women were acknowledged.” That the prominent women who worked to create the pavilion felt unnoticed in the city revealed their status in San Antonio’s social structure at the time. The fair’s founders, including Governor John Connally, developer H. B. Zachry, and San Antonio mayor Walter W. McAllister, Sr., regarded the pavilion as a women’s project rather than as a fair project, though Connally did proclaim May 6–13, 1967, as “Woman’s Pavilion Week.” The pavilion’s female founders formed their own corporation and board of directors and brought in Katie Ozbirn, the wealthy former international president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, as board chair. But Richard Miller, a fair-planning administrator who stepped in as interim pavilion chair to replace Davis, warned the women that there were no HemisFair ‘68 funds available to them.

To raise money, pavilion founders relied on traditionally female activities such as coffees and luncheons, club-based donations, and bazaars. When these did not produce enough income, they turned to an advertising firm and then to fair staff to recruit corporate sponsors. Not one of more than 1,000 companies that were asked to participate said yes. Another plan, asking 400,000 women to donate five dollars each, also failed. Ozbirn then invited Perle Mesta, a Washington, D.C., diplomat famous for lavish social events, to host a fundraising luncheon in the capital for the wives of politicians and 900 female members of national and international women’s organizations. Although Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady, lent her name to the event, Mesta declined to underwrite it, as did Humble Oil Company (see EXXON COMPANY, U.S.A.). As a result, the lunch cost the pavilion corporation $25,000. To help defray that debt, the fair’s executive vice president, Frank Manupelli, provided the women a small loan of less than half the amount, repayable with interest in six months. The failure of the luncheon and other fundraisers forced the pavilion board to cut its financial goal in half; to replace the architect Cloethiel Smith, head of the country’s largest female-owned architecture firm (Cloethiel Woodard Smith & Associated Architects), with San Antonio’s Cyrus Wagner; and to delay groundbreaking. In the end, the pavilion corporation raised less than $100,000 for the project, which had a total budget of $400,000, a dramatic reduction from the original goal of $2 million. Groundbreaking finally took place in October 1967, and the San Antonio Express described the ceremony and the male/female distinction regarding its participants: “HemisFair officials assisted in the ground-turning with man-sized shovels” while “the women used colorful plastic [children’s] pails and tiny spades.”

Woman’s Pavilion planners were apparently unaware of the historical context for their effort, because newspaper announcements declared it “the first of its kind in the history of world expositions.” Although the women’s liberation movement was underway at the time, as were early stages in the creation of the field of women’s history, the official narrative for the Woman’s Pavilion was not influenced by either but hewed to a traditional vision of gender roles then in place in the United States. The building’s narrative described men as adventurers and women as homemakers who civilized the world. Architect Cyrus Wagner found inspiration for his home-influenced design by saying, “as a woman adorns and gets dressed at night, the building will change even more at night and glow from the inside and out.”

The pavilion’s second executive director, Elizabeth Ruggier, imagined a design based on her concept of the key difference between men and women—“woman’s unchangeable temperament, which arose from childbearing.” This made women the “power behind the throne,” a hidden force that was in reality what controlled and guided men. Her goal was to produce a film documenting women’s advances in education, science, the arts, and technology while also addressing women’s physical beauty, both natural and enhanced by cosmetics and costume. Four planned exhibition areas were titled Beauty, Heart, Mind, and Hands, which represented the inherent qualities of women. The pavilion included a “Wall of Hands” mosaic that contained the handprints of eighty women who were strong supporters of the Woman’s Pavilion project. With the opening of HemisFair, the U. S. Department of State noted that the Woman’s Pavilion also provided “a symposium of women’s achievements in government and international government” as well as commerce and sports.

Broadway theater designer Alvin Colt created slide projections to tell the story of social upheavals and their effects on women in the nineteenth century and built a specially lighted, moving screen to show photographs of accomplished women from throughout the Americas to complement the fair’s theme, “A Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas.” In addition, the pavilion displayed artworks by women, such as a basalt sculpture, Madre y Niño, by Bolivia’s Marina Nuñez del Prado; a collection of ceramics and prints by Inuit artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak; and Louise Nevelson’s painted wood piece, Night Music II. In a “Women Today” section, a bilingual ten-minute film about fashion trends across the hemisphere was projected continuously and, for a psychedelic effect, on an oversized screen recessed in mirrors. In another nod to late 1960s pop culture, there were also “funtastic” wigs by a film and television hair stylist and a “swinging, happy room” of paper and plastics. An homage to the female form included a bustle, an hour-glass figure, and a “mono-bosom,” which Ruggier hoped would “make even Jayne Mansfield look like a schoolgirl.”

Scholar of gender and architecture Mary Pepchinski has noted that women’s buildings at fairs and expositions from 1876 to the 1930s asserted a positive relationship between the progress of American women and the welfare of the nation. After the 1930s, however, their narratives focused more often on traditional female roles and less on self-determination, an observation that, many scholars suggest, describes the HemisFair ‘68 Woman’s Pavilion. This pavilion did not “confront male-constructed mythology about women and re-create it from a female point of view.” From a historical perspective, its purpose and narrative were “relics of pre-feminist thought” and “artifacts of pre-suffrage thinking,” which relied on a “‘power behind the throne’ argument to deflect demands for equal rights.” The status of women in mid-twentieth-century San Antonio was precisely the status that necessitated the emergence of the modern women’s movement, and the Woman’s Pavilion at HemisFair ’68 revealed this moment in gender relations and female consciousness in Texas, when the past bumped into the future.

Post-HemisFair plans for the Woman’s Pavilion included maintaining the structure as the permanent home of the Inter-American Educational Center (also referred to as the Inter-American Institute) to serve as a library and technological resource for the “development of educational aids in the Americas.” The center never came to fruition. The building, under the ownership of the city of San Antonio, eventually was deeded to the University of Texas at San Antonio, but the structure was used for storage and not maintained. Plans for the pavilion’s restoration were discussed in conjunction with the HemisFair’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration in 1993, but no action occurred. In 2009 the cost to restore and repurpose the Woman’s Pavilion and grounds was estimated at nearly $15 million. One fundraising event occurred in 2014. The HemisFair Conservancy, a public effort to preserve the entire fair grounds, placed the pavilion in its third phase, scheduled for attention after 2020. See also Lila May Banks Cockrell.

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J. Boisseau and Abigail M. Markwyn, eds., Gendering the Fair: Histories of Women and Gender at World’s Fairs (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010). Department of State News Letter, April 1968. Nancy Baker Jones, “The Way We Were: Gender and the Woman’s Pavilion, HemisFair ’68,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 119 (April 2016). Arthur P. Molella and Scott Gabriel Knowles, eds., World’s Fairs in the Cold War: Science, Technology, and the Culture of Progress (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019). Object: Handbill, Woman’s Pavilion for HemisFair 1968, Collections Blog, UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures (https://texancultures.utsa.edu/object-handbill/), accessed February 23, 2021. Jessica Romos, “A Place Where Women Were Acknowledged,” San Antonio Current, April 2, 2008. Ruth Cain Shawk, minutes of the feasibility meeting for a woman’s pavilion, April 23, 1966, MS31, Box 285, San Antonio Fair, Inc., Records, UTSA Libraries Special Collections. “Women’s Pavilion: A Modernist S.A. Icon,” MISA: Modern in San Antonio, December 21, 2017 (https://moderninsanantonio.com/womens-pavilion-modernist-sa-icon), accessed February 23, 2021.

  • Architecture
  • Other Structures
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio

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Nancy Baker Jones, “Woman's Pavilion,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/womans-pavilion.

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March 4, 2021
April 30, 2022

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