Chris Salmon

Honored by:Jan Jennings
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Chris Salmon: architect, teacher, public servant, mentor

Christine Fahringer Salmon, daughter of Walter and Elizabeth (Tench) Fahringer, was born July 22, 1916 in Audenried, Pennsylvania. On April 22, 1946 she married an Ottawa, Canada native, Cuthbert Salmon, in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Chris and Cuth have two daughters, Elizabeth (Libby) and Mary, and two grandchildren. Chris died October 10, 1985 in Stillwater, Oklahoma where she had made her home for twenty-six years.

Chris Salmon's public life filled many domains including professional, academic, and community service spheres. An architect by training, Chris took two professional degrees from the University of Pennsylvania: a Bachelor of Architecture in 1941 and a Master of Architecture in 1943. In 1947, she and Cuth formed Salmon and Salmon Architects. In the 1950s, Chris and Cuth produced seminal studies regarding design research for the physically limited. From 1969 until 1985, she served on the American Institute of Architects National Housing Commission. For their national leadership in research and practice regarding architectural design standards for the physically limited and mentally challenged, Chris and Cuth were both elected Fellows of the American Institute of Architects.

Chris was a consummate teacher, winning Teacher of the Year awards at Oklahoma State University in 1966, 1971 and 1978. She taught briefly at Pennsylvania State University before joining the Housing and Interior Design Department in the College of Home Economics at Oklahoma State University, where she spent the bulk of her teaching years. Late in her teaching career, she served as a visiting professor at Ohio State University, the University of Iowa, Texas Tech University, the University of Nebraska, and in Saudi Arabia and Taipei, Taiwan. In 1984, a Chris Salmon Scholarship was established at Oklahoma State University.

Chris Salmon believed that design was analogous to a pebble dropped in a pool of water. The concentric circles formed rings which dissolved boundaries among disciplines. To her strengths in architecture and interior design, Chris added another dimension, that of planner. Serving on the Stillwater Planning Commission from 1973-78 and as its chair in 1974, Chris reached out in her most public forum. Community service became her largest sphere. She served as a City Commissioner for five years, ending her public work shortly before her death as Stillwater's two-term mayor from 1982 until 1985. In recognition of her civic contribution the Stillwater City Commission named a small park the "Chris Salmon Plaza."

Inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame in 1982, Chris Salmon achieved many firsts as a woman. Two highlights included: the first woman admitted to the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the first woman elected to mayor in Stillwater, Oklahoma. However, her achievements nor her goals were not framed by gender. In Chris's view, life was too short, too valuable, and too interesting to get bogged down in gender discrimination. Initially wanting to become an engineer like her father, she had been persuaded by him to pursue architecture. As an architect in the 1950s she never gave in to losing her femininity in a male profession, and she made a point of wearing a dress to inspect buildings. When the Salmons moved to Stillwater for Cuth's position as Head of the School of Architecture at Oklahoma State University, nepotism rules disallowed Chris to teach in the School of Architecture. Making a positive out of a negative, (as she was to do so many times in her life) Chris Salmon marched across campus to become the design heart and mind of the Housing and Interior Design Department in the College of Home Economics. In 1964, when we met as professor and student, cancer had just emerged. For twenty years, Chris battled the disease in its varying forms with a bright eye, humor, and determination to live life fully. I know so many people who also called Chris their mentor. Her teaching was rooted in her example. I marveled at her positiveness even in the face of cancer, and before I knew about the cancer, I delighted in her love of life. One sunny spring day in 1964 as a ragtag bunch of us managed to make a late afternoon "Chris" class, she asked incredulously why we were there. After all, it was such a lovely day; she could not imagine that we would want to be inside when it was so wonderful outside. Of course we were there for her to learn what she had to offer that day. That day and many others through the years, she encouraged our sensuality about a world filled with many beautiful things. To a long string of interior design principles such as balance, order, and rhythm, she added her own philosophy--delight. We learned that you should not design an interior that lacked delight as an ingredient.

For most of my adult life, Chris Salmon has been my model of a woman who can have a high profile as a professional and as a public servant. In mentoring me about teaching and life, she taught a generosity of spirit and an unflagging optimism. While she is my personal hero, her life and work also stand as an important woman in our history.

Submitted on January 4, 1005 by Jan Jennings

Associate Professor, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University