The Woman Builder

Some people loom large well after they’re gone. My great-grandmother is one of those people.

“Mama Lil” was a complicated person. Widowed with two young children, she managed to become the first woman real estate developer in Louisville. She died a decade before I was born, but I swear she’s still walking around in the shadows of everyone’s mind. I grew up hearing stories about her that were a mixture of respect and disdain. She did a lot of amazing things and caused a lot of damage in the process.

Lily May Frankenstein was born August 22, 1901 in Louisville, KY to Benjamin and Mary Frankenstein (nee Simmons). Her father was a mold-maker in a stove foundry and eventually sat on the committee of local no. 16 of the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union. She had two younger sisters, Cora and Mary. Her brother, the youngest of the four, died of pneumonia at five months old in 1910. Nine years old is a hard age to learn about death. You’re old enough to always remember how you felt, but not old enough to grasp life on your own terms. I was not much older when I had my first serious loss, and it impacted my entire life going forward. I wonder if it was the same for her.

I suspect she learned to cope through work. According to the 1920 census, she was working as a bookkeeper for a repair shop at eighteen years old. That’s a low-key remarkable accomplishment. Bookkeeping requires skill at writing and mathematics. Daughters of the working class were not afforded many educational opportunities in the early 20th century. I don’t have the details of her schooling, but she is consistently listed on the census as not having any formal education. She must have been naturally bright and made the most of whatever resources she could find.

Edward and Lily May

In 1925, she married my great-grandfather, Edward Snyder. Edward’s family were grocers who were neighbors of the Frankensteins. He was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corp in November 1918 and was stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Six months later he was discharged and pensioned with advanced chronic tuberculosis. He would be intermittently hospitalized for the rest of his life. The photo above is the only one I have of them so far and I find myself looking at it often. They’re outside her family’s house on Ormsby Avenue in Louisville. At this point, he’s been sick for a few years. I like that they look happy together. I hope that they were, because they didn’t have a lot of time.

My grandpa and his twin brother were born October 30, 1929. Before 1930, the family had moved to a multi-family home at 601 Ervay Avenue and my great-grandfather was working as a life insurance agent. I know that, at some point, he was sent to quarantine for his illness. Edward died on July 12, 1934. It seems like they knew it was coming – Lily May had already moved back in with her parents.

What do you do when the person you thought you’d build a life with is gone? Lily May started building homes.

In a fit of quarantine restlessness, I stayed up into the wee hours one night last summer searching for my relatives on Newspapers.com. I figured Lily May had to be in there. She appeared in the Courier-Journal numerous times from the 1950s through the 1970s. The articles helped me piece together her career and fill in some blanks about her life.

Building started as a practical solution. She was a widow and needed an income, but didn’t want to leave her sons. She subdivided her home at 637 Harrison Avenue into apartments for rent, taking on most of the painting and interior work herself. The 1940 census lists the house as having three lodgers, all young women in their twenties: the sisters Alberta and Edna May Dickerson and Martha Horrell. Alberta was a registered nurse and the other women were students. The house is walking distance to the University of Louisville campus. I can absolutely imagine Lily May being picky about her lodgers, and three educated young women would fit the bill perfectly.

She sold the apartment building in 1948 and had some money to spare. She bought a lot and built a house that was sold before it was completed. She had no experience in the building business, but must have sensed she had a knack for it. In the 1970s, she said she was armed with a friend who was a carpenter and “faith, courage, and nerve.”

Profile of Lily May from the Courier-Journal in May 1953

Between 1948 and 1953, she built and sold about 50 houses. In 1953, she showcased one of the first mid-century modern homes in the city at the Metropolitan Louisville Home Show. The Courier-Journal ran a profile about her, and I can’t help but air-punch in agreement with her opinions. She wanted more women to be involved with building, especially architecture:

“Women usually have a pretty good idea about what they want in a house. They have long desired certain changes inside the home that men know or care little about.”

Her homes were aimed at the average family. She reused the same floorplan frequently and made a point of being onsite during construction. If you’re driving around southeast Louisville and you see a mid-century brick ranch home with corner windows, there’s a good chance she built it. She was elected to two terms as chair of Women Builders of the National Association of Home Builders. By 1972, she had built over 150 houses and 122 apartment units.

There’s a dark side to her prolific success. The landscape of real estate in Louisville is warped and twisted from redlining policies that began in 1937. This March 2017 article from Anne Marshall in Louisville Magazine explains the history much better than I can, accompanied by amazing interactive maps by Joshua Poe. It’s worth pointing out that Lily May started out in neighborhoods rated low by the new residential security guidelines, which corresponded heavily with racial demographics. Her home ended up being in Tyler Park, a neighborhood with the highest and most exclusive (read: white) security rating. The properties that I know she developed are in similarly “desirable” neighborhoods. I’m not sure she could recognize the societal cost of participating in this system. But I also think that if she could, she didn’t care. It’s ignorant and irresponsible to pretend otherwise. All I can do is be posthumously sorry on her behalf, whether she’d want me to be or not.

Two of the houses that Lily May built – 2-bedroom, corner-widow reliables – sit next door to each other on Royal Avenue. They have a path (or used to, anyway) that leads from one back door to the other. My grandparents lived in one and Uncle Don and his family lived in the other…with Lily May. The homes were built in the early 1950s. Lily May never remarried. None of them ever moved.

From left to right: Grandma Betty, Grandpa Dave, Lily May, and Uncle Don at my grandparents’ wedding in 1954

In my experience so far, most things in life are a double-edged sword. She needed certain qualities to break into a male-dominated field and then command the respect required to run her business in the mid-20th century. She had to be savvy, tenacious, and a quick learner. She understood that her authority – control – was crucial to her success. But she was also a mother. These same traits don’t necessarily translate well to the personal sphere.

The impression that I have from my relatives is that Lily May – Mama Lil to her grandchildren – exerted as much control over the lives of her family as she did in her business. She rewarded behavior that pleased her and withheld when she was crossed. She could take you on vacation to the Caribbean and cut you out of her will. I doubt she was capricious, but she was certainly vindictive. And she could not let go of her sons. Perhaps she expected unlimited gratitude for her efforts on their behalf. It’s almost as if she couldn’t understand that families aren’t buildings. You can’t blueprint them into your preferred form. Stories about her don’t flow willingly and they are almost always explanations for where odd behavior comes from. When she died in 1978, more than a few people sighed in relief.

Lily May from a newspaper article in 1972

It’s hard for me to imagine what is was like on Royal Ave when she was alive. My memories, especially from when my grandma was alive, are full of light. I thought it was neat that my cousins were next door and could casually pop by in the evening for a drink and a chat. I didn’t understand that everything was looser at that point. There was more room to breathe. Not enough, but more.

If I met Mama Lil, I don’t think I’d like her one bit. And I doubt she’d like me. But women are often not afforded the privilege of being multi-dimensional, and I won’t do her that disservice. She was many things in a time before most women were allowed to be anything. She lived on her own terms, even if the terms were often difficult or unreasonable. She had no head starts. She built herself. And that, at least, I can always respect.

3 comments

  1. Hi Christine ~ I am really enjoying reading your posts as you wind your way through your ancestral discoveries.  Lily May was an amazing woman for her time and to be successful in the home building business, “control” was probably a necessary trait for a female to have. It’s just too bad she couldn’t let go of that when it came to family.  The photos that you’ve posted are priceless.  The last one of Lily May in 1972 just screams determination and confidence.  I’m looking forward to your next post.  Thanks….and “Happy 2021!”

    Diane

    Like

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