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Dorothy Hughes: Architect Who Designed Holy Family Basilica And Mad House Club

Eugenie Dorothy Hughes was a Kenyan architect, politician, social reformer and disability activist. She founded the Kenyan Council of Social Services and served as the head of the Sports Association for the Disabled. As the first East African female architect, she is famed for designing some of the most iconic buildings in the country.

Dorothy owned her own firm which was best known for her design of the new cathedral of the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi, the Eldoret Sports Club, St Mary’s School, among several others.

She was an active politician and activist for social welfare, participating in numerous outreach and empowerment across the country. Here is her story as narrated by WoK.

Background & Education

Mrs Hughes was born on June 26, 1910, in London, England. Her family later relocated to Kenya and settled in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County. They travelled by ship to Mombasa, by rail to Londiani, and by oxcart to Eldoret.

At the time they moved to Eldoret, the town had only one mud building which served as the bank, post office, and rest house. Her parents constructed the town’s second building made of timber and iron sheets.

Dorothy Hughes: Architect Who Designed Holy Family Basilica And Mad House Club
File image of the Holy Family Basilica. |Photo| Courtesy|

She grew up in Kenya but returned to London for schooling, attending the Architectural Association School of Architecture. She was a lone female surrounded by male colleagues and after graduating in 1932, she came back to Kenya as the first woman architect in East Africa.

In 1933, she married John J. Hughes of Hughes Motors which owned the Ford Franchise in Kenya and together, they bore and raised 6 children.

Mrs Hughes became a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1946.


Dorothy established her own architectural practice, Hughes & Polinghorne. The firm is responsible for the designs of some of the most iconic institutions and buildings in Kenya, some of which include; the Golden Beach Hotel, Nairobi Hospital, Nakuru War Memorial Hospital, the Rift Valley Sports Club and St Mary’s School, Nairobi.

In 1950, she was awarded Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her design work on several hospitals in Kenya. Between 1950 and 1951, Hughes served as vice president of the East Africa Women’s League, which was formed to promote an initiative and collect funds to address the hospital shortage in Nairobi; she subsequently served as president for the 1951-1952 term.

She led the Inner Wheel Club in 1952, and headed the EA Institute of Architects.

Dorothy designed the new Holy Family Basilica in 1960. The building which currently serves as the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, boasts a modernist style and non-figurative stained glass. It also featured carrara marble and seating for 4,000. In addition to the main altar, there are two side altars, two halls and eight chapels.

She also designed an annex to the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) which housed the iconic Mad House Club alias F1 or Maddi which was known for its local benga music, as well as Afro-Caribbean calypso and soukous rhythms. The club which was located along Koinange Street was demolished in 2014.

Mad House Club was the only structure in Nairobi that stood on a single column.

Dorothy Hughes: Architect Who Designed Holy Family Basilica And Mad House Club
File image of the Holy Family Basilica. |Photo| Courtesy|

Political Career

Mrs Hughes was elected to serve on the Nairobi City Council in 1955. She also represented the Uasin Gishu settlers on the Legislative Council between 1956 and 1961. In 1959, she was selected as the delegate to the 1960 Lancaster House Conference in London to secure Kenyan independence.

Her exit from politics was marked by a loss in the 1961 polls. Her loss was attributed to her Catholicism and membership in the New Kenya Party. The primary was only open to white settlers, the constituency which had previously elected her was mostly non-white, and the New Kenya Party was the first multi-racial party in Kenya.

After Kenya gained independence, she took full citizenship, and was awarded the Head of State’s Commendation by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in 1970.

Charity Work, Activism  & Social Welfare

After exiting politics, Dorothy turned her sights to community social welfare projects such as the Cheshire Homes for the disabled. She served as vice chair of the organizing committee for the International Conference on Social Welfare held in Nairobi in July, 1974 and was a founding member of the Kenyan Council of Social Services. She also served as chair of the Kenya Sports Association for the Disabled.

She also worked with Polish refugees in Kenya, which earned her the Polish Gold Cross of Merit.

Dorothy held many influential positions in various institutions across the country. These include; Chairman of the Embu Girls School Board of Governors, and founding Chairman of the Society for Deaf Children, the Edelvale Trust for Girls in need of Care, the Youth Council of Kenya, and Wings for Progress.

She was conferred as a Dame of Magisterial Grace by The Knights of Malta in 1975, and in 1983 she was awarded the Long Service Medal by the Kenya Association of Youth.

Dorothy was presented with a Certificate of Merit by the National Council of Women of Kenya in 1984. She was regarded as ‘a vital pillar in the shaping of Kenya’s social and economic development, guiding the youth, fostering the welfare of women and the needy, and educating leaders in many spheres’.

She also worked with the Paraplegic Sports Association, and served as a Trustee to the National Parks.

Hughes donated her Muthangari House to the Opus Dei as the permanent home of Kibondeni College. She died in 1987 aged 77 and was interred at St Austin’s Cemetery in Nairobi.

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