Architect Elizabeth Scheu Close

Photo Courtesy of Freshwater

We are all drawn to something in our lives, although we may not know why. For me that has always been architecture. As a child, I found myself attracted to certain houses and neighborhoods, curious about their creators and why they took the form they did.

My plan to study architecture in college was derailed when my guidance counselor declared architecture an unsuitable field for women. Knowing little of the world — or myself — at the time, I accepted his pronouncement without question. Years later, I rethought the situation, earned my masters in architecture, and launched a career in research and writing. Through my work, I strive to understand architecture within the context of the lives and times of its creators.

In 2001, I met 88-year-old architect Elizabeth Scheu Close. For a year, I interviewed Lisl, as she was known, in the living room of the home she and her husband designed. With every conversation, I became increasingly aware I was in the presence of an extraordinary woman and resolved to document her life and career in a book.

Lisl designed more than 250 modern houses in the state and was the first woman to serve as president of American Institute of Architects Minnesota, later becoming the first woman to receive that organization’s highest honor. Our wide-ranging discussions included specific buildings she designed. Her memory was sharp when asked to recall why she wanted to be an architect and how she managed to become one at a time when women architects were almost nonexistent.  

Lisl’s childhood home in Vienna, Austria, was designed in 1912, the year of her birth, by progressive architect Adolf Loos. Living in the radically modern house convinced Lisl to become an architect — a bold decision given she could not name a single woman architect at the time.

The rise of Nazism, and her mother’s Jewish heritage, forced the 21-year-old to leave Austria, alone, for the United States, where she continued her education at MIT. She was the only woman in her graduate school class.

The challenge of finding work during the Depression was complicated by her gender. One employer turned her down as a potential “distraction” in the drafting room. Another required her to pay for the privilege of working for him.

With unshakable self-confidence, she persevered, found a job, then another, and went on to establish the first practice in Minnesota devoted solely to modern design.

Lisl did not view herself as a role model for other women in the field. But she did smooth the way.

As one woman explained, “I didn’t have to prove that women can be architects. Lisl had already done that.”