Alice Charlotte [Malhiot] Ross

First Canadian woman to graduate in architecture, Rhode Island School of Design, 1910
Launches Ross Home Plans, 1948

“With Edmonton’s home building setting a new Canadian housing record this year, Mrs. Hugh V. Ross has chosen an opportune moment to specialize in home designing.”
Edmonton Journal, 1948

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Unable to follow her father into frontier engineering because no program would admit a woman, Alice Charlotte Mailhot earned a diploma in architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1910, becoming the first known woman in Canada to graduate in the profession. She worked as a draftsman for her father, who was laying out municipalities and irrigation ditches from a home base in Calgary.

In 1914, Alice traveled to the University of Alberta to write the exams required for registration with the Alberta Association of Architects. What happened next continues to cause confusion. On July 3, 1914, the Edmonton Journal announced that she had “successfully passed her examination” and “is now an association member of the Alberta Association of Architects.” But a month later, this correction appeared: “As a matter of fact, Miss Mailhot, who they say, made a very plucky try at the full course, passed only in the branch of sanitary science.”

There’s no evidence Alice wrote the exams again. Still unregistered, and unable to find work with an architectural firm, she joined the Alberta Lumber Company (later Revelstoke), drawing plans for customers. (To snag that post, she also agreed to serve as the firm’s secretary.) Then she married Hugh Ross and diverted into decades as the wife of a rural lumberyard manager and Depression-era store owner. Their brood grew to five before shrinking when their eldest, much-loved Donald, died while training as a pilot for the Second World War. Through it all, she kept her drafting table at the ready and used her training to design a community hall, organize the move of a church and meet other needs.

But it was after her husband died that Alice Ross fully exploited her architecture expertise. Already in her late 50s, she worked first with George Prudham, plotting lots and designing homes for Edmonton’s new Strathearn neighbourhood. Then she took another year of study at Rhode Island and returned to launch Ross Home Plans. Building on a then-novel concept discovered while away, she developed an array of home designs that clients could customize to suit their needs. She also worked with contractors on larger projects such as Miller Motors and a hall for the Windsor Park community.

Thus situated, Alice practiced for nearly two decades—in fact, until the day her grandchildren came home from school and found her fast asleep, never to wake up. On the drafting table in the corner of the living room, a set of in-progress plans awaited her next step.

“She wasn’t the cuddly make-cookies type of woman, but she was a good listener.”
Terry Clynne, one of Alice’s two daughters

“I think she was a bit of a pioneer.
The way I put it, she walked a path no other woman had dared to walk.”

Wally Ross, one of Alice’s three sons

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Alice Mailhot Ross: A timeline

With thanks to the Ross, Clyne and Rocque families, Alice’s children and grandchildren 

1887   On July 13, Marie Josephine Domtilda (Tilly) Hart marries Zephirin (Zeph) Mailhot (b 1855) in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. Tilly’s diary describes a couple on the move throughout eastern United States and Canada, with Zeph often away doing civil engineering. Having surveyed and plotted the line for the CPR rail line across Canada, he is known in railroading circles.

Mrs. Alice Charlotte Ross -1891-08-13 1943-12-13 1947-04-14 Resignation

1890   (or 1891) Marie Alice Charlotte is born to Zeph and Tilly Mailhot on August 13 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The year is a bit hazy; records from a time as postmaster put her birth exactly a  year later, in 1891. All life long, her children would later say, she fibs about her age. Alice (or Alys as she often wrote it) is the second oldest in a French-speaking family that grows to seven surviving children. Following Zeph’s work, their ports of call include Fall River, Massachusetts; Albion, Rhode Island; and Winnipeg, Manitoba. As the Government of Canada’s resident engineer responsible for works on rivers and large lakes in western Canada, his projects include supervising the building of Edmonton’s low level bridge, the first to span the North Saskatchewan River.

“Oh she fibbed about her age. When she died, we had a terrible time. I forget how we finally figured out how old she was, but she wasn’t prepared to admit her age.
She was 17 when she went to Rhode Island. So it must have been 1890.”

 Wally Ross, Alice’s youngest son

1905   The Mailhot family moves from Winnipeg to Calgary, where Alice attends Sacred Heart Convent.

1907   Perhaps inspired by her pioneering father, Alice wants to become an engineer, but engineering programs are still refusing to admit women. Instead, she attends Rhode Island School of Design in New York for three years, living with relatives and studying under Huger Elliott.

1910   On May 25, Alice Mailhot (or Malhiot, as the U.S. branch of the family spells it) graduates with a diploma in architecture. She works as a draftsperson for her father, who is now in private practice in Calgary, laying out municipalities and irrigation ditches.

1914   Alice travels to Edmonton and writes examinations to become registered with the Alberta Association of Architects, but according to the Edmonton Journal passes only sanitary science, failing others. It seems Alice never rewrites the exams. Unable to find work with an architectural firm, she works for the Alberta Lumber Company (later Revelstoke), serving as secretary but also drawing plans for customers.

1917   On October 18, Alice Mailhot marries Hugh Ross, who begins appearing in family photographs around 1913. About eight years older than Alice, Hugh is the firstborn of Donald William (Dan) Ross and Sarah McMullen of Brockville, Ontario, who raise and butcher cattle. Married in Calgary, Alice and Hugh live in Waldeck, Saskatchewan, where he continues running a lumberyard for the Revelstoke company.

1918   Donald Ross is born to Alice and Hugh on August 12.

1920   Gerald Nesbitt is born to Alice and Hugh.

1924   Walter Hugh (Wally) is born to Alice and Hugh Ross.

c. 1925   Hugh Ross is transferred to Coronation, and the family moves there.

1928   Hugh Ross becomes manager of a Hayward Lumber Co. yard in French-speaking Bonnyville, and the family moves again. Alice, who is fluently bilingual, becomes prime mover behind Chautauqua learning events. Hugh speaks no French; perhaps that’s why they’re soon on the move again. In tiny Beauvallon, he manages another Hayward lumberyard until the Depression makes jobs scarce and Mr. Hayward gives Hugh’s post to his own son Verne.

1930   Elizabeth (Betty) Marie is born December 13 to Alice and Hugh, a tag-along sister for her three older brothers. Thrilled to finally have a daughter, Alice puts her architectural eye to work at her treadle-driven Singer sewing machine, making dresses.

1930   The family rents (and eventually purchases) a store in Duffield, west of Edmonton in the Paul Band territory. They eke out a living, often taking bartered goods such as hides, leather products, fence posts and berries (and for a time scrip created by the Social Credit party) rather than cash. The family is not immune to the impact of the 1930s Depression; in a letter from away, son Don recounts earning 75 cents for clearing snow in an attempt to earn enough to buy a jacket. A dedicated Catholic, Alice serves as organist, organizes a choir and later arranges to move an unused church from Stony Plain. She keeps her drafting boards set up near a big window at the top of the stairs and designs some buildings, including a community hall and structures for customers who purchase lumber.

1934   Theresa (Terry) is born, Alice and Hugh’s fifth and final child. She later recalls scenes from her childhood at the store: buying and packing eggs in a big crate for sale in Edmonton, visiting a furrier to have muskrat hides tanned and stretched, measuring willow poles (destined to Saskatchewan for fence making at $3 a load) to ensure they were at least two inches thick. She also remembers the credit book, where lists of amounts owed grew long when times were tough. and the thrill of learning how to use her mother’s treadle sewing machine. “Mom was a good listener,” she says. “I’d go and tell her my troubles.”

1941   Donald Ross, Alice and Hugh’sg son, enlists in the Royal Canadian Air Force in hope of serving in the Second World War—and dies June 29 when his plane crashes and bursts into flames while he’s practicing a maneuver for graduation. Judge Lucien Dubuc, Alice’s cousin, arranges for a military funeral—one of the first in the war.

Hugh grieves his son’s death deeply, and longstanding heart issues (which prevented him from serving in the earlier war) become severe. On doctor’s orders, he is confined to total bed rest. Eventually he is unable to climb the stairs to his bedroom, and his bed is brought downstairs. At times he sits on the side of his bed, gasping for air.

“Mom as usual was the stoic one, taking it as being God’s will. It was she who consoled my father and each of us.”
Wally Ross, Alice’s youngest son

Second son Gerald also joins the Royal Canadian Air Force, and is stationed in Ottawa during the war. He then attends technical school in Edmonton and becomes active in the oil and gas industry.

As the lone son at home, Wally does not return to high school at St. Anthony’s College, which requires living in Edmonton, but begins taking courses by correspondence. The combination of studying and shop keeping takes its toll, and doctors advise that Wally’s responsibilities be cut back. Fortunately, Hugh is somewhat more able to work, and the family is finally well off enough to hire help. Wally tries entering the military but is refused multiple times on medical grounds. He works for a time with crews building the wartime Alaska Highway, but then contracts pneumonia. His father sets him up to buy and sell fence posts at Glenevis, north of Duffield. Wally still has more than a year of courses to complete when he gains permission to write departmental “supplementary” exams as an adult student. Six weeks (and much studying) later, he passes all exams—except French, an ironic fail, given Alice’s heritage. (For decades, Wally gives up on graduating; then, in 2014, he appeals his case, receives his diploma and crosses the stage at St. Francis Xavier High School alongside grandson Jeff.)

1943   Alice becomes postmistress for the hamlet of Duffield, operating the post office out of the family’s store. She holds this position from December 13, 1943 to April 14, 1947.

1944   Hugh Ross dies while signing in to the King Edward Hotel on a trip to Edmonton, at age 62. Alice expands her duties to manage the store, with help from Mrs. Courtney, whose husband worked as a railway line inspector.

1945   Wally begins working at Sun Life Insurance in Edmonton. Later, he forms his own brokerage company, WH Ross Agencies Ltd.

1946   Alice’s father Zephirin Mailhot dies in Alberta.

1947   Alice Ross sells the Duffield store to Albert Mitchell and moves to Edmonton. She finds work with George Prudham, who launched a construction company and building supply store five years earlier. Prudham purchases farmland in what becomes Strathearn and participates in a national housing program to help meet the post-war demand for housing. Alice helps delineate the properties and designs several styles of homes that are sprinkled throughout the neighbourhood.

Fall 1947   Recognizing a need to upgrade her architectural skills, Alice settles her two daughters into Ursuline Sisters Convent and Catholic schools and returns the Rhode Island School of Design. Again the only woman in her class, she registers for two courses: architectural design and architectural construction and materials.

“Last autumn, Mrs. Ross traveled to the east to find out about the newest gadgets in housing construction. She attended the builders’ show in Detroit and visited government housing officials in Ottawa and larger Eastern cities. . . . Mrs. Ross has brought many ideas home for rural builders, too. She would like to see concrete blocks used in the building walls so the farmer could start his home himself with this cheaper, fireproof material.”
Edmonton Journal, 1948

1948   Back in Edmonton after detours to scout out architectural ideas and visit relatives (including the Comtesse de Baroncelli, a niece in New Orleans), Alice purchases a house at 10909 74 Avenue, renovates the basement for use as a rental suite (with a shared bathroom upstairs) and launches Ross Home Plans. At first, she shares office space with her son Gerald, who has an oil and gas venture above a furniture store at the corner of 99 Street and 102A Avenue. Building on a concept discovered during her year away, Mrs. Hugh V. Ross, as she is known, develops brochures showing an array of design options and invites clients to choose and modify a favourite to suit their needs.

An Edmonton newspaper article applauding this venture provides a glimpse into her beliefs: “Edmonton home builders should make full use of the sunlight and design their homes with a southern exposure,” she is quoted as saying. “Houses should have character, they should not be crowded into too small lots. If our young people are to enjoy and be content with their homes in the future, they must have distinctive homes with proper landscaping and settings.”

“Remember playing with our cutouts under Mom’s table. What a great room that was with the bookshelves, Mom’s sewing machine and the dormor windows.” 
Birthday card from Betty (Ross) Rocque to sister Terry (Ross) Clyne

1949   Alice’s two surviving sons both marry and start their homes in Edmonton.

Wally marries Consuella Otterson. In the next 15 years, they have seven children: Michael, Linda Mae, Colleen, Mary Anne, Patrick, Margot and D’Arcy. Wally also joins the Loyal Edmonton Regiment as reserve soldier in 1950, eventually rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel. The marriage dissolves when the children are young, with Wally taking custody of the children. In 1980, he marries Eileen Oakes, who has one daughter, Jennifer. In later years, Wally begins writing each of his 22 grandchildren a letter about his or her heritage as a birthday present.

Gerald marries Gloria Patterson of Long Branch, Ontario. In the next dozen years, they have seven children: Jeffrey, twins Deborah and Timothy, twins Craig and Pamela, Hugh and Melissa. Their family expands to include six grandchildren.

Daughter Betty, meanwhile, works for Chester Tanner, accountant, who is married to another early woman architect, Doris Tanner.

1949   Alice’s projects around this time include a house at 6824 Ada Boulevard for William and Elsie Hawkeye, president of Hawkeye Insurance Ltd; as well as larger projects such as Builder’s Supplies at 10771 101 Street; Miller Lumber at 10460 111 Street; and Windsor Park Community League at 11840 87 Avenue.

1950 – 1951   Alice builds a semi-bungalow at 9051 90 Street to house her family and architecture business, likely using plans originally designed for Hugo Scharfenberg at 9816 101A Avenue. Unable to obtain a mortgage herself, she puts the home in son Gerald’s name. The story-and-a-half home has suites both in the basement (with a bathroom, a welcome change from the previous house) and on the upper level. The suites provided rental income, a welcome boost as the family had borrowed against Hugh’s life insurance so their boys could attend high school in Edmonton. Alice’s drafting table takes up residence in the corner of the living room, and she hires a cleaning lady so she can dedicate full days to the work.

1951 – 1952   Jake and Ruth Superstein commission a home at 42 St. Georges Crescent. Jake later recalls Alice as “a very good listener” who took ample time to discuss how the family might use various spaces in the home. Its features include a sunken living room, built-in cabinets and a deeply gabled roof.

c. mid-1950s   In her sixties, Alice has a stroke that affects her left arm and left leg, leaving her less mobile. That’s when she learns to drive a car, son Wally recalls. When the driving examiner questions whether her compromised leg will affect her ability to drive, she replies: “Now young man, I can’t walk with my leg the way it is, so I have to drive a car.”

1956   Alice’s daughter Betty marries Paul Rocque on April 14. They soon move to Calgary and have four children—Greg, Tony, Melanie and Joanne (Jody). After her children are in elementary school, Betty works as a furniture salesperson at the House of Maple for about a decade, then works part-time at The Down Shop selling fine linens. Along the way, the family welcomes six grandchildren: Rudy, Marcus, Sadie, Brett, Kylie and Sydney. Lung cancer takes Betty’s life January 5, 2002; at the funeral, her children recall a mother who “acquired much of her strength of character from her parents.”

1957   Alice’s daughter Terry meets and marries James Clyne in Toronto, where she has gone to find office work. The couple eventually moves to Edmonton, taking along Dalmatians to breed and sell. Initially, they live in Alice’s basement suite. Alice gives Terry money to buy material for a job-hunting dress, and Terry finds work as a bookkeeper. Her employers include Alberta Glass. Alice helps look after her four children: Valerie, Robert, William and Patrick. In later years, Terry moves to Sherwood Park.

Final decade  As civic regulations became more stringent and approval processes more complex, the bulk of Alice’s work shifts to rural properties.

1968   The Duffield store the Ross family previously owned burns down.

1968   On June 10, Alice’s grandchildren come home from their nearby school to find Alice asleep—and cannot wake her up. Like her husband, Alice has died a swift, unanticipated death. The family later discovers that a blood clot from an infected wound has traveled to her brain, likely from scraping on some metal while getting into her car. A set of in-progress plans is spread out on the drafting table, awaiting her next move.

Alice Mailhot Ross leaves behind four surviving children, 22 grandchildren—and dozens of contributions to Alberta’s built landscape.

“Mom acquired much of her strength of character from her parents. Her father passed away suddenly when she was only thirteen, yet she clearly remembered his determination. Her mother was an incredible lady who not only raised five children on her own, but also re-educated herself and became the first female architect in Canada. Mom was very proud to be a Ross.”
Grandchildren of Alice Ross, speaking at their mother Betty’s memorial service in 2002


  • Ross, Clyne and Rocque families—interviews, letters and other previous writing, photographs, newspaper clippings, artifacts.
  • One of Alice Ross’s five-year diaries, covering the early 1950s.
  • Rhode Island School of Design, archives and registrar’s offices.
  • Windsor Park community league.
  • Hills of Hope, local history including Duffield. Spruce Grove, Alberta: Carvel Unifarm, 1976.
  • Coverage in Edmonton Journal and elsewhere.