(Esther) Marjorie Hill

First woman to graduate from a Canadian architectural program, University of Toronto, 1920
First woman in Canada to register as an architect, Alberta Association of Architects, 1925

“In her white dress academic gown and mortarboard, carrying a bouquet, there was ample evidence that hard study does not mar a charming appearance.”
“First Woman Architect Receives Big Ovation,” The Globe, Toronto, 1920

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Despite a blaze of media coverage heralding her graduation as the first woman with a made-in-Canada architecture degree (a ceremony pointedly boycotted by the chair of architecture), it took Esther Marjorie Hill five years to break into the all-male Alberta Association of Architects. Her initial application was denied, ostensibly for lack of experience. After further study and multiple years of work with early female architects in New York, she applied again. Even then, according to her obituary, it took “a submission from her father’s lawyer to convince the AAA to admit her.” Finally the AAA opened its ranks—and Marjorie Hill became the first woman in Canada to be designated a Registered Architect.

But registration was no guarantee of success, particularly with the Great Depression taking its toll. Squeezed out of the Edmonton offices of MacDonald & Magoon by lack of work, Marjorie turned her design skills to doing, teaching and writing about weaving, glove-making and greeting card design. Not until 1946, a decade after moving to Victoria with her parents, did her architectural practice finally flourish as she designed dozens of what have been termed “no-nonsense modern houses” for veterans during a post-war building boom. Registering with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia in 1953, she also did larger structures, including Glenwarren Lodge, one of Canada’s first senior citizens complexes, which incorporated then-novel accessibility ideas.

Drawing on post-graduate studies in town planning, Marjorie Hill also became the first woman to sit on the Victoria Town Planning Committee. But her focus remained domestic architecture, especially kitchens. She fit those together like ingenious puzzles, with ample storage, abundant sunlight, efficient workflow and just enough space—but not so much as to require unnecessary steps or cleaning.

To discover more about “the elusive” Marjorie Hill, who worked alone from the Hill family home, researchers Annmarie Adams and Peta Tancred placed an ad in a Victoria newspaper in 2000, 15 years after she died. Many who responded were fellow weavers. They described a sprite of a woman with a “difficult and eccentric personality” who surrounded herself with purple, including her own technically superb weavings. As Adams notes in the 2012 book Rethinking Professionalism, for Marjorie the web of weavers became a major source of architectural commissions. “In this way, professionalism was cloaked, or perhaps we should say interwoven, with domestic ideologies.”

“One must have artistic talent, practical experience, professional knowledge, good business and executive ability, resourcefulness and a determination to persevere. With these assets there is no reason why a woman should not be as successful as a man.”
Marjorie Hill, shortly after graduation, 1920

Marjorie Hill: A timeline

With thanks to those who have delved more deeply into Marjorie Hill’s life and work, including Annmarie Adams, Peta Tancred and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel

1895   Esther Marjorie Hill is born May 29 to Ethelbert Lincoln (E.L.) Hill, a University of Toronto graduate (BA 1888), science master at Guelph, Ontario collegiate and strong advocate for public libraries; and Jennie Stork, one of the first women admitted to the University of Toronto (Victoria College, 1884), a mathematics teacher and published author of poetry and fiction.

1907   The Hill family moves from Ontario to Alberta, where E.L. Hill becomes Master of Science for Calgary high schools while laying the groundwork for Calgary’s first public library.

1909   Becoming an Alberta school inspector, E.L. Hill advocates for a library for Strathcona, now part of Edmonton.

1912   Moving to Edmonton, E.L. Hill serves as founder and chief librarian at Edmonton Public Library, a post he holds until retirement in 1936. Marjorie will later tell a Toronto Star reporter that an architect’s magazine brought home by her father first sparked her interest in the profession: “I glanced through it, and after studying various sketches and plans of houses, I thought how nice it would be to be able to do the same thing myself. Later when I decided definitely, I told my mother of my plans. I rather expected opposition, but instead, she said, ‘Why isn’t that strange, I always wanted to do that myself.’ But neither of us had ever said anything about it to the other.” Her father strongly supports her career choice and likely opens doors along the way.

1914 – 1918   Raised in a family that stresses the importance of education and community service, Marjorie Hill graduates from Strathcona High School and enrolls at the University of Alberta, where she earns a BA and enters the architecture program. In a later letter to Anne Rochon Ford, she says Cecil Burgess, head of the architecture program, strongly opposed her entry.

1918   With the University of Alberta architecture program temporarily closed due to Cecil Burgess’s departure for war duty, Marjorie transfers to the University of Toronto. A letter from her uncle, MP Fred Stork, is said to be instrumental in her admission to the architecture program. She joins one other woman in the program: third-year student Anna Kentner; later that year, Anna contracts the Spanish flu and withdraws.

1919   In the summer, Marjorie Hill works as draftsman for Toronto architects Wickson & Gregg.

1920   Marjorie Hill graduates from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Architecture. Media across Canada cover the landmark event under headlines such as “The Canadian Woman Has Invaded One More Profession” and “New Trail Blazed by a Varsity Girl.” C.H.C. Wright, chair of architecture, signals his displeasure by not attending the June 4 convocation (letter to Blanche van Ginkel, 1984), but she receives “enormous applause” when kneeling before the chancellor as part of the ceremony.

Marjorie remains in Toronto for several months, working in the T. Eaton Company’s decorative department as an interior designer.

1920 – 1921   In a series of articles on home design for Agricultural Alberta, Marjorie Hill advocates for “honest” design that reveals its use and pays heed to site conditions: “The sooner we cease to tolerate, in our homes as well as in our public buildings, features which are not what they appear to be, such as tin or galvanized cornices made to look like stone, on stone or brick buildings, and wooden columns painted and sanded to imitate  stone, the better for our own lives and our national life.” Those words hint at how her work would deviate from her Beaux-Arts training to embrace “dignified simplicity,” a design aesthetic influenced by the functionalist movement and the work of Adolf Loos. Her writing also calls for “plenty of window space in every room,” particularly the kitchen, further foreshadowing later work.

1921   In January, Marjorie returns to Edmonton. She lives with her parents, with whom she remains close all life long. The homecoming is doubly disappointing. First, she cannot find work. Second, her application for registration with the Alberta Association of Architects is denied, likely on the basis of inexperience. Writing to Blanche Lemco van Ginkel in 1984, she says, “The Alberta Architects Association did not want to register me and the then Minister of Education in Alberta, also a University of Toronto alumnus, was so annoyed over it he put through the Legislature an amendment to the Professional Architects’ Act to the effect that ‘any graduate of any school of architecture in His Majesty’s Dominion shall be admitted.’ It was a woman who spiked that by adding ‘after a year’s experience in an architect’s office.’” The requirement for a year’s experience is not new, although its enforcement has varied. Perhaps it’s significant that Cecil Burgess, who, in Marjorie’s words, “did not approve of women in architecture,” was among the examiners.

1921   Marjorie Hill teaches for a year at a country school.

1922   In spring and summer, Marjorie works off and on as “draughtsman” for MacDonald and Magoon Architects. While there, she details the entrance of a Carnegie-funded Edmonton Public Library, a downtown landmark from its 1923 completion until demolition in 1968. As noted in the book Constructing Careers, “The coincidence that her father was Chief Librarian at the time cannot be overlooked. An article published in the July-August 1926 RAIC Journal written by her father praised the work: ‘The architects designed a building that has wonderfully well fulfilled the wishes of the Board and the librarian.’”

1922   In the fall, Marjorie returns to the University of Toronto for a post-graduate year of study in town planning. Her thesis, “An Exposition of Town Planning,” argues that proper town planning can be a powerful tool for social change, improving the living condition of all social classes through zoning restrictions, transportation networks, urban parks and the proper design of residential buildings.

1923   Marjorie travels to New York, where she takes a summer course in architectural design at Columbia University.

1923 – 1924   From August 1923 to November 1924, Marjorie works with New York architects Marcia Mead and Anna Schenck, who specialize in housing, and (in the words of architect Annmarie Adams) are particularly interested in the feminist side of architecture. At Schenck and Mead, she does working drawings, detailing, office supervision and correspondence.

1925   Returning to Edmonton with the one year of experience required to join the Alberta Association of Architects, Marjorie reapplies for registration in December 1924. Armed with numerous letters of support, she is accepted in January 1925, thus becoming the first woman in Canada to receive the professional designation of Registered Architect.

1925 – 1928   In September, Marjorie returns to New York, where she works three years for Kathryn C. Budd, a pioneer in domestic science and design who gained renown during the First World War for articles on architecture and designs for YWCA Hostess Houses.

1928 – 1930   In April, Marjorie returns to MacDonald & Magoon in Edmonton, but as the Depression deepens, she is let go. Like many other architects at the time, she finds other ways to support herself, turning her design skills to doing, teaching and writing about weaving and glove-making. So begins a life-long passion for “handwork,” which she describes as a way to “strengthen and develop us mentally, morally and spiritually as well as physically and also add to the total of our happiness.”

1934   The Victoria Handweavers’ and Spinners’ Guild, in which Marjorie will become active, is founded—the first of its kind in Canada.

1936   Marjorie moves to Victoria with her parents following E.L. Hill’s retirement from the library. The three live together at 29 Gorge Road, where Marjorie sets up her spinning wheel and drafting table while also producing greeting cards on her father’s hand-fed printing press and doing pillow-lace design. Joining the spinning and weaving guild, she becomes known as a master hand-weaver, a perfectionist with superb technique who makes no mistakes and pays almost fanatical attention to edges. For a time, she chairs the guild’s standards council. Annmarie Adams and McGill University sociologist Peta Tancred learn much about this period of her life in the early 2000s, after taking out a classified ad in the personal section of the Victoria Times Colonist in hope of finding out more about “the elusive Marjorie Hill.” As Adams will later note in the 2012 book Rethinking Professionalism, the guild provides the web of contacts through whom she finds many of her architectural clients.

1939   Jennie Stork Hill, Marjorie’s mother, dies after a long illness, an event recorded in the Victoria Times of September 14, 1939. Father and daughter continue to live together until his death two decades later, both outfitted with clothes woven by Marjorie.

1940   Marjorie is certified to teach weaving by the Shuttle Craft Guild of Basin Montana.

1940   Marjorie Hill receives her first architectural commission, conversion of a single family home into a duplex. As the Second World War continues, she undertakes many residential plans and conversions, sometimes as many as three a week.

1945 – 1950   Marjorie Hill becomes the first woman to serve on the Victoria Town Planning Commission.

1946   During the spate of building that follows the end of the Second World War, Marjorie Hill returns to doing architecture full time, bolstered by recommendations from the Veterans’ Land Administration office in Victoria. Working independently as an “architectural designer,” she produces dozens of what have been termed “no-nonsense” Modern houses, typically charging $50. The homes tend to be rectangular, with simple lines, ample windows for light and ventilation, pitched roofs and a central entry on the long side. Their kitchens fit together like ingenious puzzles, with generous storage, efficient workflow, ample sunlight (partly for hygiene) and just enough space. As early as the 1920s, Marjorie maintains that extra space means extra labor in cleaning and “extra energy to traverse the unnecessary area.”

Some designs from this period are noted here, with some of the available detail.

1940s – 1950s   Begg and Gamble residences.

1945   Pierre and Grace Timp residence. Friends of the Hill family when both lived in Alberta, the Timps commission Marjorie Hill to design a house in Saanich. The resulting design illustrates Hill’s sensitivity to user needs and site conditions. Besides paying heed to Grace’s six-foot frame, the house is angled to take full advantage of sunlight and views.

1946   Ray and Jocelyn Hanson House (Rethinking Professionalism, Figure 13.3). Typical of Marjorie’s work in its geometric simplicity, with the exception of a classical revival porch.

1946 – 1947   W.E. Lock homes, Pembroke Street at Chambers Street (City of Vitoria Archives, File 18333).

1946 – 1947   Aspinwall home.

1947   Bellchambers home in Victoria. Oriented towards its ocean view, the home has interesting built-in cabinetry and ceiling edge detail—and, like many of her designs, laundry facilities on the main floor. As early as 1920, Hill advocates moving laundry upstairs to save “the backbreaking process of lugging wet clothes up” cellar stairs.

1947   Sellers home in Victoria. With its simple lines, balanced proportions and flat roof, this stucco home earns mention in a 1984 survey of Victoria’s Art Deco and Modern architecture.

1948 – 1949   F.R. Moore house at 2386 Queenswood Drive, Saanich (Rethinking Professionalism, Figures 13.6 and 13.7). Like many of her clients, Frank Moore would maintain that he designed this house using Marjorie Hill only as draftsperson, a phenomenon common among women architects. Marjorie’s design includes exquisite kitchen detail, typical of what Adams calls “her near obsession with kitchen storage and its relationship to the shape of the room.” (drawings University of Toronto Archives)

c. 1950   Modernist central building for Victoria’s Lincoln Cemetery in Victoria with Art Deco influences.

1951   Marjorie earns a certificate for instructing advanced hand weaving.

1952  T. Diminyatz home on St. Charles Street near Rockland Avenue (City of Victoria Archives, File 29137).

1952   Colonel and Mrs. F.E. Hill house on the water at Becher Bay, East Sooke, B.C. An excellent example of Marjorie’s aesthetic with its rectangular footprint, large windows, deep eaves, coved ceilings, built-in furniture, generous closets and well-planned kitchen (Canadian Architect, Nov. 2000, 16).

1952   Hillcrest Apartments, Fort Street opposite Linden Avenue (Canadian Architect, Nov. 2000, 16).

c. 1952   Marjorie Hill designs one of her most well-regarded buildings, a “boldly modernist” three-story apartment block at 1170 Fort Street in Victoria whose exterior clearly signals its layout and use of interior spaces. Annmarie Adams and Peta Tancred term it a work of “functional efficiency and stylistic simplicity” while noting that tour drivers have dismissed the complex as an ugly threat to Victoria’s architectural heritage. Marjorie’s career-long interest in apartments as a building type reflects her desire to empower women by creating homes that are smaller, easier to care for and less isolating, with shared spaces conducive to forging friendships.

“[C]ontrary to many of her contemporaries who continued to design in [the Beaux Arts] mode, Hill applied a social sensibility to her work and extolled the virtues of sun, light, air, and space. Her modest apartment buildings are well-proportioned with a straightforward grace and clarity of detail.” 
Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, SSAC Bulletin, 17.1

1953   Marjorie registers with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC) in May, becoming registrant #288. She joins Sylvia Grace Holland, registered in 1933 and Isla Julia Clara Williams, 1948. Now she can again call herself an architect.

c. 1955   Optimist Boy’s Club hobby workshop, Fairfield Road near Vancouver Street, Victoria.

c. 1955   Apartment Block for unnamed client, Hillside Avenue at Prior Street (drawings University of Toronto Archives).

1955   Emmanuel Baptist Church addition, Gladstone Avenue at Fernwood Road (drawings University of Toronto Archives).

1956   Marjorie publishes a house plan in the Victoria Daily Colonist that is typical of her domestic work (Rethinking professionalism, Figures 13.4 and 13.5): raised main entry, living/dining room featuring a brick fireplace at right, U-shaped kitchen with an eating area and an adjacent laundry room at back, three modest bedrooms at left, one bathroom, efficient layout of utilities.

1957   Marjorie Hill is the only Vancouver Island artist selected to participate in the Fine Crafts Exhibition in Ottawa; she sends weavings.

1960   Ethelbert Hill dies in January at age 96; with her father gone, Marjorie moves into an apartment at 1318 Beach Drive.

1961 – 1962   Marjorie Hill designs Glenwarren Lodge at 1230 Balmoral Road, Victoria, one of the first purpose-built seniors housing complexes in Canada. A source of pride, its innovative design incorporates advanced ideas about accessibility for a less mobile population (drawings University of Toronto Archives).

1963   At age 68, Marjorie retires from architecture due to ill health but continues to weave, teach weaving, make woodcuts and produce design works for sale.

1966   Renovations for Hugh and Jean Macartney exemplify Marjorie Hill’s expertise in kitchens. Conveniences include 39-inch high counters, a built-in oven, a lazy Susan, rounded counter edges, a pass-through from cooking to dining areas. In an interview decades later with Annmarie Adams, Jean Macartney (also a weaver) terms Marjorie “a very clever lady.”

1968   Marjorie moves from her family’s house to a cooperative apartment while continuing with weaving. “I am fully occupied with congenial and satisfying tasks,” she says.

1985   Marjorie Hill dies on January 7 in Victoria at age 89 (Montreal Gazette, January 14, 1985, D12). Resourceful, independent, determined, she has persevered despite discrimination and the vagaries of the Great Depression to build a singularly independent practice and design a surprising number of forthright buildings that clearly signal their purpose and, with their natural light, ventilation, efficient layouts and integration into their environments, enhance life for the people who live and work inside. Some of her work is included in the list of notable Art Deco and Modern buildings in Victoria.

“Perhaps Hill’s web of amateur weavers allowed her practice to thrive in post-war Victoria. In this way, professionalism was cloaked, or perhaps we should say interwoven, with domestic ideologies.”
Annmarie Adams, in Rethinking Professionalism, 2012 

Sources

  • Adams, Annmarie; Tancred, Peta.  Designing Women: gender and the architectural profession, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.
  • Adams, Annmarie; Tancred, Peta. “Designing women: then and now,” The Canadian Architect, Vol. 45, no. 11, November 2000, pp 16-17.
  • Adams, Annmarie. “Marjorie’s Web: Canada’s First Architect and her Clients,” illustrated essay in Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada 1850-1970, 2012, pp. 380-99. (Also personal correspondence with Annmarie Adams.)
  • “Canada’s First Woman Architect to Work for a Better Housing System,” Toronto Star Weekly, June 12, 1920.
  • Canadian Women Artists History Initiative, Concordia University, Montreal. Files and valuable research assistance, thanks especially to Florence Vallières and Kate Marley.
  • Clark, Mary. Registration of Women Architects in Canada: The Results of a Survey, Ontario Women Graduates in Architecture 1920-1960, August 1988.
  • Contreras, Monica; Luigi Ferrara and Daniel Karpinski. “Breaking in: Four Early Female Architects,” The Canadian Architect, Vol. 38, no. 11, November 1993, pp. 18-20.
  • Dedyna, Katherine. “Designing Woman” in Life, Friday, June 15, 2000, p. B7 (available through Canadian Women Artists History Initiative).
  • “First woman architect receives big ovation,” The Globe and Mail, June 5, 1920, p. 8.
  • Hill, Esther Marjorie. “Common faults in house design: paving the way to better building methods,” Agricultural Alberta, February 1921, p. 29 (and other issues).
  • Lemco van Ginkel, Blanche. Slowly and Surely (and Somewhat Painfully): More or Less the History of Women in Architecture in Canada,” Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada Bulletin, Vol. xvii, No. 1, March 1992, 5-11.
  • McQuaid, Matilda. “Educating for the Future: A Growing Archive on Women in Architecture,” in Architecture: A Place for Women, ed. Ellen Perry Berkeley and Matilda McQuaid, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
  • Rabinovitch, Lara. M.A. thesis: Lady in Purple (supervised by Annmarie Adams), 2002, accessible through the McGill University library portal.
  • Shore + Moffat Library, University of Toronto. Files, information and research advice. Thanks especially to Irene Puchalski.
  • Stainsby, Mia. “Women in Architecture Then and Now” in The Vancouver Sun, Monday April 17, 1995 (available through Canadian Women Artists History Initiative).
  • Women in Architecture Exhibits Committee. Constructing careers: Profiles of five early women architects in British Columbia, Vancouver, 1996, pp. 18-25.

 

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