Jean Louise Emberly Wallbridge & Mary Louise Imrie

Early registrants with the Alberta Association of Architects:
Wallbridge in 1941, Imrie in 1944
Partners in Canada’s first all-female architectural firm, 1951

“If only we got more bigger jobs and fewer headachy ones, we would be considerably wealthier and happier. But that is probably one of the disadvantages of being female. People will get us to do their houses, be thrilled with them and go to larger male firms for their warehouses or office buildings.”
Mary Imrie, letter to University of Toronto professor Eric Arthur, 1954

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Among the handful of Alberta women who registered as architects in the ‘40s (a figure equaled only in Ontario) Jean Wallbridge and Mary Imrie remain the most well-known. Hard-working, fun-loving, world travelling, “The Girls” (as they were called) blazed a trail still rarely followed by launching Canada’s first partnership of female architects.

Like other women entering architecture during and just after the Second World War, the duo benefited from the scramble to provide affordable housing while also creating upscale homes for the newly rich. The bustle had its underbelly, however: as in many other professions, returning veterans shunted women aside to land the plum projects. Including those created when oil gushed onto the Alberta scene.

Predictably, the 224 projects tackled by Imrie & Wallbridge Architects between 1951 and 1979 lean heavily to the residential. Yet the duo snagged 23 commercial structures, including the Alberta Seed Growers’ Plant, Edmonton’s St. James Roman Catholic Church and broadcast stations in small communities. Taking advantage of complementary skills, they roughly divided the work, with Wallbridge liaising with clients on interior design and Imrie tackling exteriors, construction documents and administration. They landed their first project, Queen Mary apartments in Edmonton, by visiting the municipal planning office (where both had worked as draftsmen) to find out who had brought in plans without the required architect’s stamp—and then offering their services to those developers.

A couple in life as well as work, the duo had the intelligence, chutzpah and pedigree to play ball with the Country Club set and hold their own within the profession. “The Girls always provided the spice” at architecture meetings, says Percy Butler, who commissioned them to design his Edmonton home. “They weren’t afraid to speak out.” Erna Dominey, who researched their life and work for a graduate thesis, finds it telling that Mary Imrie once refused to be interviewed about life as a woman in architecture: “If she couldn’t be in the real Olympics, she was damned if she was going to be in the Special Olympics.”

Both benefited from privileged upbringing, yet were equally at home on skates and in canoes on their beloved North Saskatchewan River, or kicking back over scotch and cigars, or organizing work bees for clients short on cash. Writes Dominey, “[W]hat set their firm apart from others in Edmonton at the time was their commitment to designing the house the client wanted.”

Jean Wallbridge & Mary Imrie: A Timeline 

With thanks to Erna Dominey and others who have more thoroughly researched this duo’s life and work; thanks also to Jan Hoekstra, whose generous gift of a fabric image continues to be an inspiration

1912   Jean Louise Emberley Wallbridge is born in Edmonton on October 25 to James  Emberley Wallbridge (b. May 25, 1875) and Mabel Louise Campbell (b. January 28, 1878). She joins older brother James Douglas (b. Nov 7, 1909). Originally from Belleville, Ontario, her parents have been in Edmonton about a decade. Her father, a graduate of Osgoode Hall, starts a law firm that still exists as McLennan Ross. He becomes an eminent lawyer and, by 1919, has the means to purchase a home at 12606 104 Avenue in toney Groat Estates. Jean attends the nearby Llanarthney School for Girls as well as private schools in England, Switzerland and Victoria, and graduates from Victoria high school.

1918   Mary Louise Imrie is born in Toronto and around age 3 (in 1921) moves with her family to Edmonton, where her father John Mills Imrie (b. October 21, 1883) takes the reins of the Edmonton Journal. Her mother Lizzie (Beth) Ann Hamner (b. August 20, 1884), is an avid church member, community volunteer and horsewoman. Despite growing up in a fine house on Connaught Drive as part of privileged society (and an only child), Mary reportedly remains grounded, down-to-earth and not at all prone to snobbery.

1932   Jean Wallbridge is presented at third-level court on June 23 to King George V and Queen Mary, an indication of her family’s status at the time.

1934   With her father’s encouragement, Mary Imrie, now age 16, designs the family’s cottage at Kapaswin Lake. It’s one of several lake cottages the Imries build and maintain over the years, fostering in Mary love for architecture—and for the Alberta landscape.

1936   Mary Imrie graduates from high school, takes a secretarial course, works for a year.

1938   Mary’s father, John Mills Imrie, receives the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded outside the United States for challenging the Alberta Press Act, which would have forced Alberta newspapers to print corrective or amplifying statements on Social Credit policies at government direction.

1938   Mary Imrie enrolls in the Bachelor of Applied Science in Architecture at the University of Alberta and studies there until Cecil Burgess resigns as head of architecture and the department closes.

1939   Jean Wallbridge receives a Bachelor of Applied Sciences in Architecture (BSc Arch) from the University of Alberta, becoming the third woman in Alberta (and sixth in Canada) to graduate in architecture. She wins a fourth-place Class A medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, behind George Wilmington Lord, Peter Rule (with whom she’ll later work) and Margaret Findlay (who also becomes a registered architect).

1940   Mary Imrie applies to the University of Toronto and is accepted into second year architecture.

1940   Jean Wallbridge supplements her architectural degree with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alberta.

1941   On February 6, Jean Wallbridge registers with the Alberta Association of Architects, the third woman to do so. She is registrant #137. She finds work with Rule, Wynn and Rule, a firm established by classmate Peter Rule.

1941 – 1942   During the summers of 1941 and 1942, Mary Imrie returns to Edmonton to work at Rule, Wynn and Rule, which will become one of the most successful firms in city. That’s where she first works with Jean Wallbridge. With all three partners away doing wartime service, John Rule Sr has stepped in to keep the office going. The fact that the war is pulling young talent away likely opens opportunities for women.

1942   James E. Wallbridge, Jean’s father, dies on February 28 at age 66, and the family abode is divided into a multi-family dwelling, with Jean’s mother living in one of the apartments.

1942   John M. Imrie, Mary’s father, dies on June 18 at age 58, a year after leaving the Edmonton Journal due to ill health. Among those paying tribute at his death, Canadian Press President Arthur R. Ford speculates that the publisher, who had thrown himself into war efforts, had “broken down under the burden of work he assumed,” adding, “He could be truly said to be a casualty of war.” John Imrie’s wife continues living another four decades.

c. 1945   Jean Wallbridge moves to Saint John, New Brunswick to work  for the Town Planning Commission during the Second World War.

1944   Mary Imrie graduates from the University of Toronto, the ninth woman to earn its degree in architecture. She applies to several Toronto firms and is turned down by at least one (Allward and Gouinlock) because she’s a woman, but Harold Smith employs her for three months on hospital projects. She then moves to Vancouver to work with Charles B.K. Van Norman, one of the first Canadian visionaries to design modernist buildings.

“Mary Louise was always challenging you to think; you should question things all the time. Good cigars and good scotch—that helps. But not too much, because that fuzzies the thinking. She was salt of the earth in my eyes.”
Mark Slater, Mary Imrie’s second cousin

1944   Returning to Edmonton, Mary Imrie’s experience gains her immediate accreditation. She registers as #143 with the Alberta Association of Architects on December 7, the fifth woman to do so.

1945   Mary Imrie works again with Rule, Wynn and Rule in Edmonton, drafting plans for schools, offices and industrial buildings.

1946 – 1949   Jean Wallbridge and Mary Imrie join Doris Newland Tanner, drafting schools and other public buildings under Max Dewar, city architect and inspector of buildings.

1947   Jean Wallbridge and Mary Imrie apply for a World Study Tours grant and take a three-month unpaid leave to join a Columbia University study tour of post-war reconstruction and town planning. City commissioner D.B. Menzies approves the tour at Dewar’s recommendation while grousing that the department must be overstaffed to release two people at height of building season. The tour is led by Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, who will become influential in Toronto’s architectural scene. The only Canadians on the tour, the duo take photographs and keep diaries that are now in the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Mary Imrie submits articles to the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) Journal; the first, “Planning in Europe,” October 1948, describes such stops as Stevenage (the first modernist “new town” attempt to decentralize London), Cardiff, Paris and Zurich. Other international travels follow, often by land since at least one of them loathes flying.

“Much speculation was given to their free lifestyle. The two unmarried women, living and working together, made an unusual impression in a male dominated profession. Rationalizing their personal decisions for the social structure of the era, Imrie was quoted in 1984 as saying ‘it was hard work with long hours… and the practice could not have supported two families.’” 
“Breaking In: Four Early Female Architects,” Canadian Architect, 1993

c. 1948   Jean Wallbridge, then a member of the AAA examining board, teaches “History of Architecture” to young draughtsmen in a corner of the Carnegie Memorial Library on Memorial Drive. A young Bryan Campbell-Hope is among the handful who pull up chairs to take notes.

1949   Max Dewar recommends a salary increase for Jean and Mary, to $3,000 a year. His January 31 letter says, in part, “[A]lthough these two persons are ladies I see no reason why they should be treated differently than male employees.” He suggests that Wallbridge be given the title Technical Assistant in Town Planning and Imrie be known as Junior Architect, noting: “Both these girls, being registered architects, are much more valuable to this department than would be a draughtsman who would accept a salary of this amount. I can assure you that it would be next to impossible to replace them with experienced draughtsmen in this salary bracket.” Later that year, Dewar resigns to join the well-known Calgary firm Stevenson, Cawston and Stevenson, opening an Edmonton office under the moniker Dewar, Cawston, and Stevenson.”

1949 – 1960   Mary Imrie serves on the editorial board of the RAIC Journal, perhaps one reason why the duo’s work and ideas receive more attention than the norm for women architects at the time. Even so, the coverage tends to ignore larger projects, concentrating on the domestic.

“Even today, if you look around, how many of our top architects are women?
It’s still a pretty closed shop.”
Mark Slater, Mary Imrie’s second cousin

c. 1949   Percy Butler and his wife Margaret commission Wallbridge and Imrie (of whom he says, “they were opposites, in a way”) to design their home at 13803 Valleyview Drive. The duo took the job with the caveat that they wouldn’t be around to supervise the construction, as they were heading off to South America. Contacted decades later, Butler says the home “still would be an exciting house today.” Curved in front to fit the lot line, it incorporates post and beam construction, “so the walls could all be taken away and the house would still stand,” and incorporates radiant heating in the lower floor. Butler works as an engineer from an office on the 11th floor of the Financial Building at the time, but meets Mary Imrie in the ground floor restaurant because she dislikes elevators—and doesn’t relish the thought of walking up 11 flights of stairs. Despite such idiosyncrasies, he never regretted hiring Imrie and Wallbridge. “The Girls, they had your interests at heart. Time didn’t mean anything to them,” he says. “They not only had the personal touch, but got to know the client and tried to design something that would be suitable. Their style of architecture was warm—fitting, really.”

1949 – 1950   In September, both architects resign from city employ and embark on a year-long motor trip to South America: down the west coast to Chile, across the Andes to Bariloche, up the east coast to Buenos Aires and by ship to Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. Articles on their travels appear in the RAIC Journal in February 1952 as “South American Architects.”

Returning from their travels, Jean and Mary find the city’s Department of Buildings and Inspections reorganized, with Robert F. Duke (formerly Max Dewar’s assistant) as city architect and Noel Dant as town planner. And no job for them.

c. 1950   The pair launches Wallbridge & Imrie Architects, a partnership that lasts until Jean’s death 29 years later. Widely known as “The Girls,” they locate in the downtown Merrick Block as “studio architects.” Taking advantage of complementary skills, they roughly divide the work, with the personable Wallbridge liaising more with clients on interior design and Imrie with her sergeant major’s voice tackling exteriors, construction documents and administration. In all, they complete 224 projects; by far the most have a domestic component, as is true for many early women architects. The list includes 67 private residences, 50 apartments, three senior citizen complexes, three small town telephone exchanges, 23 commercial projects. They also design tract housing for construction and lumber companies, including Alldritt Construction, Maclab Construction and Imperial Lumber. The work is concentrated in Edmonton, but includes projects in smaller centres, such as a broadcast station in Lloydminster, motel/restaurants in Jasper and a hotel in Lac La Biche. They become known for their commitment to designing what the client seeks—and for combining business with pleasure. Far from watching the clock, they organize impromptu parties and work bees.  Their work has been described as late modern: low, clean in profile, lacking pretention and making extremely efficient use of space.

“Their planning was so precise. There wasn’t a square foot
there you could say was wasted.” 
Gordon Forbes, fellow architect

1951 – 1953   Mary Imrie snags the firm’s first project, Queen Mary Apartments, by asking former colleagues at city hall to identify submissions lacking the required architectural stamp. A three-building complex, 10 suites per building, Queen Mary had been submitted by a Regina consortium of two dentists, a contractor and a plasterer. Located north of downtown on what were Hudson Bay Reserve lands, the complex still has an inviting feel, with a well-landscaped courtyard and spacious, nicely laid out interiors. Success with that project, perhaps coupled with their families’ connections and their own past work, attracts other apartments, houses and commercial buildings. A few are noted below.

1951   The partners designs St. James Roman Catholic Church, 7705 85 Street, Edmonton. (It seems it didn’t matter that Mary Imrie was an avowed atheist.)

1953   J. Russell home at 14011 101 Avenue, one of many house commissions, is featured in a February RAIC Journal devoted to contemporary Alberta architecture, alongside work by Stanley and Stanley, Dewar, Stevenson and Stanley Architects and others. The home is described as an open plan design of post and beam construction in modules of 3’6” that pays “special attention to climate, with an innovative heating plenum and edge slab insulation as well as sun-shading louvers.”

“The Girls, they had your interests at heart. Their style of architecture was warm—fitting, really. The home they built for us is still an exciting house today.”
Percy Butler, retired engineer

1955   Mentor and former boss Max Dewar dies in April of heart issues, at age 55.

1956   The December RAIC Journal features a Wallbridge-Imrie apartment complex overlooking the North Saskatchewan River with 16 compact (700-square-foot) units in two T-shaped blocks. Its exterior is described as “green and blue infill wood panels contrasted with grey stucco walls,” creating “a fanciful elevation to the river.”

“Mary Louise was always looking to help people who couldn’t help themselves. That’s why she and her partner focused on school and hospitals. I think they all felt a great sense of accomplishment while doing it, and on top of it, at the end, what a legacy she left.”
Mark Slater, Mary Imrie’s second cousin

1954 – 1957   Six Acres, Jean and Mary’s home and office, takes shape through significant sweat equity, on a treed six-acre lot. A deceptively simple design with an exterior of rough common site stone and cedar cladding, it’s well-situated on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River, with a wall of windows overlooking the river far below. Employing post and beam construction on a 4.9-foot grid, the compact open-concept design features an open-beam ceiling, built-in furniture/storage and a horizontal window between the kitchen counter and cupboard above—traits found in many of their houses. With living spaces on the upper level and large-windowed offices in a walk-out basement, it’s a home that predates the “electronic cottage” of today. The office windows put workers at eye level to the ground, connected with the greenery outside. Move-in occurs May 1957; by then, the pair professes to having become “half-decent carpenters.” Deeded to the province on Mary Imrie’s death and renamed “Imrie House,” it becomes home to the Land Stewardship Centre of Canada, which “brings together diverse stakeholders to work on common priorities for achieving sustainability on the landscape.”

1957   Wallbridge & Imrie Architects wins the Prairie Regional award from the Canadian Housing Design Council for a house design.

“Mary Louise would come to a town and, if they didn’t have a place where they could camp, she would buy up a piece of land and set up camp. Ultimately she owned pieces of property all over Alberta.
When she passed away, one of the provisions of her will was that all of these campgrounds belong to the province, so other people could use them.”
Mark Slater, Mary Imrie’s second cousin

1957 – 1958   Jean and Mary take a six-month trip around the world, penning four RAIC Journal articles on their findings in India, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and various Pacific Rim countries.

1969   Mabel Louise Wallbridge, Jean’s mother, dies on April 20.

1971   Cecil Burgess dies at age 101. According to fellow architect Bryan Campbell-Hope, Mary and Jean “kept their eyes on and looked after Professor Cecil Burgess until his death.”

1976   The firm’s senior residences include Buckingham House at Elk Point and Kiwanis Manor in Wetaskiwin. Other projects of unknown years noted in an overview of modern structures include Greenfield Elementary School, 3735 114 Street and the Ward residence on Marlboro Road.

1979   Row houses designed by Wallbridge & Imrie for Western Heritable Investment Co. (Canada) Ltd. are included in a review of the social, historical and architectural implications of row housing by Alberta Rose, Sara Bowser, Peter Stokes and Henry Fleiss (“Row Housing,” Canadian Architect, Vol. 2 No. 2, February 1957, pp. 20-32).

“Their use of space was extremely sensible and usable. They really cared about usage and were really good at what they did.”
Erna Dominey, who researched Wallbridge and Imrie for a graduate degree 

1979   Jean Wallbridge dies of cancer on September 30, at age 67. She has been described as caring, intensely creative and devoted to architecture and to their partnership.

1979   On October 2, two days after Jean Wallbridge’s death, Mary Imrie resigns from the Alberta Association of Architects. After finishing her final project, she retires.

“They were one person: Mary&Jean. It’s true. I didn’t know which was which for a long time.” 
Laura Tanner, daughter of fellow architect Doris Tanner  

1980   Mary Imrie designs and builds a solar cottage on Lac Ste. Marie, Alberta, although it never operates as envisioned.

1980   Mary Imrie takes a last trip up the Amazon River and around South America.

1983   Mary Imrie’s mother Lizzie (Beth) Imrie dies at age 99.

1988   Mary Imrie dies on April 11. She bequeaths a million in land amassed over the years, including Six Acres (now Imrie House) and riverside property near Devon, to the Province of Alberta (specifically to the Park Ventures Fund administered by the Recreation, Parks and Wildlife Foundation) for public use. Her will instructs that there be no funeral, but that her ashes be scattered in the North Saskatchewan River, just upstream from Six Acres. A 1993 article in Canadian Architect says, “It is a bittersweet epitaph that she may be better remembered for this contribution to Alberta’s natural heritage than for her contribution to Canadian architecture.”

“The ingenuity, energy and exuberance of Mary Louise Imrie and her partner, Jean Wallbridge, coupled with the soundness of their architectural projects, attracted a large circle of business and professional people who soon became friends and admirers. Wallbridge-Imrie projects, characterized by ‘open-space’ floor plans and extensive use of windows to incorporate natural light and the surrounding scenery into their designs, was unique to the Edmonton architectural scene of the fifties and sixties, as was their flare for organizing volunteer work parties to reduce construction costs.”
Tribute, Province of Alberta

“It is a bittersweet epitaph that she may be better remembered for this contribution to Alberta’s natural heritage than for her contribution to Canadian architecture.”
The Canadian Architect, November 1993

Sources

  • Dominey, Erna. “Wallbridge and Imrie: The Architectural Practice of Two Edmonton Women,” Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada Bulletin, Vol. 17, no. 1, March 1992, pp. 12-18. (Also personal interview and emails.)
  • The “Old Farts” – retired architects and engineers, in conversation and correspondence, including Bob Bouey, Jock Bell, Percy Butler, Bryan Campbell-Hope, Joe Donahue, Gordon Forbes, Stan Hodgson, Mickey Holland, Joe Naito, Bernie Wood, Morley Workun.
  • Mark Slater, Mary Imrie’s second cousin, who terms her “a very generous and kind person.”
  • Extensive fonds held by both the Provincial Archives of Alberta, including a letter from Mary Imrie to Eric Arthur, June 3, 1954.
  • Adams, Annmarie. “Building barriers: images of women in Canada’s architectural press, 1924-73, (Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada),” Resources for Feminist Research, Vol. 23, Iss. 3, fall 1994, p. 11.
  • Fedori, Marianne, Ken Tingley, David Murray. “The Practice of Post-War Architecture in Edmonton, Alberta: An Overview of the Modern Movement, 1936-1960,” Alberta Historical Resources Foundation, 2001.
  • Fonds held by the City of Edmonton Archives, including Max Dewar letter to Commissioner D.B. Menzies, 8 February 1949.
  • Canadian Architectural Archives, correspondence and leads.
  • Clark, Mary. “Registration of Women Architects in Canada: The Results of a Survey,” and “Women Graduates in Architecture from Canadian Universities: A Preliminary Overview,” unpublished, 1988 (available at University of Toronto archives). Based on surveys conducted by Mary Clark prior to “For the Record” in 1986.
  • “For the Record: Ontario Women Graduates in Architecture, 1920-1960,”an exhibit at the University of Toronto, 1986. Includes segment on Mary Imrie.
  • Monica Contreras, Luigi Ferrara & Daniel Karpinski. “Breaking In: Four Early Female Architects,” Canadian Architect, November 1993, pp. 18-23.
  • “Wallbridge and Imrie Architects,” The Canadian Architect (November 1993), pp. 22-24.
  • Canadian Architect vol. 2, no. 2 (February 1957), pp. 31-32.
  • “The Wallbridge Residence,” Real Estate Weekly, December 25, 2008, accessed May 2016 from yegishome.ca.
  • Article on architecture graduates, Edmonton Journal, March 31, 1939.
  • RAIC Journal references to Wallbridge and Imrie work:
  • Wallbridge student entry to RAIC competition, vol. 16, no. 4, April 1939, p. 86.
  • “Provincial Page,” vol. 18, no. 3, March 1941, p. 52.
  • “Planning in Europe,” vol. 25, no. 10, October 1948, pp. 388-90.
  • “South American Architects,” vol. 29, no. 2, February 1952, pp. 29-31.
  • “Les Girls en Voyage,” vol. 35, no. 2, February 1958, pp. 44-46.
  • “Hong Kong to Chandigarh,” vol. 35, no. 5, May 1958, pp. 160-163.
  • “Khyber Pass to Canada,” vol. 35, no. 7, July 1958, pp. 278-79.
  • “House of Mr. J.A. Russell, Edmonton, Alberta,” vol. 30, no. 2, February 1953, pp. 42-43.
  • Report on the firm’s move, vol. 35, no. 5, May 1958, p. 196.
  • “Architects’ own houses,” vol. 36, no. 2, February 1959, p. 41.

 

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