A modern woman who made modern buildings

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2011 - 5:05 PM

With no-nonsense talent, pioneering Minneapolis architect Lisl Close forged her way in a male-dominated field.

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Minneapolis architect Lisl Close

A pioneer in a male-dominated field, architect Elizabeth "Lisl" Close was perhaps the first Minnesota women licensed in the profession. Throughout a 50-year collaboration with her husband, Winston Close, she designed distinctively modern public buildings and intimate private homes while managing the family's architecture firm and raising three children.

"She was a role model for me not only because she was a successful woman architect but because she fully embraced modernism and never wavered from that conviction," said Joan Soranno, vice president of HGA Architects of Minneapolis. "She showed the rest of us how it could be done with talent, grace and wisdom."

Close, 99, died Tuesday of pneumonia.

She ran the family architecture firm -- now Close Associates Inc. -- while her husband served in World War II and from 1950 to 1971 when he oversaw campus planning and building at the University of Minnesota.

She was the principal designer on a wide range of projects, including 14 houses in the University Grove neighborhood of St. Anthony Park, the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute in Navarre, the Peavey Technical Center in Chaska and Ferguson Hall, the music building on the University of Minnesota's West Bank campus.

"By her example she inspired many women in architecture, myself included, but she didn't want to be known as a woman architect -- just as an architect who happened to be a woman," said architectural historian Jane King Hession, who is working on a book about Close.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1912, Lisl Scheu grew up in a celebrated (and still standing) house designed by the influential architect Adolf Loos. Jewish on her mother's side and "socialist on both sides," as her son Roy put it, she left Austria before the Nazi purge and moved to Boston to finish college. There she earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in architecture at MIT and met her future husband, also a graduate student.

The architecture field did not welcome women then, as she discovered after graduating in 1935. The first firm to which she applied rejected her because she would be "a distraction in the drafting room," Hession said. The second told her she could work -- if she paid $20 per month for the privilege. But she was hired by the third and went to work in Philadelphia.

"She didn't get particularly angry about this" discrimination, Hession said. "She just kept moving and did what she wanted and needed to do."

In 1936, she moved to Minneapolis and joined the firm where Close was employed. Two years later they launched Close and Scheu Architects and started designing the flat-roofed, streamlined homes for which they became known throughout the Midwest.

When they married in 1938 their professional status was so unusual that a Minneapolis newspaper headlined their nuptials: "Architect Weds Architect."

Strong-willed and independent, Scheu might not have married at all if convention hadn't dictated. "The idea of an unmarried heterosexual couple sharing an apartment was anathema in 1938 so at lunch one day they strolled down to the courthouse and got married and then went back to work," said Roy Close.

She didn't change her name to Close until she was pregnant in 1940, he added. "She would seem very conventional doing this now, but she was very radical for her time."

In 1988, the Closes sold their namesake firm to their partner, Gar Hargens, but continued to work there for several years.

"For both of them, architecture was a passion," Hargens said. "She did not suffer fools, was very stern and would strip designs down to the essentials. The word 'decoration' was almost a swear word to her.

"Few people know what a good business person Lisl was," he added. "She worried about the cash flow, did the hiring and firing, and was the face of the firm."

Winston Close died in 1997. They are survived by their three children -- Ann Ulmer of Cannon Falls, Roy of Minneapolis and Robert Close of Falcon Heights -- six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

The family is planning a memorial service for June 4, her 100th birthday. Memorials are suggested to Music in the Park (St. Paul); the Minnesota Opera, where Lisl was a long-time board member, and the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis, of which she was a founding member and accomplished cellist.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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