By Jane King Hession
Long before she became an architect, a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the first (and only) woman to receive AIA Minnesota’s Gold Medal, Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close was deeply immersed in architecture. In 1912, the year of her birth, her parents commissioned architect Adolf Loos to design a residence in Vienna, Austria. Not only is the radically modern Scheu House significant in the annals of architectural history, it played a major role in determining Lisl’s future profession and shaping her architectural aesthetic.
Photo (left): The Hendrik and Marri Oskam House, 1963, Edina, Minnesota. Photo credit:© William B. Olexy, Modern House Productions
Informally known as the “Giant’s Staircase” for its stepped conformation, the unadorned Scheu House stood in stunning contrast to the old world villas that predominated in Vienna’s elegant Hietzing neighborhood, which flanks the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace, a former Habsburg summer retreat. Lisl’s parents, Gustav Scheu, a lawyer and social democratic city councilman, and Helene Scheu-Riesz, a writer and translator of children’s books who was active in international peace and women’s movements, were as unorthodox and forward thinking as the residence they commissioned. Their house became a salon for friends and colleagues from Vienna’s political and artistic circles, as well as a magnet for a wide range of international visitors. Lisl remembered the house as being full of lively conversation, music, and ideas.
Photo (right): Garden view of the Scheu House by Adolf Loos, 1912, Vienna, Austria. Photo credit: © William B. Olexy, Modern House Productions
She began her architectural education at the Technische Hochschule in Vienna. As political tensions heightened and the Nazis rose to power, Lisl chose to leave Austria in 1932. With assistance from American department store magnate Edward Filene, a family friend and frequent visitor to the Scheu House, she traveled to the United States and enrolled at MIT where she earned her B.Arch in 1934 and her M.Arch in 1935. She was the only woman in her graduate school class. In graduate school, she met Minnesota native Winston “Win” A. Close, who would become her architectural partner and husband.
The mid-1930s was not a propitious time to be seeking employment as an architect--particularly for women. Nonetheless, Lisl further narrowed her options by limiting her search to firms that shared her commitment to modern design. She also hoped to work on public housing, a legacy from her father who, as advisor for settlement and housing for Vienna, strove to alleviate the critical shortage of shelter that plagued the city following World War I.
She applied to three firms: Willam Lescaze would not employ her because he believed she would be a distraction in the drafting room; Richard Neutra offered to hire her if she would pay him $20 a month for the privilege; Oskar Stonorov hired her. For Stonorov she worked on Westfield Acres, a PWA public housing project in Camden, New Jersey.
Photo (above):Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close, c. 1940. Photo credit: Courtesy of Roy Close
Her tenure with Stonorov was brief as Winston Close advised her of an opportunity to join the firm of Magney and Tusler in Minneapolis and work on Sumner Field, a WPA project. In 1938 Lisl and Win opened the firm Scheu and Close (later Close Associates) in Minneapolis and two months later, they married.
The firm’s “Opus One” was the 1938 Faulkner House, the first residence built in Minnesota that was inspired by the International Style. Commissioned by three bachelor University of Minnesota professors, the house featured flat roofs and strip windows, and rejected ornamentation. In two further departures from convention, the Closes employed Homesote, a material not typically used in residential construction, for some interior finishes. To add a touch of color, they paved the driveway with blue-tinted concrete.
Photo (left):The Faulkner House, 1938, Minneapolis, was the first house designed by the firm of Scheu and Close. Photo credit: Courtesy of Jane King Hession
In its own way, the Faulkner House was as startling a presence in its quiet Minneapolis neighborhood as the Scheu house had been in Hietzing. One local publication reported (perhaps apocryphally) that the shock of seeing the modern house induced a heart attack in an unsuspecting passerby. At the very least, the Faulkner House initiated a discussion about modern architecture in the state.
Although the Closes partnered in the firm for fifty years, Winston also served as university architect for the University of Minnesota during much of that time. As such, Lisl assumed the lion’s share of the firm’s daily operations and took the lead on design work and client relations. The firm specialized in residential work, but also designed numerous hospitals, clinics, laboratories, and educational buildings. Notable among these is the 1974 Freshwater Biological Institute in Excelsior, Minnesota; a building designed to facilitate scientific research relating to issues of freshwater in lakes, rivers, and marshes.
During World War II, Lisl Close was recruited by the Minnesota-based Page & Hill Company to design prefab housing. The company approached her when it learned that the manufacture and distribution of prefab houses was the subject of her undergraduate thesis at MIT. For Page & Hill she designed at least twenty-five house models each engineered to be packed and shipped in a single truckload. Hundreds of the houses were built across the upper Midwest and Northwest.
Photo (right): The Freshwater Biological Institute, 1974, Excelsior, Minnesota. Photo credit:© William B. Olexy, Modern House Productions
During the Cold War, one of her prefab designs for Page & Hill became a propagandistic tool for the United States government when the State Department selected a “Jubilaire” model to represent “the typical American House,” at the 1950 German Industrial Exposition in Berlin. The house, which was stocked with such household marvels as the mix master, vacuum cleaner, and television, was visited by over forty thousand people during the course of the fair. A State Department official later reported the house was “a gratifying demonstration of what can be accomplished in selling the American democratic way of life.”
Scores of Close houses stand in Minnesota including fourteen in Saint Paul’s University Grove, a University of Minnesota-owned enclave of 103 architect-designed houses. Among them is the Closes’ own home, designed in 1953. Although the firm never advertised its services, it enjoyed extensive patronage within university circles where the Closes’ design sensibilities resonated with potential clients, many of whom-- like Lisl and Win Close--were in the vanguard of modernism in their respective fields.
Photo (right): The Elizabeth and Winston Close House, 1953, University Grove, Saint Paul. Photo credit: © William B. Olexy, Modern House Productions