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Elizabeth Close: Minnesota’s midcentury pioneer

The word decoration “was almost a swear word” to her

The Faulkner House or Lippincott House, built in 1938
Tom Trow

Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close came into the architecture world at a time when female practitioners were a rarity. After graduating from MIT in 1935, she struggled to find work. When one firm told her that she would be “a distraction at the drawing table,” Richard Neutra said he’d hire her, but she would have to pay him $20 a month for the privilege.

Instead, she established a firm in Minnesota with her soon-to-be husband, Winston Close, and found slightly more acceptance, yet was still regarded as an oddity. When the two wed, the local newspaper ran a story with the headline “Architect Marries Architect,” then a situation that the public found so unexpected and odd that they may as well have been two extraterrestrials.

But if closed-mindedness and sexism bothered Close, it didn’t seem to impact her work or convictions about modern design. An unabashed advocate of the International Style and stripped-down design, “the word ‘decoration’ was almost a swear word to her,” according to Gar Hargens, an architect who would later acquire the Closes’ practice.

The architect spent decades as lead designer and head of a wildly successful practice that built hundreds of residences and commercial practices around Minneapolis. She focused on the essence, the purity of a space—like adornments or frivolous ornamentation, other people’s hang-ups were simply uninteresting and unimportant. She was an architect who just happened to be female.

Win and Lisl
Courtesy of Close Associates Inc., Architects

Biography

Raised in Vienna, Close was literally born into modernism. Her father, a famous lawyer and advocate for the Austrian city’s public-housing program, and her mother, an artist and publisher, lived in the Scheu House, a staircase-shaped Alfred Loos home that gave the aspiring architect an early encounter with contemporary design and culture. The Scheu family cultivated a progressive, cultured environment. The house’s guest book, later donated to a library, contained signatures from architect Richard Neutra, the poet Ezra Pound, and author John Gunther.

In 1932, sensing the dark tides of local politics and the rise of the Nazi party, Close left for the United States with the aid of family friend and shopping magnate Edward Filene, who helped secure the family passage to the U.S. Soon after arriving in New York City, she enrolled at MIT to study architecture. There, she met Winston “Win” Close, followed him to his hometown of Minneapolis, and formed a lasting career. By 1938, they had started Close and Scheu Architects, and began in earnest on flat-roofed, minimalist design that would become their stock and trade. Due to the “scandal” that would ensue if they lived and worked together without being married, the couple simply wed during a lunch break one afternoon, then promptly got back to work.

The 1938 Faulkner House, or Lippincott House, was their first, commissioned by a trio of professors from the University of Minnesota. It was a fitting introduction for the firm, which would find lots of work with university faculty over the years. The result was a flat-roofed design eschewing ornamentation, a showcase of their early influences.

For the next few decades, however, Lisl tended to the practice mostly on her own. The Page & Hill company sought her out to design prefab buildings for them—it was the subject of her graduate thesis—and she composed nearly a dozen different designs. When Win was called away during World War II, and then later served as the head architect for the University of Minnesota from 1950 to 1971, Lisl ran the show. During that time, she designing roughly 300 homes and commercial projects, stylish private homes in University Grove, a neighborhood adjacent to main campus of the University of Minnesota home to faculty, as well as the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute, a funky research center in Navarre.

The Close family home, in The Grove, Saint Paul
Tom Trow

Buildings to know

Though the couple designed many homes in the Grove, including their own, the standout is their first design, the Lippincott House. A prewar example of International Style design, the boxy white building, with its flat roof, unadorned walls, and ribbons of windows, introduced a new kind of minimalism to the city.

Another important residential work was the 1956 Duff Residence, a redwood-and-stone residence built for a progressive couple in the western suburb of Wayzata. The singular roofline and triangulated eaves showcased an eye-catching geometric layout.

Legacy and reputation today

By the time the Closes decided to retire and sell their firm to partner Gar Hargens in 1988, they had become a fixture in Minneapolis. They had both been elected AIA Fellows, the first husband-and-wife team so honored, in 1969, and in 2002, Lisl was given an AIA Minnesota Gold Medal, the state’s highest architecture honor. Lisl was a role model for many, and left a legacy of progressive design all across the Twin Cities. “It’s a wonderful profession for women,” she later said, a statement supported by decades of impressive work.

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