To many, Elizabeth "Lisl" Close seemed a force of nature. Petite, razor-sharp and with a no-nonsense attitude, she was the first woman architect in the Twin Cities dedicated to a modernist approach. Wearing a hardhat and sturdy shoes on frequent visits to her construction sites, Lisl was formidable.
On November 29, 2011, architect Elizabeth Scheu Close died at age 99. On June 4, 2012, her 100th birthday, a memorial gathering took place to celebrate her life, creativity and achievements. They were many.With her husband and partner of nearly 60 years, Winston Close (d. 1997), she designed over 300 custom residential structures in the Twin Cities. Spacious and functional, these flat roofed homes were made of wood, cinderblock, and brick with an abundance of glass. They were also affordable. In a Saint Paul neighborhood for U of MN faculty called The Grove, they designed 14 homes, including their own.
In addition to residential architecture, Lisl and Win designed public and private housing projects, medical facilities, and the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute on Lake Minnetonka, in Navarre Minnesota. They were both elected Fellows of the AIA in 1969.Called “Lisl” by all who knew her, the designer was born into a prominent Vienna family active in the Austrian Social Democratic party. Her father, Gustav, served on Vienna’s city council and was active in the city’s post-WWI housing reform movement. Her mother was the writer Helene Scheu-Riesz.
In 1912 Gustav commissioned Adolf Loos to design the family home, the now celebrated Scheu Haus, which still stands. Loos’ first terraced residential structure, the Scheu Haus was a destination point for left-leaning intellectuals who arrived from Europe and the United States.Lisl first studied architecture for two years at Vienna’s Technische Hochschule, but found the instructors to be sexist and unpleasant. She then applied and was accepted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Gustav’s friend, Edward Filene of Filene’s department store, paid her passage to Boston where she received her B. Arch in 1934 and her M. Arch the following year. Lisl was the only woman in her MIT graduate program.
At MIT, she met fellow architect student Win Close, a native of Appleton, Minnesota, who, upon graduating, was hired by the Minneapolis firm Magney and Tusler. Lisl found that architecture firms were not eager to hire women, citing she would be a distraction. Richard Neutra agreed to hire her, but only if she paid him $20 a month for the opportunity. In 1935, Oskar Stonorov hired her to design public housing in Philadelphia. In 1936 Win called her, announcing an opening for a designer at Magney and Tusler. She applied, was accepted and moved to Minneapolis.In 1938, Win and Lisl began their own firm, Close & Scheu, now Close Associates. In April that year, they were married over their lunch hour, returning to their office to work. From 1943 to 1946, the Close practice temporarily halted while Win served in the U.S. Navy. Upon his return, Win became a professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota and campus advisory architect from 1950 to 1971, leaving Lisl with the majority of the design responsibilities for Close Associates. Lisl also taught interior design at the Minneapolis School of Art, now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Along the way, Lisl and Win had three children, in whom they instilled a sense of purpose and creativity. Ann became a professor of German at Carleton College, Roy a writer/critic of theater and dance, and Bob, founder of Close Landscape Architecture who is now with AECOM Technology Corp. after running his own firm for 35 years. Lisl and Win were also amateur musicians, she played the cello and he the viola.