Remembering Elizabeth 'Lisl' Close

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.

Modern house designed by Close Associates

252 Bedford Street SE, Minneapolis, was the first house Lisl and Win designed. Built in 1938—the same year the Closes started their practice and the year they were married—for Ray Faulkner, E. Ziegfeld and G. Hill for $7,643, the Faulkner house is also known as the Lippincott house. Just across the street is a famous neighbor: the 1934 Willey House by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Tom Trow.

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.

elizabeth close portrait

Architect Elizabeth Close. Photo via bwaf.org.

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.

Living room of a modern house designed by Close Associates

Facing the Mississippi River, the 2,275-square-foot 1940 River Terrace house was built for Willem J. Luyten in 1939 for $9,750. It's currently undergoing a renovation. Photo by Tom Trow.

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.

Archival photo of a Close Associates house

This house—shown here in an early 1960s photograph—located at 1586 Burton Street, The Grove, Saint Paul, was designed by Lisl and Win in 1959 for John Wolf.

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.

Dining room of house designed by Close Associates

The sod-roofed Skywater Cabin featured plywood and rope furniture designed and made by Win Close. Located on the Wisconsin bluffs overlooking the St. Croix River Valley, Skywater was designed in 1941 for Joseph and Dagmar Beach. Photo by Tom Trow.

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.

close associates house

Designed and built in 1953 as their family home, Win and Lisl raised 3 children in this residence. Lisl lived in the wood, glass, and cinder block structure until 2005. 1588 Fulham, The Grove, Saint Paul, is now owned by her son, Bob Close, a landscape architect by trade, and his wife Cindy, who have carefully restored and renovated it. Photo by Tom Trow.

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.

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