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Distinguished by Design

Elizabeth Scheu Close: Minnesota’s First Modern Architect

Portrait of Jane King Hession

“As an architectural historian, I had long been aware of Lisl Close and her work,” says University of Minnesota alumna Jane King Hession. In 2000, Hession had the opportunity to meet and interview Elizabeth “Lisl” Scheu Close (1912−2011) in the University Grove home that was designed by the architect and her husband, Winston “Win” Close. 

In the course of conducting an oral history for the Minnesota Historical Society, Hession says, “it soon became clear to me that Scheu had a unique and fascinating story to tell: from her extraordinary upbringing in a seminal modern house in Vienna, Austria, to her role as a pioneering modern architect in Minnesota. I realized that unlike some other leading architects in the state, whose work had been well celebrated, Lisl’s accomplishments were relatively unknown. I wanted to change that by documenting her life and work in a book.”

“Of particular interest to me was how she managed to secure an education and forge a successful career at a time when women in architecture were exceedingly rare. The odds were not in her favor.”

After earning two degrees in architecture from MIT, Scheu moved to Minnesota in 1936. Two years later she founded Scheu and Close, the only architectural firm in the state dedicated solely to modern design. Although “she never advertised her services and rarely sought awards for her work,” Scheu and Close quickly became the go-to firm for clients interested in building a modern house.

“Lisl was an exceedingly practical architect whose primary goal was to design efficiently planned, well-crafted buildings that would serve her clients long and well,” says Hession. Her Faulkner House (1938), however, the first house in Minneapolis inspired by the International Style, raised questions as to whether bold, striking modern design had any place in residential districts. Despite the aesthetic concern of critics, the Faulkner House elevated Close in public awareness and enticed a wave of new clients, “particularly faculty members from the University of Minnesota, who wanted to build modern houses of their own.” Over the course of her career, Scheu would go on to design more than 250 residences.

Lin Nelson-Mayson, director of the Goldstein Museum of Design, says Hession’s exhibition, Elizabeth Scheu Close: A Life in Modern Architecture, is “the third exhibition that Jane King Hession has organized for GMD. A thoughtful researcher, Jane brings a deep knowledge of architectural history to each of her exhibitions. For this exhibition, Jane's enthusiasm for Lisl Close is evident in the story she tells about this important architect.”

Published: February 24, 2020