First woman in Canada to earn an architectural degree
Esther Marjorie Hill was the first woman in Canada to earn an architectural degree. Her graduation ceremony, at the University of Toronto on June 4, 1920, attracted a lot of attention in the press at the time. "First woman architect receives big ovation", trumpeted the headlines in the Globe and Mail (June 5, 1920, P. 8). There is a much-reproduced photograph of Hill in her graduation gown, her arms full of flowers, surrounded by a sea of grinning men. The slightly strained smile upon her face attests to the difficulties she encountered while studying towards her degree and to the knowledge that her achievement was not welcomed by a number of her male colleagues. Indeed, C.H.C. Wright, the Chairman of Architecture at the University of Toronto, absented himself from her convocation ceremony in protest.
Marjorie Hill was born in 1895 in Guelph, Ontario, to progressive parents. Her mother, Jenny Stork, one of the first 10 women admitted to the University of Toronto in 1884, was a teacher and a member of the National Council of Women. Her father, E. Lincoln Hill, was also a teacher and founded the Edmonton Public Library, where he served as its Chief Librarian from 1912-1936.
It was in Edmonton that Marjorie Hill was raised, and she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alberta in 1916. In the fall of 1916 she enrolled in an architectural program at the University of Alberta. She and Mary Anne Kentner, who entered the University of Toronto in the same year, were the first women admitted to architecture degree programs in Canada. Hill's program at the University of Alberta was cancelled in 1918 due to low student enrollment as a result of conscription during the First World War, and she transferred to the University of Toronto. Two years later, she became the first woman to graduate with a degree in architecture from a Canadian university.
The discrimination that Hill had encountered in university continued in her professional life. Despite her momentous graduation from the University of Toronto, the only job that she could find in that city was as an interior decorator in Eaton's department store. She returned to Edmonton in 1921 and, while looking for full-time work, applied for registration with the Alberta Association of Architects. Her request was denied on the basis of "inexperience", despite the fact that she met all the stated requirements and had worked in architectural firms while completing her degree in Toronto. In fact, after Hill submitted her application, the Association altered the Architect's Act so that only those who had completed one full post-graduate year of work in an architect's office could be registered. Ever persistent, in 1922 she found short-term employment with MacDonald and Magoon Architects in Edmonton, where she assisted on the designs for the new Edmonton Public Library, of which her father was Chief Librarian.
Hill returned to the University of Toronto in the fall of 1922 to pursue post-graduate studies in town planning and the following year took a summer course at Columbia University in New York. Over the next few years, Hill moved between New York and Edmonton as she sought architectural work. While in New York, she worked for architects Marcia Mead (1923-1924) and Kathryn C. Budd (1925-1928). In 1925, she reapplied for registration with the Alberta Association of Architects. This time, her application was accepted and Marjorie Hill became the first woman in Canada to receive the professional designation of Registered Architect.
By 1928, Hill had moved back to Edmonton and was employed once more with MacDonald and Magoon. When architectural work dried up during the Depression, she applied her design skills to other enterprises, becoming a glove-maker, greeting card designer and master weaver. She also taught and wrote about these crafts extensively.
In 1936, her father retired and Hill moved with her parents to Victoria, British Columbia. As the economy began to improve after the Second World War, she returned to architectural practice and began designing modern, no-nonsense houses for returning veterans and their families. She also resumed her interest in urban planning and served as the first woman on the Victoria Town Planning Commission from 1945 to 1950. In 1953, she obtained her registration with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, with increasing recognition of Hill's work came the opportunity for more diverse projects. Her larger non-residential commissions in Victoria during this period included an addition to Emmanuel Baptist Church, an apartment building on Ford Street and the main building of the Lincoln Cemetery. Hill also designed one of the earliest senior citizens' homes in Canada, the Glenn Warren Lodge at 1230 Balmoral. Her innovative design responded to the occupants' needs for mobility and accessibility.
Hill's architectural designs have clean and simple lines and emphasize natural light and ventilation, functional efficiency and open space. She worked alone on all the designs and drawings for each of her projects and did not collaborate with other architects. Resourceful and independent, Hill built an architectural career based on her own merit. Due to ill health, Hill retired from architectural practice in 1963 at the age of 68. In her retirement, she continued to pursue weaving and teaching until her death in 1985 at the age of 89.
Esther Marjorie Hill, like all pioneers, spent her energies breaking down barriers. In addition to the discrimination she experienced in being the first woman to enter a hitherto male-dominated profession, she had to surmount the added impediments that the Great Depression brought to her career. With perseverance and determination, Hill managed to build a successful independent practice as well as the distinctive homes and buildings that stand as her legacy to Canada's architectural history.
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Adams, Annmarie ; Tancred, Peta. "Designing women : then and now". The Canadian architect. Vol. 45, no. 11 (Nov. 2000). - P. 16-17
Adams, Annmarie ; Tancred, Peta. "Montreal's designing women". The Beaver. Vol. 80, no. 6 (Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001). P. 29-32
Contreras, Monica ; Ferrard, Luigi ; Karpinski, Daniel. "Breaking in : four early female architects". The Canadian architect. Vol. 38, no. 11 (Nov. 1993). - P. 18-20
"First woman architect receives big ovation". Globe and mail. (June 5, 1920). P. 8
Hill, Esther Marjorie. "Common faults in house design : paving the way to better building methods". Agricultural Alberta. (Feb. 1921). P. 29
Lemco van Ginkel, Blanche. "Slowly and surely (but somewhat painfully) more or less the history of women in architecture in Canada". The Canadian architect. Vol. 38, no. 11 (Nov. 1993). P. 15-17
Women in Architecture Exhibits Committee. Constructing careers : profiles of five early women architects in British Columbia. Vancouver : Women in Architecture Exhibits Committee, 1996. P. 18-25
Some architectural drawings and papers of Esther Marjorie Hill are held by the Archives, University of Toronto, as well as her unpublished thesis: "An exposition of town planning", University of Toronto, 1922.