Esther Marjorie Hill: Canada’s First Woman Architect

By Jessica Antony  –  September 24th, 2019

Source: University of Toronto Archives

Canadian Women in Design Series

In our Canadian Women in Design Series, we celebrate the achievements women have made in the Canadian design industry – histories that are often untold – by highlighting those who have blazed the trail for their contemporary counterparts. Whether they’re setting milestones as the first women to enter the industry professionally or designing furniture that has become iconic in the timeline of Canadian design, we are excited to share snapshots of these women’s stories.

Esther Marjorie Hill

Esther Marjorie Hill was the first woman to graduate from an architecture program in Canada. Born in Guelph, Ontario on May 29, 1895, Hill was admitted to the University of Alberta’s architecture program – the first woman to be admitted to an architecture program in the country. She later transferred to the University of Toronto, from where she graduated in 1920. Being the first woman graduate came with its struggles. For example, the University of Toronto’s Chair of Architecture was so incensed that a woman was graduating from his department that he refused to attend the graduation ceremony. Then, when Hill applied to register as an architect in Alberta in 1921, she was denied, and only in 1925 after the law was amended to include “any graduate of any school of architecture” (not only male graduates) was she accepted. 

Source: University of Toronto Archives

Despite these struggles, Hill started working for the respected MacDonald and Magoon Architects in Edmonton in 1922, where she worked on projects like the Edmonton Public Library. She spent the next few years moving around between Edmonton, Toronto (where she completed post-graduate studies in city planning), and New York City (where she worked for a while). When work dried up during the Great Depression, Hill made a living by weaving, teaching herself to make greeting cards on a hand press, and glove making – skills she kept up throughout her life.

She even won first prize at the 1942 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto for her weaving, which was inspired by Finnish weavers. Eventually, Hill moved to Victoria where she started her own firm, designing houses, apartment buildings, and other projects like the Glenwarren Lodge Private Hospital and the main building of the Lincoln Cemetery. She always worked alone, choosing not to collaborate with other architects. Many of her male clients claimed they had designed their house and she was merely “the draftsman,” which is reflected in her advice for other women wishing to succeed in the industry: “A good training in mathematics and a firm determination to persevere in spite of difficulties are two essential elements.”

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