When Esther Marjorie Hill (BASc 1920) stepped on stage to receive her degree, the audience cheered Ontario’s first female architect. Outside, reporters waited to photograph Hill for the next day’s newspaper. Missing from the festivities, though, was C.H.C. Wright, the chair of the department of architecture, who protested her graduation by refusing to attend. (President Robert Falconer and Chancellor William Meredith were there, however, cheering grads on.) Hill’s experience was a far cry from this spring’s convocation, where 54 per cent of those awarded an architecture degree were women.
Hill followed in the pioneering footsteps of her mother, Jennie Stork Hill (BA 1890 UC), who was one of the first 11 women to be admitted to U of T. In a Globe article, Esther spoke of the qualities needed for a woman to succeed in architectural studies. “A good training in mathematics and a firm determination to persevere in spite of difficulties are two essential elements,” she said.
After graduating, Hill moved to Edmonton, where the Alberta Association of Architects kept her from practising by adding one year of work in an architect’s office to its entrance requirements. So she found a job with an Edmonton architectural firm and then enrolled at the University of Toronto for postgraduate work in urban planning. During the Depression, building stopped so Hill designed made-to-measure gloves and became a master weaver.
In 1936, Hill started her own business in Victoria. She specialized in houses, designing up to three a week. Her homes were known for their large windows, open spaces, and kitchens with generous cupboards and high countertops. Still, some of her male clients insisted they had designed the house and that Hill was “just the draftsman.”
An earlier version of this story was called “Canada’s First Female Architect,” but was changed when new evidence surfaced that the first female architect in Canada was, in fact, Alice Charlotte Malhiot, who earned a degree in architecture from the University of Alberta in 1914.