April 2, 2019

Elizabeth Ayer was a pioneer in 20th-century architecture

Washington State’s first registered female architect left her legacy all over the Puget Sound

Meg van Huygen 

 Ayer began her architecture career in 1918, while still a student at the University of Washington, with a job at the offices of prominent local architect Edwin Ivey. This started Ayer’s illustrious practice—which included becoming not only the first (registered) woman architect in Seattle, but in Washington State.

A bit of background on Ayer’s family, which perhaps set the stage for a young woman to do such hardcore pioneering: Elizabeth Ayer’s great grandparents, Joseph Harrison Conner and Phoebe Maertha Kirkendall, arrived in just-created Thurston County—two counties south of Seattle—with their three children in 1851 or 1852, about a year before the Territory of Washington was established separately from the Territory of Oregon. The nearby city of Olympia had been freshly platted in 1850, and there were around 1,000 settlers in the area.

The Conners built a homestead, just east of where the Evergreen Forest Elementary School is in Lacey today; the neighborhood was known locally as Conner’s Prairie. Their daughter Martha married logger and racetrack developer Isaac Chase Ellis, who would later become the mayor of Olympia in 1874, and they made their home on the site of the current Elks Building downtown. The Ellises’ daughter, Cora, grew up pretty well-to-do for being only one generation removed from hardscrabble Missourian settlers. She studied art and married Charles Henry Ayer, an early Superior Court judge (and eventually mayor of Olympia, mimicking his father-in-law) became the mayor of Olympia. The Ayers had five children, the youngest of which was Elizabeth, born in 1897.

Growing up in well-established family with a strong foothold a still-new, rapidly growing community, Elizabeth Ayer was perhaps uniquely enabled to forge her own way in the world—or if not the world, at least nascent Thurston County.

After Elizabeth graduated from Olympia High School in 1916, she did something very few turn-of-the-century American women did: She enrolled at the University of Washington. When asked why she chose to study architecture, she snarked, “I had no ability to spell, so I couldn’t be a stenographer, no patience, so I couldn’t be a teacher, and no memory so I couldn’t be a waitress. I had to be an architect!” In fact, it was her penchant for math that led her to the industry.

Ayer designed “Schafer Castle” (1938-1939) for Albert and Helen Schafer. Now, it’s a wedding venue known as “Chateau Schafer.” University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 39978

The male professors at UW didn’t make things easy for Ayer—at the time, the department didn’t even have a ladies’ restroom—and she was told by prospective clients that they would never hire a woman. In 1918, about halfway through her degree, she worked for Andrew Willatsen, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright, but her tenure there was brief, possibly owing to the fact that Willatsen publicly vowed never to hire a woman on his staff and had generally low confidence in the professional abilities of women in the architecture field.

She moved instead to the firm of Ivey & RIley, run by architects Howard H. RIley and Edwin J. Ivey, the next year. Edwin’s wife, Katharine, was acquainted with Ayer through fine arts events s at the University. Ayer was hired for a job she later described as “office boy,” assisting Ivey’s draftsmen. To call her an “office girl” in the jargon of the era would be to imply that she worked in the front of the office, typing and answering phones, so Ayer was always careful to mention this distinction. Ayer was re-employed by Ivey and was listed as his sole employee in 1921 when he broke away from Riley to start his own practice.

Read the entire article on Curbed Seattle >