Skip To Content

Profiles of Alberta Women

Esther Marjorie Hill

Esther Marjorie Hill
Esther Marjorie Hill's graduation portrait, 1920. Image courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives. Public domain.

Early life and education

Esther Marjorie Hill was born on May 29, 1895 to Jennie Stork Hill and Ethelbert Lincoln Hill in Guelph, Ontario. Both of her parents were university-educated and worked for a time in higher education. When the couple met, Ethelbert was working as the science master of the Guelph Collegiate Institute, and Jennie had started her career teaching mathematics at the Moulton Ladies’ College in Toronto. A few years prior, Jennie had made history at the University of Toronto as one of nine women who attended in 1884, the first year the school allowed women. With the support and example of her academic parents, Marjorie, who went by her second name, would herself pursue education and make history as a pioneering woman in the world of Canadian architecture.

In 1907, the family moved from Ontario to Alberta after Ethelbert took a position as science master at a high school in Calgary. A few years later the family again moved when he became the chief librarian for the Edmonton Public Library, a position he secured after having contributed to the creation of a public library in Calgary.1 In Edmonton Marjorie attended Strathcona High School, graduating in 1918 and followed the example of her parents by enrolling at the University of Alberta, where only a few years prior Jennie had earned a Master of Arts in English and History and Ethelbert had completed a Master of Science.

At the University of Alberta, Marjorie pursued a Bachelor of Arts which she completed in 1916 while simultaneously working towards a degree in architecture with the Faculty of Applied Science.2 Her interest in architecture began after reading a magazine on the subject that her father brought home. Though both of her parents were supportive of her choice, Marjorie faced opposition to her participation in a field dominated by men from the beginning. Her entry into the program at the University of Alberta was opposed by Cecil Burgess, the head of the architecture department at the University of Alberta, although his opposition did not prevent her enrollment.3

I glanced through it [an architecture magazine], and after studying various sketches and plans of houses, I thought how nice it would be to be able to do the same thing myself.

“(Esther) Marjorie Hill,” Women Building Alberta, Borealis Gallery, 2018.

In 1918 the architecture program at the University of Alberta was temporarily put on hold as Burgess was required to attend to duties relating to the First World War. That year Marjorie transferred to the University of Toronto, returning to the province the family had left the previous decade. Marjorie was one of only two women in the program, and became the sole woman when the other, Anna Kentner, was forced to leave the school after contracting the Spanish flu.4

At the University of Toronto Marjorie continued to encounter resistance to her participation in the architectural field. On June 4, 1920 she graduated the program with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Architecture, becoming the first woman to graduate in the program from the University of Toronto. Although it was a celebrated event, C. H. C. Wright, the chair of the department, protested the convocation by refusing to attend.5 After graduating, Marjorie would continue her education with occasional post-graduate study, including the study of town planning at the University of Toronto in 1922 and a summer course in architectural design at Columbia University in 1923. At the University of Toronto she wrote her thesis An Exposition of Town Planning.

Marjorie alongside fellow graduates, 1920
Marjorie alongside fellow graduates, 1920. Image courtesy of University of Toronto Archives. Public domain.


Marjorie’s first work in the architectural field was in the summer of 1919 while still a student, when she did draftsman work for the architects Wickson and Gregg in Toronto. After graduating, she worked for a short time with the Eaton Company in Toronto as an interior designer in the decorative department before she returned to Alberta in 1921. There she applied to the Alberta Association of Architects (AAA), hoping to work in the province in which her parents lived, but had her application denied, ostensibly on the basis of a lack of experience.6

After being rejected by the AAA, Marjorie taught for a year at a country school in Alberta before, in 1922, she found work as a draftsman with MacDonald and Magoon Architects. With MacDonald and Magoon she did design work for the downtown Edmonton Public Library, an opportunity that may have arisen as her father was working as Edmonton’s chief librarian.7 After traveling back to Toronto and then Columbia University to continue her education, Marjorie worked in New York with Marcia Mead and Anna Schenck, American architects who brought a feminist perspective to architecture. While working in New York, Marjorie gained experience in a variety of architectural duties, including working drawings and detailing.8 Both Mead and Schenck specialized in housing, an area of focus common for women architects, and one that Marjorie too would adopt when she began her own architectural practice.

In 1924, armed with her practical experience, Marjorie again applied with the AAA, and this time she was accepted, registering as an architect in Alberta in January of 1925 and becoming the first registered woman architect in Canada.9 However, Marjorie soon found herself again moving back to the United States when, in 1925, she was offered work by Katherine C. Budd, an architect based in New York who had herself pioneered architecture for women in New York as the first female member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapter in the city.10

By 1928, due to the Great Depression, architectural work had become scarce, and Marjorie returned again to Edmonton. There she found some work with MacDonald and Magoon, but as the Depression worsened she found herself again without work. In the face of the lack of architectural work, Marjorie shifted her focus to handicrafts including weaving, glove making, and printing greeting cards, working from her parents’ home. She was able to sell her products to help bring in funds when she was unable to practice architecture. The textile crafts would become an enduring interest for her, and Marjorie excelled at them, winning multiple awards, certificates, and recognitions for her work, including earning a 1937 certificate from the Alberta committee of the Canadian Handicrafts Guide recognizing her proficiency in glove making.

In 1936, after Ethelbert retired from his position with the library, Marjorie moved with her parents to Victoria where she set up a spinning wheel, printing press, and a drafting table in her family’s basement. It was in Victoria that her architectural practice finally took off, particularly after the end of the Second World War and the subsequent surge in construction that it brought.11 Her first independent commission was in 1940, involving the conversion of a single-family home into a duplex. Subsequently, she worked on a variety of conversions and new houses, including housing for veterans returning from the war. Charging around fifty dollars per design, Marjorie drafted dozens of modernist homes that emphasized practicality and utility, with concern given to windows for light and ventilation and practical kitchens with generous storage.12 Her work earned her the commendation of the Veterans’ Land Administration office in Victoria, and the office recommended her as a designer to returning veterans, providing her a steady stream of work.

Although she worked as an architect in Victoria for decades, it was not until the 1950s that Marjorie would register with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC). By that point in her career, Marjorie had already made great contributions to the architecture and development of Victoria. Her postgraduate work in town planning at the University of Toronto helped her find a position on the Victoria Town Planning Committee from 1945 to 1950, making her the first woman to hold that post. It was also in the 1950s that she designed multiple apartment buildings, including one with “cantilevered roof and stark geometry [that] show the influence of European modernism.”13

Marjorie’s architectural style has been described as having a “social sensibility,” and brought a practicality to design that “extolled the virtues of sun, light, air, and space.”14 These views informed her approach to the design of one area in particular that became a specialty: the kitchen. While kitchens would often become relegated to whatever space remained in an architectural design, possibly resulting in a cramped, poorly lit, and unworkable space, in Marjorie’s designs kitchens were given prominent location, positioned to take full advantage of light and laid out in a way that provides the necessary space to whomever is working in it.

Despite her successes and contributions, Marjorie’s work in Canadian architecture has not received the recognition that one may expect. Architectural historian Annmarie Adams has noted that her name is not recognized by many architects in Canada, and that her name is not mentioned in The History of Canadian Architecture by Harold Kalman.15 Adams also recounts a story of interviewing a descendant of Frank Moore, an owner of a house in Victoria designed by Marjorie. In their conversation, it became apparent that Moore’s son Brian thought his father had designed the home, and that Marjorie had only served as draftsperson. After encountering similar claims from multiple owners of homes designed by Marjorie, Adams concludes “This pattern reiterates in architectural terms what women in many other male-dominated professions have long noted – that their work is wrongly perceived as only realizing ideas generated by men.”16

In Victoria Marjorie also continued her textile work, including weaving, glove making, pillow-lace design, and spinning. She pursued an instructional role in the craft, gained certification to teach weaving from the Shuttle Craft Guild of Basin, Montana in 1940 and in 1951 earned a certificate for instruction in advanced hand-weaving. She also joined the Victoria Handweavers’ and Spinners’ Guild, and served for a time as the chair of the guild’s Standards Committee. Members of the guild recalled her as a particularly competent and detail-oriented weaver, and one that “did not make mistakes.”17 She was also noted for her frequent use of purple in her work, a colour which she loved. Her skill in the craft was acknowledged in 1957 when her weavings were selected for display at the Fine Crafts Exhibition in Ottawa that year.

Marjorie lived in Victoria for almost 50 years, staying there after her mother and father had passed, in 1939 and 1960 respectively. After the death of her father, Marjorie moved out of the home she had lived in with him to an apartment. She continued her architectural work for three more years before retiring in 1963, at the age of 68. Though forced to retire for health reasons, Marjorie continued her handicraft work, weaving, creating woodcuts, and teaching weaving to others. She died at the age of 89 on January 7, 1985.

With a career dogged by sexist opposition, stunted by economic adversity, and afflicted by a lack of recognition, Marjorie’s persistence in the architectural field stands as testament to her resilience and determination. Her move to textiles when work was scarce, and continued contributions to handicraft throughout her life mark her as a woman who would excel at whichever task she put her mind to, and as one who was willing to adapt and evolve. Working in relative professional isolation in Victoria did not prevent her from leaving a mark on the city, both through her contributions to town planning and through the buildings she designed, some of which still stand today.

Read more about Esther Marjorie Hill


1 “(Esther) Marjorie Hill,” Women Building Alberta, Borealis Gallery, 2016,

2 Annmarie Adams, “‘Marjorie’s Web’: Canada’s First Woman Architect and Her Clients,” in Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970, eds. Kristina Huneault and Janice Anderson (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).

3 “(Esther) Marjorie Hill,” Women Building Alberta, Borealis Gallery, 2016,

4 Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, “Slowly and Surely (and Somewhat Painfully): More or Less the History of Women in Architecture in Canada,” Bulletin (Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada) 17, no. 1 (1992),

5 Some sources attribute Marjorie with being the first woman in Canada to graduate from an architecture program in Canada, an honour that in fact belongs to Alice C. Malhiot who graduated from the Department of Architecture at the University of Alberta in 1914.

6 “(Esther) Marjorie Hill,” Women Building Alberta, Borealis Gallery, 2016,

7 Ibid.

8 Annmarie Adams, “’Marjorie’s Web’: Canada’s First Woman Architect and Her Clients,” in Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970, eds. Kristina Huneault and Janice Anderson (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).

9 “Hill, Esther Marjorie,” Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800-1950, accessed on May 5, 2021,

10 Sarah Allaback, The First American Women Architects (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 57.

11 “(Esther) Marjorie Hill,” Women Building Alberta, Borealis Gallery, 2016,

12 Ibid.

13 Annmarie Adams, “’Marjorie’s Web’: Canada’s First Woman Architect and Her Clients,” in Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970, eds. Kristina Huneault and Janice Anderson (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012), 393.

14 Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, “Slowly and Surely (and Somewhat Painfully): More or Less the History of Women in Architecture in Canada,” Bulletin (Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada) 17, no. 1 (1992): 8,

15 Annmarie Adams, “’Marjorie’s Web’: Canada’s First Woman Architect and Her Clients,” in Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970, eds. Kristina Huneault and Janice Anderson (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012), 382.

16 Ibid., 387.

17 Ibid., 383.

Student & Academic Services for The Alberta Women's Memory Project - Last Updated March 03, 2022

Related Links

Feature Box Title

Feature Box Text.