Elizabeth 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.
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.
The National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Jesse and Mary Bridges residence (1921-22) in Olympia lists her as the architect, so it’s possible that although she was still in college, she was even assisting with building design at this point—although the attribution could just stem from her association with the office.
Despite facing pretty much constant undermining during her university studies, Ayer was a star pupil, already receiving nationwide accolades by her second year of study. Seattle historian David A. Rash described her time at UW:
[Ayer] was elected Massier of the Atelier, the primary architecture student organization on campus, during the 1918-19 academic year, when she was officially a junior in the university, but was unofficially a sophomore in the architecture program. In the following year she won her first known design competition award nationally in the form of a Mention from the Beaux-Art Institute of Design in New York City for her design of a private art museum in a park. Later in the year, she was awarded third prize in the annual Kellogg Prize in Architecture for the design of a fireplace. She also received a Second Mention in the department’s internal competition for the design of the Sylvan Theater on campus.
The UW archives include a peek at the work she was doing this time with a concept sketch for a state dining room from 1919.
Elizabeth Ayer graduated in 1921 as both the fourth student to get a Bachelor of Architecture in UW’s history, in addition to being the department’s first female graduate. By this time, several other women had followed her lead and enrolled in the architecture department, treading the path paved by Ayer.
The following year, Ayer went to New York to work for the architecture firms of Grosvenor Atterbury and Cross & Cross, the latter of which designed Tiffany & Co. along with many other extant Manhattan buildings. She returned to Seattle in 1923, and went right back to the office of Edwin Ivey. Immediately, her name began appearing on local projects, mostly lavish residential mansions, including “Belleterre” (1923-24, Lakewood) for David and Sarah Scott, “Brookwood” (1923-26, The Highlands) for Charles and Clara Stimson, and the Minor and Anna Meriwether residence (1923-24, Woodway), among others.
In 1927, Ayers left for Europe, spending a year studying Georgian and Colonial-style homes in England and France. The details from this time, such as ornately carved cornices and double-hung sash windows, would become her signature.
When she again returned to Seattle, Ayer went straight back to Edwin Ivey, then working out of his wedge-shaped Capitol Hill studio that has since housed Wing Dome, the Saint, and Dacha DIner. They got cracking on more luxury residences in the Highlands—such as the Langdon C. Henry residence (1927-1928) and “Hollyhedge” (1927-28) for Paul and Beatrice Henry—as well as the notable “Schafer Castle” (1938-1939) for Albert and Helen Schafer out in Hood Canal, styled today as “Chateau Schafer” and marketed as a hyper-Pinteresting wedding venue.
In 1930, Ayer registered as an architect in her own right, the first woman in the state to do so, although she had been working professionally as one for almost a decade by then—so it’s certainly possible, therefore, that other women had too. She climbed the ranks in Ivey’s firm, becoming a principal in the mid-1930s and continuing to specialize in “society architecture,” i.e. sprawling residential estates. She also mentored other Seattle women who were studying architecture, notably L. Jane Hastings, who went on to establish the prolific Hastings Group, known for its slick, contemporary homes.
In 1940, Edwin Ivey died suddenly, after being struck by a car in Mount Vernon, Washington. Ayer, who had worked with Ivey longer than anyone else—two-thirds of his 30-year career—took over the firm as president-treasurer, bringing on UW graduate Roland Lamping as partner shortly thereafter and renaming the firm Ayer & Lamping. With Lamping on board, Ayer shifted the firm’s focus to designing smaller-scale, more modest homes, although she retained her eye for Old World details. The firm moved uphill slightly, at different times occupying two separate addresses around 14th Avenue East and East John Street.
In 1942, with the onset of World War II, Ayer and Lamping suspended the practice, while Ayer worked designing buildings for the U.S. Engineers Office. They reopened the practice in 1945, and Ayer stayed at the helm until 1970, retiring after 50-year career in architecture.
When Ayer died in 1987 at the age of 90, she lived in Lacey, not far from her homesteader great-grandparents’ parcel formerly known as as Conner’s Prairie. She had served on the town’s planning commission since 1980. Ayer never married or had kids—she was survived by her nieces and nephews—and she was very frequently asked to explain why she didn’t. In one 1978 interview, she quipped, “I’m your typical old maid. It’s difficult to be an architect and be married. It’s not something you can do before marriage, then go back after the children are grown. There is too much change.”
Ayer’s influence was tremendous not only on Edwin Ivey’s firm but on Seattle’s architecture as a whole. The city’s neighborhoods are still full of quiet examples of her charming, stately work—for example, the tri-gabled Findlay and Sigrid Nelson House (1941) on the west edge of Queen Anne Hill and the tile-roofed, Mediterranean Revival A. W. Leonard house (1924) on Capitol Hill, just west of Lake View Cemetery, among dozens of others. Check out this (partial) list of her work; they’re all over the place. Literally.