Ayer, Elizabeth (1897-1987)

  • By Heather M. MacIntosh
  • Posted 10/04/1998
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1721

Elizabeth Ayer, the first female graduate of the University of Washington's architecture program, helped fashion the residential architecture of many Seattle neighborhoods in the mid-twentieth century. Notwithstanding the growing popularity of modernism, Ayer integrated modern needs with traditional forms and throughout her career embraced historical styles.

First Female Architect from UW

Born in Thurston County, Washington, Ayer was one of the University of Washington's first architecture graduates. She received her degree in 1921, and in 1930 became the first female architect registered within the state of Washington.

Ayer initially worked in several different architectural offices. When commissions were low, she traveled abroad. In 1922, a year after graduating, she moved to New York City and worked for Cross & Cross and Grosvenor Atterbery. After a brief time in the office of Andrew Willatsen, she returned to Seattle and joined the firm of Ivey & Riley. Edwin J. Ivey provided Ayer with critical support and guidance that would shape her approach to domestic architecture. In 1924, she was principal architect for at least one residence, built in The Highlands for C. W. Stimson. (The Highlands is a "gated community" on Puget Sound immediately north of the Seattle City Limits.)

Colonial Revival

In 1927, after traveling in Europe for a year, Ayer returned to Ivey's firm, which was engaged in a number of commissions within Broadmoor and The Highlands. The designs for houses in these communities were traditional, predominantly Colonial Revival (with features such as double hung sash windows). The Langdon C. Henry residence (1927-1928), located in The Highlands, is a textbook example of the revivalist aesthetics driving domestic architectural design in the 1920s, especially in exclusive neighborhoods.

Edwin Ivey's firm produced several designs for these neighborhoods during the next few decades. Ayer collaborated in a number of works within Ivey's firm including the Seattle Children's Home (1930-1931, destroyed); the Winston W. Chambers residence (1937); and the Albert Schafer Castle (1938-1939) of Hood Canal, Washington.

Modern-Traditional Synthesis

With the growing popularization of modernism and the machine aesthetic (functional and nondecorative) in the 1930s, some designers placed less emphasis on historical styles. Within Ivey's firm, traditional interior and exterior formats gave way to open, functional floor plans. The Aubrey Naef residence (1935-1936) synthesized traditional Colonial forms such as double hung sash windows and a classically detailed cornice, with an irregular, boxy composition.

A New Partnership, Smaller Houses

After Ivey's death in 1940, Ayer formed a partnership with another University of Washington graduate, Rolland Lamping. Both worked within Ivey's office, but abandoned the large scale residential designs cultivated by that office in favor of smaller residential and commercial projects. In contrast to the many modernist designs popular in the area after World War II, Ayer continued to employ the conventional architectural details used in her earlier Colonial Revival designs.

The firm of Ayer and Lamping produced numerous modest houses that integrated an historical aesthetic with modern functionality. An example is the William E. Forland residence. Its facade is a classic adaptation of the Colonial Revival style: Its wooden shingled mansard roof, double hung sash windows, large central brick chimney, transom, six-paneled door, wooden framing and weatherboarding all convey a traditional approach to domestic architecture. The back and interior of the house, however, accommodate modern needs, integrating function with traditional design elements commonly found in American architecture for centuries.

Ayer retired in 1970 after half a century of architectural practice. The traditional forms of her designs continue to provide Seattle neighborhoods with variety and stylistic complexity.


S. Sian Roberts and Mary Shaughnessy, Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press,1994), 264-269.
Note: This essay was revised on April 30, 2001.

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