Elmira (Myra) Smyrl
Written by Rebecca Williamson
Elmira (Myra) Smyrl’s name appears in documents from the late 1950’s as the only female professor participating in a faculty workshop run by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Born Elmira Susannah Sauberan in Detroit in 1919, she received her Bachelor of Science in Architectural Engineering in 1941 from the University of Texas, Austin. There she met her first husband, John Linn Scott. Together they practiced throughout Texas from their base in Austin, designing state buildings, churches, schools, and residences. While her husband served in the Navy during World War II she kept the practice going on her own.1 After their 1949 divorce, she supported herself and her daughter, Donna, with drafting jobs and part-time teaching at UT.
Remarried to Sam Smyrl, in 1955 Myra Smyrl received a masters degree in Agricultural Engineering from Oklahoma State University. Her thesis design was a state home for disadvantaged children, a “School for Family Living.” That same year she moved to Bozeman, Montana to teach in the Montana State University architecture program while practicing part time, notably contributing to the design of the Montana State Field House, which at its opening in 1957 was said to be the largest clear-span wooden structure in the world. She picked up another masters degree in Applied Sciences from Montana State and became an expert on civil defense, including the design of fallout shelters.2 Alongside these pursuits, she studied Native American cultures of the Northwest.
Myra Smyrl was among a group of female Montana State professors who sued for equal pay in 1972, winning the case in 1976.3 Also during the 70’s she commuted during breaks in her teaching schedule to Washington, DC to pursue studies toward a PhD in Philosophy at Georgetown, where she completed her coursework but not her dissertation (the topic was to be “Kant’s model of the mind.”) Aside from her academic work, she was a proponent of humane treatment of animals, and was, with her husband, a founder of Bozeman’s dog club. Students and colleagues remember her as a tough, exacting professor who subjected her students to spelling tests and demanded that they know the composition of concrete. She taught at MSU until 1986 and died in Bozeman in 2008.
1 A building of this period attributed to John Linn Scott is the State Health Building in Austin. See “Hill Country Deco” accessed on March 17, 2012 http://www.hillcountrydeco.com/institutional/health/
2 Office of Civil Defense, Highlights of the Architecture and Engineer Activities in Shelter Development, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964) 4-5.
3 Mecklenburg v. Bd. of Regents, 13 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 462, 468-69 (D.Mont.1976). Although she was a close friend of two of the four named plaintiffs, Smyrl was a class member, not a named plaintiff.