Margaret Alexina Harrison Fulton was born in 1883 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Robert and Margaret Alexina (Harrison) Fulton. Margaret would become one of the first women architects in United States and her work in Tucson is an enduring legacy of rugged individualism.
Fulton matriculated into Bryn Mawr College in 1901 and left school two years later to study painting, first at the New York School of Applied Design and then at the Art Students League in New York.
“on the advice of a beau I subscribed to a correspondence course in architecture which gave me knowledge of building procedures. But my family felt no young girl should be exposed to anything like art school for mixed classes.”
In 1907 she enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was the only woman.
“I was settled in a carefully chaperoned boarding house run by two maiden ladies – guaranteed to keep any tinge of bohemianism at bay. […] Getting into such a school was an ordeal but getting through was worse. Being the only female in design with all boys I was tactfully given a table in the farthest corner and encouraged to apply my thoughts the study of arches and roof angles. I was assured cheerfully that culture being buried knowledge no doubt mine would emerge as required”
After graduating 1911 with a degree in architecture she accepted a job as a draftsman at the large architectural firm of Frank Miles Day in Philadelphia earning $10.00 a week. She worked in historic preservation, specializing in the restoration of early fieldstone farmhouses. She developed a low-cost housing model that was reproduced in Architectural Form.
In 1913 Margaret met Robert Spencer, the Impressionist painter whose work is in the collections of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. They married in 1914.
“From then on, with time off for building our own house, I pursued painting and became at last a professional artist.”
The couple’s home designed by Margaret was built in New Hope, Pennsylvania and visited by the American Society of Architects.
The couple lived in Paris for a number of years and had two daughters. They moved in Parisian artistic circles and we friends with artists including Pablo Picasso. Despite the avant-garde influences the Spencers remained true to their representative artistic style of still life and portraits. During this period Margaret worked with architects in France including Hegeman & Harris and studied housing models in North Africa and Tunisia. In 1929 Spencer became the second woman member of the American Institute of Architects.
Robert, suffering from depression killed himself in 1931. She returned to Paris and worked from an American firm and exhibited a the Paris Salon.
Spencer moved to Tucson in 1938 and purchased a 190 acre “chicken farm” in the Tucson Mountains. In Tucson she was denied admittance into the professional organizations on the grounds of her gender. She was instrumental in creating the Southern Arizona AIA chapter.
On this desert tract she began the design and construction of her most important work a cluster of 16 buildings named Rancho de las Lomas. She constructed the organic rambling desert buildings from red and gray rock from a nearby quarry. The property became a guest ranch and a Swiss finishing school for girls. Celebrities including Clark Gable, Hopalong Cassidy, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frank Lloyd Wright visited the property in the 1930s and 40s.
“The form each building took depended on the caprice of the Mexican laborers. Rigid design was ignored in an attempt to invest the ranch with a particularly individual atmosphere. Rock was blasted from the mountains for building material and we used flagstone floors.
By May of 1939 Spencer was recognized locally for her architectural work and was invited to participated in the Tucson Fine Arts Association first “Architect’s Show” sponsored by the American Institute of Architects.
Margaret Fulton Spencer died in April of 1966.
The main house at Rancho de las Lomas called La Piedra had a fire in 1971 that damaged the original roof. She is credited with a tri-level adobe and stone house on the 3.6 acres in the Tucson Mountains at 1124 North Camino de Oeste, the Chimney Hill Bed and Breakfast, 207 Goat Hill Road., Lamberville, N.J. and the Isaac Clotheir House, alterations and additions, Gwynedd Valley, Montgomery County, PA.