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Obituaries : Zelma Wilson; Architect Married to Filmmaker

May 14, 1996

Zelma Wilson, an Ojai architect famous for her wit and playfulness, died Friday of pneumonia, said her sister, Sylvia Jarrico. Wilson was 77.

An architect since the 1940s, Wilson was forced to contend with male colleagues bent on limiting a woman's role at an architecture firm to selecting colors.

Although frustrated by such stereotypes, Wilson maintained her sense of humor. Asked once by a prospective male employer if she cried on the job, Wilson answered, "I don't, but I've made a few contractors cry."

Born in New York City, Wilson was raised in Santa Paula, where her parents ran a fabric store. Wilson left the area to study art at UC Berkeley and then architecture at USC.

Wilson's marriage to filmmaker Michael Wilson and the birth of their two daughters required her to take a few breaks from her architecture practice.

When Michael was blacklisted in 1952 after co-producing a film about New Mexico zinc miners, Zelma took a leave from architecture during the couples' self-imposed exile in France. Despite the acclaim that "Salt of the Earth" garnered abroad, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee dubbed it "dangerously subversive."

In France, it was sculpture and cooking that seized Wilson's attention. While Zelma studied sculpting at L'Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, Michael wrote "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and co-wrote "Lawrence of Arabia."

Of her sister, Jarrico said, "There is nothing that came into her sphere that didn't get her full attention."

When she returned from France and settled with her family in Ojai in the mid-1960s, architecture once again garnered much of Wilson's attention.

She opened her office, where she designed churches, schools, libraries, day-care centers, a shopping center and public buildings.

Many of her designs won awards. Her design for Creek Road Bridge, Oak Grove Elementary and Secondary schools, and a new building for Saint Andrews Episcopal all won commendations.

A member of dozens of architecture and civic boards and commissions, Wilson's battle with emphysema during the past 10 years seemed not to have slowed her down, Jarrico said.

A recent sculpture was of her two granddaughters embracing.

Wilson was to have been honored Sunday by the Ojai Film Society for her and her husband's contributions to American art and culture during a special screening of "The Salt of the Earth." Michael Wilson died in 1978.

In addition to her sister, who lives in Los Angeles, Wilson is survived by two daughters, Becca Wilson of Los Angeles and Rosanna Wilson-Farrow of Mendocino. A private service will be held at Zelma's Ojai home.

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