George Willis, Architect

June 26, 2019 Chicago Buildings, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (3) 2008

Shortly after moving to San Antonio in 2016, I encountered this house just a couple blocks from my apartment. Immediately I was struck by the appearance of a full-on Wrightian Prairie House in the heart of San Antonio.

I posted it on Instagram and was immediately informed that this was the Lawrence T. Wright (no relation) house by George Willis. After a day or two I realized Willis’ name had appeared in my book The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Bringing the Prairie School to Europe. Willis had been a draftsman nearly four years when Byrne arrived in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio in 1902.

Entrance to Oak Park Studio. Photograph copyright Felicity Rich
Fraznk Lloyd Wright’s Walter Gale House, 1893
George Willis’ Lawrence T. Wright House, 1917

Willis practiced a few years in California with Myron Hunt and a few more in Dallas before relocating to San Antonio in 1911. Willis is probably best known for his 1928 Milam Building, known as the first fully air-conditioned office building in America. By this time he had adopted the streamlined revival styles of the 1920s, decorating the upper levels of the building’s 21 stories with Spanish Revival terra-cotta.

Milam Building from the River Walk

Willis arrived in San Antonio as a Wrightian, and his houses show the influence up until 1919 or so. Many are attributed to Atlee Ayres, in whose office Willis worked until 1916. Here are a few of the ones we have found:

Winerich-Kuntz House, Monte Vista, San Antonio, 1913
Martindale House, Monte Vista, 1914
Marshall Terrell House, Monte Vista, 1914
Cain House, Westfort, San Antonio, 1915
Cherry House, Alta Vista, 1918
Young House, Alamo Heights, 1918

A couple of years ago I stumbled across this one in Beacon Hill, and I promise you it IS by George Willis and from the same period, c. 1915, even though we haven’t found documentary evidence.

Right out of Ladies Home Journal…..

There are a number of other Prairie Style houses that could be from Willis’ time under Ayres or immediately afterwards – here are a few candidates:

Gramercy Place, Monte Vista
Another Beacon Hill Prairie house
John T. Simmons House, 1919, Alta Vista. Suggested by Steve Bozek (and right near my house!)

By 1919 George Willis has departed from Modernist Prairie style for the revival styles that would dominate the 1920s, as seen in the house below on West Woodlawn in Beacon Hill. A recent article in the Express-News claims that this is the first Spanish Colonial house in San Antonio, and one of the first built with air conditioning.

Photo courtesy Cynthia Spielman

Willis was a major San Antonio figure by this time, collaborating with Atlee Ayres and Emmett Jackson on such major projects as the Municipal Auditorium and 1926 addition to the Bexar County Courthouse.

They did the front part – now Tobin Center rebuilt after 1980s fire.
Here they did the back part – Bexar County Courthouse addition

Willis worked on the Sunken Garden Theater WPA Project in 1937 with Harvey Smith and Charles Boelhauwe. He continued practicing in San Antonio until his death in 1960 and has left a significant architectural legacy throughout the city.

MAY 2020 UPDATE: A couple of Willis’ postwar works:

Bungalow apartments on Bandera Road
Squeezebox on St. Mary’s strip – originally a flower shop
School, St. Peter’s Church, Alamo Heights, 1946
It seems the Prairie Style never really went away!

Continue Reading

Skeuomorphs

August 10, 2013 Technology, Vision and Style Comments (4) 1515

A skeuomorph is “a design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when not functionally necessary.” Like the body shape of an electric guitar.

“i sing the body electric…”

Examples include the shutter sound on a digital camera, lightbulbs shaped like candle flames, the newstand app that looks like a wooden bookshelf, and plastic lumber with wood graining. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

The Changing Future of Preservation

May 17, 2011 Sustainability, Technology Comments (4) 1447

Within the last week I have been involved in strategic planning exercises as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Board of the Landmarks Illinois, and besides being reminded of the facilitation and SWOT analysis I first experienced 26 years ago in a Joliet hotel (yes, that sounds odd, but trust me, it isn’t) I was also struck by some of the challenges facing both non-profit membership organizations and the heritage conservation/historic preservation field as a whole.

One of those challenges is in the realm of membership. Membership has dropped at both organizations, and it has aged. It seems the 19th and 20th century pattern of the membership organization is being either eclipsed or remodeled. There was a lot of talk in both board retreats about reaching out to younger generations and wondering whether younger generations will join as members or simply be affiliated and affinitized (not a word) via social media and social networks, depriving the old membership organizations of a fundamental pillar of their existence. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Of Boots and Buildings: Musings on Modernity

February 4, 2011 Vision and Style Comments (2) 1326

a Barry Byrne church in Pierre, SD Photo by Katherine Shaughnessy

In three weeks I will be speaking at Modernism Week in Palm Springs; my last post “What Is Modern” got a ton of hits; and I have just finished a draft of the Barry Byrne book following my JSAH article (still free during February 2011 online) “Barry Byrne: Expressing the Modern in 1920s Europe” so I have been thinking about Modernism a lot. Barry Byrne wrote a letter to Lionel Feininger at the Bauhaus in the mid-1920s disparaging the term, and he was right: What does “Modern” mean, especially now that it is overwith and reborn as a nostalgic style courtesy of Mad Men and Dwell magazine?

So I have been trying to figure our another term for it, like “20th Century” or “Late Industrial” but none are adequate and we do have to recall that Barry Byrne and all of his friends like Mies and Oud and Corbu were actively proselytizing “modern” whatever the heck it was. It was a movement. It certainly lasted two-thirds of the 20th century and it had some formal consistencies like machined finishes and ornamental abstraction or negation, but as my article noted, there were lots of different modernisms from the revolutionary asceticism of Loos to the painterly formalism of Corbu, the expressive romanticism of Mendelsohn, and the reborn classicism of Mies. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Iannelli Studio, Park Ridge

December 29, 2010 Chicago Buildings Comments (2) 1310

There is a movement afoot to try and save the Alfonso Iannelli studio in Park Ridge. This blog covered the unfortunate demolition of one of the five Cedar Court houses designed in 1923 by Barry Byrne and Alfonso Iannelli in the suburb where Iannelli lived and worked for 50 years. His work with Byrne alone is phenomenal – I have just published an article in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians “Barry Byrne: Expressing the Modern” which details the highlights of their half-century partnership and details their 1924 visit to the modernists of France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Here is one of the Felicity Rich photos from the article. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Amsterdam School

July 3, 2010 History, Vision and Style Comments (0) 2360

Amsterdam is a wonderful city for architecture and urban planning. I was struck on a recent visit by the Burgess & Parsons nature of the place: like Chicago it is a series of concentric rings that neatly describe the city’s development over time. You can actually tell how far you are from the center by the style of buildings. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Great Chicago Churches

June 11, 2010 Chicago Buildings Comments (0) 1643

Twenty years ago when I worked at Landmarks Illinois, we did a survey and planning study of historic houses of worship in Chicago. This was one of many preservation responses to a crisis in church preservation spurred on by the 1987 closing of two huge Catholic churches that were imposing neighborhood landmarks, Holy Family Church (1857) on Roosevelt Road, and St. Mary of the Angels Church (1920) in Bucktown. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Kansas City, and of course Barry Byrne

May 19, 2009 History, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1250

We had our National Trust Board meeting in Kansas City last week, showcasing a city where preservation has made a palpable difference, notably in the downtown Library District. Chair Emeritus Jonathan Kemper led the effort to convert a former bank into a library – taking advantage of the fact that both banks and libraries in the early 20th century relied on the Classical Revival. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Weekend Update

February 2, 2009 Chicago Buildings, Vision and Style Comments (0) 946

Quick hits:

1. Another detail about the landmarks ordinance strike-down: the plaintiffs (and no one plaints like these whingers) represented two landmark districts where there had been previous attempts to downzone. This makes the decision slightly less nutzoid – perhaps they thought they were following takings precedents focused on the character of government action. It is still an incorrect decision – those precedents focused on unfunded government programs replaced with regulation, not two types of regulation – but this expains why Jack Guthman was quoted in the story, since he loves to say that landmarking is sneaky downzoning. Landmarking is a planning tool like zoning, but when it comes to districts, landmarking has never achieved the same effect, which is why Brooklyn Heights, Old Town, Astor Street, Mid-North and Ukrainian Village were downzoned AFTER they were landmarked. Because when you are trying to limit new development, you need zoning. Landmarking you need when you are trying to save buildings, which is what was happening in Arlington-Deming (who lives there, I wonder?) and East Village. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

weblogroll

February 18, 2008 Economics, Historic Districts, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 917

Friday I gave my first Powerpoint lecture on Barry Byrne, although I have given lectures on the only Prairie School architect to build in Europe for 10 years – it was all slides until a couple of years ago. Great audience for the break-the-box lecture series at Unity Temple and kudos to new UTRF Executive Director Emily Roth! Saturday, sold the house. Tomorrow, discussing The Modern with SAIC colleagues, then off to DC to meet with AIA on putting preservation into architectural curricula.

It is amazing how resistant some architects are to preservation. They see it as stifling creativity. Huh? Do you define creativity by how blank your slate is when you start? By how much you get to twist and reshape the world without input from others? Is that dumb or what? Isn’t it harder and MORE creative to devise an architectural solution in the midst of existing conditions? Aren’t there always existing conditions? I don’t get it, but maybe that is because I don’t mind formal and discursive oppositions taken by new architectural interventions into existing fabric. Plus, if blank slates are better for creativity, why does every bit of exurban landscape LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME? I suppose one answer is that architects weren’t involved, but that just begs the question Why Not? At any rate, many architecture schools teach no preservation even though three-quarters of all architectural commissions are for existing buildings. Continue Reading

Continue Reading