Willis Polk (1867-1924)


Polk, Willis

Personal Information

Birth/Death:    1867-1924
Occupation:    American architect
Location:    San Francisco, CA

AIA Affiliation

Member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 1910-1916

Biographical Sources

Biographical Directories:
Entry in Henry F. Withey, A.I.A., and Elsie Rathburn Withey, Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased) (Los Angeles: New Age Publishing Company, 1956. Facsimile edition, Hennessey & Ingalls, Inc., 1970)
Entry in Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects (New York: Macmillan, 1982)

Journal of the American Institute of Architects, obituary, November 1924

Biographical Information:
Contributed by the Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley:
Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, Willis Polk was the son of carpenter Willis Webb Polk. He began working with a local contractor at the age of eight, and within five years had become office boy in the firm of architect Jerome B. Legg. By 1885, Polk and his father had established a partnership in Kansas City under the name W. W. Polk & Son. The company's projects were primarily for small suburban homes or row houses, and the younger Polk was responsible for the design of some of these commissions.
Polk's shift from the realm of tradesman to that of the professional architect came in 1887. At that time Polk left the partnership with his father to become a draftsman for the firm of Van Brunt & Howe, a pair of Boston architects who were moving their practice to Kansas City. The architectural theories of Henry Van Brunt influenced Polk's designs and prompted him to pursue an informal education in the theory and practice of architecture. Within two years Polk worked for at least five different architects across the United States, gaining exposure to a variety of design ideas, and attended architecture classes given by William Robert Ware at Columbia University. In 1889, Polk joined the office of A. Page Brown, and moved with Brown's firm to San Francisco.
Although Polk was a talented designer, his lack of business sense and volatile, demanding personality hindered many of his professional endeavors. His first partnership, with Fritz Maurice Gamble, lasted just over a year. Polk then entered into partnership with his father and brother, opening the office of Polk & Polk in 1892. With Polk designing, his brother Daniel serving as draftsman, and his father overseeing technical matters and field operations, they attained moderate success, primarily with residential commissions. After Polk's father retired in 1896, he attempted his own practice. He took over the Ferry Building project after A. Page Brown's death, but even with this major project couldn't sustain the office on his own. Polk filed for bankruptcy in 1897.
Though his own career was inconsistent during these years, Polk became an active and outspoken advocate for the architectural profession and the standards of good design. During 1890-91 he published three issues of the Architectural News, conceived as an alternative to the conservative California Architect and Building News. In addition to Polk, John Galen Howard, Ernest Coxhead, and Bertram Goodhue were contributors to the News. In 1894, Polk led the Guild of Arts and Crafts, an organization of artists and architects, in an effort to create a Board of Public Works that would approve the design of all municipal projects. Polk also wrote a series of short critiques for The Wave, a San Francisco weekly review, between 1892 and 1899. At times harsh in his criticisms, Polk often alienated colleagues and former associates with his comments.
Polk married Christina Barreda Moore in 1899, and the couple moved to Chicago in 1901 so that Polk could work with Daniel H. Burnham. Burnham was an early city planning expert, and his firm was well-known for the design of large commercial buildings. At Burnham's office Polk entered the upper ranks, taking responsibility for several major projects in his two years with the firm. Burnham, and his interest in city planning, would influence Polk's career even after he
returned to San Francisco. Upon Polk's return to the city in 1903, he entered into partnership with George Alexander Wright, an association that continued until 1906.
When Burnham was commissioned in 1904 to develop a master plan for the city of San Francisco, Polk assisted in the plan's preparation. Presented in 1906, the Burnham Plan was never realized due to issues of property ownership and the need for quick rebuilding after the 1906 fire. Understanding the money-making potential offered by the reconstruction, Burnham opened a West Coast office with Polk in charge. Among Polk's commissions for D. H. Burnham & Co. were the renovation of the Pacific Union Club, reconstruction of the Mills Building, and numerous projects for the Spring Valley Water Company, including the Water Temple at Sunol. William Bourn, president of the Spring Valley Water Company and a friend and supporter of Polk's, also commissioned the architect for residential projects, including Empire Cottage (1897-98) and Filoli (1914-15).
Burnham closed his San Francisco branch in 1910, and Polk opened his own firm, named Polk & Co. In 1911 he was named supervising architect of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and became active in the effort to save the Exposition's Palace of Fine Arts when the fair closed in 1915. This was one of many opportunities taken by Polk to challenge city officials on architectural and building issues. The most well-publicized of these was the Hobart Building controversy when Polk challenged the building inspector and the mayor over what he felt were outdated building codes. Polk took his battle to the public by publishing advertisements in the newspapers and hanging a series of 18 x 20 foot signs from the building.
Despite these conflicts, Polk & Co. completed more than one hundred major commercial buildings and domestic residences in the Bay Area. Of these, the Hallidie Building is perhaps the most well-known. Completed in 1917 for the Regents of the University of California, it was the first glass curtain-walled building constructed. The 1920 restoration of Mission Dolores was another project to come out of Polk's firm during this time. The firm continued as Willis Polk & Co. even after Polk's death in 1924. It was managed by his nephew Austin Moore with architects Angus McSweeney and James H. Mitchell. This firm continued in practice until 1934.
Sources: Longstreth, Richard. On the Edge of the World: Four Architects in San Francisco at the Turn of the Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1983.
__________. A Matter of Taste: Willis Polk's Writings on Architecture in the Wave. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1979.

Related Records

Archival Holdings

The American Institute of Architects Archives
      Membership file contains correspondence about the San Francisco Chapter controversy, Polk's public dispute with the mayor about the Hobart Building, resignation from the AIA, obituaries, and a brochure about a memorial book. Polk's membership application is not in the AIA Archives.

Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley
Collection Number: 1934-1. Extent:1 box, 2 flat boxes, 5 flat file drawers, ca. 10 tubes
The Willis Polk collection documents Polk's architectural career, his involvement in the profession, and his interest in the civic improvement of San Francisco. Architectural drawings form the bulk of the collection, though some textual records exist. The collection is arranged into four series: Professional Papers, Office Records, Art and Artifacts, and Additional Donations.
Polk's professional papers include records about the Architectural News, the Arts and Crafts Guild of San Francisco, the controversy surrounding the construction of the Hobart Building, and the effort to preserve the Palace of Fine Arts. This series also contains records created or collected by Polk's widow, Christina Barreda Polk.
Polk's office records consist primarily of project-Related Records. Architectural drawings form the bulk of this series, but photographs, correspondence, and clippings are also included. The collection also contains art, artifacts, and furniture created by Polk or kept in his office.
The majority of the collection was donated in 1934 by Polk's widow in conjunction with the Friends of Willis Polk. Materials donated separately are part of Series IV. Additional Donations.
Link to online finding aid: http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf0p3001nc