Willis Polk, San Francisco architect (approx. 1913)
photo courtesy The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.

    Willis Jefferson Polk (1867-1924)

    Willis Polk was born in Jacksonville, Illinois on October 17, 1867. The family, related to President James Knox Polk, later relocated to St. Louis in 1873. The father, Willis Webb Polk, who had previously enjoyed a moderate living as a carpenter, now enjoyed success as a design and construction service. The young Willis grew up in this environment without formal education. At eight, he began work with a local carpenter. At 13, he was graduated to the task of office boy for the architecture firm of Jerome B. Legg.

    By 1885, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri and started the partnership of W.W. Polk & Son. They specialized in moderate sized suburban houses and speculative row houses. Some of the designs were done by the young Willis. In 1887, he dissolved the partnership with his father and went to work for the Boston-based firm of Van Brunt & Howe, who were moving their practice to Kansas City. Polk never shared Van Brunt's intellectual interests, but was strongly interested in the academic movement of classicism. After working for Van Brunt, Polk spent two years traversing the continent two and a half times while working for five different architects. He was in New York when he went to work for Charles Atwood, who would eventually be chief designer for D.H. Burnham & Co. Several months later, Polk found employment as a draftsman for the firm of A. Page Brown, who had trained in the office of McKim, Mead & White. Brown's practice took place in the same building as McKim, Mead & White. Polk got to know these partners well, as their office was also an unofficial center of the academic movement, as White's biographer called it, "a council chamber where men could meet and discuss the renaissance of American art". Polk studied the work of McKim, Mead & White and realized a crucial synthesis between theory and practice. Brown recognized the impact of this learning on Polk and asked him to join him when he moved his practice to San Francisco. Polk worked as a draftsman along with A.C. Schweinfurth and later Bernard Maybeck. He remained with Brown until 1890, when he joined up with Fritz Maurice Gamble.

    Gamble lacked both professional experience and training. He did have good social connections and his father had been a partner in one of Oakland's largest real estate firms. These connections were instrumental in landing commissions. However the partnership was dissolved in little over a year. Also at this time, Polk's family was settling in San Francisco. Although the family was somewhat quarrelsome, in 1892, Willis, his father and brother Daniel started a new partnership, Polk & Polk. Willis did the design and Daniel attended to the drafting, while their father tended to the field operations of the design-build firm. The firm went bankrupt after Daniel's departure in 1897. Willis, his ego and reputation bruised, managed with enough commissions for two years before joining up with George Washington Percy, replacing his design partner.

    Practically overnight, Polk assumed responsibility for a sizable staff and numerous commercial projects. The volume of work forced him to delegate most tasks to others. The position gave Polk both financial security and a rise in professional stature. A few months later, he married Christina Barreda Moore, whose father had been ambassador to the Court of St. James. Although her family had lost their fortune, Polk took great pride in having this unity with a noble family. It may also have intensified his yearning to live in a grandiose style. This financially stable life for Polk did not last long, as Percy died in 1900 and the firm dissolved.

    On his own again, Polk asked Joseph Worcester to write him a letter of introduction to Daniel Burnham , who was a cousin through marriage of the reverend. Polk initially offered a partnership, proposing an office in Burnham's name in San Francisco. Burnham declined, but after much persistence from Polk, offered him a position in his Chicago office in 1901. Polk remained there for two years, until 1903, when he set sail for Europe. In the fall, he returned to San Francisco and established a partnership with a former Percy friend George Alexander Wright.

    Polk is most noted for his introduction of the "shingle" style to California architecture. Polk also was a close friend of noted Arts & Crafts architects John Galen Howard and Maybeck, who also once worked as a draftsman for Polk. Often Polk would take camping trips with Howard and Ernest Coxhead. Polk was also acquainted with other colorful figures. When John Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892, the club was not satisfied with their first logo. The following year Polk was enlisted to redesign the logo, which the club utilized until 1940. Polk was active in the Russian Hill social groups such as the Worcester Group and the bohemian collective Les Juenes, which had such members as writer Gelett Burgess, artists Mary Curtis Richardson, Bruce Porter, and architects Coxhead and Howard.

    At one time in Polk's employment as chief designer was Chesley Bonestell. Bonestell's own career included such notable projects as assisting Joseph Strauss in San Francisco on the design of the Golden Gate Bridge, the facade of the Chrysler Building in New York with architect William van Alen and the famous Seventeen Mile Drive at Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula with landscape architect-engineer Mark Daniels. However, Bonestell is most famous as the artist of photorealistic space art and space-age backdrops in now-classic science-fiction films as War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space, and When Worlds Collide. Bonestell is also credited with choosing the site of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

    Polk had a rather unorthodox working method. He was never seen with a drafting pencil in hand. He would provide his designers with little more than a charcoal sketch and a verbal description. He would provide each project with strict supervision. When Bonestell was working on the tower of the Hobart building, at that time to be San Francisco's tallest building, he noticed the straight line roof wasn't working with the curved walls. He brought this to the attention of Polk, who refused to listen. When Polk saw the finished building, he noticed how badly the straight line roof looked. Bonestell reiterated his protest during the design. To which Polk, who would never admit he was wrong, replied, "You didn't protest hard enough".

    Polk was a shameless self-promoter and often antagonistic critic of architecture in San Francisco. Along with Henry Gutterson, he worked with Daniel Burnham on design plans  for San Francisco modeled on the Parisian plans by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman. On April 17, 1906 Daniel Burnham presented this plan to the city of San Francisco. The following day, San Francisco was devastated by the 8.2 earthquake and fire. With ample opportunity for new buildings, Daniel Burnham opened an office in San Francisco and Polk was put in charge. Although Burnham's master plan was scrapped, Polk secured contracts for major banks, office towers, retail blocks, utility buildings, railroad stations and the new Pacific Union Club. However this volume of work never reached the level expected by Burnham. Polk's position started to erode, and due to poor management, Burnham terminated their association in 1910.

    The 1915 Exposition was planned to celebrate the rebuilding of San Francisco. Polk was appointed the role of supervising architect and he received the project to design the Palace of Fine Arts. Polk assigned this project to Bonestell and Harry Stearns. However, in an act untypical of his ego, Polk graciously accepted an independent design by his colleague Bernard Maybeck. In time, this would be known as Maybeck's most significant civic building. In 1917-18, Polk designed the Halidie Building, the first high-rise structure with a glass curtain-wall construction. This building would serve as Polk's most important civic effort. It was also his last major project of note. Polk's irrepressible demeanor and lack of business fortitude saw a decline in work in the early 1920's. Among his many buildings and works include the Pacific Union Club, the reconstruction of Mission Dolores (1917), a water temple in Sunol, CA., and the adjacent parish house of the Swedenborgian Church. He also was highly regarded for his elegant residential work, mainly mansions and estates in the Georgian Revival style for wealthy, prominent San Franciscans like the Bourns, who commissioned Polk for a mansion in the Pacific Heights district in San Francisco, a mansion in Grass Valley, CA., and the famous Filoli estate in Woodside, CA. Polk also designed the Carolands estate in Hillsborough, at one time the largest residence west of the Mississippi. With the exception of several Shingle style homes, Polk was not an Arts & Crafts designer in the pure sense. However, many of his residences share this style's features and principles of harmony with their environment.With work of little significance on his drawing tables, Polk passed away at the age of 57 in 1924.

    Willis Polk residence

    Polk residence shingle detail

    1013-17 Vallejo, Williams-Polk House (Polk Side)

    1 Russian Hill Place At Vallejo, Spanish Mission Revival Architecture

    Upper Vallejo Steps Garden

    Polk Houses on Russian Hill Place from Jones Street

    Polk - Williams House photo courtesy of Cupola

    Polk - Williams House photo courtesy of Cupola

    Polk - Williams House, North and East Elevations photo courtesy of Cupola

    Mission Dolores, During the Gold Rush Painting by Chesley Bonestell,

    More Willis Polk links

    Sources:

    Willis Polk Collection, (1934-1), Environmental Design Archives. College of Environmental Design.
    University of California, Berkeley, California

    Richard Longstreth. On the Edge of the World: Four Architects in San Francisco at the Turn of the Century   University of California Press. 1983

    Robert Winter. Toward a Simpler Way of Life, The Arts & Crafts Architects of California"  University of California Press. 1997

    John Hunter, www.willispolk.com

    Ron Miller, The Fine Art of Space Travel: The Life And Work of Chesley Bonestell    Biography of Chesley Bonestell, Text Copyright 2002


Last updated 11-07-2004

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