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Willis Polk Collection
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Access Statement
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Funding
  • Biographical Note
  • System of Arrangement
  • Scope and Contents
  • Related Collections
  • Project Index

  • Contributing Institution: University of California, Berkeley. College of Environmental Design. Environmental Design Archives
    Title: Willis Polk Collection
    Creator: Willis Polk
    Identifier/Call Number: 1934-01
    Physical Description: 31 Linear Feet: 2 boxes, 5 flat boxes, 5 flat file drawers, 20 tubes, 3 frames
    Date (inclusive): 1890-1937
    Language of Material: English .

    Access Statement

    Collection is open for research. Many of the Environmental Design Archives collections are stored offsite and advance notice is required for use.

    Publication Rights

    All requests for permission to publish, reproduce, or quote from materials in the collection should be discussed with the Curator.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of Item], Willis Polk Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley.


    Arrangement and description of this collection was funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation.

    Biographical Note

    Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, Willis Polk (1867-1924) 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 an 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. Polk took over the Ferry Building project after A. Page Brown's death, but even with this major project he couldn't sustain the office. 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 publication. 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 a 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.
    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.
    Longstreth, Richard. A Matter of Taste: Willis Polk's Writings on Architecture in the Wave. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1979.

    System of Arrangement

    The collection is arranged into four series: Professional Papers, Office Records, Art and Artifacts, and Additional Donations.

    Scope and Contents

    The Willis Polk collection documents Polk's architectural career, his professional involvement and his interest in the civic improvement of San Francisco. Architectural drawings from 1890-1924 form the bulk of the collection, as well as additional manuscript records. The collection is arranged into four series: Professional Papers, Office Records, Art and Artifacts, and Additional Donations.
    Series I: Professional Papers spans the years of 1890-1937 and contains correspondence, professional writings, news clippings, scrapbooks, and photographs. This includes writings from 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. Photographs include portraits of Polk, and a group photograph of him and his colleagues. This series also contains records created or collected by Polk's widow, Christina Barreda Polk.
    Series II: Office Records spans a short range of years from 1893-1897 and consists of financial ledgers and published records and photographs from completed projects, as well as photographs and lithographs of built and unbuilt projects.
    Series III: Project Records contains correspondence, drawings, and photographs related to Polk's projects from 1890-1924. The bulk of this series consists of architectural drawings. Correspondence and other written documentation exists only for three projects: The Spring Valley Water Company Mason Street Building, The Women's City Club of San Francisco, and an uncompleted San Francisco War Memorial. Photographs are of finished projects as well as drawings, models, the original Willis Polk table with terra cotta supports, and Linderhof Palace.
    Series IV: Arts and Artifacts is comprised of Polk's office furniture as well as sculptures, etchings, sketches, and paintings created or collected by Polk spanning the years of circa 1890-1924. This includes art created by Willis Polk: a drawing of a window at Mission San Jose in San Antonio, a sketch of Mabel Street in San Francisco, a watercolor of the Keith residence and Swedenborgian Church, and an oil painting of the San Francisco Skyline. Also includes a landscape painting and a portrait of Polk by William Keith.
    While the majority of the collection was donated in 1934 by Polk's widow in conjunction with the Friends of Willis Polk, Series V: Additional Documents is comprised of separately donated materials. These materials range from circa 1890-1951 and includes manuscripts, drawings, and photographs. Drawings in this series includes: William Bourn, Jr. residence, San Francisco; Mrs. William Bourn residence, St. Helena; Charles Webb Howard residence, Oakland; Examiner Building, San Francisco; proposed casino for the Hotel Arcadia, Santa Monica; Admission Day Monument; and proposed Administration Building, California Midwinter International Exposition. Also includes photographs, drawings, and documents relating to the Ralston White "Garden of Allah" residence and microfiche reproductions of the plans for the Charles Templeton Crocker Residence. Collection also includes material related to the Polk family including photographs of W.A. Polk, Daisy Polk, Willis J. Polk; correspondence to, from, and about Daisy Polk; photographs of drawings and buildings (by Frances Benjamin Johnston) and 2 issues of Architectural News (1890, 1891).

    Related Collections

    Project Index

    The following is a list of architectural projects from the Willis Polk Collection. For more complete information about collection contents for each project download the complete Project Index in an Excel spreadsheet format by going to placeholder . For instructions on interpreting the Project Index, see The Guide to the Project Index.  
    The project list below, derived from the Project Index, is arranged alphabetically by Project/Client Name and contains information, where available, about the location, date, project type, collaborators, photographers, and formats for each project in the collection.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Architects -- California.
    Architects -- California -- San Francisco Bay Area.
    Architecture--California--San Francisco Bay Area--20th century.
    Architecture--Domestic--California--San Francisco Bay Area.
    Architecture, Domestic -- California -- San Francisco Bay Area.