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Willis Polk – His Work is Everywhere!

by Sue Krumbein

My interest in the architect Willis Polk began when I trained as a docent at Filoli, a mansion he designed in Woodside. It continued when I became a guide for the tour City Scapes and Public Places. On that tour, the number of Willis Polk designed buildings is remarkable. Of course, I had seen a house he designed on Russian Hill, but I did not realize how much he was a part of the Arts and Crafts movement.

A number of individuals were involved in that movement and worked together including Joseph Worcester, A. Page Brown, Ernest Coxhead, and Willis Polk. The first houses Polk designed in San Francisco showed that he was aware of the Shingle Style popular on the East Coast, had seen homes designed by A. Page Brown, had admired designs by his friend Ernest Coxhead, and liked the simpler style of homes advocated by Joseph Worcester. Earlier, when Polk was working in the Midwest, his designs were more elaborate Queen Anne in design.

Once Polk moved to San Francisco, he established a magazine called Architectural News. He encouraged people to build moderately priced, simple houses which would be designed around the needs of the people who would live there. Polk also talked about simplicity being a value in building homes. He believed that the Arts and Crafts movement was much more than an architectural style, that it embodied certain values, including the use of local materials which were natural and unadorned. Polk and his colleague Ernest Coxhead used untreated redwood paneling to such an extent that it became one of the most common and distinct forms of interior finish in this region.

As Polk, along with Ernest Coxhead and others, moved away from rustic plans, he found encouragement to create grand classical designs. Polk had wealthier clients who wanted elegant touches, of which Polk himself became fond. He found that brick and stucco were easier to embellish and designed only a few more houses influenced by the Shingle Style and the Arts and Crafts movement. He incorporated classical columns, Georgian and Palladian window detailing, and elaborate paneled interiors into his designs.

One of those clients was William Bourn, for whom Polk built a house in Pacific Heights. The budget at $500,000 was very generous. The family must have been pleased with the results, for Bourn's mother hired Polk to design Madrono, an estate near St. Helena; and in 1915, the Bourns built a mansion in Woodside that Polk designed. Filoli is a modified Georgian English country house set on 650 acres with 16 acres of formal gardens. The Spanish mission roof tiles anchor the home in California, though the house combines 17th and 18th century English, French and Italian architectural features. The entrance is a classical portico with columns of white Tavernelle marble. Quoins made of brick define the major corners of the house, and French casement windows complete the façade. Eleven arch-linked chimneys serve the mansion's seventeen fireplaces. Today the property is protected under the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is open to the public from February through October.

The final project that Polk designed and built was the Halladie Building, a real departure for Polk. He designed the building as a speculative commercial space, and he gave it a glass curtain-wall façade. Perhaps he decided to be bold in his design of this building because, although he had chosen the Palace of Fine Arts at the Panama-Pacific Exposition as his project, he gave it to his friend Bernard Maybeck, which he probably regretted. After the Halladie Building, Polk's work declined, and when he died in 1924 at the age of 57, little was on the drawing boards.

Today, it is impossible not to enjoy the designs of Willis Polk in many parts of San Francisco, from Pacific and Presidio Heights to Russian Hill and Nob Hill, Downtown and along Market Street. These buildings include homes, clubs, and office buildings, as well as the façade of Polk's PG&E substation which is now part of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Willis Polk left his mark on San Francisco and the Bay Area.