Willis Hale, Architect: 1848 - 1907

Willis Gaylord Hale
King, Moses. Philadelphia and Notable
Philadelphians. New York: Blanchard
Press, Isaac H. Blanchard Co., 1901., p. 86

Willis Gaylord Hale was born in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. His early academic training was at the Academy of Seneca Falls and Lake Cayuga Academy in Aurora, New York but he ultimately completed his education at Auburn High School in Auburn, New York. Upon graduation, he left for the University of Michigan where he studied briefly before returning to Buffalo and Rochester, New York where he worked as an apprentice. In the mid to late 1860’s, he moved to Philadelphia where he first worked in the office of Samuel Sloan and then, in the 1870’s, in the office of John MacArthur, Jr. He left Philadelphia in early 1873 to work in the private practice of Isaac Perry and E.L. Holmes in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The firm specialized in cast-iron facades, and Hale’s earliest work, September of 1873, can be seen in the design of the cast-iron façade of the Wyoming National Bank. While in Wilkes-Barre, Hale designed several other notable structures, including the Conyngham School in 1874, which the State Superintendent claimed to be the “most perfect in the state” in 1882.

Hale returned to Philadelphia in 1876 and opened his own firm, a practice that he was to maintain for the rest of his life. On June 23rd, 1876, he also married Augusta M. Cannon, a member of the prestigious family of entrepreneur William Weightman, thus assuring himself both a place in society and a consistent flow of commissions, especially from Philadelphia elite like William Weightman, William Singerly, Peter Widener and William Elkins. His elite status is also evidenced by his wide range of club memberships: the Philadelphia Art Club, the Utopian Club, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the National Free Art League, the Iona Boat Club, the Masonic Fraternity, the Athletic Club of the Schuylkill Navy, the Fairmount Park Association, the FCAIA and the AIA. James Foss explains Hale’s relationship to the elite by saying, “he provided a raw, stylistically pragmatic architecture expressive of a self-confident indvidualism and optimistic commercial expansion” (Foss, 9).
His first projects in Philadelphia were among his more modest and included the John Hopkins Warehouse of 1879 and the Henry Whelen House of 1880. His practice progressed with marked success both the area of architectural design and abundance of projects. He worked on over 115 buildings in Philadelphia alone, which ranged from office buildings and banks, to private mansions and middle-class developments. But perhaps what is most distinctive about Willis Hale is the way in which he chose to represent those structures.

A follower of the High Victorian Gothic school, Hale was an architect without precedent. He built during the post-civil war era, a time known for its flamboyance, its over-complication and its overwhelming presence. Although he was certainly influenced by his mentors Sloan and MacArthur and his better-know peer, Frank Furness, Hale was an eclectic original. James Foss describes his work as a “preoccupation with coarse surface, effects incorporated without a palpable relation to structure in either a direct or allusive way, but he purposely pushed the more decorative, non-essential elements to the fringes of his design” (Foss, 13).  His peers often saw Hale as a visionary, someone whose work was considered to be “a model of architectural beauty…. [Hale was] unquestionably one of the finest [architects] in this city, where handsome buildings are the rule rather than the exception” (Eaton, 27).

But the work of Willis Hale is not always received with so much commendation. In his obituary, his final appearance in the public eye, in The American Architect, on September 21st, 1907 the paragraph asks the reader not to judge Hale for the “lack of restraint that marked his work” (AA, 9/21/07). In fact, a series in Architectural Record written by Montgomery Schuyler called “Architectural Aberrations” selected two of Hale’s projects – The Record Building and The Hale Building – for special derision. Among other choice terms, Schuyler refers to these works as “backward and provincial… crude… violent… revolting… ignorant” (AA2, 261), “higgledy-piggledy” (AA9, 208), “absurd… irrational, incongruent and ridiculous” (AA9, 210). Schuyler even goes so far as to say that “every precaution has been taken, and with success, to insure that the building shall lack unity, shall lack harmony, shall lack repose and shall be a restless jumble” (AA9, 210).

This last impression of the work of Willis Hale is the one that continues to be the most prevalent. There was an almost immediate reaction against eclecticism because it considered to be lacking in truth, and the replacement attitude of Academic Historicism appeared, as it still does today, to embody pure ideals, democratic tenets and an inherent appropriateness of form.

Willis Hale died in Philadelphia on August 29, 1907 completely penniless and out of favor in the architectural community. His achievements in the field were wholly disregarded and he was seen as a fleeting oddity, who no one would much miss. Unfortunately, public interest has never quite swayed back toward Willis Hale. There is little published information about his life and work and most of his buildings that were not reabsorbed for more modern uses have been torn down. Although his talents are not quite great enough to place him in the class of revolutionary, Willis Gaylord Hale is an innovative architect whose unusual standard of work places him in a category beyond time and strict classification.
 Link to Philadelphia Buildings biography of Willis Hale


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