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Willis, Beverly, 1928-


Biographical Note

Beverly Willis, FAIA Architect, artist, and writer, was one of perhaps three women architects in the United States to own her own sizeable architecture firm between 1958 and 1990 and the only woman in San Francisco, California, to have her own practice there for 17 years. Her book, Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture, published by the National Building Museum, describes her design philosophy.

She was the first woman appointed to the Building Research Advisory Board of the National Academy of Science, the first appointed to the Federal Construction Council, and its first woman chair. She was the first woman elected president of the American Institute of Architects, California Council; and the Golden Gate Chapter of Lambda Alpha Society.

Willis played a major role in the revitalization of San Francisco neighborhoods after World War II. She renovated commercial spaces in the Jackson Square area and Union Street, redesigned Glide Church, designed the San Francisco Ballet Building, and won an international competition to design the Yerba Buena Gardens development downtown.

Beverly Willis was born February 17, 1928, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Ralph William Willis, founder of the National Tool Company, and Margaret Elizabeth Porter, a nurse. She had one sibling, Ralph Gerald Willis. Both Willis and her brother were placed in an orphanage when their parents divorced in 1934.

Taking advantage of the increased opportunities available to women with the advent of World War II, Willis learned welding, riveting, electrical wiring, carpentry, and how to fly an airplane--skills that reflected the fiercely independent qualities that emerged in her personality when she was in the institutional environment of the orphanage. After the war, she enrolled in an aeronautical engineering program at Oregon State University, but withdrew after two years to work at a lithographer's studio. She then studied at the San Francisco Art Institute until relocating to Hawaii. In 1954 she received a B.A. in Fine Art from the University of Hawaii.

After graduation, Willis received a series of design commissions that led to her interest in architecture. Fueled by the friendship and ideas of entrepreneur Henry Kaiser, Willis returned to San Francisco in 1960 to open a firm that designed furniture and interiors for offices, created mixed-media art for clients that included United Airlines, and re-worked supermarket displays. Despite her rural sensibility, Willis began to immerse herself in urban designs. She found that her interests ran parallel to those of San Francisco architects like William Wurster and Joseph Esherick.

Willis' first major architectural project was the conversion of three Victorian buildings into a retail complex on Union Street in San Francisco. Her design, which proved a financial success almost immediately, influenced the renovation of the rest of the street between present-day Gough and Pierce streets.

Meeting the experience and education requirements of the California State Architectural Licensing Board in 1966, Willis became a licensed architect and the only woman in San Francisco with her own firm, Beverly Willis and Associates. This firm assumed a partnership with would-be principal architect David Coldoff that year, a partnership that lasted until 1980. Despite the heavy demands of her practice, Willis also found time to serve on the U.S. Government delegation to the United Nations conference on Habitat, become a trustee and founder of the National Building Museum in 1976, and serve as the President of the California Chapter of the National Institute of Architects in 1979.

Willis' interest in the issues that affect planning, population density, and land-use economics with respect to large-scale development manifested itself in the creation of the computer program CARLA (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis) in the 1970's. The software was developed by Willis with Eric Tiescholz and Jochen Eigen. With CARLA's completion and implementation, Willis and Associates became one of the first architectural firms to incorporate computers into the routine practices of design and land development.

Projects such as the prototype for the regional computer centers of the IRS and master-planning for a new town situated in Aliamanu Valley, Hawaii (1975), are good examples of her unique philosophy of design.


Throughout the 1970s, Willis' firm concentrated on large- scale housing and new-community planning and design. By espousing architecture of rural pragmatism and rooting it in ancient images and myths, Willis offered something new to the intellectual landscape of architectural design.

In 1997, the National Building Museum published Willis' book, Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture, in which she describes her buildings and design philosophy. In 1980, she was elected to the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows. In 1984, Willis received an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from Mount Holyoke College.

By the early 1980s, Willis' design focus shifted to urban structures like the Yerba Buena Gardens redevelopment project (1980) and the San Francisco Ballet Association Building (1984). Smaller, but no less important, projects include Nob Hill Court (1971), Pacific Point Condominiums (1972), the Greenwich Apartment (1978), the Margaret Hayward Playground Building (1978), the (unbuilt) Shown Winery (1986), and the Mr. and Mrs. Richard Goeglin Pool House and Sculpture (1988).

Willis relocated her office and residence to New York City in 1991. Willis founded in 1994 the Architectural Research Institute, Inc. (through which the Manhattan Village Academy was designed). In 2002, she founded the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, and she presently (2008) serves as the foundation's president. Her work and community leadership have been widely published (see bibliography). She is a founding trustee of the National Building Museum (1975-present). The Beverly Willis Library is located at the National Building Museum.

Found in 3 Collections and/or Records:

"Glass Ceilings: Highlights from the International Archive of Women in Architecture Center," selected exhibit panels

Identifier: Ms-2011-075

"Glass Ceilings: Highlights from the International Archive of Women in Architecture Center" was an exhibition held at the Virginia Center for Architecture in Richmond, Virginia, as part of their Dominion Exhibition Series and was on display from March 4-June 6, 2010. It featured the work of pioneering women in architecture and design from the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) collection at Virginia Tech.

Dates: 2010

Beverly Willis Architectural Collection

Identifier: Ms-1992-019
Scope and Contents The Beverly Willis Architectural Collection span the years 1954 to 1999 and are comprised primarily of records documenting Willis' work as an architect in San Francisco between 1960 and 1990. The collection documents the application of computers to architectural design and land analysis, the development of CARLA (Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis) in the 1970s, the history of twentieth-century urban planning, particularly in San Francisco; and the contribution of women to...
Dates: 1954 - 1999