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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 twentieth-century American architecture. Willis, a noted artist, photographer, teacher, and writer, employed the full range of visual arts and design skills to influence and guide architectural projects of major significance.

The bulk of the collection is comprised of Willis and Associates project files from the period 1960 to 1990. Projects range from private residences and residential developments to institutions, such as the San Francisco Ballet Association Building; and urban development projects, most notably the Yerba Buena Gardens project in downtown San Francisco. Also included are records and design documents for Aliamanu Valley New Town, a military base in Hawaii that was the first major project designed with CARLA, computer software for architectural design created by Willis; and records documenting the development of CARLA.

Project files are comprised of presentation drawings, slope analysis drawings, site plans, maps, cut-and-fill analysis plans, sketches, conceptual design drawings, construction drawings, as well as correspondence, research files, contracts, environmental impact statements and studies, financial records, and feasibility studies. There are records for more than 150 projects. Drawings are large folio, pen-and- ink or watercolor on paper, linen, or mylar. Some are heightened with color.

Also included is a series documenting the development of CARLA, Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis, in the 1970s. Beverly Willis was interested in issues that affected planning, population density, and land-use economics in relation to large-scale development. Along with Eric Tiescholz and Jochen Eigen, she developed a program that enabled architects, with the use of computers, to develop site plans and design techniques in a fraction of the time required by the old methodology. Records documenting the development of CARLA include computer tapes, correspondence, flow charts, memos, and Jochen Eigen's notes on interfacing CARLA with a computer mapping program in 1974.

The collection also contains a series of Publications, Brochures, and Clippings, which includes biographical information on Willis, Miscellaneous Project Records, and a video of the Yerba Buena Gardents development.


  • 1954 - 1999


Language of Materials

The materials in the collection are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open to research.

Conditions Governing Reproduction and Use

The copyright status of this collection is unknown. Copyright restrictions may apply. Contact Special Collections and University Archives for assistance in determining the use of these materials. Reproduction or digitization of materials for personal or research use can be requested using our reproduction/digitization form: Reproduction or digitization of materials for publication or exhibit use can be requested using our publication/exhibition form: Please contact Special Collections and University Archives ( or 540-231-6308) if you need assistance with forms or to submit a completed form.

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.


Much of the information in the biography was culled from the biography written for Beverly Willis by Nicolai Ouroussoff and included in Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture, published in 1997 by the National Building Museum, Washington, DC.


100 Linear Feet


The collection has been arranged into a Project Index. which is a way to organize the various formats of architectural records from the same project. The index is arranged by project number and contains information, where available, about the location, date, project type, architect, collaborators, and formats for each project in the collection.

A Summary of the Project Index. is listed below. Consult the Project Index. for location information.

Physical Access

Please note: Boxes 1-51 are located in off-site storage and requires 2-3 days notice for retrieval. Please contact Special Collections for more information.

Other Finding Aid

A file-level inventory of letter- and legal-size project records is available at the repository.

Scope and Contents

Beverly Willis donated samples of her designs to Virginia Tech in 1992. This gift was followed, in 2000, with a donation of the bulk of the records and designs from her architectural career. Additional small accessions arrived in 2004 and 2009.

Alternative Form

The Imagebase at Virginia Tech's Special Collections contains nearly 500 digital images of Willis' work, arranged by project, and a folio of Willis family photographs.

Visual resources for Willis' thirteen signature projects can be viewed in the IAWA Visual Archive.

Rights Statement for Archival Description

The guide to the Beverly Willis Architectural Collection by Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech, is licensed under a CC0 (

General note

Some of the information in the scope and content note was taken from an independent appraisal of the collection.

Processing Information

The bulk of the drawings in the Willis Papers were arranged and described before they were donated, and information about the arrangement of the collection was compiled in a searchable database that is available at the repository. Project records stored in record cartons have been inventoried and are included in the database and finding aid.

The first accession, which was arranged and described by Laura Katz Smith in 1995, was combined with subsequent accessions in 2003. A finding aid describing the complete collection was created by Catherine G. OBrion in 2003, using descriptions of materials in the archives database that was donated with the bulk of the collection in 2000. The 2004 and 2009 additions were arranged and described by Sherrie Bowser in 2012. The project index arrangement was also included at this time.

A Guide to the Beverly Willis Architectural Collection, 1954-1999
Laura Katz Smith, Catherine G. OBrion, and other Special Collections Staff.
2003 (CC0 1.0)
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English

Revision Statements

  • 2020-09-16: Finding aid notes updated to new department standards. juliags

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech Repository

Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries (0434)
560 Drillfield Drive
Newman Library, Virginia Tech
Blacksburg Virginia 24061 US