Beverly Willis, 95, dies; Architect and advocate for women in the field

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Beverly Willis, 95, dies; Architect and advocate for women in the field
San Francisco Ballet Building Civic Center, in San Francisco, Calif. in 2017. (Library of Congress via The New York Times)

by Jori Finkel

NEW YORK, NY.- “Can you name five female architects?”

That question was posed repeatedly and pointedly by Beverly Willis, an architect who helped women break through her field’s glass ceiling by running her own accomplished firm in San Francisco and creating a foundation in New York for promoting women’s contributions to the industry.

She died at 95 Sunday at her home in Branford, Connecticut, where she was in hospice care, her spouse, Wanda Bubriski, said. The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.

In San Francisco, Willis created several destination buildings. She won acclaim for her 1965 conversion of three Victorian homes into a retail and restaurant complex — an early example of finding a modern purpose for a historic building, a practice now known as adaptive reuse. In 1983, she completed the San Francisco Ballet Building, recognized at the time as the first building in the United States designed exclusively for a major ballet school.

As one of the few prominent women in her field, Willis, who spent the following decades in New York, made it her mission to recognize the work of her female predecessors and contemporaries.

She celebrated the achievements of Emily Warren Roebling, who spent years helping with the planning and building of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband, Washington Roebling, the bridge’s chief engineer, fell sick and was bedridden. She championed the work of landscape designer M. Betty Sprout, who, in the 1930s and ’40s in Manhattan, shaped the plantings for Bryant Park, the Conservatory Garden in Central Park and City Hall Park, among other major projects. And she recognized the work of little-known 20th-century female architects, as well as more established ones who worked into the 21st century as well, like Zaha Hadid, Annabelle Selldorf and Elizabeth Diller, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

These are just a few of the architects, designers and construction chiefs highlighted in Willis’ short film “Unknown New York: The City That Women Built.” That film, made in 2018, features a compelling narrative device: a map of Manhattan redrawn to show how the city has changed because of women’s contributions.

Willis said she created the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation in 2002 out of frustration at seeing women largely absent from architectural history textbooks. When she asked people to name five female architects, a favorite question of hers, most could not come up with more than two or three. As she said in her film, “I knew that women had planned, designed, built or developed all types of construction in Manhattan, yet their works — their blood, sweat and tears — were either blatantly shunned, labeled as anonymous or credited to someone else.”

Beverly Ann Willis was born Feb. 17, 1928, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Ralph and Margaret (Porter) Willis. Her mother was a nurse, her father an oil industry entrepreneur.

Some of her earliest memories were of exploring rugged oil fields and being mesmerized by the big machinery there. The sites were her playground of sorts. “I climbed derricks,” she told Frances Anderton of the California public radio station KCRW in 2017.

By 1934, her parents had divorced and her father’s business had gone under. He soon disappeared from her life. Her mother, unable to provide for Beverly and her younger brother, also named Ralph, placed them in an orphanage for six years.

In a biographical section of Willis’ book “Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture” (1995), written with architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, Ouroussoff wrote that her orphan years had been formative. Under the “crushing weight of unfeeling institutions,” he wrote, she established a fierce independence as a means of survival, building on the self-reliance she developed in the oil fields.

By the time she was 17, he noted, she had “worked in a welding shop, learning to rivet, to wire equipment and to practice woodworking.” She also learned as a teenager to fly a single-engine propeller plane.

By then she had moved with her mother to Portland, Oregon, where Beverly studied engineering at Oregon State University from 1946 to 1948. After studying and living for a while in San Francisco, she transferred to the University of Hawaii and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree there in 1954.

Willis got her start as a designer in Hawaii, where she studied fresco painting under painter and muralist Jean Charlot. Most memorably, she designed the Shell Bar of the Hawaiian Village Hotel on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, embedding Pacific Ocean seashells into the bar and tabletops — an early example of how nature inspired her work.

She returned to San Francisco in 1958 to open a design office, which handled furniture projects, office interiors and the occasional supermarket remodeling. Most ambitiously, she was asked to convert three Victorian homes on Union Street into a retail and restaurant complex.

An imaginative writer and thinker steeped in both classic mythology and contemporary psychology, Willis understood with this project just how much preserving details from the past — wrought-iron rails, gaslights and gingerbread cornices included — could appeal to a modern consumer.

“Stepping into the designer boutiques and intimate bistros,” she wrote in “Invisible Images,” “one senses the ambience of a time when waistcoated merchants knew customers’ names, small shops carried one-of-a-kind merchandise, and ladies with hand-painted parasols met top-hatted gentlemen for a leisurely afternoon tea.”

The Union Street Shops project, completed in 1965, is considered one of the earliest success stories in the adaptive-reuse field; historian Clare Lorenz noted that “it foreshadowed national efforts to restore old buildings in city centers.”

Despite the acclaim this project received, Willis found herself unable to apply for a state license as an architect because she had never worked under another architect. She considered suing but turned instead to Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a friend from her time there, who put in a call to Gov. Pat Brown of California. Three days later, she received the documentation needed to sit for the exams. She obtained her license in 1966.

She became head of the California chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1979.

Overseeing several large-scale residential projects in the 1970s, Willis found a new ally: computers. In order to better analyze proposed developments in terms of environmental impact, considering factors like housing density, building types and costs, she worked with Eric Teicholz and Jochen Eigen to develop the Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis, or CARLA.

She used this program in 1973 to site 98 apartments on a bluff in Pacifica, California, and in 1979 to design the Aliamanu Valley Community for Military Family Housing, consisting of 525 buildings set in the crater of an extinct volcano in Honolulu. Many of her peers in the field also used CARLA for a time; that project is now featured in “Emerging Ecologies: Architecture and the Rise of Environmentalism,” an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that will run until Jan. 20.

It was in 1983 that Willis completed her most recognizable project: the San Francisco Ballet Building, known for its elegant proportions and powerful use of curved glass in the balconies and lobby, evoking the folds of theatrical curtains. She consulted dancers on aspects of the design, a process that led to some unusual features, including a reengineering of fluorescent lighting tracks to eliminate flickering, a physical therapy center on site, and natural ventilation as an alternative to air conditioning. (“The dancers really appreciated that,” she said.)

Willis relocated to New York in 1991 and worked there for a diverse range of clients before creating her foundation. Among other initiatives, the foundation has run an “emerging leaders” program and organized a strategic-planning retreat for professional women in the building industry. It has also produced a series of short films, some of which, like “Unknown New York,” Willis wrote, directed and narrated herself, serving as a spokesperson for her field into her 90s.

She bought her home in Branford, east of New Haven, in 2005 and split her time between there and New York until 2015, when she started renting out her New York apartment and living full time in Branford. She sold the apartment this year.

Bubriski is her only immediate survivor. An architectural historian, she was executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation from 2004 to 2012. They married in 2008.

Throughout her career, Willis found ways to combine her interests in science and art, engineering and philosophy. At times she spoke out against increasing degrees of specialization in architecture.

“I like the idea of the architect having broader knowledge,” she said in the 2017 KCRW interview. “But then I’m also an advocate for an architect playing a leadership role in society at large, and I think we live in a bubble. I think it’s important to try to break out of that bubble.

“Architects," she continued, “should be reaching out in every way possible to the general public. Because right now the profession basically talks to themselves.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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