Information for Researchers
Scope and Contents
Title: Willis Polk scrapbooks
Date (inclusive): 1908-1924
Collection Number: MS Vault 89
Polk, Willis, 1867-1924
California Historical Society
678 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA, 94105
Language of Material: Collection materials are in English
(3.5 Linear feet)
Collection is stored onsite.
Five volumes of scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings documenting the reconstruction of San Francisco, California after
the 1906 earthquake and fire, and subsequent city and architectural development. Commercial and public buildings represented
include: the Civic Center, the Hobart Building, the Hallidie Building, and others. Includes two folders of miscellaneous clippings
and photocopies of articles.
Information for Researchers
Fragile originals; use microfilm only.
Copyright has not been assigned to the California Historical Society. All requests for permission to publish or quote from
manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Director of Research Collections. Permission for publication is given on behalf
of the California Historical Society as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission
of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.
[Identification of item], Willis Polk Scrapbooks, MS 89. California Historical Society.
Alternative Form Available
Available on microfilm: Reel 238 (NEG 63)
The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.
Architecture, American--California--San Francisco.
City Planning--California--San Francisco.
San Francisco (Calif.)--Buildings, structues, etc.
San Francisco earthquake, Calif., 1906.
No accruals are expected.
Collection processed by CHS staff.
Variously labelled brilliant, temperamental, flamboyant and eccentric, Willis Jefferson Polk was born in 1867 in Jacksonville,
Illinois. Receiving no formal education, Polk grew up learning the building trades from his father Willis Webb Polk (1833-1906)
an itinerant carpenter. In a 1921 interview for
The Chronicle, Polk recalled having worked as a hat boy, a water boy for a St. Louis contractor; a lemonade stand seller; a handy boy,
sticker and bench boy at a planing mill; and as an office boy for St. Louis architect J.B. Legg by the age of thirteen. Proudly
he related the story of how, at the age of fifteen, he had shocked the town of Hope, Arkansas by having his drawings for the
design of their new schoolhouse accepted as the winning entry out of a field of practicing professionals.
By the time he was twenty, he had completed two years as a partner in the general contracting firm of W.W. Polk and Son. This
experience had given him a solid foundation of practical contractor's skills, and although many of the homes built by the
firm were based on standard formulas and designs, Polk had helped to draw up the plans for many of these projects. In 1887,
a turning point occurred in Polk's career. He decided to leave the family business in order to go to work for Van Brunt and
Howe, a prominent Boston architectural firm recently moved to Kansas City. This new position provided Polk with the opportunity
to develop an awareness of abstract concepts of aesthetics and design as well as a familiarity with formal architectural procedures.
Driven by his desire to learn the prominent architectural theories and cultural philosophies of his time, Polk began an odyssey
of self-education. This quest for knowledge and exposure to style took him to Washington, D.C. Los Angeles, New York, San
Francisco and Chicago. During these travels he worked with nationally recognized architects Ernest Coxhead, A. Page Brown,
Charles McKim, Stanford White and Daniel Burnham. Polk's work reflected his belief in the eastern based aesthetics with which
he became acquainted during these two years. He remained closely allied to Academic Eclecticism, a movement which expressed
an overall approach to architecture rather than a specific style. The motivating precepts behind Academic Eclecticism were
a commitment to an academic understanding of historical periods, a formal knowledge of design and a recognition of architecture
as a fine art.
Arriving in 1889, Polk's first San Francisco period was spent in a remarkable number of professional, cultural and social
endeavors. He assisted A. Page Brown with the design of the Ferry Building and subsequently, established his own office within
the year. Polk was appalled by the Victorian devotion to newness, clutter and conformity which contrasted so strongly with
his belief in classical simplicity and the creative use of building materials. Along with Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan and
others, he became one of the pioneer proponents of the Bay Region Style, which combined eastern design concepts with an emerging
indigenous western aesthetic. Polk founded the
Architectural News in 1890 as a response to the regional prejudice in eastern journals. It was in this journal that he first expressed his favor
toward the newly evolved Mission Revival Style.
In fact, Polk was one of the local leaders in the new wave of late 19th century artists, architects and city planners. These
men and women were steeped in classical traditions yet they were daring and creative enough to experiment with new forms and
to utilize recent technological advances in their work. Polk and his contemporaries played a major role in the growth of that
aesthetic movement now referred to as the American Renaissance. Dedicated to the idea that architectural creations must be
beautiful as well as useful, Polk's writings in
The Wave between 1892 and 1899, reflected his commitment to Academic Eclecticism and the ideals of the City Beautiful Movement. In
a number of essays, he expressed his belief that art was beauty and that architecture, as a mean of expression, could effect
the development of civilization.
Living life to its fullest, Polk joined with Gelett Burgess, Bruce Porter and other San Franciscan bohemians to form Les Jeunes,
a group of the elite cultural figures of their time. A popular subject of the local press, their notoriety was increased by
the publication of a unique literary magazine,
The Lark, which is best known for a poem about a purple cow. It was during this period that Polk met and married Christine Barreda
Moore, whose son Austin would later become a leading partner in Willis Polk and Company. It was also during these years that
Polk became acquainted with William Bourn, President of the Spring Valley Water Company, who would become one of Polk's major
supporters throughout his career.
By 1901, Polk had moved his family to Chicago and joined the firm of prominent architect D.H. Burnham, "father of the skyscraper,"
noted for his ideas on city planning. Returning to San Francisco four years later, Polk was with Burnham on April 17, 1906
when he presented his ill-fated plan to the Board of Supervisors. Following the destruction of the city, Polk was put in charge
of Burnham's local office. They hoped that he could take advantage of the building boom and at the same time, effect the implementation
of all or part of the Burnham Plan. Some of Polk's early responsibilities in this position included the reconstruction of
the Mills Building, the Pacific Union Club and the Chronicle Building. Although continuing to accept domestic commissions,
the majority of Polk's time was devoted to the design and construction of commercial buildings.
Willis Polk and Company was formed in 1910 when D.H. Burnham turned over his San Francisco office to its managing architect
and president of the newly formed Architectural League of the Pacific Coast. During the next fifteen years, Polk's company
completed well over one hundred major commercial buildings and domestic residences in San Francisco and the Bay Area. His
commissions included construction of churches, auto showrooms, hospitals, town houses, banks, warehouses, recreational facilities,
mansions, PG&E substations, stores, clubs and office buildings. In addition to basic building construction and in accordance
with his artistic beliefs, Polk applied his eclectic talents to diverse architectural projects. He designed the Water Temple
at Sunol for his friend and patron William Bourn; the street lamp columns for both the Market Street Path of Gold and the
financial district beautification project; the Vallejo Street connecting ramp; and, the bases and columns for Douglas Tilden's
Donahue Foundation and Admissions Day Statue.
Concurrent with his successful professional career, Polk was involved in a myriad of related endeavors. In 1911, his architectural
talents and commitment to civic improvement were rewarded by his election to the position of Chairman of the Architects Commission
for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. As a Portola Commissioner, two years later, Polk returned from visiting Europe
as an unofficial envoy of Spain's King Alfonso. He was involved in trying to save the Palace of Fine Arts from destruction
and in submitting plans for a new stadium for the San Francisco Seals.
Following the first World War, Polk devoted his time to nationally promoting San Francisco as a Dream City. Sensitive to trends
in construction, he was acutely aware of the rapid development of Los Angeles and the threat it posed to the city he loved.
He joined forces with the San Francisco Realty Board in trying to attract investors and residents to the Bay Area by praising
the city and its future. To this end he predicted that by 1971, the population of San Francisco would number five million
and the city limits would extend as far as Palo Alto. Expressing his annoyance with the people from the south, he stated that
"when I'm talking about California,I talk about every inch of ground here - even Los Angeles. When they talk about God's fair
land, they leave San Francisco out."
Toward the end of his life, Polk was receiving noticeably fewer commissions. Although greatly admired and respected by his
peers, perhaps his infamous political involvement and temperamental nature had affected his practice. Never an idle man, Polk
went to Washington, D.C. as a dollar-a-year man to serve as a consultant on post-war construction in the United States. He
was responsible for the restoration of the Mission Dolores in 1920 and spent a great deal of his time promoting civic improvement
and grand architectural schemes, such as bridges across the bay and the Golden Gate; a shore line railway from Sutro Heights
to Fort Funston; and, a major renovation and landscaping of Sutro Heights. But it was also during this period that he designed
and constructed his masterpiece, the Hallidie Building. Commissioned by the University of California Regents, the Hallidie
Building (1917) was the first glass curtain walled building ever constructed. It was this building that had given Willis Polk
his place in the annals of modern architecture when he died prematurely at the age of 59 in 1924.
Scope and Contents
The Willis Polk Scrapbooks consist almost entirely of newspaper clippings which document the public life and work of one of
San Francisco's leading architects, covering the years between 1908 and 1924. These scrapbooks provide a comprehensive overview
of the reconstruction of San Francisco; the architectural, technical and aesthetic development of commercial, domestic and
public building design, construction and materials; and the political, social and cultural activities taking place during
the first quarter of the twentieth century.
The scrapbooks in the collection are arranged chronologically, with two folders of subject specific clippings also arranged