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WILLIS, GEORGE RODNEY

WILLIS, GEORGE RODNEY (1879–1960). George Rodney Willis, architect, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on August 11, 1879, to Byron and Mary (Rodney) Willis. He was the third of four children. His mother was a descendant of Caesar Rodney, who cast Delaware's vote for the Declaration of Independence; the Rodneys were Quakers who had emigrated to Philadelphia with William Penn. Willis attended Chicago public schools and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1899, affiliated with the Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology). In his last year of school Willis began working in the Oak Park, Illinois, studio of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom he served as draftsman for four years. He eventually became head draftsman. During his years with Wright, he worked with a number of architects who would later become important practitioners of the Prairie School style of architecture, including Barry Byrne, William E. Drummond, and Walter Burley Griffin. Because of health considerations, Willis decided to leave Chicago about 1904. He moved for a year to California, where he worked for Myron Hunt, and then to Dallas, where he and Stewart Moore opened an office together in 1906. From 1907 to 1909 Willis and J. Edward Overbeck shared a practice, known as Overbeck and Willis. By 1910 Willis was practicing alone in Dallas. The next year he moved to San Antonio and was employed by Atlee B. Ayres as a draftsman until 1916, when he began working for C. T. Boelhhauwe. In 1917 he opened his own office and practiced without partners or permanent associates. He shared an office with architect Emmett T. Jackson for several years. One of his first projects after leaving the Ayres firm was the Lawrence T. Wright house (1917) just south of downtown San Antonio, a regional variant of the Prairie School style. Willis's houses in Alamo Heights and Monte Vista provide excellent examples of the architectural vocabulary of Frank Lloyd Wright adapted to Texas.

Willis's Milam Building (1928) in downtown San Antonio was, at the time of its construction, among the tallest reinforced-concrete buildings in the world and the first to be air-conditioned. Willis associated with Jackson on the design of the Builders' Exchange Building. He also designed an addition to the Bexar County Courthouse and worked with Jackson and the firm of Ayres and Ayres on the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium (1926). He designed the San Antonio Country Club's original building (with Atlee B. Ayres, around 1920), the Palace Theatre (1923), the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Warehouse and Office Building (1923), and the El Conquistador Tourist Hotel (1927), now all demolished. He also designed the Brackenridge Park Amphitheater. Willis met his future wife, Louise Scott, about 1918 in San Antonio. They held a common-law marriage until 1943, when they were officially married. The couple had no children. Willis was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and the West Texas chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He maintained his office in the Smith-Young Tower until his death, though his practice slowed considerably after World War II. He died on January 22, 1960.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwestern Contemporaries (University of Toronto Press, 1972). Chris Carson and William B. McDonald, eds., A Guide to San Antonio Architecture (San Antonio Chapter, American Institute of Architects, 1986). Files, Architectural Drawings Collection, Architecture and Planning Library, University of Texas at Austin. Laytha Sue Haggard Kothmann, George Willis, Prairie School Architect in Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1988).

Stephanie Hetos Cocke

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Stephanie Hetos Cocke, "WILLIS, GEORGE RODNEY," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwi93), accessed September 21, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.