Willis G. Hale

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Willis Gaylord Hale (1901).

Willis Gaylord Hale (January 1848, Seneca Falls, New York – August 29, 1907, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) was a late-19th century architect who worked primarily in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His flamboyant, highly-ornate style was popular in the 1880s and 1890s, but quickly fell out of fashion in the 20th century.

Life and career[edit]

According to the Biographical Album of Prominent Pennsylvanians (1890), Willis Hale became an architect through training in a series of offices: "His preliminary education was obtained at the academy at Seneca Falls, Cayuga Lake Academy at Aurora, and at the Auburn High School, where he finished his schooling. While still a pupil he ran away to join the army, but was too young to be enrolled, and was compelled to forgo his patriotic resolve. After quitting school he was given the choice of a three years' course at Ann Arbor University to study engineering, or an opportunity to study architecture. His tastes inclining more to the latter profession he decided to adopt it, and began study in Buffalo, going later to Rochester, and finally to Philadelphia, where he entered the office of Samuel Sloan, and later had Mr. John McArthur, Jr. as his preceptor. In 1873 he established himself in business at Wilkes Barre, Pa. ; but the troubles in the coal regions caused such a depression in all kinds of business that he returned, on November 2, 1876, to Philadelphia, where he opened an office and met with almost immediate success."[1]

Hale married a niece of chemical manufacturer William Weightman, the largest landowner in the city. Hale designed dozens of blocks of middle-class housing for Weightman, especially in North and West Philadelphia. His lively facades often contrasted sculpture, tile, inventive brick- and stone-work, in an exuberant high-Victorian style: "Hale's genius was to take ... essentially identical rowhouses, with their mass-produced industrial parts and lathe-turned woodwork, and to make them distinctive."[2] He designed a country house for Weightman in Germantown: "Ravenhill" (now part of Philadelphia University).

Peter A. B. Widener Mansion, Broad St. & Girard Ave., Philadelphia, PA (1887, demolished). Widener's art gallery at far left, also by Hale, was added in 1892.

He also designed urban developments for street-car magnates Peter A. B. Widener and William L. Elkins, and a massive city house for Widener at the corner of Broad Street and Girard Avenue.

Widener's city house was one of the most notable in Philadelphia. An ornate Flemish-style eclectic design in highly-wrought brownstone and brick, it had a 53-foot (16.2 m) facade on Broad Street and a 144-foot (43.9 m) facade on Girard Avenue. The over-the-top interiors were decorated by George Herzog, and included buxom nudes as newel posts, walls embellished with alabaster and bronze, and murals of the Widener children in Renaissance dress.[3] Almost an anachronism when completed in 1887, the family lived there only a dozen years before building a sedate neo-Georgian palace in the suburbs: Lynnewood Hall. The city house served as a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1900–1946; the offices of an architectural firm, and in 1970 became the Conwell School of Theology's Institute for Black Ministries.[4] It suffered a catastrophic fire in 1980, and was demolished.

In 1892, Hale designed the Lorraine Apartment House at Broad and Fairmount Streets in Philadelphia, completed in 1894. Purchased by radio evangelist Father Divine in 1948, the building is now known as the Divine Lorraine Hotel.

Hale (Lucas) Building in 1889. "Perhaps the most bizarre-looking skyscraper of the nineteenth century."[5]

Hale designed numerous ornate office buildings in Center City Philadelphia, but few survive unaltered. He built his own office building at the southwest corner of Chestnut and Juniper Streets (1887, expanded 1892, altered), an unsuccessful investment that almost bankrupted him. The critic for the magazine Architectural Record declared it an "architectural aberration":

Consider the Hale Building, how it grows. The problem was to erect a seven-story office building with a narrow front on the principal street, and with rooms devoted to similar purposes and of similar dimensions throughout. The danger was that this uniformity would produce monotony. There is nothing of which your Philadelphia architect is so afraid as of monotony. In fact it is the only architectural defect of which he seems to go in fear. Variety he must have at all cost, and by securing variety he makes sure that he has avoided monotony, whereas in truth his heterogeneousness is more tiresome than any repetition could be. ...[E]very precaution has been taken, and with success, to insure that the building shall lack unity, shall lack harmony, shall lack repose and shall be a restless jumble.[6]

Hale's architectural office was destroyed in a March 23, 1896 fire.[7] He was a near-pauper in his later years, supported by the ever-loyal Weightman. He is buried just outside Philadelphia, in Fernwood Cemetery in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania.

A portfolio of photographs of Hale's work is at the American Philosophical Society.

Frank Furness[edit]

Hale is sometimes compared to his Philadelphia contemporary Frank Furness, whom he admired. But Hale's buildings tended to be derivative and decorative rather than innovative, half-a-decade behind the times rather than ahead of them, more concerned with surface ornament than ideas:

Hale's later fate was exemplary for the followers of Furness. For them, style was an affair of spectacular massing, audacious surfaces, and whimsical detail. ... Their walls were always more clever than their plans; when they were forced to change brick and brownstone arches for marble cornices, as the tastes of the nineties demanded, the new work showed seams. Overdone and uncertain at the same time, Hale's last works were executed for one or two loyal clients from the eighties.[8]

Noted Lancaster, Pennsylvania architect C. Emlen Urban (1863–1939) worked under Hale in the early 1880s.[9]

Selected works[edit]


  • Morris Fleisher house, 2223 Green Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (circa 1880).[10]
  • "Havod" (A. Loudon Snowden house), 429 West Montgomery Avenue, Haverford, Pennsylvania (1881).[11]
  • 2100-block North Uber Street rowhouses, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1885–86).[12]
  • 1500-block North 17th Street (west side), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1886).[13] Development of 29 rowhouses for Peter A. B. Widener and William L. Elkins.
  • Peter A. B. Widener mansion, northwest corner Broad Street & Girard Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1887, burned 1980, demolished).
  • "Ravenhill" (William Weightman house), 3480-90 School House Lane, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1887).[14] Now part of Philadelphia University.
  • 4500-block Chester Avenue twins (south side), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1889).[15]
  • 4500-block Regent Street twins (north side) and rowhouses (south side), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1890).[16]
  • J. & Benjamin Ketcham house, 1708 Green Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1891–92).[17] Benjamin Ketcham's Sons was the contractor for the Hale Building (1887)

Commercial and institutional buildings[edit]

  • Philadelphia Home for Incurables, 48th Street and Woodland Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1880, demolished).[18]
  • St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church, 3805 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1884).[19]
  • Philadelphia Record Building, 917-19 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1886, demolished).[20][21]
  • Hale Building (a.k.a. Lucas Building or Keystone National Bank), 1326-28 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1887, expanded 1892, altered). Now Penfield Building.[22]
  • Three Banks (Quaker City National Bank; Commonwealth Title & Trust Company; Union Trust Co.), 713-21 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1888–89, altered).[23] Only the facade of Quaker City National Bank (721 Chestnut Street) survives.[24]
  • Weightman Building, 1524-26 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1889, burned 1896).[25] Hale's architectural office was destroyed in the fire.
  • Myers Building, 521-25 Main Street, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1890).[26]
  • Athletic Club of the Schuylkill Navy, 1624-28 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1891, demolished).[27]
  • Heywood Chair Factory, 1010-14 Race Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1892).
  • Divine Lorraine Hotel, Broad and Fairmount Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1894–96, interior gutted 2000s).
  • Garrick Theatre, 1330 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1900–01, demolished).[28] Built for Weightman, this 1,561-seat theater stood beside the Hale Building.
  • Powelton Apartments, 3500-20 Powelton Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (begun 1902).[29] The initial design is attributed to Hale, but the project was left unfinished; completed by Milligan & Weber in 1908.[30]




  1. ^ Charles R. Deacon, ed., Biographical Album of Prominent Pennsylvanians (Philadelphia: Biographical Publishing Co., 1890)
  2. ^ Michael J. Lewis "'He was not a Connoisseur': Peter Widener and his House", Nineteenth Century, vol. 12, no. 3/4 (1993), p. 28
  3. ^ Three of Herzog's interior sketches are at the Carnegie Museum of Art.[1]
  4. ^ Webster, pp. 301-02.
  5. ^ Korom, Joseph J., Jr., The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940: A Celebration of Height (Wellesley, MA: Branden Books, 2008), p. 144.
  6. ^ Schuyler, Montgomery, "Architectural Aberrations," Architectural Record, vol. 9, pp. 207-10 (Oct.-Dec. 1893).
  7. ^ "Losses by Fire" The New York Times (March 24, 1896)
  8. ^ Lewis, Michael J. "Furness and the Arc of Fame," in Thomas, George E. et al., Frank Furness: The Complete Works (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), pp. 128-29.
  9. ^ "National Historic Landmarks & National Register of Historic Places in Pennsylvania" (Searchable database). CRGIS: Cultural Resources Geographic Information System. Note: This includes Christopher Dawson (December 1997). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: W. W. Griest Building" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-02-25.
  10. ^ Fleisher house from Flickr
  11. ^ "Havod" from Bryn Mawr College.
  12. ^ 2100-block N. Uber St. from HABS
  13. ^ 1500-block N. 17th St. from HABS
  14. ^ "Ravenhill" from Philadelphia University.
  15. ^ 4520 Chester Ave. The Gables Bed & Breakfast
  16. ^ 4500 Regent St. University City Historical Society
  17. ^ Ketcham house from Flickr
  18. ^ "Home for Incurables" The Public Ledger, (September 24, 1880)
  19. ^ St. Stephen's Church from Bryn Mawr College
  20. ^ Philadelphia Record Building from Philadelphia Architects and Buildings.
  21. ^ Philadelphia Record Building from Flickr
  22. ^ Penfield Building (2008) from Flickr
  23. ^ Three Banks from Bryn Mawr College.
  24. ^ Quaker City National Bank (2007) from Flickr
  25. ^ Weightman Building from Bryn Mawr College
  26. ^ Myers Building from Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
  27. ^ Athletic Club of the Schuylkill Navy from Bryn Mawr College
  28. ^ Garrick Theatre from Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
  29. ^ The Powelton from University City Historical Society.
  30. ^ George E. Thomas and Carl E. Doebley, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, The Powelton Apartments, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 13 December 1978.[2]


  • Eaton, Carol. Willis G. Hale, research paper, University of Pennsylvania, 1971.
  • Foss, James. Willis Gaylord Hale and Philadelphia's Rebellion of the Picturesque: 1880-1890, masters thesis, Pennsylvania State University, 1964.
  • Hale, Willis G. Some Selections from an Architect's Portfolio (n.d., probably c. 1893), copy at the American Philosophical Society.
  • Lewis, Michael J. Lewis "'He was not a Connoisseur': Peter Widener and his House", Nineteenth Century, vol. 12, no. 3/4 (1993).
  • Thomas, George E. "Architectural Patronage and Social Stratification in Philadelphia between 1840 and 1920," The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975, eds. William W. Cutler and Howard Gillette (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980).
  • Thomas, George E. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Girard Avenue Historic District. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 13 May 1985.
  • Webster, Richard. Philadelphia Preserved: Catalog of the Historic American Buildings Survey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976).

External links[edit]