Beverly Willis (February 17, 1928 – October 1, 2023) was an influential American architect who made significant contributions to the architectural landscape and practices that shaped American cities and architecture. She was renowned for her innovations in architectural technology, urban planning, and public policy. Willis was also a prominent advocate for architects, with her leadership activities gaining widespread acclaim. Her most recognized architectural work is the San Francisco Ballet Building in San Francisco, California. Apart from her architectural contributions, she co-founded the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and initiated the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.
Early Life and Education
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Beverly Willis was the daughter of Margaret Elizabeth Porter, a nurse, and Ralph William Willis, an oil industry entrepreneur and agriculturalist. Her brother, Ralph Gerald Willis (1930–1999), had a distinguished service in the United States Army before retiring to the Fiji Islands.
At the age of 15, during World War II, Willis learned to fly a single-engine propeller plane, preparing her for the Women’s Air Service. Following her parents’ divorce, she moved to Portland, Oregon, with her mother. After completing high school, she pursued engineering at Oregon State University from 1946–48. She later graduated with honors, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Hawaiʻi in 1954.
Post graduation, Willis established the Willis Atelier in Waikiki. Here, she extended her college-initiated mural and fresco projects, under the mentorship of Jean Charlot. In Charlot’s studio, Willis explored the intricate connections between art, nature, and geometry, a foundation that later influenced her architectural designs. In 1956, she innovated a technique for sand cast mural panels, with one such panel becoming a feature in the Shell Bar at the Royal Hawaiian Hilton. This Shell Bar, designed by Willis, also appeared in the TV series Hawaiian Eye.
Beverly Willis Architects
By 1958, Willis had opened a design office in San Francisco, California. With a background as a multi-media artist in Honolulu, Hawaii, Willis ventured into retail store design, gaining national recognition. As suburban expansion surged in the late 1960s, Willis combined her retail expertise with large-scale housing projects, eventually branching into institutional designs, urban planning, and development. Some of her landmark designs include the San Francisco Ballet Building, the Union Street Stores, and the Manhattan Village Academy.
Willis’s architectural innovations often stemmed from meticulous research. She introduced the computer program, Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis (CARLA), in 1970. In 1995, she established the Architecture Research Institute to study the evolution of global cities. By 2002, recognizing the lack of representation of women in architectural narratives, she founded the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.
Willis and Associates Architects
Willis and Associates Architects dedicated its expertise to providing insurance and risk management solutions for architects and engineers. Over its 39-year journey, it catered to over 500 design firms across North America.
Beverly Willis’s architecture emphasized a humanistic design approach, focusing on how design impacts human behavior. Drawing inspiration from the principles of form and function, Willis’s designs aimed at creating a harmonious relationship between spaces and their inhabitants. The San Francisco Ballet Building is a testament to her innovative approach, being the first building in the U.S. designed solely for a ballet institution. Another noteworthy project, the Aliamanu Valley Community for Military Housing, showcased her adept use of the CARLA software, resulting in significant environmental and cost-saving benefits.
Service to the Profession
Willis’s contributions extended beyond architectural designs. She was a founding trustee of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. In 1976, she represented the U.S. Government at the United Nations conference on Habitat I. By 1979, she achieved the distinction of being the first woman president of the California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
On October 1, 2023, Beverly Willis passed away due to complications from Parkinson’s disease at her residence in Branford, Connecticut. She was 95.
Throughout her illustrious career, Willis was responsible for designing numerous iconic buildings, including:
- Manhattan Village Academy, New York City
- River Run Residence, Napa Valley, California
- San Francisco Ballet Building, San Francisco, California
- Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco, California
- Aliamanu Valley Community, Honolulu, Hawaii
- Pacific Point Condominium Apartments, Pacifica, California
- Vine Terrace Apartments, San Francisco, California
- Union Street Stores, San Francisco, California
- Margaret S. Hayward Playground Building, San Francisco, California
- Robertson Residence, Yountville, California
Awards, Honors, and Legacy
Beverly Willis received numerous accolades during her lifetime, including the AIA New York Visionary Award in 2018 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Professional Women in Construction in 2011. Her commitment to elevating the role of women in architecture and her continuous endeavors in the field ensured her legacy as a trailblazer and visionary in the world of architecture.