Research and Book by Inge S. Horton

Emily Williams: San Jose's First Woman Architect

Emily Williams
Emily Williams

 

Copyright Inge S. Horton


 

"Miss Williams' houses have won her an enviable reputation...They are not only beautiful and artistic, but convenient, livable and planned to save steps and with places to put things."

 

More than a hundred years ago, on November 11, 1906, this quote appeared in an editorial titled "Women as Architects" in the San Jose Mercury and Herald. The author, presumably Lillian Palmer, Emily Williams' lifelong partner and then a journalist with the Mercury, intended to promote Miss Emily Williams as "San Jose's successful woman architect." The main argument of the article was that women design better houses than men, especially when it comes to interior arrangements.

 

Williams-Palmer Cottage in Pacific Grove
Williams-Palmer Cottage in Pacific Grove

Emily Williams (1869-1942) was the "talented daughter of the late Edward Williams," president of the San Jose Water Works. For a few years, she was a teacher, but her life changed around 1898, when she met Lillian Palmer and they became close friends. The two women - with their uncommon professional ambitions - began a lifetime of mutual encouragement and support. Emily's dream to become an architect was an almost unthinkable goal for a woman in that era.

 

At the end of 1901, Emily and Lillian moved to San Francisco. After Emily completed a semester of studying drafting at the California School of Mechanical Arts (now Lick Wilmerding High School,) she searched for employment as a "draughtsman" in an architectural office, but was not successful. "If you were a man," she was often advised, "we would tell you to go and build something."

 

Edith Williams Cottage, Pacific Grove
Edith Williams Cottage, Pacific Grove

Emily took this advice literally. In 1904, using her inheritance from her father, she bought a property in Pacific Grove and, with Lillian as her only help, built a small cottage on Chestnut Street. The two women performing construction work without carpenters or plumbers drew the attention of the local press and they became a tourist attraction. Edith Williams, Emily's oldest sister, strongly believed in Emily's abilities as an architect and commissioned three cottages on adjacent lots. This helped Emily to obtain further commissions, some from prominent women. Dr. Anna Lukens of New York, one of the first women physicians in the United States, contracted for a house in Pacific Grove, and Mrs. Jessie Jordan, wife of Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, for a summer home in Carmel.

 

Don and Annie Palmer House, San Jose
Don and Annie Palmer House, San Jose

The Mercury editorial also mentioned two houses in San Jose and gave friends and acquaintances an opportunity to see the impressive work by architect Emily Williams. Around 1905, Don and Annie Palmer, the Lillian's parents, had commissioned a large house on South Priest Street, which today is South 14th Street. Emily and Lillian lived there for several years and Lillian developed her skills as a metal artisan in a workshop in the basement. The other San Jose house was for the Reverend George Foote at 475 Spencer Avenue (not extant).

Gertrude Austin House, San Francisco
Gertrude Austin House, San Francisco

The publicity from the Mercury editorial resulted in several contracts from San Jose residents in places outside of San Jose. Among them was a large house on Union Street in San Francisco for Mrs. Gertrude Austin, widow of Paul Austin, a former councilman and mayor of San Jose. Emily Williams' example of working as an architect seemed to have influenced Mrs. Austin’s daughter Elizabeth (1883-1958) in her choice to also become an architect.

 

In the years of 1906-07, Emily Williams designed at least eight houses and a pro bono project, a lookout shelter on the coast of Pacific Grove, sponsored by the Woman's Civic Club.

McIntire House, San Jose
McIntire House, San Jose

In 1908, Emily and Lillian took a long trip to Europe and Asia where Emily studied classic architecture and Lillian metal work in Vienna.  After their return, they settled in San Francisco. While this proved advantageous for Lillian's establishment of the "The Palmer Shop," producing and selling metal art work, Emily's commissions dwindled. She designed a few projects, among them another house for a young City Engineer, Walter McIntire, in San Jose. For Lillian and herself, she built a weekend cabin "Wake Robin" in the Santa Cruz Mountains (not extant) and their home in San Francisco at 1037-39 Broadway.

 

 

During this dry spell, an unusual project came her way.  It was the design of an exhibition booth for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco. The client, the Alaska Garnet Mining and Manufacturing Company, was owned and managed by twelve women from St. Paul, Minnesota, who commissioned women whenever possible. Lillian collaborated with Emily on this project and created the lighting fixtures.

 

Cassidy House, San Francisco
Cassidy House, San Francisco

After World War I, which had greatly limited construction, Emily received a few commissions for houses in San Francisco in the early twenties. She does not seem to have worked as an architect after 1924. In addition to the impacts of the Great Depression, bad health might have caused her to give up her beloved practice of architecture. She and Lillian survived the bad economic times by living modestly at "Wake Robin." Tragically, the cabin with all their possessions was destroyed by fire around 1940. Emily passed away in 1942 in Los Gatos after a long illness related to her lifelong asthmatic condition.


 

This article was originally published in 

Continuity– Newsletter of PAC San Jose, Vol.17, No.4 

Photos by Inge Horton, except for the portrait of Emily Williams,

which is courtesy of Edwin Williams.