In praise of Royal Barry Wills and his important role in popularizing and proliferating Cape Cod and colonial homes in the postwar era

A new reader – another Pam – wrote recently to tell me about her Royal Barry Wills home north of Boston and to ask me some kitchen questions. Meanwhile, she has turned me on to this amazing designer – whose Cape Cods and colonials were just as important and influential in postwar design history as any modernists. For today’s Sunday reading, here’s a essay by Richard Guy Wilson, which I’ve continued via a link to the Royal Barry Wills design firm, which still operates today:

The most popular architect among the American middle class after World War II employed three names —and it was not Frank Lloyd Wright but Royal Barry Wills. Life magazine in 1946 anointed Wills as creating “the kind of house most Americans want,” because his books sold more than 520,000 copies, and he had designed some 1,100 houses. Earlier, in 1938, Wills had dueled with Wright in a Life magazine contest over houses for the middle class. Wright entered one of his Usonian designs and Wills showed a Cape Cod house. Although the family initially favored Wright, they selected Wills in the end and built his Cape Cod design.12

Houses designed or influenced by Royal Barry Wills were ubiquitous, as Americans devoured his books, discovered his designs in homemaker and housebuilding magazines and newspapers, and either bought his plans or contacted him for a custom design. By the time of his death, in 1962, Wills and his firm were responsible for more than 2,500 houses. Wills was so popular that a writer for the Saturday Evening Post in 1958 observed: “Many a would-be home owner, surveying the infinite variations of Mr. Wills’s Cape Codders in plan books and magazines has concluded that he is the man who somehow-invented-the-design.

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Comments

  1. Femme1 says

    I don’t have an erudite comment about architecture, but reading about Cape Cods made me think of the last season or so of I Love Lucy. If you remember, Lucy and Ricky moved out of their small NYC apartment and into an expansive colonial in Connecticut. It was furnished with Early American furniture and braided rugs and had those Dutch half doors (where you can open the top of the door separately from the bottom half). And so the popular culture reflected the midcentury popularity of the Royal Barry Willis houses.

  2. Scott says

    Last April, I bought a Royal Barry Wills Associates designed five-bedroom, center chimney garrison. Built in 1966, it features a first-floor brick front, the remainder covered in clapboards. After a year’s habitation, I can report that this 45-year-old building is the most comfortable, beautifully constructed and engineered house I have ever lived in. Everything functions flawlessly. The rooms are elegantly proportioned and arranged, with the main facade facing southeast (as early New England houses did, regardless of their alignment to the street) to best capture the sun’s daily course. And unlike the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired modernistic house I formerly occupied, the roof doesn’t leak. Everyone who visits falls in love with the place — it has a grace and poetry that is hard to describe. My mother begs me never to sell.

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