Royal Barry Wills: Biography and Comprehensive Online Guide

Royal Barry Wills – image from Royal Barry Wills Architects

Royal Barry Wills — one of the most influential residential architects of the 20th century — I think, the most influential residential architect of the 20th century — was born on August 21, 1895 and died on January 10, 1962. That means that today is the 50th anniversary of his death.

He was such an amazing person — the #1 person that I’d like to meet from the past — and on the occasion of this anniversary, I’ve compiled this comprehensive online guide. If you love mid century — and especially, midcentury modest — you need to know about Royal Barry Wills.

Royal Barry Wills Architects Inc. still is in business, I have spoken with them several times and even drove to Boston a while back to interview Richard Wills, Royal’s son, who now leads the firm. Dave Stuhlsatz, an architect there also has contributed several wonderful stories to the blog. I told them I was doing this page to commemorate the anniversary, and they quickly volunteered to contribute. Dave wrote me, “Thanks for the tribute to Royal and for acknowledging the contributions he made to the development of residential architecture. Your post is comprehensive, but… here are some thoughts on Wills and his legacy.”:

There were no tricks or secret methods employed by Royal Barry Wills when he designed a house for a client. Nothing he produced could be regarded as a colonial reproduction, despite the obvious visual references embedded in the forms, materials and signature oversized chimney. His plans were resolutely contemporary, in that they sought to incorporate bathrooms, kitchens and garages without making the radical aesthetic leaps that characterized the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra. Aside from good planning and good craftsmanship, his designs have an inherent flexibility in certain areas. This is due in no small measure to his embrace of the relative standardization in construction methods and materials that took place in the post-war period. Readers and fans of Pam’s blog should take encouragement from the fact that many appliances and fixtures from the post-war era were starting to express a modularity that makes their re-integration into a new house possible, with a little effort (or a lot of effort in some cases!). An embrace of amalgamation and unabashed eclecticism is the resounding design force of that era and authenticity is a relative term. While there are definitive standards for what constitutes a Royal Barry Wills house, there many variations on the theme and many possibilities for adaptation. These days, the lifespan of styles seems to get shorter and shorter but there are always a few things from any era that are worth hanging onto, not merely for the sake of nostalgia, but for an honest appreciation of their worth.
Dave Stuhlsatz
Thank you, Dave and Richard!

Do you live in a Cape or Colonial home, or one with colonial styling? You owe a debt of gratitude to Royal Barry Wills. Read on for my complete list of resources — Core Curriculum for your Major in Retro Renovation from the University of Pam.

Biographical Information about Royal Barry Wills

In addition, Royal Barry Wills Architects in 1993 published an overview of RBW’s life, work, and the colonial style. Not a biography, per se, but an overview. This book seems to be getting collectible – the price on Amazon is high. You can also watch on ebay and likely get the book for less money. From the foreword:

It could almost be called a cult — so great remains the affection in the housing industry for the late great Royal Barry Wills… Few, if any, architects ever commanded such a following.

— William E. Dorman, Real Estate Editor, Boston Herald Traveler

Retro Renovation Stories about Royal Barry Wills

I have written quite a bit already about Royal Barry Wills and also have stories written for the blog by Richard Wills, his son, and by David Stuhlsatz, an architect at the Royal Barry Wills Architects Inc. Following are my key stories to date:

royal barry will signature
One of the Royal Barry Wills books that I own is autographed. A prized possession, to be sure.

Books Written by Royal Barry Wills

Royal was a prolific and talented author. Very early in his career, he understood the power of writing books and articles to publicize his work. I recall reading that he got started doing promotional pamphlets in the 1930s — he was *unfortunate* to be a residential architect during the 1930s, during the Great Depression. He tried to keep the fires burning by publishing and entering contests. One of the most famous contest stories, is that he beat out Frank Lloyd Wright in a 1938 design competition hosted by Life Magazine to design a real house for a real family. FLW apparently didn’t even try to design the house the family wanted; RBW did. This kinds of sums of RBW’s life and work: He built real houses that real people wanted. He was kind of eschewed by the high-falutin’ architectural community because he (1) designed residential and (2) designed colonial style. The architectural literati, on the other hand, were as a rule about commercial and cutting-edge modern.

One of Royals’ books – the original Houses for Homemakers, sold hundreds of thousands of copies when it was published in 1945 — as World War II was coming to an end. This is like Harry Potter numbers! This writing is part of what made RBW hugely influential. Prospective home owners all across the country bought his books while they were contemplating their American dream house. They read about his Cape Cod style — and that is the kind of house they wanted to buy when they finally had the money. Remember Miracle on 34th Street? The family bought a cape. Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House: A Colonial. Lucy’s suburban house was a 1928 colonial with early American interiors. And heck, Samantha Stephens, I Dream of Jeannie and even The Partridge Family all lived on the same street, yes, full of Colonial-styled homes.

While most people today associate ranch houses with midcentury America, I believe there were actually many many more Cape- and colonial-style houses built than what is really considered a classic ranch. Over time, the styles merged, too — we see lots of “ranch houses” from the era that have colonial-style exteriors. And inside colonial-style homes, we have ranch-style “open plan” and casual style living. Bottom line: Royal Barry Wills’ ethic dominated the housing landscape then — and I’d say, even now. We are a traditonal nation. We love our center hall colonials. We — and builders — favor traditional style. Following are all the Royal Barry Wills titles that I know of — I have slowly but surely collected all of them over the past few years. My favorite is Houses Have Funny Bones — hilarious!:

  • Houses for Good Living (1940)
  • The Business of Architecture (1941)
  • Better Houses for Budgeteers (1941)
  • Houses for Homemakers (1945)
  • Planning Your Home Wisely (1946)
  • Houses Have Funny Bones (1951)
  • Living on the Level (1954)
  • Tree Houses (1957)

Other information about Royal Barry Wills

  • Either just before or during WWII, RBW designed an apartment complex for defense workers called Lucy Mallory Place, in Springfield, Mass.  I can’t believe I havent’ been there yet, it’s so close to me. I will take photos of all the houses on Barry Wills Place — see it highlighted on the google map, above — and otherwise ogle the RBW designs.
  • I also spoke today (1/10/12) with Charlie Wills, Royal’s oldest son. He told me he was one of the builders that built homes within Royal Barry Wills’ first subdivision project after the war — on 200 acres in Lynnfield, Mass. Charlie said that Royal had a partner in this effort. Charlie also said Royal went on to do several other subdivision projects, including in Cohasset, where he and his wife had a summer home. That summer home is featured prominently in Houses Have Funny Bones. Very interesting — but not surprising — to me that Royal’s two sons, Charlie and Richard, went on to become a builder and an architect, respectively.
  • Bob Vila has a four-part series on Colonial house features.
  • RBW designed a line of furniture for Willett Furniture — but I don’t have the ad. Yet.

Categoriespostwar culture
  1. Ryan Field says:

    I’ve been told I own a Wills “contemporary colonial” and I could only find one like it in Falmouth, MA. I’m in Bucks County, PA. I’d love to find out more if possible.

  2. Andy says:

    Growing up, (Wayland, MA), one of my neighbors lived in a small cape designed by RBW. Is there an archive of his plans? I would love to replicate that house for retirement.

      1. John Robinson says:

        Check the online archives of Wills work at historicalnewengland.org where it’s all been digitized.

  3. johm Dunne says:

    RBW also designed a war memorial for the grange in melrose the mayor wants to tear it down

  4. Lisa says:

    Your website is very useful, thank you. Do any of you know if RBW ever designed any colonial revival capes in Savannah, GA?

  5. Lauren Le Beau says:

    Hi Pam,
    I recently started researching Colonial Revival Capes in an effort to find out more about my recently purchased home. In the process learned about Royal Barry Wills and was intrigued to learn more about him, which lead me here. Have you ever heard of Wills designing any homes in San Gabriel CA? My home fits all of his requirements. Built in 1941 by a dutch engineer I think it was definitely inspired by him but am wondering if his influence would have made it out West that early? Thanks for your interesting articles, very enjoyable!

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