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. AmyEbbertHill says:

    I like the phrase he used…”Human Scale”. So many of the houses built in the past decade, the McMansions, had two story rooms and multiple roof lines and just seemed too grand to be comfortable. Mr. Will’s home featured in the film clip is a large home, 5000 sq ft, but it feels cosy. You can have big without the pretension! Thanks for sharing this story today.

  2. Laura says:

    You see little Cape Cods all through my Midwestern neighborhood; mine was built in 1939, well before the ranch home and the truly “modern” mid-century design elements appeared. In my house, the fireplace and the dining room corner cabinets and linen built-ins are the “colonial revival” elements that make it so cozy and unique today. I picture the world in 1939 when my little home was framed: the world was struggling out of the Great Depression, Lou Gehrig left the New York Yankees because of a devastating illness, Hitler invaded Poland. It sounds like the American people embraced a familiar, comforting architecture because they needed some predictability and stability in an unstable world. Perhaps Mr. Wills was popular in residential architecture because he understood that very well.

    1. pam kueber says:

      Yes, I think you are right about why RBW was so successful. Hardcore MCM is often accused of being “cold”. You sure can’t say that about cozy Cape Cod designs….

  3. Wendy M. says:

    First of all, I really enjoyed this post. I’m in awe of great architects like Mr. Wills. Thanks for providing more information about him!
    I have a question somewhat related to this post…I cannot figure out what term to use to describe the style of my house. It’s a 1964 one-and-a-half story with some of the elements of a cape cod, but instead of dormers, there are skylights (original to the house.) We bought from the original owners, and her name is on the house plans as the designer. I’m guessing that’s why it isn’t one straightforward design…I’d just like to know what I should call it.

  4. Jay says:

    What a juxtaposition. Traditional houses in today’s post and modern in yesterday’s. Those flat roofs are not compatible with snow belt states. The modern is great but I’ll take the traditional any day. Thanks for the reading list!

    1. pam kueber says:

      Yes: I mix it up! When I give talks about midcentury house design, I talk about how RBW was all about the cape and colonial on the east coast – makes sense: Keep the snow off the roof…. and on the west coast, it was Cliff May & ranches – to keep the heat out of the house. The mash up moves inland from both coasts.

  5. Marion Powell says:

    Wow, what a great post. My comment yesterday about mcmodern houses was a bit harsh but today I’m in heaven.

    I especially loved the pics and info on the tv show houses. Growing up, I wanted to live in Samantha’s house.

  6. My sister lived in a modest, yet gorgeous, custom 1959 cape, with Dutch door, kitchen laundry chute, Mamie pink bathroom, knotty pine den, and quality built-ins. We got married in that house. My sister always said, when she was a kid, that she wanted to buy that house when she grew up, and she did. I felt so, so sad when she moved. It was a real treasure, and now I know who to thank.

    Were his designs built in Michigan, or mainly East Coast? When I looked at some of your other links, it reminded me of my sister’s house, and it makes me wonder if RBW designed it.

  7. Ken Croteau says:

    We recently purchased a cape in Wilbraham MA that we thought was perhaps a RBW design but it turned out the architect was Walter P. Crabtree. He is lesser known but in addition to designing homes he also did large projects such as the Fairfield State Hospital in CT. And like the RBW’s home in the Bob Villa video our home looks very modest from the street, almost like a small ranch as there are no front dormers. But once inside it offers three finished floors of living space with a walk out finished basement. We fell in love from the moment we walked in the door and are fortunate enough to now own this incredible home.

  8. Chad says:

    I just found out that a real house was built during the filming of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse, and guess who designed it! Anyways, they also built a number of houses based on it around the country to promote the movie. Anyways I bet you’d enjoy watching it; it’s so relatable for anyone who’s ever built (or renovated) a house.

  9. Ken Croteau says:

    When I purchased my home in MA we could tell it had been designed by a proper architect. It is a Cape w/o dormers but has a large chimney so we contacted the firm that represents RBW’s work. They had us send some pictures and they were able to determine it was not a RBW home. But we later found out it was designed by Walter P. Crabtree who was quite popular in the New England area. If anyone has any information re this architect, please let me know.

  10. Jane says:

    We bought our Barry Will’s home in 1994. Many local residents tell us ( including the realtor) that our home was moved from Taunton,MA to Raynham,MA in 1960. We have searched for ph9tos of the original home and would appreciate any suggestions or information anyone can offer. Love this house!!

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