North Carolina Architects and Builders - A Biographical Dictionary

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Wills, Arthur J. (ca. 1867-1930 or later)

Variant Name(s):
  • Arthur John Wills
Birthplace: England
Residences:
  • Riverside Village (Chicago), Illinois
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • New York City, New York
  • Asheville, North Carolina
  • St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada
  • England
Trades:
  • Architect
NC Work Locations:
  • Asheville, Buncombe County
  • Buncombe
Building Types:
  • Educational;
  • Public;
  • Religious;
  • Residential
Styles & Forms:
  • Gothic Revival;
  • Queen Anne

Biography

Arthur J. (John) Wills (ca. 1867-1930 or later), a peripatetic English-born architect active in the United States and Canada for some forty years, planned several edifices in Asheville during the city's 1890s growth era, most notably the Asheville City Hall of 1890-1892. He was affiliated during parts of his career with his father James and his brother James W. U. (Urban or Urbane) Wills, forming with the latter the firm of Wills Brothers in Asheville and Knoxville. Wills was one of many architects from various locations who designed Asheville's ambitious and stylish buildings in the late 19th century—many of which, like his principal works there, have been lost. Although many architects of his day led mobile lives, the itinerancy of Wills's career exceeds most.

In the 1871 census of England, Arthur J. Wills was listed as a child of four, living with his family in Leicester. Arthur's father, James William U. Wills, was a mason, his mother Louisa was a dressmaker, and his eldest brother James W. U. Wills, was aged eleven. Arthur's and Urban's architectural training is not yet known. According to the Dictionary of Architects in Canada, Arthur probably went with his father to Newfoundland in 1883 to help plan alterations to the Anglican cathedral in St. John's, Newfoundland.

In the late 1880s the brothers came to the United States and established their architectural practice. Arthur Wills later stated that he immigrated to the United States in 1887 and he may have settled promptly in Asheville. In 1889, J. W. Urbane Wills was listed as an architect in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the firm of Bauman Brothers. By 1890 Arthur and J. W. U. Wills had formed Wills Brothers, a firm with offices in Knoxville and Asheville. The Asheville City Directory and Business Reflex (1890) included a listing for A. J. Wills of Wills Bros, architects, with an office on Patton Avenue and boarding at 9 Flint Street. The firm advertised on the cover of the directory, with Arthur in Asheville and J. W. U. in Knoxville. The business section noted that the brothers had been "operating in this city for some time past" and cited as their work the City Hall, "the New First Baptist Church, corner of College and Spruce Streets; residence of Lieut. A. H. Cobb, Academy street [later Montford Ave.], and other works of minor interest. All these monuments of art are materializations of the deft pencil and clear architectural conceptions of the enterprising Messrs. Wills Brothers."

The immense and complex City Hall was the best known of the firm's works in Asheville. The Asheville Daily Citizen of August 29, 1890, published a description by "Messrs. Wills Bros. architects" as well as their architectural drawing, depicting the edifice essentially as it was built. "They have endeavored in their design to keep each department isolated, and at the same time merge all into one convenient building." This was important because the multi-purpose edifice contained the police department, the prison, city council chamber and other city officials' offices, the city market with individual stalls for selling meats and produce, etc., and the fire department as well as stalls and feed rooms for their horses. There was also a 90 by 50-foot cold storage warehouse under the city building, for storing perishable goods. The builder was James Albert Tennent, who sometimes worked as builder, sometimes as architect. In this case he was operating as builder.

While in Asheville, Arthur J. Wills was a founder of a state unit of the Knights Templar. He was also active in the Scottish Rite Masonic order in Asheville and continued the affiliation throughout his long life, contributing to the publications of the order.

Also while he was in Asheville, Wills made an effort to join the national American Institute of Architects. On November 1, 1892, he wrote on the elaborate "Wills Bros. Architects" stationery to the AIA in New York, "I desire to become a member of the Insitute & write to ask for information as to the necessary steps & qualifications, whether an examination is necessary & c." He noted that because he was "busy at present," he could not come up for an examination but wanted to know how to proceed. In response, the AIA chair Dankmar Adler advised Wills that he need to join an existing AIA chapter—he made some suggestions—and get recommendations from two AIA members. Whether Wills ever did this is not known.

The Wills Brothers evidently left Asheville in the early 1890s, probably spurred by the economic downturn of the time. Urban's subsequent career is not established; he might be the Urban Wills who died in France during World War I, though there were also other people by that name in England.

Arthur' s career is better documented. As stated in the Dictionary of Architects in Canada, in the wake of a fire there in 1892, the St. John's Evening Telegram of December 27, 1892, reported, "Mr. Arthur J. Wills, senior member and manager of the firm of Wills Brothers of Asheville, North Carolina, is visiting St. John's. He was for a number of years a resident of this city and received his education at the Church of England Academy." He kept up with friends in Asheville. The Asheville Daily Citizen of September 15, 1894, reported: "Arthur J. Wills, formerly an architect in this city and designer of the city hall and the First Baptist church has sent an Asheville friend a paper from St. Johns, N.F., to let his acquaintances know what he is doing since leaving here. Mr. Wills is located in St. Johns and the paper contains a picture and an elaborate description of a handsome new Masonic temple that is being erected in that city and which was designed by Mr. Wills."

Soon Wills was back in Asheville, listed as a partner in the firm of "Wagner & Wills, Architects & Contractors" in the Asheville city directory of 1896-1897, noting that J. A. Wagner and A. J. Wills were "architects, builders and contractors (for public bldgs, churches, offices, theatres and large works only), 32-34 Patton Avenue." John A. Wagner had been in the city as early as 1890, when he was involved in construction of the United States Post Office from designs by Willoughby J. Edbrooke (see also Peter Demens). In combining their complementary expertise and experience as architect and builder, the partners doubtless hoped to attract projects in a still difficult economic time. During this stint in Asheville, Arthur became an American citizen in 1896 and began a family, marrying Jane (born 1866), a native of England, in the same year. Their son, Arthur Douglas, was born in Asheville in 1897.

By 1901 Arthur had returned to England with his wife and son and was employed as a clerk of the works in building in Hindley, Lancashire. By 1910, though, architect Wills and his family were in the Bronx, in 1916 they were in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and in 1920 they were in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Arthur worked as a civil engineer involved in architecture. He may have served England in World War I (there is an Arthur J. Wills so listed). By 1925, Wills and his family had moved to Riverside Village, Cook County, Illinois, where he and his son Arthur D. were both practicing as architects. When Jane and young Arthur filled out passport applications in 1925—preparing for a visit to Europe—they supplied extensive information about the family, including birth, marriage, immigration, and naturalization dates. In 1930 Arthur J. Wills, 64, was head of a household in Riverside that included his two sons, Arthur, an architect, and David, an electrical engineer. Jane was not listed with them. Riverside was a planned suburb of Chicago, designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted; the community experienced considerable growth in the late 1920s and was thus probably an especially attractive location for an architect family. Arthur J. Wills's date of death has not been established. His son, Arthur D. Wills, died in Illinois in 1990.

Late in his life, Wills became known for his interest in out-of-body experiences. In 1929, the Riverside architect wrote accounts of his own experiences that were published in Sylvan Muldoon's book, The Case For Astral Projection: Hallucination Or Reality (1936). He also published a book on the subject, entitled Life Now and Forever (1942).

Authors: Zoe Rhine and Catherine W. Bishir.

Published 2009

Building List

Asheville City Hall (Asheville, Buncombe County)

Buncombe Asheville

1892

Contributors:
Dates: 1892
Location: Asheville, Buncombe County
Street Address: Patton Ave., Asheville, NC
Status: No longer standing
Type:
  • Public
Images Published In:
  • Catherine W. Bishir, Michael T. Southern, and Jennifer F. Martin, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999).
  • Douglas Swaim, ed., Cabins and Castles: The History and Architecture of Buncombe County, North Carolina (1981).
Note:

The towered city hall with market stood behind Tennent's 1876 courthouse east of the city square. It too was razed to accommodate expansion of the square eastward.

Asheville City Hall

Montford Avenue School (Asheville, Buncombe County)

Buncombe Asheville

1892

Contributors:
  • Arthur J. Wills, architect;
  • Wills Brothers, architects;
  • James W. U. Wills, architect
Dates: 1892
Location: Asheville, Buncombe County
Street Address: 80 Montford Ave., Asheville, NC
Status: No longer standing
Type:
  • Educational
Note:

The 1892 Montford Avenue School, built on the site of the earlier Asheville Military Academy, was razed in 1951 for a new school building on the same site. The Asheville Daily Citizen May 10, 1892, published a drawing of the school and, probably reflecting the architect's language, reported, "The exterior is a well proportioned façade with a classic feeling in the design singularly appropriate to a public school building, the pilastered wings and gables on each end being in perfect accord with the beautiful tower, which lends a peculiar grace to the whole building... The building is to be finished outside in fine brick work, trimmed with terra cotta frieze under the cornice and terra cotta capitals to the pilasters... The roof is covered with 'Spanish tiles' which brake the monotony of a plain roof."

Montford Avenue School

Elliott Hazzard House (Asheville, Buncombe County)

Buncombe Asheville

1887

Variant Name(s):
  • Biggs Sanitarium
Contributors:
  • Arthur J. Wills, architect;
  • Wills Brothers, architects;
  • James W. U. Wills, architect
Dates: 1887-1889
Location: Asheville, Buncombe County
Street Address: 104 Woodfin St., Asheville, NC
Status: No longer standing
Type:
  • Residential

First Baptist Church (Asheville, Buncombe County)

Buncombe Asheville

1890

Contributors:
  • Arthur J. Wills, architect;
  • Wills Brothers, architects;
  • James W. U. Wills, architect
Dates: 1890-1892
Location: Asheville, Buncombe County
Street Address: Corner of College St. and Spruce St., Asheville, NC
Status: No longer standing
Type:
  • Religious
Note:

According to a history of the church in the Asheville Citizen (July 17, 1960), the 1892 church was built at a cost of $30,000, with "a sizable portion" of the money borrowed against pledges by members. When "the financial panic of 1892 swept the country, banks failed and many members were unable to meet their pledges. During the 10 years that followed, every effort and sacrifice was made to meet the debt. In January, 1901, the congregation finally completed payment of the debt, which, with interest, had risen to $40,000." It seems likely that architect Wills may not have received his full fee for the work. The church was razed in November 1927.

First Baptist Church

Alphonso H. Cobb House (Asheville, Buncombe County)

Buncombe Asheville

1890

Contributors:
  • Arthur J. Wills, architect;
  • Wills Brothers, architects;
  • James W. U. Wills, architect
Dates: Ca. 1890
Location: Asheville, Buncombe County
Street Address: 133 Montford Ave., Asheville, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential

Alphonso H. Cobb House

Asheville Free Kindergarten No. 2 (Asheville, Buncombe County)

Buncombe Asheville

1892

Variant Name(s):
  • East Street Kindergarten;
  • Sarah Garrison Kindergarten
Contributors:
  • Milton Harding, contractor;
  • Arthur J. Wills, architect;
  • Wills Brothers, architects;
  • James W. U. Wills, architect
Dates: 1892
Location: Asheville, Buncombe County
Street Address: 105 Mt. Clare St., Asheville, NC
Status: Altered
Type:
  • Educational
Note:

The Asheville Daily Citizen of June 4, 1892, reported on a "Kindergarten Building: Soon to be Erected in North Asheville": "This building will be substantially constructed and tastefully finished under the direction of Wills Bros., the well known architects." Both the architect and contractor Milton Harding were employed by city benefactor George Willis Pack to build the kindergarten. It is now a residence. The original address was 105 East St.

Asheville Free Kindergarten No. 2

Bethel M.E. Church (Asheville, Buncombe County)

Buncombe Asheville

1891

Contributors:
  • Arthur J. Wills, architect;
  • Wills Brothers, architects;
  • James W. U. Wills, architect
Dates: Ca. 1891
Location: Asheville, Buncombe County
Street Address: Corner of Blanton St. and Phifer St., Asheville, NC
Status: No longer standing
Type:
  • Religious
Note:

The Asheville Daily Citizen of May 21, 1891, noted: "Wills Brothers: These gentlemen have made plans for" several buildings listed in the article, including Bethel M. E. Church. Bethel church was later home of Brown Temple C.M.E. Church; a building at this location was razed in 1976 in the East Riverside Urban Renewal Project. A new church was built on the site with groundbreaking in March 1979.

John Nichols House (Asheville, Buncombe County)

Buncombe Asheville

1891

Contributors:
  • Arthur J. Wills, architect;
  • Wills Brothers, architects;
  • James W. U. Wills, architect
Dates: Ca. 1891
Location: Asheville, Buncombe County
Street Address: 85 Liberty St., Asheville, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Douglas Swaim, ed., Cabins and Castles: The History and Architecture of Buncombe County, North Carolina (1981).
Note:

The Asheville Daily Citizen of May 21, 1891, listed the John Nichols residence as one of several buildings for which the Wills Brothers had "made plans. It is illustrated as a representative house in its neighborhood in Swaim, Cabins and Castles (p. 195) NA 39.

John Nichols House

Arthur J. Wills's Work Locations

Bibliography

  • American Institute of Architects Archives, Washington, D. C.
  • "Arthur J. Wills," Dictionary of Architects in Canada, http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/architects/view/391.
  • Censuses of England, 1871, 1901, Ancestry.com, http://www.ancestry.com.
  • Harry W. Fulenweider, Asheville City Directory and Business Reflex (1890).
  • United States Census, 1880-1930.
  • United States Passport Applications, 1925, Ancestry.com, http://www.ancestry.com.
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