Heister, Michael (1870-1948)

Michael Heister (1870-1948), a native of Ohio, was an architect active in North Carolina and much of the South in the first half of the twentieth century. He was the chief designer in the prolific firm of the better known architect Frank Pierce Milburn (1868-1926). He worked with Milburn as a draftsman ca. 1900-1909 and from 1909 onward as a partner in Milburn, Heister, and Company. The association proved to be long-lived and productive. Although overshadowed in the public view by Milburn, Heister’s regular identification as the chief designer for the firm suggests that he was responsible for the character of many of its key buildings, including prominent edifices in free versions of Beaux Arts neoclassicism.

Michael Heister was born in Ohio on March 23, 1870, a son of John Heister, a native of Germany, and Bernadina Doecker. By 1900, at age 30, he was listed in the census as an architect residing in Bellevue, Kentucky (across the Ohio River from Cincinnati) in a household with his widowed father and his younger sister.

Frank Milburn (a native of Kentucky and only two years older than Heister) had commissions in Kentucky in this period, and likely met Heister in Kentucky and recognized his ability and presumably their compatibility. Milburn made effective use of his own publications and contacts with newspapers to promote the firm. In his 1901 publication, Designs from the Work of Frank P. Milburn, Architect, Columbia, S. C., Milburn announced in the preface that Heister, the “well-known designer . . . is now associated with me in the draughting department.” The association proved lasting and productive. In 1903 Heister became head of the drafting department.

The Washington Post of February 23, 1907, carried a long and laudatory article about the architectural firm of Frank P. Milburn and Company newly established in the national capital. Likely reflecting promotional information provided by the firm, the newspaper noted that although “practically newcomers to the city, there is perhaps no firm of architects throughout the Southern country who are more widely or more favorably known.” Among the works cited were buildings for the Southern Railway for many years, and “the new buildings to be erected at the University of North Carolina.” The article cited Frank Milburn as head of the company, George P. Kepler as the engineer, and Michael Heister as “the designer of the firm.” Of Heister, the article continued, “it can readily be seen by the class of work that he has done for the firm that he is a designer of much brilliancy and versatility.” Heister “also has full charge of the offices, and superintends the preparation of the plans and specifications.”

The Washington Post of January 17, 1909, announced the renaming of the firm as Milburn, Heister, and Company, which had its main office in the national capital. Portraits of both partners accompanied the article. Heister, along with Milburn, was quick to gain a license to practice architecture in North Carolina after the passage of the licensing act of 1915: Heister’s license certificate of 1915 was #2 (Milburn’s was #3) in the registration book of the North Carolina Board of Architecture. They were among several men who were licensed by the state based on previous architectural practice and experience.

As noted in the entries for Frank P. Milburn and for Milburn, Heister, and Company, the firm’s best known works in North Carolina included buildings at the University of North Carolina; steel-frame office towers with classical styling such as the Independence Building (Realty Building) in Charlotte (1908-1909), the First National Bank Building (1913-1915) in Durham, and the Wachovia Bank and Trust Company Building (1911, 1917-1918) in Winston-Salem; and courthouses in at least eight North Carolina counties. The largest of the courthouses was the towering Buncombe County Courthouse (1927) in Asheville, where the Milburn firm’s classical design was chosen by the county commissioners over an Art Deco scheme proposed by Asheville architect Douglas D. Ellington as a partner to his nearby City Building. The respective roles of Milburn and Heister in defining the designs of their work remain unclear, especially since Milburn affirmed his importance as the head of the firm.

In 1920 at age 49, architect Heister headed a large household in Washington that included his wife, Mary Stella, also of German parentage and born in Ohio, and six children born in South Carolina and the District of Columbia. Heister was active in a number of prestigious clubs and organizations in the capital.

During this time Frank’s son Thomas Yancey Milburn joined the firm. The Durham Morning Herald of November 12, 1922, reported on the company’s work and its offices in Durham, Fayetteville, Gastonia, and Elizabeth City, with headquarters in Washington, D. C. It identified Frank Milburn as president, Michael Heister as “one of the vice presidents, and designer,” and (Thomas) Yancey Milburn, as another vice president. For a time the younger Milburn headed the Durham office and took a lead role in North Carolina projects, especially those in and around Durham. It is possible that as the firm grew, some of the designs were produced by other staff members, but Heister was always identified as the chief designer. Moreover, the consistency of the firm’s output suggests strong creative oversight by Heister.

After Frank Milburn retired in 1925 and died in 1926, the firm continued with Michael Heister and Thomas Yancey Milburn until 1934. (After Heister retired, the younger Milburn subsequently practiced on his own and died in 1977.) In 1940 the census listed Heister as aged 70 and head of a household in Washington, D. C. that included his wife, Stella, 66; his sister Adelaide, 66; and children aged from 18 to 33. Heister died at the age of 77 in 1948, in Washington, D.C.

Claudia P. Roberts (Brown) and Diane Lea, The Durham Architectural Survey and Historic Inventory (1982).

Daniel J. Vivian, “‘A Practical Architect’: Frank P. Milburn and the Transformation of Architectural Practice in the New South, 1890-1925,” Winterthur Portfolio (Spring 2005).

Sort Building List by:
    image/svg+xml Durham Greenville Raleigh ChapelHill Fayetteville Wilmington Winston-Salem Charlotte Asheville Goldsboro Greens-boro Edenton New Bern Salisbury Warren-ton ElizabethCity