Wilburn, Leila Ross (1885-1967)
Macon, Georgia, USA
- Atlanta, Georgia
Styles & Forms:
Bungalow; Colonial Revival; Craftsman; Georgian Revival; Italianate; Ranch; Tudor Revival
Leila Ross Wilburn (1885-1967), an architect who practiced in Atlanta, is widely known as one of the few female architects in the South in the early 20th century and has been described as “the only woman known to have published plan books for contractors and house builders.” As scholars including Susan Hunter Smith, Jan Jennings, and Robert Craig have related, in a career of more than fifty years Wilburn created plans for hundreds of houses from Georgian Revival residences to multi-family dwellings to bungalows and ranch houses. Most were built from her stock plans, though she also provided some “special” or custom designs.
The majority of houses from her plans were in Georgia, but some were built in other states including North Carolina. A few North Carolina houses are cited by family tradition as her work or, like one of the Horner Houses in Burlington, documented by the survival of original blueprints. Other may yet be identified. The North Carolina houses credited to Wilburn include both modest Craftsman and substantial 2-story houses with Colonial Revival details. Because her designs covered such a broad spectrum and were similar to many other houses of the day, there are probably far more examples of her designs in the state than can be identified.
Beginning with her first plan book, Southern Homes and Bungalows (1914), Wilburn offered a variety of house designs for which she supplied stock plans at economical costs to both builders and homeowners. For each design, identified by number, she showed an overall photograph and one or two floor plans complemented by a description of the specific features and qualities. Her designs changed with the times, but all emphasized convenience, economy, and attractiveness. In keeping with the domestic improvement and reform spirit of the era, she wrote, “What we most need in America is a better class of small domestic architecture, one which shall provide us with homes more wholesome in their exterior appearance and more satisfying in their internal arrangement and finish” (Brick and Colonial Homes, 1920). She emphasized bungalows and other house types suited to the middle class and took special interest in serving residents of small towns in the South. Succeeding in a business dominated by men, she stated, “I feel that, being a woman, I know just the little things that should go in a house to make living in it a pleasure to the entire family.”
Leila Ross Wilburn was born in Macon, Georgia, the first of five children of Joseph Gustavus Wilburn and Leila Ada Ross. Her parents encouraged their children’s education and modeled skills valuable to a future architect: her father was a bookkeeper, and her artistically inclined mother had graduated from Wesleyan Female College in Macon and studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. After her family moved to Atlanta in the 1890s, young Leila studied from 1902 to 1904 at Agnes Scott Institute (later College) and took private lessons in architectural drawing. In 1906-1907 she apprenticed with B. R. Padgett and Son, a firm specializing in residences that influenced Wilburn’s own house designs.
In 1909, when Leila Wilburn was twenty-four, her father died. She went to work to help support her family and opened her architectural office. Like others in a period of fluid professional definitions, although she did not have a professional degree in architecture, she called herself an architect and provided design services accordingly. Aware that she was entering a profession and business environment dominated by male architects who regarded only domestic design as appropriate for a woman architect, she located her office not in the Candler Building, where architects’ offices were concentrated, but in the Peters Building, occupied by realtors and developers. She built her professional world in Georgia around close ties with contractors, builders, and developers, who bought her plan books and her plans and built her houses by the hundreds, including bungalows, cottages, and ranch houses as well as larger residences and apartment houses. According to research by Susan Smith, Wilburn was the “earliest known woman architect in Georgia” to apply her professional skills to the war effort: during World War I she worked “as a civilian for the War Department in 1918 at Fort McPherson,” and in World War II she served as an engineering draftsman in Florida and Washington. Smith writes that in her profession Wilburn “put herself outside the general category of women” and preferred men rather than women as assistants in her office.
Why Wilburn decided to enter the plan-book business is not known, but through that medium, already modeled by men such as George F. Barber of Tennessee, she succeeded in her profession and satisfied her purpose of supplying designs for many people who might not have access to an architect otherwise—to enable a resident of a small town to have “a home in as good taste as his city brother.”
In her first book, Southern Homes and Bungalows, A Collection of Choice Designs, Wilburn explained that she valued comfort, simple beauty, and convenience. She emphasized comfort in designs to provide “Southern people with homes suitable for the climatic conditions of the Southeast.” In Southern Homes and subsequent publications she featured emphasized porches and verandahs, including “sun porches” and “sleeping porches,” referring to typically unheated rooms with many windows to take advantage of natural light and air. The 2-story, 3-bedroom residence in Design No. 883 in Southern Homes, for example, would suit those who wanted “a house of moderate size, but who like plenty of porch room”: it had a wraparound verandah, a back porch, and a second-story sleeping porch. She “abolished” “cozy corners and jig-saw work” and included “useful” and “artistic” built-in furniture from bookcases and buffets to window seats, ironing boards, and concealed beds. Some especially compact plans had no dedicated bedrooms but “beds hidden in closets” or “In-a-Door” beds serving dual-purpose living/bedrooms and dining/bedrooms. (One of the advertisers in Southern Homes was the Murphy Door Bed Company of Atlanta, makers of the “Murphy-in-a-Dor” folding, concealed bed.)
In her subsequent plan books, Wilburn continued her emphasis on comfort, convenience, and beauty while keeping up with current styles and technology. In Ideal Homes of Today, her third plan book, for example, she offered numerous designs for “Colonial” revival designs inspired by “early New England” and “Dutch Colonial”; a half-timbered “English” style; “Italian” with tile roof; and several picturesque cottages. Other volumes added ranch houses and other types. In Ideal Homes she expanded her explanation of her approach and assured readers that she had “personally designed” each house. To expand her fund of ideas, she wrote, she had visited cities from coast to coast, “always with my kodak and sketch pad along,” and had bought “every magazine and plan book I could hear of” to produce “an interesting selection of ideal home designs for the present day.”
In this volume she also gave prices, typically from $25 to $40 for the stock plans and specifications for the houses illustrated. The plans for each order including working drawings—blueprints made at the scale of 1/4 inch to the foot, plus larger scale details of millwork and built-in items. The specifications were “specially prepared for each house” and covered the work of all the building trades involved. For each order, her office provided a “lumber and mill list” of every item, the size and quantity of all the framing and millwork including doors, flooring, built-in features, and so on. Most of her business was in providing stock plans for the houses illustrated in her plan books. Reversing a plan added no extra cost.
She could also provide “special plans.” These cost at least $100, typically four times the cost of a stock plan for a similar house. She explained that if customers wanted minor changes to a stock plan, they could mark those on the blueprints themselves. But “if the changes wanted are extensive, complicated or if you want something entirely different it will be necessary to have new plans drawn.” Likely based on prior experience, she stated, “Absolutely no changes will be made on the stock plans; do not ask it.” She took pride in her “new plans,” but explained that because she drew every line herself, she could only supply a limited number of such plans. For custom plans, she required partial payment in advance.
Wilburn shared in other architects’ practice of publishing notices of her work in the Manufacturers’ Record. A sampling of these shows that her clients in North Carolina lived chiefly in small towns from the coastal plain to the Piedmont, and that most of them built moderate priced, frame houses costing from $3,000 to $7,000. These typically had steam heat and hardwood floors and electric lights. The published references do not indicate whether the designs were from stock plans or custom-drawn. Volume 69 of the Manufacturers’ Record (January-July 1916), for example, noted three North Carolina designs by Wilburn: a 2-story frame residence for $7,000 for R. L. Huffines of Rocky Mount (April 27, 1916); a 2-story frame residence for $3,000 for Miss Lena Reams of Rocky Mount (May 18, 1916), built by D. J. Rose; and a 1 1/2-story frame bungalow, no cost given, for O. P. Pickett in Lexington, N. C. (May 18, 1916). In January-June, 1918, the Manufacturers’ Record reported that W. H. Guthrie of Southport had Wilburn’s plans for a 1-story, frame bungalow to cost $2,800, and other North Carolinians had her plans for 1 and 2-story frame houses to cost $3,500 to $4000, including George H. Wright in Wendell, Edward Morgan in Laurel Hill, Mrs. J. H. Wiggins in Pinetops, and L. S. Bradshaw in Salisbury. The Harris McAuley Company of Norwood, N. C., had her plans for a 2-story frame house with slate roof, concrete porch floor, and fireplaces, to cost $6,000. None of these residences has been identified as to location and survival. Further searches of the Manufacturers’ Record can yield additional citations for Wilburn’s work in North Carolina. When specific information about their status and location is found, these will be added to the building list.
Note: The website of Atlanta’s McDonough-Adams-Kings Highway Historic District has posted reproductions of seven of her plan books—Bran-New Homes; Brick and Colonial Homes; Homes in Good Taste; Ideal Homes of Today; Ranch and Colonial Homes; Sixty Good New Homes; and _Southern Homes and Bungalows—_at http://www.mak-decatur.org/index.shtml (consulted June 5, 2013). They show photographs and plans from which further identification of existing Wilburn-designed houses may be made. Unlike some architects’ promotional and plan books, she did not identify the owners or locations of the houses. Not all of her plan books were dated. The original content is the property of Agnes Scott College Archives and the Library of Congress and protected by copyright laws.
- Robert M. Craig, “Leila Ross Wilburn” (2002), Georgia Encyclopedia, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jspid=h-567.
- Jan Jennings, “Leila Ross Wilburn, Plan-Book Architect,” Woman’s Art Journal 10.1 (Spring-Summer 1989).
- Susan Hunter Smith, “Women Architects in Atlanta, 1875-1979,” Atlanta Historical Journal, 23.4 (Winter 1979-1980).
- Leila Ross Wilburn, Brick and Colonial Homes: A Collection of the Latest Designs, Featuring the Most Modern in Domestic Architecture (1920).
- Dates:ca. 1924Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:100 block Middle St., New Bern, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The large brick residence with Colonial Revival details was built for prominent businessman Eby and originally stood at 222 Broad Street. It was moved in 1985 to save it from demolition. As Sandbeck notes, family tradition states that it replicated a house Mrs. Eby had admired in Savannah. Notably, plans and a rendering of this design appear on the title page of Wilburn's "Ideal Homes of Today."
- Dates:1919Location:Clinton, Sampson CountyStreet Address:234 Beaman St., Clinton, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The bungalow is identified as a Wilburn design in Thomas Butchko, An Inventory of Historic Architecture, Sampson County, North Carolina (1981).
- Dates:1923Location:Kinston, Lenoir CountyStreet Address:310 Washington Ave., Kinston, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The Colonial Revival residence is located in the Mitchelltown National Register Historic District. There are probably several other Wilburn houses in Kinston.
- Variant Name(s):Earl Horner House and Charles Horner HouseDates:1924Location:Burlington, Alamance CountyStreet Address:304 and 308 N. Fisher St., Burlington, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The blueprints in possession of the owner of the Charles Horner House are labeled "Leila Ross Wilburn, 304-5 Peters Building, Atlanta, Georgia—#97, thus identifying them as stock plans from her office. Both houses are cited to Wilburn by family memory.
- Dates:ca. 1920Location:Clinton, Sampson CountyStreet Address:209 E. Johnson St., Clinton, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:Like many of Wilburn's designs, this is a boldly detailed bungalow. Many other similar houses, so far unidentified, were derived from her plans. It is variously dated as 1919 and 1921. According to Thomas Butchko in An Inventory of Historic Architecture, Sampson County, North Carolina (1981), it was based on Wilburn's "Plan Number 675."