Born in Jacksonville, IL, to carpenter Willis Webb Polk, Willis J. Polk began on his career very early, actually working with a local contractor by the time he was eight years old. At age 13 he joined architect Jerome B. Legg as an office boy, and by 1885 he and his father had launched a partnership in Kansas City (W. W. Polk & Son. His partnership with his father only lasted about two years, however; and in 1887 he took advantage of the work of Boston firm Van Brunt & Howe which had moved to Kansas City. With Van Brunt & Howe he learned the theories current then in the architectural community and actually began an odyssey across the United States, working for several architects, and attending classes led by William Robert Ware at Columbia University.
Two years later Polk joined the A. Page Brown and moved to San Francisco. Polk entered several partnerships during these early years, including an association again with his father and brother: Fritz Maurice Gamble and Polk & Polk (1892 - 1896). Following his father's retirement from the firm in 1896, Polk was forced to declare bankrupcy.
Polk was also very active in his profession, often writing about the terms of good design. Architectural News, published in 1890-1891, was his attempt to counteract what he saw as the more conservative California Architect and Building News.
In 1892 Polk moved to Chicago to work with Daniel H. Burnham, but he returned to San Francisco in 1903 and entered yet another partnership, this time with George Alexander Wright. This partnership lasted until 1906, but Polk maintained his ties with Burnham, working with him on a masterplan for the city of San Francisco (1904-1906). In 1906 when Burnham opened a formal office in California, Polk headed the office. Then in 1910 when Burnham closed his San Francisco office, Polk again opened his own firm and in 1911 was commissioned as the supervising architect of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and became active in the effort to save the Exposition's Palace of Fine Arts when the fair closed in 1915. His interest in conservation and restoration is also reavealed by the 1920 restoration of Mission Dolores in San Francisco. The office continued to operate until 1934, 10 years after Polk's death.
Sandra L. Tatman.
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