Edmund B. Gilchrist was one of that group of early twentieth-century Philadelphia architects who were most successful in the design of residences in the Cotswold, Pennsylvania Farmhouse, and Georgian Revival styles. Along with Mellor & Meigs and Duhring, Okie & Ziegler, Gilchrist capitalized on the pre-Depression boom in residential development and on the desire to construct country houses in the environs of Philadelphia. Words used to describe Gilchrist in a 1931 Architecture article by Rayne Adams could have been applied equally to this group of prosperous architects:
". . . one may justifiably speculate on how his approach to architecture is made. Metaphorically, its proper time would be not in the glare of mid-day, but at dawn or in the twilight of evening. In some dark pool, surrounded by soft meadows, he discovers, not Pandora's box, but one equally mysterious. And I imagine that he does not hastily bring it to the surface and crack it open; rather he is inclined to stand watching it, imagining what is hidden within it. Perhaps he even goes away without opening the box at all; I am sure, if he does open it, releasing the winged prisoners, he doesn't attempt to bring them down with a gun. He beguiles them -- very likely with a motif from Brahms. Even then, he doesn't wish them to become too rapidly familiar; it is best if they remain at a little distance so as not to lose their mystery."
Adams applies romantic words to the design process, creating a lyrical view of a gentleman architect, but his words correspond neatly to the soft-focus images produced by photographer Philip Wallace to illustrate the residences designed by this group. In neither is the labor (or business) of architecture emphasized.
Gilchrist was born in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia to William W. and Susan (Beaman) Gilchrist. His early education came nearby at Germantown Friends School, followed by one year at the Drexel Institute and two years of elective courses at the University of Pennsylvania (described by Gilchrist as "literature, economics, chemistry, geology, etc." in his application for membership in the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA). Fortunately for the young Gilchrist, his apprenticeship in architecture was served in the offices of two of Philadelphia's leaders in residential design. However, the signature style for each office could not have contrasted more. For one year he worked with Horace Trumbauer, chiefly known for his Beaux-Arts influenced work, both public and residential; and for five years Gilchrist worked for Wilson Eyre. Perhaps since he remained with Eyre for the longer period, it is not surprising that when Gilchrist launched his own firm in 1911, he based much of his own style sense on the English residential precedent which Eyre had successfully propagated in the Philadelphia area.
While most of Gilchrist's work was based on a residential design practice and on clients whom he could have met either through Germantown or family and society connections, he did produce the Unitarian Church in Germantown and, during World War I, worked as an architect for the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks. His interest in housing also went beyond the clustered residences which he had designed for George Woodward in the St. Martin's area of Philadelphia. During World War I he was also involved in the U.S. Shipping Board's Emergency Fleet Corporation housing under Chief of Production Robert D. Kohn. Later he served on the Committee for Design for President Herbert Hoover's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership (1932) and submitted a design for the Pennypack Creek Homes project of 1933.
Gilchrist joined the national AIA in 1916 and later served on its Community Planning Committee (1923-26) and its special committee on the economics of site planning and housing (1934/35). He received the annual medal of the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA in 1924 "for most meritorious work." Upon his retirement in 1943, he resigned from both the national and local organizations of the AIA.
Sandra L. Tatman.
Clubs and Membership Organizations
- American Institute of Architects (AIA)
- Philadelphia Chapter, AIA
- University of Pennsylvania
- Drexel Institute
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