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Ellis F. Lawrence


Ellis F. Lawrence, Architect [1879-1946]

Ellis F. Lawrence [†] was born in Malden, Massachusetts on Nov. 13, 1879. He received both his Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first school of architecture in the United States. After graduating in 1902, Lawrence worked for three architectural firms: Codman and Despradelle, Andrews, Jacques, and Rantoul, Peabody and Stearns, and John Calvin Stevens. Of these, Lawrence was influenced primarily by Constant Desiree Despradelle, his former studio instructor and John Calvin Stevens.

In 1905, Lawrence traveled in England, France, and Italy for eight months. He met and married Alice Millett of Portland, Maine in England. He also spent five months in the Paris studio of Eugene A. Duquesrie and became acquainted with American architects Raymond Hood and George Ford.

In 1906, Lawrence headed west where he intended to open an office in San Francisco. He stopped in Portland, Oregon along the way to visit his friend E. B. McNaughton, a former M.I.T. graduate and Portland architect. After his visit, and the disastrous earthquake and fire in San Francisco of the same year, Lawrence decided to remain in Portland. He joined E.B. McNaughton and engineer Henry Raymond in partnership in November 1906. Lawrence became their chief designer.

In February of 1910 Lawrence left the firm and to work independently until 1913 when his friend and former M.I.T. classmate William G. Holford joined him in partnership. Ormbnd Bean and Fred Allyn joined the partnership in 1928. Bean left the firm in 1933 and both Allyn and Holford left in 1940. During World War II, Lawrence practiced independently and afterwards he formed a partnership with his son H. Abbott Lawrence. As stated in Harmony and Diversity. "Individual roles within the firm are not entirely clear today, but it appears that Lawrence was usually the chief designer, conceiving the basic scheme, then working with others to develop it, and often designing the ornamental embellishment himself."

Probably the first design Lawrence worked on upon arriving in Portland was his own house located in the Irvington neighborhood of Northeast Portland. The large Arts and Crafts style house was designed as a double house, to accommodate his sister and mother on one side and his own family on the other side. He lived there his entire life. In 1907, Lawrence purchased an apple ranch in Odell near Hood River. He and his wife and three sons spent many summers and weekends there. Lawrence also frequented the Oregon Coast and designed an inn at Neahkahnie, an early summer artists colony.

Ellis F. Lawrence was to become a prolific designer, civic activist and a visionary in city planning and education. Both his teaching and design work influenced the development of architecture within the State of Oregon. In 1914 Lawrence founded the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts in Eugene, Oregon. He organized the school around teaching methods which rejected the traditional philosophy of the Beaux Arts school. He believed in the integration of all the arts and an informal, noncompetitive teaching environment; ideas which were regarded as progressive for the era. This teaching philosophy as developed by Lawrence remains the basis for education at the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts.

Lawrence eventually became acquainted with many of Portland's most influential businessmen. He also knew many nationally known figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Bernard Maybeck and the Olmsted brothers. He even collaborated with the noted landscape architects and city planners, John and Frederick Olmsted, on the Peter Kerr residence in Portland. Lawrence served on juries for numerous national design competitions, such as the Victory Memorial in Honolulu, the Stock Exchange Building and Bank of Italy in San Francisco.

In addition to establishing the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts, Lawrence was instrumental in the development of several professional organizations.

Lawrence was more interested in his teachings, philosophies, and his responsibilities to humanity than he was in financial gain and in spite of his many commissions and wealthy clients, he did not have much personal wealth. As his former partner E.B. MacNaughton once said, "while so many of us were making money, Lawrence was making men."

Of himself Lawrence said, "There is the great hope of the profession in the west-absolutely.... If I am able to do anything in the future in up-lifting the profession, it will be more through [the University] connection than anything else."

Shortly before his death, Lawrence wrote, "the making of a School, the keeping of the family loyalties of the staff, the interferences, retardants, the starting of forward looking ventures and resulting steam roller tactics of our critics ... It hasn't all been joy and rapture these last 30 years. But gosh we did have a good time trying didn't we?"

Lawrence died suddenly of heart failure on February 27, 1946. He was 66 years old. In memory of him Allen Eaton wrote, "I have never known any man to reach out as far and yet preserve all those intimate personal relations that were so precious to him ... To all situations he brought in fine proportion a mixture of three precious elements a sense of beauty, a sense of humor, and a sense of right. They were not only his philosophy, but the stuff of his life."

Ellis Lawrence designed over 500 buildings and unbuilt projects, including about 200 houses. Approximately 260 buildings survive in Washington and Oregon, including about 120 houses. Non-residential designs include; churches and associated buildings, commercial and industrial buildings, funerary structures, multi-family residential buildings, park buildings and structures, private clubs and fraternal buildings, public buildings, and university buildings. Many residential and non-residential designs were featured in national publications.

Much of Lawrence's work is not easily recognizable. He did not have a particular style or trait. Instead he designed in a variety of types and styles according to what suited the building's purpose and the client's wishes. The strength of his work was in "his unerring good eye for composition and proportion—the "harmony in his diversity. This quality is apparent in the complex three-dimensional development of his buildings, in the comfortable fit of windows to walls, and in the detailed development of moldings and trim. The relationships of these parts inevitably seem right, even when the relationships are not traditional or familiar."

Typical of many of his buildings is the unexpected juxtaposition of different styles and shapes, mixing traditional details with modern, and formal exteriors with informal exteriors or vice versa. When he was asked to identify the style of the University of Oregon's Chapman Hall, Lawrence's response was "it just ain't pure enough to be branded."

As was the trend of the times, Lawrence designed buildings in many different styles. His era was that of the eclectic architect, in which historical references were important, but not so much as to lose sight of function. No matter what the style on the exterior, Lawrence's designs were always comfortable and functional on the interior. Lawrence particularly enjoyed designing houses. In writing about his mentor John Calvin Stevens, Lawrence aptly described himself: "It is as a functionalist in the domain of residential architecture that lies, perhaps, his greatest contribution to the profession. Functionalists are always modernists of their time. ... [It was] modernists of that day [who] dreamed, as did Goodhue in his later years, of architecture simplified and restrained, expressing functions beautifully and eliminating non-essentials. It was in their case a renaissance recognizing the external verities; a method of work and an approach that called for logical plan and good mass, as well as the right use of materials."

† Kimberly Demuth, Kimberly Larkin and Patricia Sackett, Demuth Larkin Joint Venture, Architecture of Ellis F. Lawrence Multiple Property Submission, nomination document, 1990, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.


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