George Lewis Ellis
George Lewis Ellis, Architect [1907-1971]
George Lewis Ellis [†] was born in Wellington, Kansas, on January 20, 1907. During high school in San Antonio, Texas, he became a skilled land surveyor, working summers and weekends for local engineering firms. After studying engineering at the University of Virginia and Texas A&M, he worked for the Brown & Root Construction Company in the design and construction of highways, bridges, and dams. Then, as Civilian in Charge of Engineering at Randolph Field, Texas, he helped build the "West Point of the Air." In the early 1930s Ellis first arrived in Arizona as a surveyor for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. After an assignment from 1933 to 1935 directing Federal work relief projects on all of Southern California's Indian reservations, Ellis returned to Arizona to settle permanently.
Northeast of Phoenix in an area known as Scottsdale, Ellis in 1937 purchased a strip of undeveloped desert adjacent to the Arizona Canal. He paid only $10 for the 16.15 acres — inexpensive even by 1930's standards—because the tract lay on the wrong side of the canal for irrigation, yet would flood when the canal overflowed its banks. The engineer looked beyond the problems of the land to the assets it possessed. Its mesquite vegetation could provide shade from sweltering summer heat. Its location at the base of a natural funnel between Camelback and Mummy mountains created a constant west-to-east breeze that could cool the structures he would build.
An engineering mishap provided the fortuitous circumstance that helped Ellis build his first home. By the mid 1930s the Phoenix-Verde River pipeline that carried water through Scottsdale to Phoenix leaked so badly that it was declared abandoned. Known as the "Big Redwood Line," the pipeline was constructed of redwood staves measuring two inches thick by sixteen feet long. By digging holes down to the pipe, crawling through it, and freeing the redwood staves from metal bands that held them, Ellis salvaged about a quarter-mile of the line. He stockpiled some of the harvest and used the rest to build a home: a one-room cottage with porch, adorned at the gable end with a howling coyote sculpture. He left the redwood in a rough-hewn state, still bearing the marks of the metal bands that once bound the pipeline together. The simple cottage bore little resemblance to Ellis' later, more sophisticated designs, yet began a theme that would be repeated in subsequent works: the use of redwood as a major character-defining element.
The little redwood cottage served as home base for George's expanding ventures. He and Mort Kimsey started an adobe brickyard on Kimsey's farm east of the Arizona Canal, across from the Ellis property. Their first job was to provide adobes for the Camelback Inn, designed in 1936 by Edward Loomis Bowes and constructed in 1937 for Jack Stewart on the southern slope of Mummy Mountain. Ellis was familiar with adobe construction through his years in Texas; the Camelback project rekindled his interest in the subject and brought him in contact with builders and artists such as Bowes, Robert Evans, and Alonzo "Lon" Megargee who promoted the revival of earthen architecture in the Phoenix area.
George Ellis died on March 28, 1971, at the age of 64. Although he accomplished much in many fields, he is best remembered as the designer-builder of handsome and comfortable homes. His buildings enliven the senses but never intrude on them. Their gentle, single-story profiles dominated by crisp horizontal lines captivate the eye. There is an engaging honesty in the way each wall is worked; one can see and feel almost each board, every adobe or fired brick used in an Ellis house. Extensive glazing, breezeways, and terracing sharpen the sensation of being in the Sonoran Desert, while wide overhangs provide shade from the harshest summer sun. Redwood and adobe impart the scents of forest and earth. And inside, space is subtly manipulated—with low ceilings and playfully small doorways — to make a person of average stature feel a little larger than life.
† Pat Haigh Stein, owner, Arizona Preservation Consultants, Residential Properties Designed by George Ellis, multiple property listing, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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