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Leila Ross Wilburn

Leila Ross Wilburn, Architect [1885-1967]

Leila Ross Wilburn [†] was born in 1885 in Macon, Georgia, the oldest of five children. Her family moved to Atlanta between 1884 and 1888, where her father was employed as a bookkeeper. She attended Agnes Scott Institute (now Agnes Scott College) in Decatur between 1902 and 1904, and developed "a strong interest in architecture," hiring "private tutors who taught her architectural drawing." By 1906 she was employed as a drafter by B.R. Padgett & Son, an Atlanta contractor and architect. In 1908 Wilburn began her own practice as an architect. The following year, her father died and she became the primary breadwinner for her mother and younger siblings. The 1910 U.S. Federal Census, conducted in April and May of that year, enumerated her living on North Candler Street with her mother, also Leila Ross Wilburn, her brothers, Joseph and Ross, and her sisters, Alice and Llewellyn. The family moved to 127 Adams Street in the new Mayson & Weekes subdivision in 1911, where she designed houses for the development growing up around her. Wilburn's house on Adams Street was demolished in the early 1970s to make room for the new Renfro Middle School.

Wilburn concentrated on residential architecture throughout her career, although she did help to design the gymnasium for Ft. McPherson during World War I. She established close ties with Atlanta contractors, developers, realtors, and builders, including Randall Brothers. In exchange for recommending Randall Brothers' building supplies in her plans, the company agreed to publish her first plan book, Southern Homes and Bungalows, in 1914. This was followed by Brick and Colonial Homes, Homes in Good Taste, Ideal Homes for Today, Ranch and Colonial Homes, 60 Good New Homes, and Bran-New Homes. Her plan books joined a tradition popularized in the 1880s by the Ladies' Home Journal, which at that time began to publish plans for moderately priced houses. "Builders and contractors throughout Georgia used Wilburn's design books, and her plans were featured nationally in publications such as Ideal Homes of Today and Southern Homes." According to architectural historian, Robert Craig, her plans were widely built throughout Atlanta and Georgia, "where there are more houses by Wilburn than by any other architect from any period."

According to the Decatur Historic Preservation Resource Manual, "Wilburn's work [was] characterized by a free mix of styles and types ranging from Tudor [English Vernacular Revival] to Craftsman, American Foursquares through Bungalows. All of these house forms are prevalent throughout Decatur." In her earlier plan books, Wilburn emphasized her status as a Southerner and a woman in order to appeal to housewives and underscore her knowledge of domestic space. "Being a woman, I feel that I may know the little things that should go in it to make living in the house a pleasure to the whole family," she wrote in Ideal Homes for Today. Her Southern roots are revealed in her designs for large first floor and sleeping (second floor) porches and in her editorial comments in Southern Homes and Bungalows, in which she recommended the planting of large shade trees. Of the 79 house plans in Southern Homes and Bungalows, only 11 recommended furnace heating; the rest relied on fireplaces. Wilburn embraced the principles of scientific home management then in vogue in women's magazines and books around the turn of the 20th century, including in her designs "step-saving kitchens," folding beds, money-saving stock millwork, and the like. "The arrangements of the rooms are simple and designed to minimize housework," she wrote in Southern Homes and Bungalows. "All rooms are large and numerous closets will be appreciated," she noted of another plan.

In addition to the houses she designed in Decatur, Wilburn's houses, apartment buildings, and duplex designs can be found throughout Atlanta's early developments in Inman Park, Druid Hills, Candler Park, Ansley Park, Midtown, Boulevard, and Morningside. She began designing houses during a transitional period between the Victorian, centerhall design and the more compact, Bungalow style. By 1915 Wilburn listed herself in the Atlanta City Directory as a "scientific designer of artistic bungalows." Throughout her career, she remained in step with current fashions in house design, switching to the design of Ranch houses after they became popular during and after World War II. The majority of her Ranch designs were executed during the 1950s.

Wilburn was one of only two women registered as an architect in Atlanta in 1920. Through her plan books, she influenced neighborhoods throughout the Southeast. In a 1924 Atlanta Journal article, Wilburn articulated her love of architecture, saying, "It took me long years to build up a clientele, and I know that the first years are far from easy. The experience is compensated for today, however, by the pleasure which comes from building houses. There is nothing I like better, and I don't believe I'd be satisfied with any other job in the world." Wilburn died in 1967 and is buried in the Decatur cemetery. In 2003 she was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement.

† Deborah Harvey, consultant with Lynn Speno, National Register Specialist, Historic Preservation Division, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, McDonough-Adams-Kings Highway Historic District, DeKalb County, GA, nomination document, 2013, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.