BRANFORD — She survived the concrete-block industrial walls of a Depression-era orphanage and, in 1943, an engine malfunction of a prop plane over Tulsa, Okla. She was 15 and practicing for her pilot’s license in the hopes of enlisting in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
Then, after discovering a gift for art and design, Branford’s Beverly Willis went on to establish a portfolio of over 800 projects — among them, the room in which the peace treaty between the United States and Japan was negotiated, and the iconic San Francisco Ballet Building.
Along the way, she’s rubbed shoulders with tycoons, five-star admirals, and grand dames; pioneered a movement that linked human behavior to design; and, above all, developed “sharp elbows,” as she put it, to thwart efforts at dismissing her projects because she was a woman.
“I don’t get intimidated easily,” said the soft-spoken, snowy-haired Willis, 92, the first female to lead an architectural firm in San Francisco, as she sipped tonic water on a recent afternoon at her waterfront house in Short Beach.
She’s retired now. But it’s not been a retiring retirement.
In 2002, she established the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation to shine a light on women architects who were left out of the history books, and to change the culture for women in the field of architecture through research and education.
Her motto: there’s a solution for everything. You just have to know what you know and find out who knows what you don’t.
She learned that lesson from titan of industry Henry Kaiser, whose businesses included the production of cement for Hoover Dam, shipbuilding, and real estate development, as well as constructing hospitals to ensure affordable health care for his employees.
Willis had begun her professional career as a fresco painter, a skill she learned at the University of Hawaii, under the guidance of the renowned painter Jean Charlot. By the time she opened her own atelier in Honolulu in 1954, word of her uncanny talent had spread across the estates, mansions, and villas of the island.
Kaiser, who had settled in Hawaii, commissioned the 26-year-old to upgrade the bar and dining room of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, a lavish resort that would later form the backdrop of the television series “Hawaii 5-0.”
“While I was doing the work, he became interested in my art and design, and he would talk to me about it,” she said.
The day before the opening, Kaiser looked at the greenery. She saw him wince. “The landscapers had done the correct thing which was to grow small plants that were going to grow into big plants but it would take a month to get there or more, and he wanted it to look final,” she said.
He fired the landscapers, ordered the plants to be ripped out, and had a table and telephone placed in a viewing spot for Willis.
“He said he and I would design the landscape together,” she said. “I protested that I knew nothing about plants. He said I would literally paint the landscape using plant colors and textures. He didn’t care if after the opening they had to be replaced. He wanted it picture-perfect for opening night, not a lot of tiny plants.
“So he had the nursery people parade plants in front of me and I picked out plants by their size, their color, by the shape of their leaves, by the contrast.”
The rousing success of the opening came with a lifelong lesson. “Everything is possible. You just have to know whom to call to get the answer. That’s what the telephone was for.”
It was a formula, it seems, that freed her to take chances, think outside the box, and push boundaries to realize her vision. In doing so, she “lay down the claim for women in this profession,” as Susannah Lessard, author of “The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family,” put it.
Her work with Kaiser led to a commission by a sergeant to design an officer’s club at a Hawaii military base. She hired an architect and a contractor to do the construction work and completed the project, then suggested a similar design for enlisted men.
“His superiors balked,” she recalled. “In their view officers were gentlemen and could appreciate a well-designed club, whereas enlisted men were a rough lot, whose clubs featured fights, broken furniture, and destroyed interiors, and who would not value a well-designed club.”
She maintained to the sergeant that the appreciation of beauty was instinctive to human nature, not an educated taste. He communicated her belief. They prevailed. “Without being asked, the men began to dress in clean pressed slacks and shirts,” she said. “The brawling ceased and good behavior ensued.”
Her belief: design can influence human behavior. That came into play again when she was commissioned to design the San Francisco Ballet Building, which she based “on the lean and tall lines of a dancer,” she told the New York Times, after conducting exhaustive interviews with dancers on their needs.
The impact of what the Times identified as “the first building in the United States to be designed exclusively for the use of a major ballet company,” was resounding. “Dance people don’t merely visit the San Francisco Ballet Building,” the Boston Globe Magazine wrote. “They make pilgrimages to it.”
Even as she was gaining renown, she was becoming aware of the friction between men and women in her profession. “At first, it was ‘I’m not going to hire a woman,’ so women didn’t have much choice except to organize,” she said.
“Then they would say ‘look, I’ve hired a woman, what more do you want?’ and when women still didn’t relent, they’d hire a second woman but then what they’d do would be to put the two women in competition with each other.”
In recent years, she’s been engaged in understanding, as she put it, “why so many young and talented women who have excelled in architecture school are dropping out within their first 10 years of practice,” she said.
Though she’s given up the reins of her foundation, now exerting, as she wryly put it, “indirect influence,” she’s still writing and directing documentary films like “A Girl is a Fellow Here: 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.” She’s still sounding off in favor of gender equity in architecture — in particular, the problem of sexual misconduct in the field.
She’s still urging citizens to vote, as she did in early September, clad in white as a member of the “Silent Sentinels,” at the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment on the Branford Green.
As for her relative anonymity on the Shoreline, she’s content, it seems.
“I’m 92 years old, I’ve done so incredibly many things in my lifetime, so I just take great pride and pleasure in still being active and working on the issues that are important to me,” she said.
“There’s so much work still to be done.”
Lisa Reisman may be reached at email@example.com