Perspectives in Architecture: Timeless designs from a trailblazer

Leila Ross Wlburn

Tiny houses have made a big impact with the public. Thousands of people attended the Decatur Tiny House Festival this fall for the second year in a row to tour homes less than 400 square feet in size and to see presentations by leading professionals in this housing movement. HGTV has garnered solid ratings with television programs, such as “Tiny Luxury” and “Tiny House Hunters.” Many people are drawn to the idea of efficient, yet stylish homes. Leila Ross Wilburn, one for the first female architects in the State of Georgia, championed this design approach starting in 1909 when she opened her architectural practice in Downtown Atlanta.

A home designed by Wilburn in Morningside.

Undaunted by limited career opportunities at the time for female architects, this former student at Agnes Scott Institute (now Agnes Scott College) designed countless single-family homes and several commercial buildings and apartment buildings during her 55-year career. Her Wilburn House Condominiums, an architectural jewel on the National Register of Historic Places, sits next to Piedmont Park. In 1914, Wilburn wrote her first plan book, Southern Homes and Bungalows, to promote her designs for Craftsman-style houses. Latter plan books showcased designs and construction drawings for Colonial Revival and Ranch-style homes. This trailblazer wanted to create a “better class of small domestic architecture, one which shall provide us with homes more wholesome in their exterior appearance and more satisfying in their internal arrangement and finish.”

Southern Homes & Bungalows by Leila Ross Wilburn.

Architect John Busby FAIA, whose architectural firm Jova Daniels Busby was responsible for landmarks such as Colony Square and the Round Bank, has owned his Wilburn-designed home in Morningside since 1966. He and his wife, Maryanne, were “impressed with the inviting turret at the entry, the dark slate roof, and the circulation and efficiency of the interior spaces.” Although he made renovations to his brick house prior to the discovery of its historical significance, Busby retained the integrity and scale of Wilburn’s original design. He reused elements, such as doors, with the renovation work recognizing their beauty and quality construction materials.

Utilizing these plan books, contractors built homes designed by Leila Ross Wilburn across the metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, and the South; and as far away as Michigan. Wilburn died in longtime community of Decatur fifty years ago in November 1967, but her legacy endures with enthusiasts like Busby. He challenges current and future owners of Wilburn-design buildings to research her inspirational life. Even with the changing demands of living since the homes were built, Busby advises owners to appreciate the historical style of the structures. Preferences with building styles change over time, but the efficiency, craftmanship, and elegance of Wilburn’s homes are timeless assets for residential building design.

 

Melody L. Harclerode, AIA, promotes significant historical, cultural, and natural sites as an organizational leader, architect and writer.

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