The practice of Atlanta architect Leila Ross Wilburn emerged from and reflected the values of the Craftsman movement. Craftsman architecture promoted craftsmanship, solid construction, family life, and egalitarian values embodied in small houses for middle-class Americans. Encouraging homeownership for large numbers of clients, Wilburn was the only woman known to have published plan books for contractors and house builders. She was responsible for a vast number of houses built in Georgia but still unidentified in the field.
Although Wilburn executed few commissioned residences, she established a successful practice and reputation based on the wide distribution of her plan books. Her stock plans were featured in such publications as Ideal Homes of Today and Southern Homes and Bungalows. They were available to carpenters, bricklayers, developers, and builders, who purchased working drawings and erected bungalows, cottages, and ranch houses—in general, as the title of one of her plan books described them, “small low-cost homes” for the South. Wilburn-designed houses proliferated throughout neighborhoods and suburbs of Atlanta and elsewhere in Georgia, where there are more houses by Wilburn than by any other architect from any period.
Training and Early Career
Leila Ross Wilburn was born in Macon in 1885. After her family moved to Atlanta, she studied from 1902 to 1904 at Agnes Scott Institute (later Agnes Scott College). She took private instruction in architectural drawing and apprenticed with B. R. Padgett and Son, a firm specializing in residences that influenced Wilburn’s own house designs.
In 1909 Wilburn opened an architectural practice and realized she was entering a male-dominated profession and business environment in which networking was male-oriented and home design was the only field considered appropriate for a woman architect. Accordingly, she secured office space not in the Candler Building, where architects’ offices were concentrated, but in the Peters Building, occupied by realtors and developers. She built her professional world around close ties with contractors, who bought her plan books and built her houses by the hundreds. Thus, large numbers of clients benefited from her expertise without having to pay the fees of a professional architect. Scores of builders erected homes to her design.
Significance as an Architect
This widespread distribution of her designs through plan books conformed to her intention to broaden the availability of good house design. “What we most need in America,” she writes in Brick and Colonial Homes: A Collection of the Latest Designs, Featuring the Most Modern in Domestic Architecture, “is 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.” To serve this goal, Wilburn spent her vacations visiting other cities, photographing houses, making sketches, and buying books “so as to keep myself well posted on every new feature in home architecture. I feel that, being a woman, I know just the little things that should go in a house to make living in it a pleasure to the entire family.”
From the date of her first plan book, Southern Homes and Bungalows (1914) until her death in 1967, Wilburn reflected changing tastes in domestic design and translated practical requirements and sound planning to home design for a mass market.
In 2003 Wilburn was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.