People

An Architect of Our Own, Walter H. Wyeth

By Vicki Priest

Mr. Wyeth is busy these days—creating beautiful “dream houses” . . . . Right now he has 15 of these creations under construction in the district. – The Times Herald, October 9, 1937, page 14. This was during the Great Depression.

If all of Walter Wyeth’s buildings were still standing, I think you could easily see one every few minutes while traversing Port Huron, and very frequently driving around the region, too. You’d probably have a good case for renaming the place Wyethburg. I can’t say for certain (yet) if he was the most prolific architect in the Port Huron area during the first half of the twentieth century, but I’d be surprised to find that he wasn’t. He designed Sperry’s, the county courthouse (which has since been added on to), the St. Clair Inn/Hotel (a National Register-listed property), and numerous homes, schools, and other structures. He was rightly proud of being the architect of the beautiful and state-of-the-art estate of Emory Ford in Clyde Township, called “Wingford.” Unfortunately, many (or all?) of his Moderne style buildings from the 1930s are no longer standing.

Walter was born in Canton [i], Illinois, in 1887, attended high school in Chicago, and graduated from the University of Illinois (school of engineering) with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1911. After graduating, he either apprenticed or worked for the following Chicago firms: William Otis & Clark (1911-12); Schmidt, Garden & Martin (1912-14); Schmidt, Garden & Erickson (1914-17, 1919-23). The gap in his last employer’s pay reflects the time he served during World War I. He was stationed in Philadelphia, but spent part of his time overseeing the construction of “57 of the buildings in the Sparrow Point automobile repair shops” which he had developed the engineering layout for. This plant, in Baltimore, Maryland, was built by the Construction Quartermaster’s corps in 1918. [ii]

But Walter’s first taste of the Port Huron area was as a working visitor shortly before his WWI duty. As the young employee of Schmidt, Garden & Erickson–designers of the Woman’s Benefit Association (WBA) headquarters–he was assigned the task of overseeing that building’s construction. This was in 1916-1917. At the same time, he oversaw the construction of Bina West Miller’s home, “Westhaven,” which he had also designed. So as fate would have it, it was Bina, founder of the WBA, who was the catalyst for Walter’s eventual move to, and influence on, Port Huron and environs. [iii]

He came back again in May, 1920, to supervise an addition to the WBA building (this addition was larger than the original building!), but he must have made an impression during his prior stay in the city as he had designed other homes for residents here in the intervening years. At some point along the way he met his future wife, Mabel O. Mason, and not only swept her off her feet but carried her off to Philadelphia with him! They were wed there on November 23rd, 1918. The 1920 article reported that Walter would be making his home in Port Huron, and he and Mabel finally found a permanent residence at 2658 Military Street in October 1921. [iv]

Among Wyeth’s works are the following (in Port Huron, unless otherwise noted), with a few notes of interest sprinkled in [v]:

• 1916-17, “Westhaven” estate of Bina West (later, Miller), 2828 Military Street. Wyeth may have been only a co-designer. Also, the estate is much reduced in size, with its outstanding gardens now gone.
• 1920, International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Temple, formerly on Gratiot Avenue.
• 1923, J. B. Sperry Building. He boasted that it was the lowest cost fireproof building erected in Michigan “since before World War I,” and it was in this same building that he had his early office.
• 1923, WBA Camp building, formerly along Lake Huron, south of Lakeport.
• 1923, Westminster Presbyterian Church, formerly at Church and Cherry streets.
• 1926, The St. Clair Inn, St. Clair. After years of neglect, this former hub of activity is currently under major renovation.
• 1927, Meredith-Monaghan house, 503 Edison Blvd.
• 1929, Mueller Brass Administration Building. 1925 Lapeer Avenue. It seems this building, which was “one of the most modern and best equipped offices in the United States” (Times Herald, January 30, page 11).
• 1931, “Wingford,” the 4000-acre Emory Ford estate in northwest Clyde Township.
• 1931-32, with architects Pond, Pond, Martin & Lloyd, Chicago, Port Huron Hospital.
• 1935, Sears Roebuck & Co. store (complete remodel). The Moderne store was located at 905 Military.
• 1935, Parsonage, First Congregational Church, St. Clair.
• 1936, Morton School, 920 Lynwood, Marysville.
• 1936, Nelson Armstrong house, 411 LaSalle.
• 1937, N. W. Schlaff house, 5506 Gratiot Avenue (this would now be on Lake Shore, perhaps 4551). Walter used to be a neighbor, at 4536 Lakeshore (in the 1930s and earlier the address was 5502 Gratiot Avenue).
• 1938, Owen N. Smith house, 100 Lockhaven Lane, Algonac. Owen Smith was part of Chris-Craft, and the Moderne home still stands along the banks of the St. Clair River. If the home hasn’t been altered, or much, it may be the only example of Wyeth’s Moderne buildings still with us.
• 1938, his own apartment building in St. Clair, called Wye-Re-Side (commonly known as the Wyeth Apartments), formerly just south of the St. Clair Inn. This Moderne style building, with modern and thoughtful amenities, is sadly gone. Wyeth showed his creativity and mind for conservation by utilizing the existing foundation of a rapid railway station and waiting room.
• 1939, County Detention Home (for youth). The original plans were for an attractive two-story central building with two wings on either side, but a smaller 1.5 story structure was built instead. This Detention Home, on 10th south of Garfield, is no longer standing.
• 1940, St. Joseph Parochial School, 2nd addition, 1403 7th Street.
• 1942 & 1950, Marysville High School (no longer standing).
• 1950, his office, formerly at the southeast corner of Military and Griswold (1602 Military), and the Terwye Apartments (locally referred to as the Wyeth Apartments), 1600 Military Street. The attractive office integrated and expanded upon the Detroit Railway Office that was already there (earlier in time it was a Rapid Railway office).
• 1951, Holy Cross High School, 660 S. Water St., Marine City.
• 1951, Community Hospital, 420 North Street, Yale (with partner Harry Harman). This building is still standing and is now used for senior apartments).
• 1954, County Courthouse, downtown Port Huron (with partner Harry Harman). Originally it was the City-County Building plus a separate Sheriff’s offices and jail, which is no longer standing.
• 1965, Pavilion & Jr. Arena, McMorran Place (with partner Harry Harman).

As may have been gathered from the list’s information, Walter didn’t always work alone. He partnered with John Lassen for a short time, then as a sole architect from 1923 (or 1924, depending on the source) to 1945. He did have employees, though, including a rare female draftsman: Mrs. Dora Adams.vi From 1945 to 1948 he was a partner with Edward G. Bassett, formerly one of his draftsmen; Bassett was a Port Huron native who died unexpectedly after collapsing in their office. He then practiced alone until 1950. From 1944 to 1950 Walter served on the Port Huron city planning commission. He decided to partner again, convincing Chicago architect Harry J. Harman and his family to move to Port Huron in 1950. The office of Wyeth & Harman, Inc., was at 1602 Military Street. Since Harry was very experienced and had quite a career in Chicago, maybe he felt the allure of the beautiful, aqua St. Clair River, just as Walter had so many years before.vii In a 1964 piece about his life and success in Port Huron after he relocated here, Wyeth told the journalist:

I made a mental note that when the time came to practice architecture on my own it would be in this beautifully-situated town on a river surpassed by few, if any. –The Times Herald, May 13, page 3.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Walter Wyeth, modified image from a 1964 Times Herald article (May 13, page 3)

  • i An obituary (The Times Herald, “Walter H. Wyeth, Architect, Dies after Long Illness,” August 2, 1970, p 2) has his birth place as Peoria, but Canton is in the information that he provided to the American Institute of Architects, as published in that organization’s occasional directories (American Architects Directory, p 623 in 1955 and p 784 in 1962).
  • ii The Times Herald, June 24, 1942, p 41; American Architects Directory, p 623 in 1955 and p 784 in 1962.
  • iii More recent sources give the year as 1918: The Times Herald, May 13, 1964, p 3 and August 2, 1970, p 2, but earlier (contemporary) articles of course have the correct year, 1917: The Times Herald, October 3, 1917, pp 1 and 10, and June 24, 1942, p 41. The ground-breaking ceremony was held in September, 1915 (Keith Yates, An Enduring Heritage (WBA 1992), pp 187-188). Regarding “Westhaven,” it is often stated that it was finished in 1917, but it is probable that only the “finishing touches” were made in that year, as the yearly building report in the Times Herald listed it as of Westhaven by May 1917 (January 1, 1917, p 1, and March 6, 1917, p 5). There is some indication that architect Gardner was involved with the design as well, and not just Wyeth.
  • iv The Times Herald: May 29, 1920, p 5; November 18, 1918, p 2; November 3, 1957, p 3; August 2, 1970, p 2.
  • v The Times Herald: August 31, 1920, p 5; untitled entry, October 4, 1921, p 2; May 2, 1923, pp 1-2; May 14, 1923, p 5; June 13, 1923, p 2; September 22, 1926, p 12; January 30, 1930, p 11; July 6, 1931, p 1; July 24, 1931, p 10; February 13, 1935, p 4; July 13, 1936, p 4; July 31, 1937, p 9; April 2, 1938, p 5; September 4, 1938, p 1 and p 8; July 11, 1939, p 4; June 15, 1940, p 2; June 24, 1942, pp 41 & 50; October 23, 1949, p 3; July 2, 1950, p 21; June 25, 1952, p 52; May 13, 1964, p 3; May 23, 1968, p 7. Also, the AIA foldout Guide to Port Huron Architecture (2007). City directories, 1923-24, 1938-39 and 1946-47.
  • vi The number of years she was employed by Wyeth is not currently known. The article in The Times Herald, October 3, 1937, p 14, claimed that she was “one of the few women draftsmen in the country.”
  • vii The Times Herald, June 24, 1942, p 41, and city directories 1919-1931; while no published sources mention anything other than Walter striking it on his own here in 1923, he was associated with John N. Lassen in 1921, based on the city directory listing for that year–“Wyeth & Lassen” architects, at 509 Water Street. The Times Herald, “E. G. Bassett, Heart Victim,” February 7, 1948, p 1, and “Associated with Walter H. Wyeth in Architectural Firm,” December 8, 1950, p 2.

 

Figure 2

Figure 2: The Owen Smith house by Walter Wyeth, built in 1938 along the St. Clair River in Algonac (image from The Times Herald, April 2, 1938, page 5). It is still standing today.

Figure 3: Large addition to the St. Joseph Catholic School, Port Huron, 1940. Wyeth did an excellent job matching, but not mimicking, the original school’s style. Note the decorative effect at the left, which copies that of the original school, seen to the right (photo by author).

Figure 4

Figure 4: Torn down in 2010, this Wyeth designed high school was built in 1942 (The Times Herald, June 24, 1942, page 50).

Figure 5

Figure 5: This cute little structure was Wyeth’s own office, built in 1950 and utilizing an existing abandoned railway office (The Times Herald, October 23, 1949, page 3). The existing structure at the southeast corner of Military and Griswold may be this same building, but heavily remodeled.

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Vicki is founder and president of the Port Huron Area History & Preservation Association, a newer nonprofit dedicated to researching and sharing the regional history of Port Huron, Port Huron Township, Fort Gratiot Township, and Marysville, and assisting with the preservation of properties and neighborhoods for the good of all area residents. She holds the degrees of Master of History and Bachelor of Anthropology, and worked in the related fields of archaeological and historical resources management while in California. She also found gratification working as a Victim Specialist, assisting persons who suffered domestic violence, for some years. Having a son, she became acquainted with video games and plays certain story- and action-driven franchises when she wants to forget about daily concerns; Vicki is known to fall into giggle fits, or wield a crossbow or gauss rifle equally deftly, in the immersive stories. She has published poetry and pieces on history, Christianity, and video games.

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About the author

Vicki Priest

Vicki is founder and president of the Port Huron Area History & Preservation Association, a newer nonprofit dedicated to researching and sharing the regional history of Port Huron, Port Huron Township, Fort Gratiot Township, and Marysville, and assisting with the preservation of properties and neighborhoods for the good of all area residents. She holds the degrees of Master of History and Bachelor of Anthropology, and worked in the related fields of archaeological and historical resources management while in California. She also found gratification working as a Victim Specialist, assisting persons who suffered domestic violence, for some years. Having a son, she became acquainted with video games and plays certain story- and action-driven franchises when she wants to forget about daily concerns; Vicki is known to fall into giggle fits, or wield a crossbow or gauss rifle equally deftly, in the immersive stories. She has published poetry and pieces on history, Christianity, and video games.

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