Our Town

Wilson Eyre: A distinctly American master

by George McNeely
Posted 2/1/23

Wilson Eyre was one of Philadelphia’s best known and most respected architects.  The house at 339 East Willow Grove Ave. should be saved.

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Our Town

Wilson Eyre: A distinctly American master


Wilson Eyre was one of Philadelphia’s best known and most respected architects at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. 

Eyre was born in Florence, Italy, and educated in Europe, Canada and the U.S. He watched architectural tastes in England of the Queen Anne and Arts & Crafts periods closely, but translated those styles into buildings that reflected his particular design vision and were distinctly American. 

Eyre was one of the founding editors of House & Garden magazine, which started in Philadelphia in 1901. His designs and accompanying pencil and watercolor sketches were widely published and exhibited, so his work was well known both in the U.S. and abroad. He was also known as a collegial figure in the sometimes contentious local architectural world, joining various design clubs and societies, and encouraging the next generation of local architects who went on to design many of the beloved Woodward houses in Chestnut Hill.

One of Eyre’s best-known commissions was a house called “Anglecot,” which was completed in 1883 and still stands at the corner of East Evergreen and Prospect avenues in Chestnut Hill. Its wide overlapping gables and colorful mixture of brick, hung red clay tiles, and cedar shingles offer a classic example of the English Queen Anne style at its most picturesque. Eyre had clearly studied the work of the contemporary English architect Richard Norman Shaw, whose charming house designs for Bedford Park, the London planned garden suburb, were published widely at that time. The large house had become a sanitorium by the mid 20th century but was saved and restored by Richard Snowden when he converted it into condominiums.  

By contrast, what would have been his largest commission in Chestnut Hill was an unbuilt early design for “Krisheim” for George & Gertrude Woodward, around 1910. By the early 20th century, Eyre’s designs had evolved towards the more restrained and low-slung “cottage” style popularized by the second generation of English and Scottish architects C.F.A. Voysey and E.W. Godwin, with deep eaves, roughcast stucco walls and simpler craftsman-type details. 

In the end, the Woodwards switched to the Boston architectural firm Peabody & Stearns to design their house and its matching gatehouse in a more ambitious Stockbroker Tudor style. (It was one of their rare commissions by an architect from outside Philadelphia.) Nevertheless, two modest Krisheim estate cottages designed by Eyre survive today at the end of Gatehouse Lane, although both have been much enlarged.

Several of Eyre’s other larger residential commissions were “Fairwold,” which was built in 1888 and was one of his purest Shingle Style designs, and the nearby “Hawkswell,” which was designed originally for H.H. Henry in 1904 and crossed an English Arts & Crafts mood with American Colonial Revival details, including heavily mortared local stone walls and deep eaves. It was sadly demolished shortly before the pandemic.

Nearby in Germantown, Eyre created one of his most deliciously eccentric houses in 1886 for his friend Sally Watson at 5128 Wayne Ave.  Modest in size but bombastic in design, the house features a massive and irregular stone chimney, tall gambrel roof, and unexpected shapes and sizes of windows. It is now owned by preservationist Oscar Beisert.  In addition to his important work nominating local buildings to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Beisert is carefully restoring the house.

Over his long career, Eyre designed several other houses in Chestnut Hill, and others around Philadelphia suburbs and other cities, handsome houses in Center City, and a number of important institutional commissions, including the Penn Museum, the Mask & Wig Club, and the Swann Memorial Fountain in the middle of Logan Circle.

The house at 399 East Willow Grove Ave. that Eyre designed in 1889 for Joseph & Edith Burroughs is characteristic of his work, with an asymmetrical composition of local stone on the ground floor and roughcast stucco upstairs, topped by particularly tall brick chimneys, a steep shingle roof, and a corner tower. The compact and vertical nature of the main block of the house suggests Chestnut Hill’s earlier Victorian villas along Summit Street, but unexpectedly the house also incorporates early Colonial Revival design elements. Without doubt it is an excellent example of Eyre’s work and should be saved.