Architect. A native of Washington, Georgia, Irvin studied architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology and worked as a draftsman in Atlanta and Savannah before establishing an independent practice in Augusta about 1920. He was a leading designer of upscale residences in the lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia from the late 1910s through the 1940s.
Irvin was best known for his residential designs. He catered to affluent clients, including many wealthy northerners who bought former plantations for use as winter homes. His goal, he explained in a 1937 promotional catalog, was to create “residential work in that style characteristic of the Old South.” In reality, his designs represented a mythical conception of the southern plantation that was grander and more lavish than anything in the “Old South.” Monumental porticos, an extensive vocabulary of classical ornamentation, and sumptuous interiors were the hallmarks of his work. Irvin was a consummate stylist of the colonial revival, and he displayed his versatility by also working in the Spanish revival, Tudor revival, and neoclassical styles.
Irvin’s work in South Carolina included public schools, churches, commercial buildings, and numerous private homes. His largest residential commissions included houses for James L. Coker III in Hartsville (1931); A. H. Caspary in Ritter (1931); and William Zeigler (ca. 1928), Richard Howe (ca. 1931), and Mrs. Gustavo L. F. G. di Rosa (ca. 1931) in Aiken. He received particular acclaim for designing two elegant residences for Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, one in Aiken, the other in Wheaton, Illinois. His commercial buildings included two hotels in Aiken, the Highland Park (1922) and the Henderson (1929).
Irvin died in Aiken on August 8, 1950. His daughter, Helen Stuart Irvin Dowling, who began working with him in the 1940s, carried on the practice after his death.
Irvin, Willis. Selections from the Work of Willis Irvin, Architect, Augusta, Georgia. New York: Architectural Catalog Company, 1937.
Wells, John E., and Robert E. Dalton. The South Carolina Architects, 1885–1935: A Biographical Directory. Richmond, Va.: New South Architectural Press, 1992.
“Willis Irvin, Sr., Architect of Aiken, Dies.” Columbia State, Aug. 9, 1950, p. A-11.