By Vicki Priest, July 2017 (c)
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Walter Wyeth was one of the most prolific architects (if not the most) in Port Huron and St. Clair County during the first half of the twentieth century. He designed Sperry’s, the county courthouse (which has been added on to) and the St. Clair Inn/Hotel, a National Register-listed property, amongst many other buildings that are are still standing–or not.
Now, depending on how you think of “hometown,” some may think it amiss that I describe Walter as a “hometown” architect. He was not originally from Port Huron or even St. Clair County, but Illinois. Of Port Huron, Walter said it was “this beautifully-situated town on a river surpassed by few, if any.”i His love of Port Huron and decision to move here, marry a local young lady (who also had not been born here), and stay here for the rest of his life, is “hometown” enough for me. Historically, of course, everyone who wasn’t a local Native American was an immigrant and made Port Huron their hometown when they stayed; and Port Huron is definitely a city of immigrants (especially Canadians).
Walter was born in Cantonii, 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 1911iii. After graduating, he 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 during World War I when he apparently oversaw the “engineering layout for 57 of the buildings in the Sparrow Point automobile repair shops” which he “provided” (I assume this means he “designed”). This plant, in Baltimore, Maryland, was built by the Construction Quartermaster’s corps in 1918.iv
So what brought Walter here, to Port Huron, during these years in Chicago and Maryland? Well, he was the young traveler for Schmidt, Garden & Erickson, apparently! It starts with Bina West Miller, who had a stylish house built along the St. Clair River and who was the founder of the Woman’s Benefit Association (WBA). Bina used the architectural firm Walter worked for, and he came to Port Huron to supervise the construction of the WBA building in 1917.v He came back again in 1920 to supervise an addition to the building (this addition was larger than the original building!), and at some point along the way met Mabel O. Mason (of the Mason well-drilling family), his future wife. Perhaps he met her in association with the WBA, or maybe it was at church, as they both were members of, or affiliated with, the First Church of Christ Scientist. No children are mentioned in either of their obituaries.vi
Walter’s first jobs here, besides overseeing the two phases of the WBA building’s construction, may have been through his Chicago employer (probably not), or in partnership with John Lassen (see endnote vii), or he accepted jobs on his own without claiming his own business (an American Contractor entry from 1921, v. 42 p. 53, indicates he was the architect of a house being built in Illinois).
He had married Mabel in 1920 or 1921, as they are listed in the 1921 directory, but he did not begin his own architectural business here until 1923 or 1924. He had supervised the construction of the Saginaw General Hospital before 1923, while his first known project here under his own name was the J. B. Sperry Company Store building. He boasted that it was the lowest cost fireproof building erected “since before World War I,” and it was in this same building that he had his office.vii In any case, Walter may have saved or inherited enough money to not be too worried about his first years here, as a 1926 paper mentions the Wyeths taking time off for a motor trip and spending “some time” at their summer home at Tanglewood, Longlake, Illinois.viii
He didn’t always work alone. As a sole architect, he worked under his name from 1923 (or 1924, depending on the source) to 1945. From 1945 to 1948 he was a partner with Edward G. Bassett, a Port Huron native who died unexpectedly after collapsing in their office.ix He then practiced alone until 1950. During this time, 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;x 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 had plans to retire in beautiful Port Huron.
It would take a good amount of time to wade through all the newspaper references and other sources concerning all of Walter’s work and contracts, so that hasn’t been fully done as of yet. Therefore, the following is a representative, but not all-inclusive, list of his designs: Harrison School addition (1924), St. Clair Inn/Hotel (1926), Meredith-Monaghan house (503 Edison Blvd, 1927), Mueller Brass Administration Building (1930), E. L. Ford (Wingford) Estate (1931), Morton School (Marysville, 1936), St. Joseph Parochial School (Port Huron, 1940), Marysville High School (1942, 1950), Community Hospital, Yale (1951), County Courthouse (originally, City-County Building, and separate Sheriff’s offices and jail which is no longer extant, 1954), and Pavilion & Jr. Arena, McMorran Place (Wyeth & Harman, 1965).xi More structures will be added to this list as they are found.
Of course, more could be written about Walter Wyeth, and no doubt much more will be written of him after additional research is done. Before we end, though, I’ll share a delightful little article about identity theft involving architect Wyeth. This problem of Walter’s shows that identity theft isn’t anything new, and, in my view, that newspaper reporting is generally less creative and interesting than it used to be (being “professional” today seems to necessitate being very dry and boring).
i The Times Herald, “Success Story: WBA Building Construction Brought Architect to Area,” May 13, 1964, page 3.
ii An obituary (The Times Herald, “Walter H. Wyeth, Architect, Dies after Long Illness,” August 2, 1970, page 2) has his birth place as Peoria, but Canton is in the information that he would have provided to the American Institute of Architects, as published in that organization’s occasional directories (American Architects Directory, page 623 in 1955 and page 784 in 1962).
iii Ahh, the time when you could spend only the early part of your adult life learning a skill or trade and then actually make a living at it.
iv The Times Herald, “Architect Began Practice Here Twenty Years Ago,” June 24, 1942, page 41; American Architects Directory, page 623 in 1955 and page 784 in 1962.
v These more recent sources give the year as 1918: The Times Herald, May 13, 1964, page 3 and August 2, 1970, page 2, but these earlier articles give the correct date of 1917: The Times Herald, October 3, 1917, pages 1 and 10, and June 24, 1942, page 41.
vi The Times Herald, “Mrs. Wyeth Taken By Death After Long Illness,” November 3, 1957, page 3, and The Times Herald, “Walter H. Wyeth, Architect, Dies After Long Illness,” August 2, 1970, page 2.
vii The Times Herald, June 24, 1941, page 1, 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).
viii The Times Herald, September 22, 1926, page 6.
ix The Times Herald, “E. G. Bassett, Heart Victim,” February 7, 1948, page 1.
x The Times Herald, “Associated with Walter H. Wyeth in Architectural Firm,” December 8, 1950, page 2.
xi In addition to all of the Times Herald articles already listed in these endnotes, the following were used: May 5, 1924, page 7; September 22, 1926 (“New St. Clair Hotel Complete in Every Detail, Equipment Planned for Beauty and Service”), pages 6 and 12; January 30, 1930, page 11; July 24, 1931, page 10; June 15, 1940, page 2; and June 25, 1952, page 52. Also referenced was the AIA foldout Guide to Port Huron Architecture (2007).