James Roland Willett (1831–1907)

An Irish immigrant who settled with his family in Philadelphia, James Roland Willett studied Mine Engineering at the Polytechnic College of the State of Pennsylvania.  He joined the Union Army as an engineer in the Civil War, producing a survey of Nashville, Tennessee and publishing a technical article in The United States Service Magazine.   He settled in Chicago in the 1870s and designed one of the city’s early elegant apartment buildings. Willett served as architect for the Eastern Hospital for the Insane at Kankakee, considered the first asylum to adopt the “cottage system” in 1882, the same year that he was appointed school architect. Relying on his background in engineering, Willet conducted considerable research on the heating of buildings.  Despite the importance of this topic to the Chicago Public Schools during this period, Willett was replaced by John J. Flanders in 1884 after serving for just over a year.  His work included designing the South Division High School, which no longer stands.  It is uncertain as to whether any of Willett’s completed designs remain today.

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