Written by Christine Neal has been a professor of art history and architectural history at the Savannah College of Art and Design for 20 years. She holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Missouri.
Early life and education
Although Wilburn was born in Macon, she grew up and spent her professional life in Atlanta during the time of its tremendous post-World War I and II growth and expansion. After two years at Agnes Scott Institute (now College) in Decatur, Wilburn opened her own office in the state capital in 1909. Whatever Wilburn may have lacked in an architectural education, she enhanced through extensive travels, taking some 5000 photographs of architectural styles to be used as sources of inspiration.
Career in architecture
Over the expanse of her 50-plus year career, Wilburn’s prodigious output, interrupted only by a three-year stint as an engineering drafter during World War II, included numerous buildings in Atlanta, its growing suburbs, and nearby towns in South Carolina. As the second licensed woman architect in Georgia, Wilburn designed over 200 structures including 20 apartment buildings, 24 duplexes and 80 single-family bungalow or colonial residences. One reason for Wilburn’s phenomenal success was her business acumen; she published seven plan books that advertised her affordable residential designs. Locating her office in the same building with real estate developers made Wilburn readily available to related industries.
Wilburn’s decision to pursue a male-dominated profession seems to have created somewhat contradictory responses in her. While she asserted that “There is nothing I like better and I don’t believe I’d be satisfied with any other job in the world” she did not believe that architecture was a profession for most women. Expressing frustration that women in architectural offices waited for direction rather than take initiative, as well as the inadequate financial compensation, Wilburn nevertheless created a successful business. Navigating the gendered constraints of the time period, Wilburn was savvy in her employment of these restrictions to serve her purposes. For example, in plan books (which included paid advertisements) and promotional materials that emphasized her innate affinity for domestic buildings, Wilburn stated “I feel that, being a woman, I know just the little things that should go in a house to make living in it a pleasure to the entire family.” Indeed, plans highlighted kitchen layouts that saved steps between function areas, sink and counter heights that eased the physical stress of household chores and meal preparation, and designated work areas.
Wilburn’s career benefited from the confluence of contextual factors on which she capitalized. The growing field of domestic science emphasized the home as an economic unit. Yet Wilburn also understood the importance of more ephemeral qualities such a décor and aesthetic in the dwelling to provide comfort to its inhabitants.
As was true of many professional women at that time, Wilburn seemed to have chosen career over family, as she never married. The majority of her architectural practice, however, provided quality, affordable homes for middle-class families of Georgia and South Carolina.