Early life and education
The daughter of Edward Williams, president of the San Jose Water Works, Williams was initially a teacher. However, when she met Lillian Palmer around 1898, she was encouraged to fulfill her dream of becoming an architect. In 1901, the two moved to San Francisco where Williams studied drafting at the California High School of Mechanical Arts. As a result of the difficulty for a woman to find employment in the construction industry, she used the inheritance from her father to build a small cottage with Palmer’s help. The two women who completed all the work themselves received attention from the press and soon became a tourist attraction. Williams’ elder sister, Edith, who believed in Emily’s abilities, commissioned three more cottages on adjacent lots. Soon afterwards, Anna Lukens from New York, an early woman physician, engaged Williams to build a house for her in Pacific Grove while Jessie Jordan, wife of David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, had her build a summer house in Carmel. As a result of these successes, she went on to design at least eight more houses in the San Jose area.
Career in Architecture
Williams was a pioneering female architect who was active in San Jose and San Francisco in the early 20th century at a time when there were very few women who were able to enter the profession. She mainly designed houses, with conveniently planned interiors, one of which is a listed building in San Francisco.
In 1908, Williams and Palmer traveled to Europe and Asia. In Vienna, Emily studied architecture and Lillian metal work. On their return, while Palmer was successful selling metal art work at “The Palmer Shop” in San Francisco, Emily received few commissions but built their own home on 1037 Broadway, now a listed building. In the early 1920s, she did however receive a few commissions but appears to have stopped working as an architect in 1924. Emily Williams died in 1942 at Los Gatos, suffering from asthma.
Major Buildings and Projects
The Arthur M. Free House on 66 South Fourteenth Street in San Francisco was designed by Emily Williams in 1905. A listed building since 2002, it is a brown shingle construction with a recessed entry under a gable.