Archives are Full of Surprises
By Waverly Lowell, Curator
A package for the Archives was dropped off in the Dean’s office last week. On the outside was the note “letters from Willis Polk to his Aunt Daisy.” Willis Polk, a prominent, if contentious, San Francisco architect died in 1924 and his successor firm left archives and furniture to UC Berkeley in 1934. [figure 1]
While working for the California Historical Society in the early 1980s I preserved five Willis Polk clipping scrapbooks and learned that he had a younger sister Daisy. The last volume had a number of clippings about her and the rest of the clippings were torn out. I always wondered what had happened to Daisy. So I knew that Daisy was not his aunt, but his sister and eagerly opened the package.
Inside were postcards from Aunt Daisy, photographs of Willis Polk, Daisy de Buyer, and their father W.W. Polk, photographs of Willis Polk’s projects, and a copy of Architecture News (Jan 1891). Willis Polk (1867-1924) [fig 2] was born in Jacksonville, IL, to carpenter Willis Webb Polk. He had two siblings, Daniel and Daisy (1874-1963) [fig 3]. Polk entered into partnership with his father and brother opening the San Francisco office of Polk & Polk (1892-1894). Neither Willis nor Daisy had children, so it was likely that Alice had been Dan’s child. I called the person who donated the material and asked him how he came to have it. He explained that his mother had purchased a house in Fresno and found this envelope in the attic. He took it home when he cleared out her house following her death as he found these historical artifacts interesting. After a few years he decided the material belonged in an archives, found that EDA had a Willis Polk collection, and dropped it off.
The story of Daisy’s life would make a great movie. She was trapped in Europe at the outbreak of WWI [figure 4] and became active in French relief efforts including working with future president Herbert Hoover on Belgian Relief. [fig 5 daisy] After the war, Mrs. W. H. Crocker of San Francisco used her personal funds to rebuild the village of Vitrimont which had been nearly destroyed and put Daisy in charge of the project. [fig 6 -postcard]. While at Vitrimont, Daisy's car broke down and General de Buyer, who lived nearby at Nancy, happened to be passing and lent assistance. From this chance meeting, “romance bloomed” and the couple married the following year. [fig 7- crocker telegram] For her relief and rebuilding work, Daisy was awarded the Medaille de la Reconnaissance Francaise (Silver) in September of 1919, and the following year was created a Chevalier in the Order of the Legion of Honor. She was known as Un Ami de France. Following her husband’ death after only two years of marriage, Countess Daisy de Buyer relocated to Paris which became her principal residence. She wintered in Paris, travelled, and spent her summers in the family chateau in Nancy. She is buried in in her husband's family cemetery at Besancon.
Daniel Polk had a daughter Alice (1907-1960) who remained close to her aunt Daisy. [fig 8 March 1957] One of the news articles reports that Daisy gave her niece a trunk of family photographs and papers! Sadly, Alice Polk Kegley was killed in a car accident after which her husband Charles (Carl) Smith Kegley (1897–1979) moved to Fresno. This is one example of how historical treasures can arrive at the archives through a roundabout route and added to existing collections at the Environmental Design Archives.
For more information please see https://archives.ced.berkeley.edu/collections/polk-willis