William Ralph Emerson was a noted architect in Boston a century ago. He extolled the virtue of the "Shingle Style" of architecture, which had a direct reflection on the First Period of American architecture, but also with a touch of the exuberance and pomp of late Victorian architecture. In the period between 1865 and 1917, he made important contributions to architecture. It was said in his profession as an architect, he had won a high place, and that his designs of buildings were of great refinement, especially in country houses which are found throughout the Boston area and in Maine.
William Ralph Emerson (1833-1917) was the son of William and Olive Bourne Emerson, and was raised in Alton, Illinois. As a young man he came to Boston to live with his uncle George Emerson, whose home was on Pemberton Square in Boston, and where he trained as an architect in the office of Jonathan Preston (1801-1888.) In 1857, Emerson and Preston formed an architectural partnership which lasted four years; in 1864 he partnered with Carl Fehmer (1864-1873) and they continued as partners for nine years.
William Ralph Emerson initially designed in the classical revival style, of which his Post Office and Courthouse in Portland, Maine were important early examples. However by 1875 he was designing impressive structures that embraced Victorian elements such as the "Stick Style" and the beginnings of the "Shingle Style," among them the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital (1875) and the Boston Art Club (1881) in the South End and the Back Bay of Boston respectively. In 1871 Emerson, with Carl Fehmer, designed the impressive Receiving Tomb at Forest Hills Cemetery. The Receiving Tomb was said in Boston Illustrated in 1872 to be “the finest receiving-tomb in any cemetery in the country… and is built in the Gothic style of architecture in Concord granite.” The portico is of white Concord granite with an oak ceiling, and its floor paved with French encaustic tiles. However it was said that "country houses were his specialty, and many of the more noteworthy at Bar Harbor and Newport were designed by him." Emerson's first wife was Katherine Mears, who was the mother of the Harvard educated architect Ralph Lincoln Emerson, and his second wife was Sylvia Hathaway Watson, the daughter of Robert Sedgwick Watson of Milton.
Though Emerson was part of the city and its greater metropolis, he designed impressive residences in Milton, among the "The Pines," the home of The Misses Forbes and which was considered the premier "Stick Style" house, the Eustis and Tileston Estates, houses on Adams Street on Milton Hill and his own house on Randolph Avenue in Milton. With over five decades as an independent architect, William Ralph Emerson maintained a well connected Boston base with memberships in the American Institute of Architects, the Boston Society of Architects, the Boston Athenaeum and the Union Club. He was erudite, educated and well informed. He "lived on the gentler side of life, with books and art and the higher interests of his city, and Boston owes him much."
William Ralph Emerson was buried on Brook Path at Forest Hills Cemetery but no monument has yet been erected to mark the resting place of the "Father of Shingle Style Architecture."