William B. Morris, Architect


When William B. Morris was 10, he traveled with his family from Shaker heights, Ohio, to visit relatives in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. There, they were invited to see a vacation home that was being built nearby for friends. Although young Bill had not yet learned the word “architect,” he knew he wanted to build things when he grew up, and he was amazed at the big cantilevers and rock walls of Fallingwater, the residential masterpiece Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Kaufmanns of Pittsburgh.

More than a decade later, Morris attended the American Institute of Architects convention in Chicago, where Wright was belatedly honored. Following the convention, Morris made a pilgrimage to Oak Park, Illinois, to see some of Wright’s Prairie-style houses. Arriving at each door unannounced, he was given a personal tour. Because Wright was an absolute perfectionist about details of design, every owner referred to the home as “Mr. Wright’s house.” Even though Morris idolized the great architect, he vowed to design residences for the people who lived in them rather than for himself.

Born in Cleveland Heights on April 19, 1927, Morris built his first house—a cardboard model—in seventh-grade shop class. After graduating from Shaker Heights High School, he served briefly in the U.S. Navy and then enrolled in the Cornell University School of Architecture. Before completing his undergraduate degree, he took time off to study in Rome, Italy, travel through Europe and work on his thesis, the design of a kibbutz in Israel. Returning home from college, Morris decided he needed a practical amendment to his academic education. To gain an understanding of how buildings are put together, he tracked down James Fahnestock, an old-fashioned Pennsylvania contractor who had come to Northeast Ohio to build a house for his sister in Parma. After learning carpentry, cabinet-making and other aspects of the building trade from Fahnestock, Morris got a job with Painesville architect Bruce Huston, who designed schools. He then worked with 1968 Cleveland Arts Prize winner John Terence Kelly, who was in demand for his pristine design of modern houses.

In 1961, Morris founded his own firm. His first commission came from a school friend, Stanley Meisel, who had purchased a hilly, wooded site in suburban Pepper Pike and was interested in building an unusual home. Morris’s design, a steel-frame and glass house with a 12-foot cantilever above a front-yard stream, established his reputation as a modern architect influenced by Wright and in tune with nature.

The house attracted the attention of other clients who wanted to build homes in Pepper Pike, and it also caught the eye of Willis Hale, a descendant of Connecticut Yankees who had helped settle the Western Reserve. He owned a magnificent seven-acre site adjoining the Metroparks Polo Fields in Moreland Hills. The land, however, was on the flood plain of the Chagrin River, and the owner feared that the only place to build a house was on a small hill far from the river and close to the road. When Morris saw the site, he was flabbergasted at its beauty, and he immediately came up with an ingenious solution.

“I’ll put you up in the air,” he told Hale. And so, he designed a stunning glass and wood-sided house on concrete and steel stilts that are constructed like an interstate highway bridge. He also suggested balconies overlooking the splendid views on all four sides of the house. But because Hale wanted more outdoor living, Morris added 3,000 square feet of decks around the 2,500 square foot house. “The home’s dramatic relationship to the landscape is a trademark of Morris’ work,” wrote cultural historian Nina Gibans in the catalogue for the 2007 Cleveland Artist Foundation exhibition, Cleveland Goes Modern: Design for the Home 1930-1970.

The Meisel and Hale houses won the first of several Architects Society of Ohio design awards that put Morris on the map and brought him clients from Akron, Dayton and other Ohio communities. Many of these homes are on complex sites, such as one in Chardon that is dotted with boulders and cut through by a ravine. In South Euclid, he met a client’s need for privacy by setting a house into a steep hillside so skillfully that the busy boulevard below cannot be seen through the many large windows. In Moreland Hills, he built a breathtaking house perched on a precipice overlooking the Chagrin River. “The towering Albers house is one of the most unique and exciting contemporary homes in Ohio,”  wrote architectural historian Richard Campen in his book, OhioAn Architectural Portrait.

In 1968, Morris began working with Manny Barenholtz, forward-looking developer who built Walden, a community for 1,500 residents on 1,000 wooded acres in suburban Aurora. Starting with the rehab of a beautiful old dairy barn that was transformed into an elegant dining club, Morris designed over 1,200 condominiums and single-family homes described in American Home magazine as “Wondrous Walden.”  The project took more than 30 years to complete, and Morris never employed more than two or three talented young architects in his office, which he ran like an atelier.

In addition to designing new homes, Morris imaginatively revived old ones, including a 1914 cottage on a flood plain in South Euclid that he remodeled for his family and a nondescript 1915 house in Cleveland Heights that received a lavish color spread in House Beautiful.  He also designed Bratenahl High School, a glass-walled structure on a wooded lot that is now the Cleveland Municipal School District’s Professional Development Center, and St. Alban Episcopal Church, a cedar-sided sacred space in Cleveland Heights that was originally shared with a Jewish Reform congregation. When the market for custom homes collapsed in the 21st century, Morris focused on low-cost energy-efficient houses made of Styrofoam and steel. Several of the small structures were built in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. Others are on the drawing board for a project with Morris’s son Peter, a New Orleans builder.

On a grander scale, Morris has devised workable schemes, such as a multi-partner proposal to revive Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue corridor and a long-range plan to bring fresh water, urban development and political harmony to the Middle East. “It’s problem-solving,” he says of his visionary ideas. “That’s what architects do.”

Wilma Salisbury


Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org