James Douglas, Architect

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James Douglas (1823-1894) was a prolific architect who started out as a bridge and house builder in the 1840’s and developed into one of Milwaukee’s more respected and popular architects. He took part in the construction of the first bridge across the Milwaukee River at
the foot of East Water Street and later built a bridge across the river at Kinnickinnic Avenue(1).

As a master builder, he directed work on the Old City Hall, the first St. Gall’s Church, Holy Trinity Church, St. John’s Cathedral and other early buildings.

With his younger brother Alexander, James Douglas established a building company in 1847 and later established the firm of J. & A. Douglas in the late 1850’s. The brothers listed themselves as carpenters, sometimes as builders and sometimes as architects-builders. For sixteen years the two brothers had a lucrative business. Douglas then left the trade and between 1863 and 1872 worked for the Northwestern Mutual life Insurance Company where his expertise in property values enabled the company to place loans and invest in real estate.

Douglas’ love of architecture led him to return to that profession in 1872, and he continued as an architect until the time of his death.

Douglas’ commissions came from both private homeowners and investors building income properties. Although he designed some churches and institutional buildings like the South Baptist Church and the Protestant Orphan Home (razed), he is chiefly known for his residential design. Much of his work consisted of middleclass clapboard cottages and remains undocumented. The bulk of Douglas’ projects were built on the city’s lower east side. It was said that a part of this area was nicknamed “Douglasville” because so many houses were of his design.  Douglas popularized some of his house design concepts by writing two articles on the subject for the Milwaukee Monthly Magazine in 1874.

Local historians James Buck and Howard Louis Conard credit Douglas as the founder of a distinct architectural style called, maybe somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Termes Mordax” or anthill by people in the trades, because the complicated roofs supposedly resembled the complicated cone-shaped colonies of African termites. Douglas’ plans were said to be popular throughout the state and from Florida to California although no out-of-state Douglas commissions have been identified.

In his later years Douglas became increasingly involved in real estate speculation and was known to have a real flair in timing his purchases and sales. He founded and was treasurer of the Savings and Investment Association, was the first vice-president of the First Avenue Land Company and the Lincoln Heights Land Company. Douglas owned large land holdings south of Oklahoma Avenue called Douglasdale. He also served as the first president of the Northwest Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Douglas’ architectural practice served as a training ground for a later generation of architects including Alfred C. Clas, Cornelius Leenhouts, Fred Graf and Otto C. Uihling. One of his apprentices, James W. Naughton, returned to Brooklyn, New York after four years with Douglas and went on to become the Superintendent of Buildings for the Board of Education of the City of Brooklyn from 1879 to 1898 where he was responsible for the design and construction of over 100 schools.

In 1893 illness forced Douglas to take his young son Earl J. into partnership under the name James Douglas & Co. and another son, R. Bruce, was put in charge of handling the real estate activities of the company. James Douglas died of spinal trouble at the age of 71 on August 31, 1894 at his residence at 1325 N. Jackson Street (razed) where he had lived since 1867. Earl J. Douglas continued his father’s architectural practice through 1900 while R. Bruce Douglas went on to successfully conduct a real estate, mortgage, insurance and appraisal business and built over one hundred homes during his career.

Douglas seems to have been a facile designer who kept up with the changing architectural styles and tastes of his clients. During the 1870’s Douglas designed in the High Victorian Gothic and High Victorian Italianate styles. Extant examples include the Elias A. Calkins Double house built in 1875 at 1612-1614 W. Kane Place, a wood frame house that still retains its prominent gothic detail. (NRHP 1/18/1990) The Collins-Elwell-Cary house is a striking combination of Victorian Italianate and Victorian Gothic built in 1876 at 1363 N. Prospect Avenue. It is the last known Milwaukee example of the towered and turreted style for which Douglas was famous in his day and was prominently featured in illustrations of Prospect Avenue that appeared in many of the city’s promotional publications of the time. (NRHP 4/7/1990)

Of the numerous commissions he is known to have executed in the 1880’s, only about a dozen attributable extant examples have been identified. Most of these have been considerably altered. A number of his large-scale houses survive from the early 1890’s, but these are less ornamented than his 1880’s work and instead emphasize size and complex massing rather than detail. Towers feature prominently in their design. The Willard Merrilll House at 1425 N. Prospect (NRHP 4/7/1990) is an example of Douglas’ later and more sedate Queen Anne design from 1889. The Charles Quarles House at 2531 N. Farwell (NRHP 7/27/1979) is an example of his later towered Queen Anne form. The Kane House is clearly the most intact and important example of his extant buildings remaining from the 1880’s. It is also the most richly textured and detailed of his surviving projects. This reflects both his knowledge of the latest developments in the Queen Anne style and perhaps the influence of one of his staff architects such as Alfred C. Clas. Clas had worked his way up from draftsman to architect to partner the Douglas firm between 1880 and 1886, and seems to have designed almost exclusively in the Queen Anne style prior to the time he formed a partnership with George B. Ferry.

Douglas’ later work after Clas left the firm in 1887 tends to be heavier handed, more boldly massed, and juxtaposes the disparate materials and design elements in a less confident manner.


Alexander Douglas (birth place and age unknown)where he is currently living at,in or of is too faded on the OPR married a Christian Campbell in Dorrery Jan 1774 Halkirk OPR 037/ 10 284 by being regularly proclaimed. They had 4children, Donald 1776 William 1780 Margaret 1791 Alexander 1793.

Alexander Douglass b. March 1793 Toftingall, Watten, Caithness Married Annabella McKenzie 1814 Skelbo, Dornoch, Sutherland, Alexander was a Grieve at Embo from 1815-1820? and then became Manager to Sir Benjamin Dunbar of Hempriggs by 1823. He left Scotland 1840 with most of family, sailed to Ontario Canada before settling in Milwaukee, Wi.

Both Alex and Anabella are thought to have died of cholera October 1852 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Their 2 oldest boys James(1823) and Alexander(1827) had a very successful Architect and building business.

1.  Milwaulkee's bridge building story is worth a read as the competing landowners sought to maximise their profits at the expense of the citizens convenience. Search term: The Milwaukee Bridge War



Sources for this article include:
  • The Milwaukee Monthly Magazine, April 1874, and May 1874

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    Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024