Wolfe in his early 30s. This is the only known photograph of him.
Frank Wolfe (1863-1926) was the most important architect practicing in San Jose, California in the beginning of the 1900s. Although his clientele spanned across a great portion of northern California, most of his work was done in San Jose where his designs make up significant parts of many of San Jose’s historic neighborhoods – Naglee Park, Hanchett Park, Vendome, Hensley District, and Palm Haven.
Wolfe was born in Green Springs, Ohio in September of 1863. As a young man, his family moved to Newton, Kansas, where Frank worked for architect W. L. Ross. In 1888 he moved to San Jose, California, where he set up shop as a contractor and builder, and by 1895, he had established himself as an architect and hired Charles McKenzie.
Wolfe & McKenzie Years
In 1899 Wolfe and Charles McKenzie became partners. Wolfe & McKenzie had a very fruitful partnership for the next 11 years. One of their early projects was a residence and carriage house for Willard Griffin in the Los Altos Hills, today listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They were also involved as construction supervisors on the Gilroy City Hall, which is today the office of the Gilroy Historic Society and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wolfe & McKenzie worked in a range of styles, from Japanese-influenced to Mission Revival to Colonial to Craftsman. In 1907, they published a book of their designs that shows their wide range of styles. In 2004, the late historical architect George Espinola reissued the Wolfe & McKenzie Book of Designs as Cottages, Flats, Buildings & Bungalows: 102 Designs from Wolfe & McKenzie 1907. Espinola added much information on the architects, the locations of the houses in the book, and the histories of the houses.
Espinola also identified the Wolfe & McKenzie style:
…hipped or hipped-gable roof forms with small centrally located dormers. Overhangs were typically deep and boxed in, although on their less formal designs rafter tails were often left exposed and sometimes curved. A favorite device…was the cantilevered corner window box that included tightly spaced carved brackets below. Windows were typically double hung or picture windows with simple leaded patterns at their tops. Second floor roof decks or balconies were common, sometimes functional and other times purely decorative.
The Naglee Park residential subdivision opened in 1902, and is a showcase for Wolfe & McKenzie architecture. The pair designed about 20 percent of the houses in Naglee Park, either together or later as sole practitioners. They also did much work in the Hanchett Park subdivision, which opened in 1906. By 1910, the firm of Wolfe & McKenzie was enjoying great success; however, they separated at the end of that year. It is unknown why they separated. Perhaps after spending so many years building houses that appealed to the masses, each wanted to focus on designs that appealed to them as individuals.
The Sole Practicioner Years
Frank Wolfe worked as a sole practitioner from January 1911 to late in 1917. Between 1912-1915 his son Carl was an associate in the firm, although never a partner. Frank rarely credited his son, so it is sometimes difficult to determine how involved Carl was with the designs. Whatever Carl's influence, the fact remains that during the Wolfe & Wolfe years, Frank did his most interesting and arguably important work. This period resulted in the firm's signature style, the California Prairies, and became known for unusual and exciting architecture.
During this period, Wolfe created what are some of his most notable designs, including three that are now on the National Register: the Charles Miller house in Saratoga, Woodhills, the Fremont Older country home in Cupertino, and the Milpitas Grammar School. Starting in 1916, Frank primarily designed schools until he went into business with William Higgins.
Over 40 buildings from this period, documented as Wolfes, exist in northern California today. Many are Prairies.
Wolfe & Higgins Years
In 1918, Frank Wolfe partnered with William Higgins, another prolific partnership that produced the Venetian Court Apartments in Capitola, one of the first condominium complexes in California, that is today on the National Register. After Frank died in 1926, his son Carl took over Frank’s position in the firm, which continued to produce for another five years. In 1928, Carl was responsible for designing the San Jose Woman's Club Spanish Revival building, a San Jose landmark.