William Ralph Emerson was born on March 11, 1833, in Alton, Illinois, the son of William Samuel Emerson and his wife, Olive Leighton Bourne.
He married first on December 24, 1863, in Boston, to Catharine (Kate) M. Mears (b. 1834-1835 in Boston; d. 5Mar1871 in Boston), daughter of Granville Mears and his wife, Susan Varnum Moor.
He married second on September 15, 1873, in Cohasset, to Sylvia Hathaway Watson (b. 23Jul1834 in New Bedford), daughter of Robert Sedgwick Watson and his wife, Mary Taber Hathaway.
William Emerson died on November 23, 1917, in Milton.
Some sources indicate that William Ralph Emerson was the nephew of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist poet, philosopher, and essayist. This is not correct. William Ralph Emerson was the fourth cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson, sharing the same great-great-great-grandparents: Joseph Emerson (1620-1680) and Elizabeth Bulkeley (1637-1693).
William Emerson came to Boston at an early age to live with his uncle, George B. Emerson, and attended Boston public schools. He began his architectural career as an apprentice in the offices of Jonathan Preston and in 1857, became Preston’s partner. The partnership lasted until about 1861. In 1867, he joined in partnership with Carl R, Fehmer in the firm of Emerson and Fehmer. They remained partners until late 1873, when both returned to individual practices.
Emerson designed a number of distinguished Boston buildings, including the Boston Art Club (1881) at Newbury at Dartmouth Streets, and the “house of odd windows” at 24 Pinckney Street (1884) on Beacon Hill, a remodeling of a carriage house, about which Douglass Shand-Tucci commented (in Boston Bohemia 1881-1900; Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture) “most would agree today is Pinckney Street’s most brilliant architecture.”
According to Shand-Tucci (Built in Boston), Emerson was the “Boston architect who most scholars would agree was chiefly responsible for at least the initial development of” the Shingle Style of house, including important examples in a number of suburban Boston communities, such as Canton, Jamaica Plain, Magnolia, Milton, and throughout towns on the North Shore.
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