Post Office Building on St. James Squre

Ralph Wyckoff & Peter G. Wuss Architectural Records at History San José

The final collection as part of our 18-month grant-funded project to unroll and flatten, preserve, and make available to the public History San José’s complete collection of oversize architectural and technical drawings has been completed. The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded History San José a Preservation Assistance Grant of just under $6,000 in December 2015 for supplies and training for our Research Library & Archives to process five pallets of at-risk materials stored in our warehouse. These included ephemera such as posters, calendars, diplomas and certificates; Frontier Village design drawings; and technical and architectural drawings, including the hundreds of drawings donated by the estate of local architect Peter G. Wuss, A.I.A., who worked with Wyckoff later in his career.

Watsonville Primary School design
Design for the Watsonville Primary School by Ralph Wyckoff, 1916

The archival collection comprises original architectural plans, as well as photographs, that document the full span of Ralph Wyckoff’s career as an architect, from his early work designing schools for the Watsonville and Salinas areas, to his commercial and residential work in San Jose and surrounding areas both with partner Hugh White and on his own, and his later work with partner Wuss. A range of architectural styles is also represented, from Arts & Crafts, to Spanish Colonial, to Moderne. Included in the collection are a small number of designs by Peter Wuss completed after his partnership with Wyckoff. In addition to architectural plans, publications related to mid-century modern architectural design and local architectural firms are included.

Willow Glen School
Proposed plans for Willow Glen School by Ralph Wyckoff, 1924

Those interested in reviewing the records can make an appointment with the Curator of Research Library & Archives; a guide is available at the Online Archive of California, and individual records can be viewed through our online catalog (search for Accession No. 1989-187). Inventory of the Wyckoff & Wuss Collection.

Biography of Ralph Wyckoff

(Excerpted from Jack Douglas’ Historical Highlights of Santa Clara Valley (History San Jose, 2005))

Specializing in schools and public buildings, Wyckoff’s most distinctive building in San Jose is the old Main Post Office facing St. James Park. A native Californian, Wyckoff had a career that was characteristic of the period when California architecture was coming of age.

Born and raised in Watsonville, Wyckoff began his training as a draftsman for the firm of William H. Weeks. After the San Francisco earthquake, he was transferred to Week’s northern office in San Francisco, where he earned a scholarship to the famous Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

He became a licensed architect in 1914 and set up office in Berkeley. Shortly thereafter he returned to Watsonville to take over the business of architect H. B. Douglas. During the next four years he designed a number of distinctive buildings in that city, including several schools and the beautiful Watsonville Women’s Club. Designed in the Arts and Crafts motif, the Women’s Club is similar to Julia Morgan’s Saratoga Women’s Club of that same period.

In 1919 Wyckoff moved his office to Salinas and went into partnership with Hugh White. There they did the plans for the Salinas High School, for buildings on the Hartnell College campus and for the Elks Club.

The building boom of the 1920s in San Jose encouraged Wyckoff to move his firm in 1921. He continued to do a number of projects in Watsonville, including the Ford’s Department Store in 1924 and the Fire Station in 1925. He got started in San Jose just as the Great Depression was sweeping the country, so his major contributions to the architecture of the area were the WPA work-inspired buildings, one of which, the new Post Office, required the architect to travel to Washington D.C. to get the plan approved.

Built on the site of the old St. James Hotel, the Post Office is one of seven buildings surrounding St. James Park that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in the popular Spanish Colonial style with lavish use of terracotta facing and ornamentation, the Post Office was constructed in 1933.

Old Post Office under construction
Post Office under construction at St. James Square, 1932 (Photo by Ralph Wyckoff)

The Spanish Colonial style Science Building at San Jose State was another major project for the Wyckoff firm. Here again there is ample use of terracotta and colorful art tile design throughout the building. Recently restored and renamed Washington Square Hall, this building is probably the best surviving example of the firm’s many school projects. Other local school commissions included the Anne Darling School, Willow Glen Grammar School, McKinnon School and Washington School in Santa Clara.

Wyckoff’s downtown commercial buildings include the Moderne Drugstore Building at Second and Santa Clara Streets and the San Jose National Bank Building at Market and Santa Clara Streets. Wyckoff was consultant on the City’s plans to develop the Civic Center on North First Street, and he designed the County’s jail facilities there.

Moderne Drug Co.
Moderne Drug Co. by Ralph Wyckoff, c. 1940

Wyckoff worked in many styles over the expanse of his career, from Craftsman to Period Revival Spanish Style and the Moderne Styles of the 20s and 30s, and lastly to the stark functional buildings of the 1950s.

Ralph Wyckoff’s family can be traced back to Peter Claeson Wyckoff, an early settler who built a home in Brooklyn, NY in 1638. Wyckoff’s grandfather came to the Pajaro Valley from Illinois in 1867.

Wyckoff married his childhood sweetheart, Nellie M. Cornell (daughter of Watsonville rancher), on August 30, 1905 in Watsonville, and they later adopted a daughter Frances (later Mrs. Orville Jack). After moving to San Jose they lived in their home at 310 Sequoia Avenue. Ralph was an avid photographer who co-authored a text on How to Build and Equip a Modern Darkroom. Active in professional circles, he served as chairman of the Central Coast Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1946 & 1947, and he was also a member of the San Jose Rotary and the Elks Club. He was elected treasurer of the State Association of California Architects in 1943 and 1944, and served on a California committee in 1948 to aid the State Architect in facilitating backlog of school plans. He died on August 16, 1956 and is interred at Oak Hill Cemetery.

310 Sequoia Avenue
Ralph Wyckoff’s home at 310 Sequoia Avenue, San Jose (Photo by Ralph Wyckoff)


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