William Foster (1842-1909), Architect

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Fosterportrait 3w.jpg
William Foster, ca. 1909.
Des Moines, Iowa, 1867-1899

DBA: W. Foster, William Foster, L. W. Foster & Company

William Foster is described by Shank in Iowa's Historic Architects as "one of the most important Iowa architects of the nineteenth century" who "was able to obtain the commissions for large and complex buildings that previously went to out-of-state architects."[1] In Nebraska, Foster was one of the out-of-state architects who carried out major commissions such as the State Penitentiary and the Insane Asylum, both near Lincoln. This page concentrates on Foster's Nebraska contributions, supplementing the more comprehensive coverage of his career available in Shank's biographical dictionary. Wikipedia includes a roster of his Iowa works listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[2]

W. Foster was born in Long Island, New York in 1842, eldest son of Samuel and Alice Foster. His father was a ship carpenter.[19][20][g] William reportedly was apprenticed to Richard Upjohn, the prominent New York architect and founder of the American Institute of Architects. Foster operated a planing mill in Flushing, New York before relocating the Des Moines by 1867, where he and Samuel Foster established Foster Bros., a "Planing Mill and Sash and Door Factory." William was also practicing architecture by 1867.[1][3] His first Nebraska project was very sizable--the State Penitentiary at Lincoln. He won the commission in competition with architects from Lincoln, Chicago, and St. Louis.[4][a] Subsequently, he designed the Nebraska Asylum for the Insane in 1871, Lancaster County Jail in 1873, and a large commercial block in 1874--his last known project in Nebraska. He continued in Iowa with major projects in association with a succession of partners, most notably Henry Liebbe, from 1883-1899. On his own account he designed and built Foster's Opera House in Des Moines and acquired Grand Opera House, and in his last decade shifted his focus from architecture to operating those large theaters.[1] Foster ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Des Moines in 1890.[5] He announced in July 1909 that he planned to retire from theater management in 1911 and might then build "a big office building of the skyscraper variety" on the site of Foster's Opera House. Instead he died in Des Moines in December 1909.[6][24][f]

This page is a contribution to the publication, Place Makers of Nebraska: The Architects. See the format and contents page for more information on the compilation and page organization.

Educational & Professional Associations

1867-ca. 1899: architect, Des Moines, Iowa.[1]

ca. 1871-ca. 1876: architect with L.W. Foster & Company, Des Moines, Iowa.[1]

1873-1883: Henry F. Liebbe, draftsman with William Foster, Des Moines, Iowa.[1]

1883-1895: architect with Foster & Liebbe, Des Moines, Iowa.[1]

1895-1896: architect with Foster, Liebbe & Co., Des Moines, Iowa.[1]

ca. 1896-ca. 1898: architect with Foster, Liebbe & Smith, Des Moines, Iowa.[1]

ca. 1898-1899: architect with Foster-Liebbe Company, Des Moines, Iowa.[1]

027 1w.jpg
State Building Block (1874-1875) (Zimmer Collection)
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Nebraska Asylum Building (1871) (NSHS Collection)
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Lancaster County Jail (1873), (Hansen Collection)

Buildings & Projects

Nebraska State Penitentiary (1870), Lincoln, Nebraska.[4][7][a]

Nebraska Asylum Building (1871), Lincoln, Nebraska.[8][b]

Lancaster County Jail (1873), Lincoln, Nebraska.[9][10][c]

State Building (1874-1875), southeast corner of 10th & O Street, Lincoln, Nebraska.[11][d]

Plans for Fillmore County Courthouse (1876--not executed), Geneva, Nebraska.[1][h]


a. Nebraska State Journal reported that plans and specifications for the Penitentiary offered by "Wm. Foster of Des Moines" were selected over the designs of several other architects. The paper listed the unsuccessful proponents as "D. M. Killian and W. F. Gilbert, of Lincoln, J. K. Winchell, of Chicago, E. D. Baldwin and T. K. Amman, of St. Louis." Also mentioned was regret that "Mr. McBird, late of Logansport, Indiana, and now of Council Bluffs" was too late in presenting his plans to be considered. "Blaine and Meyers" of Philadelphia reportedly sent plans "by express" and Mr. Meyers came to Lincoln to present them, but the plans did not arrive and could not be located by telegraph.[4]

b. Nebraska built a State Insane Asylum in 1869-1870, designed by John Keys Winchell. It burned in 1871. The newspaper account of the design for the new Asylum identifies the architect as "Mr. L. W. Foster of Des Moines, Iowa" and provides a lengthy description. The article concludes with "Mr. Foster has made a good job of these plans and specifications. He is well known to our citizens as the architect of the Penitentiary."[8]

c. Shank indicates William Foster practiced with L.W. Foster & Co. of Des Moines from about 1871 to 1876, and notes that the Des Moines city directories listed both L. W. Foster Sr. and L. W. Foster Jr. The latter was indicated to be a resident of Lincoln, Nebraska. The relationship of William and the L.W. Fosters is unclear and L.W. Jr. has not been found listed in Lincoln city directories. Shank's speculation that L.W. Foster Sr. may have been William's father and L.W. Jr. his brother is not borne out by census and other records. SEE [g]. below.

As early as 1872, Lincoln newspapers carried advertisements for Foster & Co., initially in association with Lincoln architect J. J. Butler. Under the headline "J.J. Butler, ARCHITECT," tiny print reads "Office with L. H. [sic] Foster & Co."[13] In 1873, the plans of "Mr. L. W. Foster, the well known architect" were selected for the Lancaster County jail, and again the designer was identified as "L. W. Foster & Co., Des Moines, Iowa...the architects ...of the Nebraska and Iowa penitentiaries, and Nebraska insane asylum."[6] Also in 1873, "L. W. Foster & Co., Architect" began to advertise in Lincoln newspapers and continued to do so at least as late as 1876, always with "Des Moines, Iowa" as the address. Similar advertisements were published frequently in Des Moines newspapers in the same period.[12]

The Lancaster County Jail project generated a controversy about various sets of plans, modifications to plans, and bidding. Lincoln architect Artemas Roberts wrote several lengthy letters to Lincoln newspapers and "W. Foster" responded from Des Moines.[14] William Foster of Des Moines was noted as lodging at Lincoln's Commercial Hotel in April, 1874 and at the Cannon House in July, 1874; L. W. Foster was not mentioned in Lincoln papers aside from the advertisements and the cited references to specific projects.[15] When Foster was noted as "spending a few days in the city [Lincoln]" in 1879, a new wrinkle on his name was employed--"Wm. H. Foster, architect and builder, of Des Moines, Iowa."[16] A contemporaneous note in a Des Moines paper probably exaggerated in stating: "Mr. William Foster left yesterday morning for a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he is Supervising Architect of the State buildings."[18]

d. Nebraska State Journal published a lengthy and enthusiastic description of the State Building "now under process of erection, and which will be completed and ready for occupancy by the 1st day of February...To Mr. Wm. Foster, of Des Moines, Iowa, belongs the honor of the design, and from general appearances, there is no better architect in the west than this gentleman."[11] It may have been for the State Building that L. W. Foster & Co. advertised in a Des Moines newspaper of 1874: "Wanted--Six stone cutters to go to Lincoln, Neb."[17]

e. The Omaha Bee reported in 1890 "Hon. John H. Campbell, mayor of Des Moines, was [at] the Millard yesterday. Mr. Campbell was only recently elected to his present office. He is a republican and made a great run against his democratic opponent William Foster, who is an architect and the proprietor of Foster's opera house in the Iowa capital city."[5]

f. Foster's death by asphyxiation was reported in widely. Foster and a guest in his house were both killed by gas leaking from a faulty stove while they slept. Foster was described as a "veteran amusement manager" and "a pioneer Des Moines architect and theatrical man..." who "...owned the Foster and Grand opera house, the two largest theaters in Des Moines."[6]

g. The 1860 U.S. Census lists the family of Samuel and Alice Foster in Flushing, Queens, New York. Samuel was identified as a ship builder. William, a carpenter, was the second (and eldest son) of seven children.[19] William was 19 in 1860 and his next brother, Samuel, was 17. A New York State census of 1865 found the family in Brooklyn, with William no longer in the household.[20] Samuel Jr., William, and their parents all moved to Des Moines by the late 1860s and are reflected in the city directory of 1869 and the 1870 U.S. Census, with father Samuel listed as a carpenter.[3][21] By 1880, Samuel and Alice were back in Brooklyn, where he was again identified as a shop carpenter. Their youngest son Frederick (age 15) and daughter Sarah Philips (age 24) were in their household, with nine-month-old granddaughter Jennie.[22] Samuel Foster died in 1890 at age 74 and Alice in 1909 at age 89, both in Kings County (Brooklyn), New York.[23]

h. Shank includes "Geneva, Nebraska. Filmore [sic] County Courthouse" on his list of Foster's major projects, noting "planned in 1876." The extant Fillmore County Courthouse in Geneva was built 1892-1894 from plans by George E. McDonald, replacing an earlier courthouse of 1873. The McDonald courthouse is listed on the National Register.[1]


1. Wesley I. Shank, Iowa's historic architects: a biographical dictionary (University of Iowa Press: 1998), 65-68.

2. "William Foster (Iowa architect)," in Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia. Accessed January 19, 2019 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Foster_(Iowa_architect)

3. Des Moines city directory, 1869.

4. In "Local News," (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (June 10, 1870), 3. On the same page, "Notice to Architects and Builders," inviting submission of plans and specifications, with dateline "Lincoln, Neb. April 1, 1870."

5. In "Iowa Items," Omaha (Nebraska) Daily Bee (May 13, 1890), 4.

6. "Wm. Foster and L. Bemis Asphyxiated. Veteran Business Man Is Found Dead in Bed at Home," Des Moines (Iowa) Tribune (December 30, 1909), 1. SEE also "Two Killed by Leaking Gas," Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) (December 30, 1909), 2.

7. "The Penitentiary," Weekly (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (June 10, 1870), 2.

8. "The New Asylum Building," (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (August 6, 1871), 1.

9. Brief article, and "Proposals for Building a Jail," (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (July 27, 1873), 2.

10. "The New County Jail," Daily State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska) (July 29, 1873), 4.

11. "The New State Block. Pronounced by Competent Judges to be the Best Building West of the Missouri River, North of St. Louis. A Credit to Lincoln--The Cost Will Reach the Enormous Sum of $50,000," (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (January 1, 1875), 3.

12. Advertisement "L. W. Foster & Co. Architects Des Moines, Iowa," in (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (October 5, 1873), 4. (Repeated in subsequent editions into 1876.) See also advertisement "L. W. Foster & Co. Architects Hawkeye Building [Des Moines]," Des Moines (Iowa) Register (January 1, 1873), 1.

13. Advertisement for "J. J. Butler, Architect," in (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (July 2, 1872), 2.

14. "Architect Foster and the Jail Plans," (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (June 23, 1874), 4.

15. "Hotel Arrivals. Commercial Hotel," (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (April 12, 1874), 4. See also "Personal," (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (July 8, 1874), 4.

16. (Lincoln) Nebraska State Journal (April 4, 1879), 4.

17. "Wanted.--Six stone cutters to go to Lincoln, Neb. L. W. Foster & Co., Architects." Des Moines (Iowa) Register (September 22, 1874), 4.

18. "Personal," Des Moines (Iowa) Register (April 3, 1879), 3.

19. Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line], s.v. "Samuel Foster," born circa 1816. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

20. Ancestry.com. New York, State Census, 1865 [database on-line], s.v. "Samuel Foster," spouse "Alice," child "Samuel." Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.

21. Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line], s.v. "Samuel Foster" with spouse "Alice." Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.

22. Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1880 United States Federal Census [database on-line], s.v. "Samuel Foster" and spouse "Alice Foster." Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010.

23. Ancestry.com. New York, New York, Extracted Death Index, 1862-1948 [database on-line], s.v. "Samuel Foster," born circa 1816 and "Alice Foster," born circa 1820. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.

24. "Foster Plans Retirement--Veteran Theater Manager Will Quit Business in 1911. May Build Skyscraper Where Foster's Opera House Is Now Located," Des Moines (Iowa) Register (July 31, 1909), 1.

Page Citation

E. F. Zimmer, “William Foster (1842-1909), Architect,” in David Murphy, Edward F. Zimmer, and Lynn Meyer, comps. Place Makers of Nebraska: The Architects. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, February 11, 2019. http://www.e-nebraskahistory.org/index.php?title=Place_Makers_of_Nebraska:_The_Architects Accessed, September 25, 2022.

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