Architect’s Perspective: Melverne Coats Ensign – An Inventive Architecture
Doug Sydnor, FAIA
Growing up in Phoenix, I noticed some innovative architecture created by an unknown individual. Many years later, I learned about Mel Ensign, an architect associated with many Scottsdale schools during the 1950s. Aided by Walt Lockley’s previous research, I explored Ensign’s rich story that included committing his practice to exclusively Arizona locations.
Melverne “Mel” Coats Ensign, AIA, was born in Phoenix in 1913 to Philemon and Ora Ensign. Mel was the youngest of their three children. He graduated in 1931 from Phoenix Union High School and in 1934 from Phoenix Junior College (now Phoenix College). Like so many aspiring local architects, Ensign went west to receive his architectural degree from the University of Southern California in 1938. He returned to Phoenix to work as a draftsman for Lescher and Mahoney from 1940-1941 and later became an instructor at Phoenix Technical School.
Ensign graduated from Harvard University with a Master in Architecture degree in 1946. While at Harvard, he received three national design awards, including the prestigious Rotch Architecture Traveling Scholarship. This prize allowed Ensign, accompanied by his wife, the former Ora Marquess, to travel and study in Europe for six months.
In 1947, Ensign became a draftsman for E. Harry Herrscher, a local architect and builder. Later that year, he received his Arizona architectural license.
Ensign became a design instructor at the Arizona State College Industrial Arts Department in the fall of 1948 and was promoted to an Assistant Professor the following spring. Old articles cite Ensign as the head of the school’s architectural division, but there are no records of him in Arizona State University’s architectural school history. This anomaly remains a mystery, as credit for the new school of architecture creation is given to James W. Elmore, FAIA. He arrived at the Arizona State College in the fall of 1949.
In 1949, Ensign formed his own firm and became an American Institute of Architects member in the early 1950s. He completed more than 60 educational, church, commercial and custom residential projects in Arizona from 1949-1978. These buildings were in Ash Fork, Casa Grande, Chinle, Flagstaff, Mesa, Paradise Valley, Peoria, Phoenix, Poston, Salome, Scottsdale, Tempe, and Williams. Ensign passed away on January 15, 1996, and his wife, Ora, died in 2007. They had no children.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Sep/Oct 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 5.