Who designed our homes and shaped our neighborhoods?
By Michael Good | House Calls
They say you will know a man by his works.
If that were true, we should know a lot more than we do about the architects who designed our early 20th-century houses. These shadowy figures put their stamp on the plans that produced our houses and then departed the scene. A few left behind plans and news clippings, a few left behind children to tell their stories. But most left little or no evidence of their stay upon this earth — other than the houses they designed that we call home.
We can walk the halls, pad the floors, run our hands over the woodwork, but the men and women who built these houses remain inscrutable cyphers.
Over the years I’ve written about a number of San Diego designers, architects and master builders. Looking over my notes, a sort of group portrait emerges — not of a bunch of artists, dreamers and great men, but more of a group of principled pragmatists, with a touch here and there of the artist, the dreamer, and if not the great man, at least the man aspiring to greatness.
At the turn of the 20th century, only a handful of architects were listed in the San Diego City Directory. Some might have had a classical education, or a degree from accredited architecture school, or a license. But most were just winging it, a well-worn tradition at the time, as self-reinvention was practically a requirement in early 20th-century San Diego.
To put things in perspective, California didn’t have any laws on the books regulating architects until 1901. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) wasn’t formed until 1928. The California Contractors State Licensing Board wasn’t created until 1929. Few architects or contractors felt compelled to get licensed or registered. Cliff May, in fact, never earned his architect’s license.
For centuries, craftsmen had built houses without plans, relying on the traditions of the trade. But with the advent of indoor plumbing, electricity and balloon framing, houses became more complicated and builders needed to communicate clearly with workers about how the parts fit together.
Not all designers started with a blank slate. Some local builders used designs they had purchased from plan books, or they paid a draftsman to draw up a plan to their specifications, which they varied so no two houses would look alike.
Some builders, such as Nathan Rigdon, used the same plan a dozen or more times — but modified it and altered the details so thoroughly that each house seemed unique. Irving Gill, on the other hand, seemed restless. He famously changed the exterior trim of the Marston house in midcourse, after rethinking the half-timbering during a trip East.
You might be under the impression that the architect is the author of the house. But the Auteur Theory doesn’t apply to the early years of 20th-century architecture, particularly in the office of Irving Gill. Mary Taschner, who wrote her master’s thesis on Richard Requa (who learned the trade in Gill’s office), put it this way:
“Irving Gill ran his office as an atelier where all his employees became apprentices for professional positions. In that atmosphere of learning, Richard [Requa] not only acted as job superintendent for Gill’s construction work, but he began to design buildings.”
Gill was influenced by Louis Sullivan, his mentor in Chicago, who didn’t believe in the value of formal training. Sam Hamill, a draftsman in Requa’s office, told Taschner “Gill treated his employees as students, but at the same time allowed them freedom to make their own decisions.” And, he added, “Gill encouraged his employees to discuss their work together.”
Edward Hussey, a draftsman for San Francisco architects Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck, provides another view of the architect/draftsman relationship. Maybeck was in the middle of what turned out to be a 17-year project, Principia College.
Hussey, who lived with Maybeck and his wife, claimed the architect was almost constitutionally incapable of telling anyone what to do.
As Hussey described it, when Maybeck thought it was time to take out the trash, he would do anything to avoid saying, “Please take out the trash.” The Maybecks were in the habit of sending their garbage next door, where it was consumed by the neighbors’ pigs (it was the Depression after all).
“I think the pigs might be getting hungry, “ Maybeck would tell Hussey.
After following what he took to be Maybeck’s instructions for drawing a particular building, Hussey would take his work to the veteran architect. “If you were going to change it,” Maybeck would say, looking at a tower, for example, “would you make that higher or would you make that lower?”
Hussey had learned from the garbage experience: “I looked at it and said, ‘If anything, I’d make it a little bit lower.’”
“Just draw it again,” Maybeck would say. “Draw it again.”
In San Diego, homeowners had to be convinced they needed an architect. Requa was a member of the San Diego Ad Club. He wrote a column about architecture for the San Diego Union called Requa’s Rants. He wrote at least three books, as well as many articles for national magazines. He took photographs. He made movies. He gave lectures and slide presentations to women’s clubs. He tried his darnedest to promote the heck out of himself.
May, who started out building Mexican haciendas in Talmadge, also understood the value of self-promotion. He partnered with Sunset magazine on houses, articles and a book. Some of the photographs were of May’s personal residence, and his actual family.
Craig Elwood, a Los Angeles architect who designed a house in the College Area, used his family for promotional purposes as well. His wife was particularly good at it, since she played a housewife on TV, in the sitcom “Dennis the Menace.”
When times were good, San Diego’s architects, designers and master builders did relatively well. But times were rarely good for long. The World Wars were particularly hard on architects and builders. Construction virtually stopped in 1918 and didn’t start again in earnest until the early 1920s. People like Requa survived by consulting on military projects (for a 2 percent fee). Others, like David Dryden, went bust.
During the Depression, Requa worked on the 1935 Exposition and the County Administration Center. Hamill worked with Requa on the rehab of the House of Hospitality and alone on the Del Mar Racetrack.
While some architects rolled with the punches, Requa emerged from the Depression battered and beaten. He died in his office of a heart attack on June 10, 1941. He was 60 years old, and broke. He had been the master architect of Kensington Heights, Rancho Santa Fe and Presidio Hills, but like his mentor, he left nothing behind in terms of personal papers, plans or sketches.
But also like Gill, Requa left behind a legacy of protégés, friends and colleagues whom he mentored and inspired. Some, like Hamill, did a better job of providing for posterity. His papers are in the archives of the San Diego History Center, where you’ll also find the current exhibition, “Irving J. Gill: New Architecture for a Great Country.”
—Contact Michael Good at email@example.com.