Discovering Irving Gill

Posted: September 23rd, 2016 | Columns, Featured, Homes & Garden, Lifestyle | 1 Comment

Cultural institutions join forces to introduce the world to architect

By Michael Good | HouseCalls

Like many a fledgling hooligan growing up in 1950s Oceanside, California, Milford Wayne Donaldson was introduced to the architecture of Irving J. Gill after running afoul of the law.

“I was with five or six of my buddies — we were out surfing. At that time you weren’t supposed to shoot the pier on a Saturday,” he said.

But boys will be boys, and Donaldson and his surf posse ventured into forbidden waters, caught the attention of the lifeguards, and were hauled off to jail — sort of.

Children’s Home Association Dormitory (1908), Russ Boulevard at 16th Street. Demolished 1960. (Courtesy of Coons Collection)

Children’s Home Association Dormitory (1908), Russ Boulevard at 16th Street. Demolished 1960. (Courtesy of Coons Collection)

“Back then, lifeguards didn’t have arresting authority. They had to turn us over to the fire department, which was in charge of the beach. So where did they hold us? In the hose tower of the fire station.”

And in this dark, damp, extremely vertical jail cell of a room, Donaldson got his first exposure to Irving J. Gill, who had designed the fire station, along with the nearby police station, in 1929.

Donaldson had already committed himself, at the age of 7, to becoming an architect. So you’d think he’d be impressed by the work of Irving Gill, right?

“Well my dad was impressed,” Donaldson said. His father was a Navy corpsman who’d been wounded in the Korean War. “When he picked us up, he wanted to know why they were keeping us in the tower with the fire hoses. He didn’t like that. He kind of read the fire department the riot act.”

Donaldson next encountered Gill a few years later, when he was starting architecture school.

Thomas Hamilton/Mary Fulford House (1908), 3500 Seventh Ave. Demolished. (Courtesy of Coons Collection)

Thomas Hamilton/Mary Fulford House (1908), 3500 Seventh Ave. Demolished. (Courtesy of Coons Collection)

“Way back in the ’60s, we put together a lecture series, with architects Sim Bruce Richards and Ken Kellogg, and clay artist Rhoda Lopez. I think we also had Jim Hubbell. We included the architecture of Irving Gill in our introduction. I was just entering into my first year of architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and I thought, ‘That looks like San Luis Rey Mission.’ That was the first time I made the connection between Gill and the Mission style.”

But Donaldson didn’t really begin to develop an appreciation for Gill until a few years later, when he started his professional career in the offices of Mosher/Drew/Watson. The firm designed many modern style houses in the ’50s and ’60s, and had offices at the Green Dragon Colony in La Jolla, which included cottages designed by Gill (and owned by Mosher’s father, Jack.) By the time Donaldson was hired as a draftsman, the firm had moved on to bigger projects, including building residence halls at the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, which had been designed by Gill.

“Roy Drew was a pretty big advocate of Gill. Most architects in San Diego were not.”

Working on the Bishops School, Donaldson again had that déjà vu feeling. “I looked around at the buildings and thought, ‘Gee, this looks a lot like a mission.’”

After moving to Mission Hills and starting his own firm, in 1978, Donaldson kept running into more Gill buildings, especially as he began focusing on restoration work. He eventually rescued, restored and retrofitted some 120 buildings in the Gaslamp District, Balboa Park and throughout San Diego. That was when he really began to understand and appreciate Gill.

“Then, of course, there was saving the fountain,” he said. By “the fountain,” he means the Irving Gill-designed fountain in Horton Plaza, which developers wanted to move to the big hole in the ground that now serves as the outdoor lobby of the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

“That was a big fight,” Donaldson said. “I took the initiative. SOHO joined in. We were fortunate enough to have (then mayor) Roger Hedgecock on our side. Larry Halprin (the prominent California landscape designer famous for remaking Ghirardelli Square) wanted to move the fountain and replace it with one of his own design. Roger Hedgecock said, ‘No way.’ Halprin left the project in a rush.”

Hugo Klauber House (1908), demolished circa 2000. (Courtesy of Coons Collection)

Hugo Klauber House (1908), demolished circa 2000. (Courtesy of Coons Collection)

Donaldson was surprised when, 20 years later, “I got a call from Halprin. He said, ‘Let’s have lunch at the Lodge.” (“The “Lodge” was The Sea Lodge, a Northern California development designed by Halprin.) After lunch, Halprin invited Donaldson to paint some watercolors, en plein air. Halprin, who like all architects was not without an ego, surprised Donaldson by admitting the error of his ways. Donaldson still takes pleasure in relating the story:

“He said, ‘You know I was completely wrong about relocating that Gill fountain. I didn’t know that until you gave me that book on Gill — the one by Esther McCoy. And by the way, you still can’t watercolor worth a damn.’”

Today, Donaldson continues to introduce architects, designers and the public to Irving Gill. Never mind that it took Donaldson himself a few decades to get the full measure of the man and his work, beginning with his subliminal introduction in that dark, dank and drippy hose tower.

“You know,” he said, “the problem is, we still don’t have enough people in the architecture profession who appreciate Gill.”

On Friday, Sept. 23, Donaldson will try to make a few more converts when he delivers a lecture called “Irving Gill: Architect, Poet, Humanist” at the First Church of Christ, Scientist on Laurel Street. The lecture is part of the all-encompassing, months-long appraisal of Gill undertaken by 11 Southern California cultural institutions.

Save Our Heritage Organisation [CQ] is sponsoring the lecture, as well as an exhibit, a walking tour, and their usual guided tours of the Gill and Hebbard designed Marston House in Balboa Park.

There’s also an exhibition catalog that contains some previously unpublished images of Gill’s work, as well as Esther McCoy’s book chapter on Gill. The exhibit also includes some furniture by Gill and his partner Frank Meade, which, coincidentally, was rescued and preserved by the aforementioned Sim Bruce Richards.

As an architect, Donaldson has a unique perspective on Gill. He thinks Gill’s move to LA was a big mistake. And he disagrees with Esther McCoy, among others, about Gill’s loss of the commission to design the 1915 Panama California Exposition. “I think the loss of 1915 was devastating,” he said. “He was at the height of his practice in 1910.

“One thing I’ve found in architecture practice, when you leave a successful practice and you wish to move on, and you do it by yourself, it’s almost impossible. By the time Gill went to Los Angeles, there were a whole bunch of other guys — Schindler, Neutra and others — doing Gill-like architecture. When you don’t join partnerships, it’s very difficult to get in.”

Gill’s years alone in LA after World War I were rough. In the ’20s, he had very little work. He had a heart attack in 1929, and another one in 1933. In 1936, a client even refused to pay for his services, saying Gill “didn’t build the building, he only designed it.”

Gill was living alone in an avocado orchard in a house without running water, picking and selling fruit to Safeway and the El Cortez Hotel, when he died in 1936. He was largely forgotten, then, and is largely forgotten now. Donaldson has plans to change that, which he will announce at his lecture.

Alice Lee/Katherine Teats Cottage (1905), 3578 Seventh Ave. (Courtesy of Coons Collection)

Alice Lee/Katherine Teats Cottage (1905), 3578 Seventh Ave. (Courtesy of Coons Collection)

“Irving J. Gill: New Architecture for a Great Country” — the name for the collaborative celebration of all things Gill — should also help. Among the institutions, museums, schools and foundations involved: Barona Cultural Center & Museum (Gill did some of his best and simplest work there late in life), La Jolla Historical Society, San Diego History Center and Oceanside Museum of Art. No word yet on whether the Oceanside Fire Department has anything planned. Perhaps a forced tour of the hose tower? In time for Halloween?

For more information, visit Wayne Donaldson’s lecture is at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at First Church of Christ, Scientist. There is a reception and tour beginning at 5 p.m. Purchase advance tickets at

—Contact Michael Good at

One Comments

  1. David J Gill says:

    It seems odd to suggest Gill’s work at the Barona reservation is some of his best work. It is certainly his most self effacing work and it may suggest that Gill had, at that point in his life, developed a social agenda that architecture could uplift a low income community. And this may be seen as another way that Gill’s work so astoundingly anticipates future directions in modern architecture.

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