Master architect Allen H. Hilton brought a little bit of Hollywood with him to San Diego; then, like a movie star, he rode off into the sunset.
Housecalls | Michael Good
They called it the Movie Girl Subdivision. Never mind that the namesake movie stars – Norma, Natalie and Constance – never actually lived there. Actors Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle were investors, but did any real movie people do any real work on Talmadge Park?
As it turns out, the Movie Girl Subdivision did have its movie-boy architect. His name was Allen H. Hilton, and while he wasn’t a star, he did direct at least one movie, work on at least one big-budget studio film and build at least one house in Talmadge.
But first, a little back story. Our movie begins in New Jersey in 1914, when Jesse Lansky, a former San Francisco newspaperman, decided the Western he was making needed to go on location. He headed west and didn’t stop until he reached Hollywoodland, a real estate development in the bucolic hills north of Los Angeles. Lansky turned an old barn into a film studio and there he finished “The Squaw Man,” the first Hollywood movie.
At about the same time, a little to the south, a battle was waging between two competing visions for the World’s Fair that was rising on a barren mesa a mile north of downtown San Diego. When the dust had settled, the City’s fathers had chosen fantasy and escapism over truth and beauty, the grand vision of Bertram Goodhue over the stark reality of Irving Gill. Gill thought architecture should make the world a better place. Goodhue thought it should entertain a boatload of people. Goodhue won.
Like a movie set, Goodhue’s fantasia was never meant to last. It was going to be a shining city on a hill, and then it was going to be torn down. It looked solid, like stone, brick and adobe, but it was made of stucco and tarpaper, held together with hide glue and a prayer.
Of course, people loved it. They didn’t want it torn down. They wanted to live there. They took the fair home with them in their imaginations, where it incubated like a scary virus in a B movie. The next few years were rough for the United States, with the war and the pandemic, but when we got back to building again, those dreams of the fair – combined with the dreams of a hundred Hollywood movies – created a new style of residential architecture. It was all about the romance. Whimsy and artifice reigned.
If you’d worked in the theater, at the Panama Exposition or in Hollywood, you had the training and experience for this new kind of home building. Consider Allen H. Hilton. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade to help out in the family construction business. He joined the railroad, lost an eye, turned to managing and then buying movie theaters in and around the boomtown of Lewiston, Idaho.
He played drums in a dance band. He saw a lot of movies and probably helped build a lot of sets for the theater companies and vaudeville acts that performed in his theaters. He bought a camera and became an ethnographic filmmaker, shooting stills and movies of the nearby Nez Perce. He convinced a Paramount location scout to accompany him on a boat ride down the Snake River gorge, with Hilton’s waterproofed movie camera strapped to the bow. Whether impressed or just plain terrified, the location scout convinced Jesse Lansky, the same guy who founded Hollywood, to shoot “Told in the Hills” on the Snake in 1919. Hilton acted as a casting agent for the Nez Perce who appeared in the film. In 1922, he directed a short dramatic film of his own, “Miss Lewiston.” In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Hilton went bankrupt and lost his theaters.
So he moved to Hollywood, in 1923, and became a studio publicist. While in Hollywood he no doubt noticed a lot of make-believe architecture: the storybook-style Spadena House (which was a studio office), the Tam O’ Shanter (which was a restaurant that inspired Walt Disney’s theme park designs) and the faux vernacular European villages built on the studio lots of Charlie Chaplin and others.
Within a year, Hilton moved to San Diego, got his contractor and architect licenses and started building fantastic-looking romantic revival apartment buildings and at least one house, a Mission Revival in Talmadge that unfolds, from one narrow, arched portal to another expansive high-ceilinged room, like a scene in a movie.
When the San Diego real estate market crashed, Hilton returned to Hollywood. With his brother Frank, he got involved in a real-estate venture in the movie colony of Lake Arrowhead. The project went sour; Hilton took the rap and lost both his licenses. He never built a house again, except for a ranch on the orange grove he bought in Porterville, Calif. Living there from 1942 until his death in 1986, he involved himself in civic life and continued his photography career, publishing in magazines, showing internationally and winning awards.
It would be a mistake to think that because Hilton didn’t practice architecture until the age of retirement, he was any less of an architect. Irving Gill and Frank Lloyd Wright also had a hard time during the Great Depression. Jesse Lasky, Mr. Hollywood, lost everything in the market crash and never quite recovered. But not Hilton. After each setback, he just reinvented himself. And then there’s his buildings, which can’t be denied.
On a recent stormy Sunday I sat across the street from one of Hilton’s apartment buildings, the Alta Canada at 2448 Adams Ave., and just marveled at his sense of proportion, scale and massing. Rising like a modern Andalusian village, it’s filled with the hustle and bustle of young people on the go.
Residents bounded down the broad steps, arm in arm. A young women dashed up the stairs, carrying a package, disappeared into the courtyard, then reappeared several stories up on an outdoor staircase. She paused before an arched doorway, disappeared inside, then reappeared on a balcony around the corner. The package was now gone. What happened to it? What was in it? Who was it for? She looked around, seemed to be making a decision, and then went back inside.
It reminded me of something. The clouds moved, the light shifted, and then I had it: a movie set. And the scene unfolding before me was something I had seen before and would see again. It was being written, and being rewritten every day, for a movie that is still in production. It is the quintessential story of Southern California.
I’d like to think it’s a romance.
Historians Linda Canada and Ron May provided information about Allen H. Hilton for this article.
—Michael Good is a contractor and freelance writer. His business, Craftsman Wood Refinishing, restores architectural millwork in historic houses in San Diego. He is a fourth-generation San Diegan and lives in North Park. You can reach him at email@example.com.