The under-appreciated Irving Gill gets another shot at respect
By Michael Good | House Calls
No man’s a prophet in his hometown. I learned that at a young age while sitting in the hard wooden pews of Brooklyn Heights Presbyterian Church, at 30th and Fir streets. Gazing at the stained glass windows, listening to the choir and pondering the anecdote-laden sermons of the pastor, the Rev. Ellis Shaw, I learned about art and architecture, music and literature, writing and the power of daydreaming.
These lessons came to mind recently when contemplating the fate of local architect Irving J. Gill, who no doubt spent some time in church — he designed 10 places of worship in San Diego and more than 100 houses and commercial buildings before washing the dust of this Doubting Thomas of a town from his feet and setting off for what he hoped would be a better reception in Los Angeles.
Gill, who had designed houses for many of the city’s movers and shakers, had good reason to believe he would be chosen as the head architect of the 1915 Panama California Exposition. In January 1911, the Exposition’s building committee passed a resolution to hire Gill. Four weeks later, after considerable lobbying, East Coast architect and inveterate snob Bertram Goodhue was instead offered the job. Gill was named associate architect, at a not-insubstantial salary of $7,500.
It was clear that Goodhue did not appreciate Gill’s minimalist tendencies; he instead chose the Spanish Revival style. Sometime in 1912, Gill bailed on the project (and San Diego) and moved to Torrance, California, where he’d been hired to design an entire town.
Torrance didn’t exactly work out, either. Gill designed several factories, a railroad bridge, a train station and a school, but his worker housing ran into some problems: The workers hated it. Raised a Quaker, Gill was religious about simplicity. He sought to make things thinner, smaller, sleeker and simpler. Gill believed he was making the worker’s lives better. They believed he was putting them out of work.
The workers made their feelings known in a raucous public meeting with Gill in attendance. A lesser man might have been crushed. Gill was merely … compressed. Out of the hundreds of concrete houses he had planned, only 10 were completed (and sold for $1,400 a piece). The rest were built of wood in traditional styles.
Today, residential Torrance looks like any other Los Angeles suburb built in historic revival style — Spanish Revival, Tudor Revival, Colonial Revival — everything Gill had railed against. Gill’s worker cottages have been remodeled beyond recognition
Despite these setbacks, Gill did some of his best work over next decade: the Walter Dodge House in West Hollywood, the Ellen Scripps House in La Jolla, the Clark House in Santa Fe Springs.
After so much success, the 1920s were hard on Gill. For several years he had virtually no work. He blamed Goodhue and the historicism of the Panama California Expo. Instead of a new architecture for a new land, Southern Californians embraced an old architecture gussied up for the Jazz Age: a movie set pretending to be an old Spanish castle, a Moorish bathhouse or a Shakespeare cottage. Gill was living alone and mostly forgotten on an avocado ranch near Oceanside when he died, in 1936, of a heart attack. He was 66.
On the 80th anniversary of his passing, Gill may yet receive the visionary status he deserves. Beginning in September, Southern Californians will encounter a flurry of exhibits, lectures and tours by a bevy of cultural institutions on the subject of Gill’s life, work, politics, philosophy and legacy. (See sohosandiego.org for details.)
For someone who lived — and died — alone, Gill spent an awfully lot of time and energy perfecting his vision of neighborhood: harmoniously designed, interconnected single-family homes that promoted community involvement through shared common areas.
Gill’s favorite was Bella Vista Terrace (Lewis Courts), a bungalow court in Sierra Madre, which was arranged in the early California manner, with the units pushed up against the street, leaving room for a communal garden, picnic area and pergola. (The owner, of course, filled in the open space with more units, to increase his profit.)
In San Diego, Gill built three similar “worker’s cottages” in a row on Robinson Mews, where he lived. A few blocks to the east, on Eighth Avenue, Gill built four rental cottages in a row for developer Mary Cossitt. In 1906, he designed three Prairie Style houses in a semi-circle on Seventh Avenue, for Alice Lee and Katharine Teats. In 1912-13, Gill designed a grouping of eight houses around a terraced canyon for the same clients. And on Granada Avenue, in Brooklyn Heights, not far from the church and the house of its pastor, Gill designed three houses in a row for Peter M. Price, a seed-store owner and land developer.
Dan Davey, the current owner of one of those houses on Granada, started my ruminations on Gill when he emailed to say that his house bore an uncanny resemblance to one covered last year in this column: the Panama California Expo “Model Bungalow.” That structure was probably designed in 1911, when Gill was still associate architect for the Expo. Among Davey’s evidence that the two houses might be related: a pot perched on his front porch looks like one pictured in a period photograph of the Model Bungalow. The general layout of the Ranch House (a “U”) resembles the house next door as well, which was also designed by Gill. Then, according to Davey, there’s original owner Peter M. Price, who was the manager of the Expo’s Model Farm, site of the Model Bungalow. (Historical records disagree, awarding that title to C.L. Wilson, who also is credited with designing the bungalow. But never mind. You can’t believe what you read in the papers.)
Adding to the mystique, a site plan for the farm’s irrigation system (which I found at the public library) reveals an earlier, much-more-Gill-like version of the bungalow, identified as the Ranch House. (That term, or Ranch Home, was used interchangeably with “Model Bungalow” in early promotional material.) It appears that between conception and execution, the bungalow became less Mexican rancho and more English Tudor. On top of that, there’s no escaping the arched window openings for the two wings, which are dead ringers for the semi-circle windows at Gill’s Bella Vista court, built in 1910. And don’t forget the pots!
So does this mean Gill could have designed the Ranch House? That’s the problem with giving Gill his due in a town filled with Philistines. Unless you can produce a plan with Gill’s signature on it, unless your evidence passes the historical DNA test, it’s not a Gill, and it’s subject to the wrecking ball. For most developers, historic designation is a financial liability.
But signed original plans may not be the best way to understand and appreciate Gill. Architecture is a collaborative enterprise. It’s only in some all-American cowboy-fantasy that a guy (and it’s always a guy) designs a house (usually on a napkin), and then builds it entirely himself (out of tools he himself forged).
At the height of his business, Gill had two offices and employed a half-dozen draftsman. He delegated. He inspired. He made connections. Gill taught, mentored, collaborated and partnered — he worked with a lot of different people in a lot of different capacities. He was the Kevin Bacon of early-20th-century architecture. No one with a T-square and a drawing board in San Diego was more than a degree or two away from Gill.
But influence doesn’t equal historic significance. Gill’s roll as a visionary has not been enough to preserve the buildings he designed, much less those he influenced. In “Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform,” Thomas S. Hines lists 183 buildings that have either been destroyed or altered.
The wrecking ball appears to have been the fate of the Expo Ranch House as well. Dan Davey found a 75-year-old San Diego Union newspaper article that follows the bungalow’s relocation from Balboa Park to Navy Field, a Downtown recreation site for military people and their families, with ball fields, picnic grounds, tennis courts and barbecues. According to an article dated Jan. 26, 1941, the Ranch House was to be converted to a clubhouse — for Naval officers. In an aerial photograph from that year, the disassembled Ranch House sits forlornly beside the tennis courts, just south of the old Police Station.
That may be its last portrait. The San Diego Union archives yielded nothing — no mention of Navy Field officer clubhouses, model bungalows or ranch houses designed by Gill but awkwardly remodeled in the English style by an anonymous hack.
There is an article, however, from 1980, about the decommissioning of Navy Field, which was to become Seaport Village and the Marriot Hotel. The city was looking for bids to demolish everything that remained of the former facility, including the old San Diego Rowing Club boathouse, which ultimately was saved — by SOHO — then turned into a Chart House. Ranch House. Clubhouse. Boathouse. Chart House. Do you sense a pattern?
A final footnote: The city gave one corner of Navy Field to a developer for condos. That developer, Pardee, had a clever inspiration for the architecture of their condo complex — a mostly forgotten early-20th-century architect named Irving Gill, “who was prominent after the turn of the century in breaking away from the designs of the Victorian era.” Gill’s influence would be evident, a San Diego Union article from 1980 claimed, in the form of “slanted roofs, arches and a great deal of tile work.” Finally, respect!
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.