Samuel Wood Hamill (1903-1989)

samhamillSam Hamill day-dreamed of what the fair would offer as he rode along in the streetcar toward Balboa Park. Twelve years old and the younger of the two Hamill boys, he had a pass for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 safely tucked away in an inside jacket pocket. The pass, a present from his mother, allowed unlimited access to the Exposition, and Sam planned to spend much of the summer vacation enjoying this great event in San Diego. What he could not imagine, at this age, however, is that one day his efforts would be largely responsible for the preservation of the fair’s architectural link to the history of San Diego. Thoughts of past summers came to his mind as Sam recalled how he had become a San Diegan.

Recorded history of Samuel Wood Hamill gives his birthdate and place as April 27, 1903 in Globe, Arizona. From that time until the age of six Sam lived in that mining town with the other members of his family.

Father, Joseph Hackney Hamill, arrived in Globe while still a teenager and later became owner, manager, and editor of the Arizona Silver Belt newspaper. Mother, Flora Hamill, came from Silver City, Nevada, where she had been born and raised. Sam had two older sisters, an older brother, and one younger sister.

In 1909, economic strife, due in part to the lack of mining development in Globe, caused Joseph Hamill to move his family to San Diego, California, to pursue new business opportunities. The decision startled Sam, but when assured that even Tippy, the family dog, would go to California, the move seemed not quite so alarming to a six year old who had never thought of leaving his little domain.

San Diego, a large city by comparison to Globe, fascinated Sam, and one day curiosity led him to leave the hotel for a stroll around the block to see the new buildings. Sam knew there would be no problem since if one turned right and continued in this direction the point of beginning would be reached. After the lad had turned the fourth corner, an uneasy thought entered his mind when no familiar door came into view. Sam no longer felt sure that he would reach the point of beginning, and the uneasy thought became sheer terror, “lost in the big city”! A gentleman who recognized the plight of the young adventurer turned Sam to the right; his panic-stricken eyes met the glorious sight of the hotel lobby. The door of the hotel, closed when the journey began, had been opened which removed this beacon from his line of vision. Sam knew then that knowledge of this “big city” and its buildings would come later.

Within a few days, Joseph rented a house for the family, located at 1124 Twenty-Fourth Street, where the Hamills lived for two years. In 1912 Mr. Hamill purchased a home and 1612 Fern Street became their permanent residence.

The new neighborhood, close to Balboa Park, provided open space which the boys used for various expeditions. Coincidental to this time of outdoor activity, Sam became aware of the importance of gardens and plantings through lectures given by Kate Sessions at the Brooklyn School which he now attended. A quiet and sensitive young man, Sam enjoyed his exploration of the undeveloped canyons to find specimens of plant life for exhibition at school. This love of nature became evident when Sam incorporated the view of gardens as a design element of his residences, a feature of the type of architecture found in Southern California.

Shortly after moving into the new home Mr. Hamill again found himself in economic straits due to failing business investments, and in order to provide for his family, Joseph returned to Globe. The Silver Belt newspaper had moved to a different town, but Joseph stayed in Globe to establish another newspaper, the Arizona Record. Mr. Hamill lived in Arizona for most of his life except for visits to the home in San Diego where Flora Hamill remained with the children.

With Father gone, Mrs. Hamill encouraged the children to achieve success in any endeavor, instilled a sound Christian philosophy in their minds, and exposed the youngsters to cultural activities whenever possible in the San Diego of the early twentieth century. The year 1915 proved to be one of the most enlightening for Sam Hamill.

As the streetcar approached the entrance to the fair, reminiscences faded, and Sam reached into his jacket for the pass. Card in hand, he prepared to present the ticket at the gate so there would be no delay in getting to what awaited him beyond. The lad jumped off the streetcar as soon as safety permitted, and sprinted across the road toward the entrance to the wonders of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915.

A large arcade created an imposing entrance, with ticket gates in the center, and on either side two curved walkways led to the buildings beyond. When Sam passed through the gate, he thought, “This is a different world-this is not the San Diego I remember as a small child.” No doubt he recalled the downtown area of the city as it looked when the family arrived in 1909, and now the sight of these beautiful buildings, with the grandeur and eloquence of their Spanish Colonial architecture, overwhelmed him.

The buildings formed a quadrangle; the space between displayed the natural beauty of pools and gardens, and a broad paseo, or walking area, filled the central rectangle-an awesome sight. A graceful cantilever bridge spanned Cabrillo Canyon on the West and connected the far end of the quadrangle to Sixth Avenue. Sam had not expected this experience:

“I knew at that moment that I wanted to learn all I could about these beautiful buildings; to be able to enjoy them to the fullest degree … I wanted to have these wonderful buildings last forever, to be appreciated by all people who came to San Diego in the future.”

During the many visits that followed, Sam familiarized himself with every inch of the buildings and gardens; especially where to find the free samples. Like most children, he spent much of his time investigating the mysteries of this new attraction. Unlike most youngsters, Sam developed an appreciation for the design of the Spanish Colonial structures, a magnificent architectural link to the Spanish era in the history of San Diego. The complexity and detail of the Churrigueresque decor on some of the buildings fascinated him. Others, of the Mission style, appealed to him in their simplicity, and the Indian architecture added a mystique to the overall ambiance. Constant exposure to this oasis of physical beauty proved to be a significant influence in his decision to become an architect.

Sam had always liked to draw, and encouragement by his mother helped him to choose drafting classes in high school. Sam remembers Lilian Rice as one of the drafting teachers who recognized his potential as an architect. In response to a “Career Day” he selected architecture as his interest, and attended a lecture given at school by the well known architect, William Templeton Johnson. During the personal interview that followed, Mr. Johnson asked Sam to work for him that summer in an evaluation of the physical condition of some of the downtown buildings. By acceptance of this offer, he launched himself in his architectural career.

After graduation from the San Diego High School in 1921, Sam enrolled at San Diego State College and attended for one year. Lilian Rice taught him geometry at the State College, and once again became a strong influence in persuading him to go on to the School of Architecture at the University of California in Berkeley. Guided by the teaching of professors who had a background of classicism in the Beaux Arts school of thought, Sam blossomed and became an “A” student. On May 11, 1927, he received his degree in architecture, and went to work immediately for the firm of Requa and Jackson.

Sam had advantages as a new architect in an established firm. He had been employed in this group as an apprentice while earning money to finish his education, Richard Requa and H.L. Jackson knew him personally, and his brother Joseph worked here as a draftsman. The senior partners recognized Sam’s ability and allowed him to assist in the design of custom homes at the beginning of his career. The talented young architect also designed interiors; that artistry would be evident in the decor of the Japanese Tea Room, part of the Marston Company Building.

The year of 1928 Sam worked in the Rancho Santa Fe office of Requa and Jackson with his former teacher and mentor Lilian Rice, who assisted in development of the residential area before establishing her own practice. This firm of architects made a significant contribution to the architectural style known as “Southern Californian”, a new era in contemporary San Diego history. In 1929 Sam returned to the office in downtown San Diego. At that time the firm had contracts for several school buildings which he designed. These schools are located throughout San Diego County. Some of the structures appear to be traditional in style while others are designed to be compatible with the unique topography of Southern California – a continuity between past and present.

With his career well underway, Sam gave serious thought to marriage, and in 1931, Georgette Rousseau, a young lady of French and Mexican descent, became his bride. Shortly after the marriage, effects of the Great Depression reached San Diego, and the building of homes ceased. Requa and Jackson could no longer afford to pay Sam a salary so they made him a partner of the firm. With this arrangement, all would share expenses as well as profit.

In the midst of this bleak economic crisis, fortune smiled upon the firm when Ralph Jenny, a local attorney and chairman of the State Relief Commission, recommended the selection of William Templeton Johnson, Louis Gill, Richard Requa, and Sam Hamill to act as a committee for the design of a new Civic Center Building at the waterfront . Federal funds had been allocated for a WPA project in San Diego by the Roosevelt administration, and the city and county of San Diego desperately needed more spacious quarters.

Jenny quickly arranged for office space to accommodate 100 workers in one of the unused buildings of Balboa Park, and placed Sam Hamill in charge of the Civic Center project as Chief Designer. Subsequent events took place in rapid succession, and after consideration of the original Nolen Plan for city development, along with several other alternatives, a modified Spanish Colonial style with ornamentation of gold and azure tiles satisfied the city council. On December 5, 1935, local dignitaries turned the first shovel of earth toward the construction of the Civic Center, now the County Administration Building. A large fountain designed by Donal Hord on the waterfront side of the building portrays a domestic woman holding a water jug which complements the architectural style. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, greeted by Ralph Jenny, dedicated the Civic Center to the people of San Diego in July of 1938, three years and seven months after groundbreaking.

During this period, but unrelated to other WPA projects, Sam redesigned some of the Exposition buildings in Balboa Park, erected as temporary structures for the 1915 exposition, now to be used for cultural purposes. Perhaps the House of Hospitality with its Casa del Rey Moro Gardens is the most charming and innovative of the redesigned buildings, Sam remodeled the T-shaped building without altering the original facade, designed by Carleton M. Winslow. The interior of the structure had to be removed which created a courtyard where an exquisitely designed fountain by Donal Hord provided a link to the Mexican heritage of San Diego and extended a refreshing welcome to visitors. Adjacent to the rear of the building, where the restaurant is located, Sam cleverly utilized the natural topography of the small canyon by the use of terraces which provided space for gracefully curved stairways and outdoor patios. The sound of flowing water in several small fountains added to a delightful setting for large parties, weddings, or community gatherings. He incorporated this concept of outdoor living with his use of window space and access to patios which reflects his theory that man can produce harmony and compatibility between traditional architecture and nature. Sam, the silent sentinel, has never felt the need to destroy the work of others to create a monument to Samuel Hamill, the architect.

In his next career milestone, he adapted Mission style architecture into the splendid design and construction specifications of the Del Mar Racetrack, a tribute to another era, the missionary history of California. The Turf Club tower, a replica of the Mission San Jose de Aguayo, dominates the landscape. The entrance and window above are facsimiles of their counterparts in the San Jose mission. The facade of the East Exhibit Building is a copy of the Mission Dolores in San Francisco. The West Exhibit Building is a combination of the entrance to the San Gabriel Mission; the tower from a mission in the area of Mexico City. The grandstand style is that of the San Gabriel mission in Los Angeles. Construction specifications called for adobe brick which Sam knew could be made on the site. This type of construction would not only perpetuate the building methods and materials of the missionaries, but also would be economically feasible.

At the time the WPA Del Mar project came to an end, Richard Requa had left the firm; and Jackson seemed ready to retire from active practice which left Sam to maintain the firm alone. During the years that followed he designed several large buildings in San Diego. The Veterans War Memorial in Balboa Park, Union Title and Trust Company, County Courts Building and Sheriff facilities, and the Community Concourse are among those most notable. Sam still hoped that one day the Nolen Plan for a mall connecting the harbor and Balboa Park would become a reality, and tried to promote this plan for a homogeneous architectural development for San Diego, both in his professional career and in his many civic involvements.

Because of his depth of feeling for people, nature, architecture and San Diego, Sam exerted every effort to participate in the most meaningful way possible in the development and preservation of things he considered most valuable. He initiated the founding of the San Diegans, Inc., the Committee of 100, and donated much of his time to other civic groups. The AIA elected Sam a Fellow in 1957; the San Diego Floral Association made him an honorary member in 1971, and in 1980 Roger Hedgecock, for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, honored Sam in a public ceremony as architect for the County Administration Building.

Sam retired in 1968 after forty years of practice. Now an octogenarian, Sam remains active in many civic organizations, and is vitally interested in the quality of future architectural development as well as the preservation of existing historic buildings in San Diego.

By stature Sam is a small man, and by nature a quiet man, but his selfless contributions and accomplishments loom large in the city he loves. The calm, clear blue eyes behind his spectacles reflect the magnitude of thoughts and dedication toward his goals in life. By the appreciation and preservation of what is already here, by the use of artistic elements in the homes of individuals, and by the incorporation of classic design in public buildings, Samuel Wood Hamill, through his architecture, has quietly and unobtrusively given San Diego a reflection of the architectural eras in its history-Spanish, Mexican, and Southern Californian.

[from Young, Laura. “The Silent Sentinel: Samuel Wood Hamill, F.A.I.A.” The Journal of San Diego History 31.1 (Winter 1985): 51-65.]

Samuel Wood Hamill died on November 21, 1989, at the age of 86.

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