Irving John Gill (1870-1936)

irvinggillIrving John Gill has been widely regarded as San Diego’s most prominent and innovative architect. He was born April 26, 1870, in Tully, New York. The son of a farmer, he had no formal education. He began studying architecture in the Syracuse, New York, office of Ellis G. Hall, then in Chicago under Joseph L Silsbee. In 1891 Gill worked alongside Frank Lloyd Wright at the firm Adler and Sullivan in Chicago.

After arriving in San Diego in 1893, Gill experimented with many styles, won loyal clients, and made a name for himself among the community’s leading citizens, Progressive and otherwise. The Arts and Crafts philosophy was just beginning to take hold in San Diego when Gill arrived, but significant Craftsman influences did not appear in his work until about 1905. The Green Dragon in La Jolla (1894), whose cottages Gill designed, drew the finest musicians from around the country to entertain both colony residents and Hotel Del Coronado visitors.

In 1894, he began working on houses with Joseph Falkenham, a member of the city’s Board of Public Works, many in the Queen Anne style. Falkenham left in 1895, leaving Gill to make a name for himself. He succeeded in doing so, lining up a string of prominent San Diegans as his clients and hinting at his future work in the David K. Horton house’s solid lines and clean geometry in National City in 1895.

In December 1896, Gill began working with William S. Hebbard, an architect with academic training who complemented Gill’s lack of book learning. Their partnership was characterized by influences from the Transportation Building and the neoclassicism of the 1893 World’s Fair and by many English-style houses, “from large brick mansions to half-timbered cottages, often with massive stone foundations” and paneled inside with slabs of redwood.

Gill strove to give the humblest and weakest workers of society protection against the elements through elegant and efficient design. Beginning in 1899 and during the next ten years, Gill built experimental cottages on property in the Hillcrest and Sherman Heights areas of San Diego, testing ways to make low-cost housing more efficient and comfortable.

In 1901, Gill was appointed to California’s first State Architectural Board, and in 1903, he was asked to serve on the Hotel Commission to plan the U.S. Grant Hotel downtown.

Some of his work in the early period exactly duplicated the work of other architects, most notably the Pickwick Theatre in 1904-05, whose entrance was a direct copy of Louis Sullivan’s Golden Door from the Transportation Building at the 1893 World’s Fair.

One of the turning points in Gill’s career came when the Landmarks Club of California hired him and Hebbard in 1900 to stabilize the ruins of the Mission San Diego de Alcala. Mission influences appeared in the duo’s work. Gill was impressed with their straightforward simplicity, the economy in the use of materials, and their frank declarations that buildings should be made for use.”

Gill started using the Arts and Crafts elements that would predominate in his later buildings during the Hebbard partnership. Such stripped-down elements included large slabs of unwaxed redwood rather than strips joined together, molding with sanded edges, buildings with no moldings at all, balustrades of square or rectangular sticking, and magnesite counters and sinks in bathrooms and kitchens. These simplifications in architecture reflected Gill’s desire to save labor for both construction workers and housekeepers.

Likely influenced by developments in Chicago on one of his cross-country trips, Gill followed the Prairie Style in the Alice Lee and Katherine Teats cottages of 1905, possibly the first Prairie buildings in San Diego.

Gill designed the wonderful Arts and Crafts home in 1904-1905 for George W. Marston and several other houses on Marston’s block. He had extensive contact with Marston through the early planning of the 1915 Panama California Exposition in Balboa Park. The first building for the fair and the only one for which the architectural drawings bear Gill’s name as associate architect, is the Administration Building completed in 1912. Goodhue had Carleton Winslow add decorative detail to the entrance. Gill left the Exposition project in 1912.

Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman magazine regularly featured articles about Gill and his buildings during the 1910s.

By 1908, Irving J. Gill was a well-established San Diego architect. Gill’s fountain in Horton Plaza, built in 1909, remains there today. But his mature style, marked by spare designs and ingenious technical details, was just beginning, and his most important commissions were to come. In 1909 and 1910, he designed some of his most ingenious structures: Bentham and Scripps Halls at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, and the First Church of Christ Scientist at Second and Laurel Streets in San Diego.

Gill spearheaded the creation of the San Diego Architectural Association, a group intended to professionalize the trade of architecture in the city.

One of Gill’s most prominent clients was Ellen Browning Scripps, a self-made newspaper millionaire born in England and raised in the Illinois prairies. She moved to San Diego in 1891 and to La Jolla in 1897. Gill designed many Progressive projects for which Scripps sponsored the money, including the La Jolla Recreation Center and the La Jolla Woman’s Club, which together with The Bishop’s School and her own house formed a “Scripps enclave.”

Not all of Gill’s clients were Progressive; in fact, Irving and his nephew Louis Gill designed a duplex apartment in Coronado in 1919 equipped entirely with electrical appliances for Marston’s opponent in the 1917 mayoral race, Louis Wilde.

Anna and Albert Valentien, formerly decorators for Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, ran a San Diego pottery company from 1911 to 1913, whose plant was designed by Gill in 1910.

Of Gill’s ten churches, the 1909-10 Christian Science Church at Second and Laurel is by far the most famous. The church incorporated many of Gill’s most ingenious technical inventions as well as his penchant for light and his desire to bring nature inside. Instead of lining up the pews on a vertical axis, Gill decided to make an auditorium with a long horizontal axis, giving the great space a more expansive feeling.

The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, designed by Irving Gill in 1910, epitomized the idea of campus as village. Long arcades and open grassy areas that allowed indoor and outdoor spaces to interact with each other. The first two structures built of concrete in 1910 were Scripps Hall, a dormitory, and Bentham Hall, which held classrooms and a small chapel. A third building, Gilman Hall, included in the original plans, was not built until 1916.

Gill discussed his ideal of simplicity in his 1916 essay, “The New Architecture of the West.” For him, “the source of all architectural strength” emerged from the straight line, the arch, the cube, and the circle in combination.

Gill’s “social architecture,” as McCoy termed it, included the F.B. Lewis Court (“Bella Vista Terrace”) in Sierra Madre (1910), barracks for the Riverside Cement Company’s Mexican laborers and their families, the model industrial city of Torrance (1912-13), the Echo Park Court in Los Angeles (1912), and cottages for the Rancho Barona Indian Reservation (1932-33) in Lakeside, east of San Diego, whose construction he supervised himself while living on the site and whose inhabitants he invited to La Jolla to see his other work and examine interior fabrics. In the late 1920s, Gill also tried to interest officials in Ensenada, Baja California, in group housing for Mexican families, and just before he died he was involved with plans for housing the unemployed in Santa Barbara.

A bachelor until the age of 58, Gill married Mrs. Marion Waugh Brashears on May 28, 1928, but the marriage was unsuccessful and Gill died at age 66 on October 7, 1936, alone in Carlsbad, California.

[adapted from:

Schaffer, Sarah. “A Significant Sentence Upon the Earth: Irving J. Gill, Progressive Architect, Part I: New York to California via Chicago.” The Journal of San Diego History 43.4 (Fall 1997): 218-239.

Schaffer, Sarah. “A Significant Sentence Upon the Earth: Irving J. Gill, Progressive Architect, Part II: Creating a Sense of Place.” The Journal of San Diego History 44.1 (Winter 1998): 24-47.]

See also:

Kamerling, Bruce. Irving J. Gill, Architect. San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1993.

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