Irving John Gill: San Diego Architect
October 1, 1971
John Ruskin, in praise of the arch, known and valued since the beginning of art and building wrote: “The Romanesque arch is beautiful as an abstract line. Its type is always before us in that the apparent vault of heaven and horizon of the earth. The cylindrical pillar is always beautiful, for God has so molded the stem of every tree . . .”
Whenever the architectural accomplishments of San Diego architect Irving John Gill are considered, Ruskin’s appraisal of the arch and cylindrical pillar become apparent, for both were an integral part of Gill’s work. Throughout the United States, and especially in San Diego, Gill is gaining new stature as the value of his contributions to the beauty of San Diego become more universally appreciated, and there is an increasing awareness of his important place among the contemporary architects of the United States and Europe in the development of modern architecture. San Diego’s acceptance of a style increasingly divergent from other local architecture at the turn of the century was on a scale unusual for a city of only 17,000 population.
As a young man, Irving Gill moved westward in search of room for his own growth. His father was a building contractor in Syracuse, New York. His only formal education came in public high school, supplemented by a practical knowledge of the building industry. He had an architectural future in mind, however, when he traveled in 1890 at age 20 to the very center of the newest ideas in architecture, the offices of Adler and Sullivan, in Chicago. Innocent of formal, training and classical background, honest and sensitive by nature, he quickly grasped the essentials of the new freedom of form being made possible by the new materials of the time. The new material of that moment was steel, and Chicago was the center of a movement away from the regimen of repetitious classical styles toward one of expressed structures, toward buildings that conformed in appearance to the function they served.
Gill worked two years for Louis Sullivan, then moved westward in search of a warmer climate because of his health. San Diego was well known in the East, not only for its health-giving climate, but for its great business opportunities. The biggest boom yet had been experienced in the late 1880’s, after the completion at last of a rail line to San Diego. When Gill arrived in 1893, the fast-growing city contained more than its share of wealthy families, both imported and home-made. It was, however, in one of the periodic depressions experienced by this boom and bust western town. Gill seemed to be little daunted by this and began to attune himself to the atmosphere so different in every way from Chicago.
San Diego was a city of many contrasts. Old San Diego still contained much of the flavor of its Mexican-American past. Simple, direct adobe buildings reflected the Spanish mission style brought north along a chain of missions up the Baja California peninsula. These early missions were built by unskilled Indian laborers under the guidance of priests who were rugged but sensitive, educated men, drawn mostly from the eastern and southern portions of Spain, those areas touched by the influence of Africa. They built in a style reflective of their homeland, with simple buildings less refined and ornate than those in the interior of Spain.
Hazel Waterman, San Diego architect trained in the office of Irving Gill, wrote of Old San Diego in an article for House Beautiful, June, 1903, entitled, The Influence of an Older Time, “traceable in all is much of Spain and of Rome, a little of Palestine and the Moors, and apparent in everything is the semi-barbarism of the Indians.”
“New San Diego,” centered at Fifth and Market at that time, on the other hand, contained many highly ornate wooden buildings of the highest Victorian style. Still standing today are Montezuma’s Villa (Shepard House), the Timken mansion, the Long-Waterman house, among others, as well as ornate business buildings, mostly along Fifth street, between Broadway and Market streets, and, of course, the fabulous Hotel del Coronado. Many smaller buildings were of a simple “Western” false front style, and there were some simple Greek Revival buildings prefabricated in New England and brought to San Diego in the 1860’s.
Gill himself has expressed very well what impressed him most when he wrote, in an article in The Craftsman, May, 1916, “the contour, coloring and history of a country naturally influence its architecture…. California is influenced, and rightly so, by the Spanish missions as well as by the rich coloring and the form of the low hills and wide valleys. The missions are a part of its history that should be preserved, and in their long, low lines, graceful arcades, tile roofs, bell towers, arched doorways and walled gardens we find a most expressive medium of retaining tradition, history and romance. In coloring and general form they are exactly suited to the romantic requirements of the country . . . the facade of the San Diego mission is a wonderful thing to which local building might safely and advantageously have been keyed. Instead of this it has been abused and caricatured in the most shocking way. Its charming proportions and graceful outline have been distorted….”
From Sullivan, Gill had learned to leave behind dependence on Rome and Renaissance design, and to depend instead on his ability to draw from natural forms new shapes more fitted to man himself and the way he now lives. Sullivan also pointed his students toward African shapes; in San Diego, Gill found these simple earth forms already arrived, by way of Spain and Mexico.
The reputation of Gill as one of the very few architects in the United States to develop a refined original style of importance can be understood in terms of the success with which he accomplished his artistic ends. He could not have achieved very much however, without the “clients, who sailed trustingly on an uncharted course,” as Esther McCoy wrote in her fine book, Five California Architects. Prominent and influential families put their faith in his abilities, and widespread acceptance was the result. He won his original contracts by his charm and social attributes, but built on these assets with other qualities?honesty and forthrightness, and a continuing desire to give his clients their money’s worth.
The George Garretson house (1895) is the first known residence in San Diego designed by Gill. Garretson was a pioneer banker, and a leader in the Golden Hill Im provement Society. The house is a composite style speaking clearly of the mid-west, with little to foreshadow his later work except the large door with massive hardware. A drive around the nearby streets will reveal many . half-timbered houses of a similar style, if less grand. The A. H. Frost mansion (1897) is in a classic revival style little used by Gill; it is now a nursing home. Mr. Frost was a bicycle manufacturer from Chicago, later in the lumber business in San Diego, and a partner with Gill and others some years later in an ill-fated business venture connected with construction equipment. Gill also designed the Normal School (1895), now demolished, and the Ralph Granger residence in National City, before joining in a partnership with W. S. Hebbard in 1897. Hebbard had been practicing architecture in San Diego since 1892.
Unaltered and beautifully preserved examples of their warm houses, found in San Diego and Coronado, of stone or brick below and half timbered or shingled above, are outstanding for the use of redwood in their interiors. The George W. Marston residence, set in extensive well-cared for grounds, has original plantings by Kate Sessions?San Diego’s pioneer landscape designer?the whole blending into the Balboa Park grounds for the enjoyment of all who pass by. Mr. Marston, successful merchant, was an active and dedicated leader in the civic life of the community he had been a part of from the 1870’s. Interested in historic preservation and the development of parks, he would no doubt have been pleased to see his home give such pleasure to the citizens of his community, as well as those interested in the works of Irving Gill.
An earlier example of Hebbard and Gill’s work is the George McKenzie residence (1898). This home was constructed for entertaining, and was a warm and gracious setting for that purpose, according to his niece, Mrs. Virginia McKenzie Smith. The morning room, closest to the corner, contained a bed for lounging, which hung from large chains, as Gill was to repeat in his own home. Except for the iron treatment canopied over the entry-way, this house appears little altered today, though somewhat uncared for. It holds interest for the student of Gill’s work,because it shows clearly how he developed from this midwestern brick and shingle style.
Another handsome house built for entertaining in the grand and leisurely manner of the turn of the century was the Julius W angenheim residence (1904). Mr. Wangenheim came to San Diego in 1896 to join the pioneer Klauber family in the wholesale grocery business. Long active in civic development and the educational and cultural life of San Diego, he was reputed to have had the most outstanding library in San Diego.
Ellen Browning Scripps had a large home on Prospect street in La Jolla built in 1897 and named “South Moulton Villa,” after her birthplace in London. There is no evidence that Gill designed this first home, but indications are that he altered it for her in 1908. A large shingle cottage for this property was designed by Hebbard and Gill in 1905. This is believed to be the “Wisteria Cottage” home of Miss Virginia Scripps, sister of E. W. and Ellen Browning Scripps. This building was remodeled by Gill in 1907, and still stands, altered considerably over the years, at the corner of Prospect and Eads, and is now a book store. Just below, on Eads, is the chauffeur’s cottage the only other structure left of the original estate. The extensive site included several cottages, including a library cottage, a propagating house, a fountain, and a cistern house, all designed by Gill.
Miss Scripps kept nine gardeners to maintain the handsome garden; she wanted her grounds overlooking the Pacific to be enjoyed by the public, who had no other park. All who wished could wander the paths and sit under the pergolas. The house itself was burned, victim of a deranged employee, to be replaced immediately in 1915 by a stunning new design, the most evolved expression of Gill’s talents, locally. Unfortunately, this handsome new structure was purchased by the city and unsympathetically remodeled to become the La Jolla Museum of Art.
Another early Hebbard and Gill house was designed for Mr. and Mrs. Waldo Waterman. It was built in 1900 and was referred to lovingly as the “Granite Cottage.” Gill was impressed with the ability of Mrs. Waterman to grasp architectural ideas, and suggested that if she ever desired employment, she consider a career in that field. She remembered his advice when her husband died two years later, and began to study and to do architectural renderings at home for Gill and others. Eventually she was to become a fine architect on her own, after working under Gill’s supervision on a number of buildings, notably the three houses on Seventh street for the Misses Lee and Teats, designed as a group.
The first building designed by Gill in Coronado of which there is any record is a vacation cottage for the Gail Nichols family of El Cajon, identified as a Gill .building only from a water color sketch in his typical technique. Found hanging in this interesting house, the sketch is signed “cottage for Gail Nichols by Irving Gill.” The design is unusual for Gill; only the shingles, bayed windows in a row along the back and outdoor-living plan remind us of him. Nearly all the rooms open to a wide veranda, facing the view across the bay to the east.
Gill also designed a large and impressive house in Coronado for A. P. Stephens in 1898, in his grandest half-timbered style. There have been additions and the entrance is now at 711 A Street. The same year another similar large home was designed for a triangle of land just north of the Hotel del Coronado. General Mendell C. Churchill and his niece, Mary C. Pratt, had lived for a few years at the big hotel and decided to make Coronado their permanent home. First, they returned to Japan (they had traveled extensively) to collect furnishings for the house, notably a quantity of cherrywood. Gill pleased them immensely with his design and incorporation of details of cherrywood-a fitting setting for entertaining on a grand scale. General Churchill, a Civil War veteran and diplomat, received distinguished visitors from many parts of the world. He died a year or so after the construction of the house; about a year later Miss Pratt married Mr. Bernard McKenzie. They retained the handsome home on Orange Avenue as their family home until the mid-twenties, and it continued to be a center for social life in Coronado. Unfortunately, it now reposes at Fourth and Orange Avenues, cut into nine apartments and unrecognizable.
Mr. McKenzie and his brother, George, who lived in a Gill house in San Diego, had also employed the architect to design for them two of his earliest buildings, the McKenzie, Flint & Winsby Corporation Buildings, home of their Western Metal Supply Company, well known in San Diego and Imperial Valley till the present day.
Miss Pratt engaged Gill to design a house for her, just for fun, as her daughter, Virginia McKenzie Smith explains. It was located very near the Hotel, and served for many years as the home of Dr. R. Lorini, widely known as the Hotel Doctor. It is little altered today, a handsome wood home, eastern in appearance. Mrs. Smith lives today in yet another Gill house, the Fox house in San Diego, which she and her husband bought in the mid-forties to be their family home.
The largest mansion along Ocean Boulevard in Coronado is located at 1015, designed by Gill for a wealthy ranching family of Coronado, the Bartlett Richards. It is an extremely impressive home in brick and half-timber, with extensive grounds and a celebrated garden. The house has two large wings extending to the East, added by the second owners, but the design was integrated well, and the house is maintained in excellent condition to this day. A high brick wall surrounds the rear portion of the property, incorporated with three garages, which probably once served as carriage houses. The graceful arch over the front door, and in gateways in the garden walls, are echoed in the Tutt house located next door to the north.
Dr. Tutt was another Coloradan who built a winter home in Coronado in 1910 for his family. This house on Ocean Boulevard shows a further refining of Gill’s style in its organization, though alterations add touches not his. It has an exquisite garden plan-with a tiny pergola-covered kitchen garden and a more formal one to the south, each surrounded by high brick walls pierced by arched gateways.
The same year, the Percival Thompson house a little further north, on Isabella Avenue, was built. Mr. Thompson and his brother Gail were retiring people who did not become active in the community. The grounds were well-laid out and the house integrated more compactly in design, although retaining qualities of the earlier Gill houses in Coronado. Another early building in Coronado was designed for Mrs. Mary M. Cossitt, and was the first of a remarkable number of houses he designed for a remarkable woman. In a day when women were little concerned with the business world, Mrs. Cossitt, wife of a retired Episcopal minister active in civic affairs, engaged in an active program of building for fun and profit. She rented or sold the houses the family did not live in themselves. The first house was located at the northeast corner of Adella Avenue and Maria Place. Mrs. Inez Owens Stoker has lived for many years at 731 Adella and remembers that the Cossitts lived in a stucco house at the corner; it was removed long ago to make room for a very large house (now gone). Mrs. Stoker has pointed out a house now on Visalia as being the one lived in by the Cossitts on Adella.
Two other houses, the records show, were built by Mary Cossitt in Coronado. One, on Star Park, is shingle and in a style diverse in its design elements; the other, on Flora Avenue, is a two story, very compact shingle house. Both are in fine condition and little altered.
Miss Helen Cossitt remembers that her mother loved to build the houses. She believed in Gill and understood very well the direction he was taking. She developed along with him. A group of houses she built in 1910 on 8th Street in San Diego had a radical new appearance, with very simple, pure lines, set off by arches and high walls. Miss Cossitt recalls that the neighbors objected because of their plainness and because one could not see behind the high walls of the gardens. These buildings were identified as Gill houses only recently, and will prove of great interest to students of architectural history. Although not new to the world this type of urban grouping has never been popular in this country. Their back gardens were sacrificed to the highway, and it is fortunate the dwellings did not go as well.
Perhaps other structures Gill designed in Coronado will be discovered but as far as is known, it was not until 1919 that he returned, with the designing of the Wilde flats. This is a duplex building located at the intersection of D and Palm Avenues. The structure was not completed under Gill’s supervision, but is interesting in some of its reflections of his later style, used here for a low-cost rental building. In 1927, Gill designed the Coronado Christian Science Church, a cubical building with arched exterior corridors reminiscent of the St. James Chapel in La Jolla.
In Coronado, in the early years of his practice, Gill met wealthy easterners, the Olmsted brothers, their sister Marion and the Mason sisters. He traveled east in 1902 and 1905 to design several large houses in Rhode Island and one in Maine. He returned to San Diego to great popularity, his position established.
During the period of partnership with Hebbard, several public buildings were designed: Two of these were designed for the McKenzie Flint and Winsby Corporation, on the two South corners of 5th and K, and are handsomely preserved today. Also well preserved is the Christian Science Church, now the Goodbody Mortuary at 3rd and Ash. All others of record have been destroyed, including the Pickwick Theater, the U.S. Grant Jr. Building, and two commercial buildings.
By 1906, when Gill ended his partnership with Hebbard, he had begun to design in a more compact style, with cleaner lines, and lower, wide-eaved roofs. A good example of this style is the Burnham house, on Seventh Street, of brick set inside frames of redwood. Next door on the north is the Arthur H. Marston house, also of brick.
Across Seventh Street are four more of his houses, Alice Lee Number One, Alice Lee Number Three, Katherine Teats Number One, and Mary M. Cossitt Number Four. The present owner of this fourth home reports it has four fireplaces, one of which pipes heat to a register in the ceiling to heat the sixteen foot ceilings quickly. Also present are typical Gill stairs, huge closets, built in window seats and deep cupboards, and built in buffet and pantry. Gill had designed three houses in Coronado for Mrs. Cossitt earlier. He now began a working relationship with the Misses Lee and Teats that would last through many years and many houses. The first Lee house utilized a new method he devised for construction of stucco walls and partitions. These houses and another group, called Canyon Houses, were stucco, economical, but sturdy and of lasting beauty.
In Gill’s papers on file in the Art Gallery at the University of California, Santa Bar- bara are drawings of a scheme for these eight cottages on a canyon between Front and Albatross Streets, just south of West Walnut. Included was a landscape plan, with connecting paths, pergolas, private and shared gardens. Many people have wondered about these grouped Gill houses; the master plan now reveals the scope of his intentions. Lee House Number One was built in 1905. The present owners of this house have been told Miss Lee considered it “way, way out in the country” when it was built as a summer cottage. The general plan bears the date, 1912, when two more cottages were built-the Lee House Number Four and the Teats House Number Two. The Teats Cottage Number Three was built in 1922. There is only vague information that the cottage at 3404 Front was built in 1911. The house at 3372 Front also appears to be designed as part of this group; about the fate of the other two nothing is known. Part of the original plantings by Kate Sessions remain, much enjoyed by those who now live along this canyon, and who recently refused to allow a zoning revision to allow large apartment structures change the appearance of the neighborhood.
Gill was in partnership with Frank Mead for one year-1907, according to the city directory. In that year the large Mitchell residence was designed, remodeled into the Elks Club and now threatened with destruction, and the Bailey vacation house in La Jolla.
Perhaps the best known Gill house in San Diego is the handsome large home on Sixth Street designed for Melville and Amy Salz Klauber in 1907. Mellowed but not outmoded, it has been lovingly cared for by their son, Allan, and his wife, and generously shared with the public in an historic home tour and on other occasions. The soundness of Gill’s ideas can be appreciated by examining buildings such as this one, over 60 years old, yet still livable and attractive. The design elements reflected in this structure were approaching the final form in the evolution of his style-brick veneer covered by stucco, the floors of oak, simple interior paneling, well planned built-in storage, early use of mission arch on the front porch, personally designed hardware, an efficient kitchen, and the open, central staircase he typically used as the center of life and light to the house. An integral part of this plan, as with so many others, is the gracious garden, joined to the houses by pergolas, patio and porch, a tribute to the sympathy with which Kate Sessions and Irving Gill worked together for so many years. Also in 1907, Gill moved into a system of construction that was to allow his ultimate style to be realized. In the Laughlin house in Los Angeles, according to Esther McCoy, he used concrete and hollow tile walls for the first time. All floors were concrete, coved at the wall-base, and a minimum of wood was used on the interiors. Other surprising features of the house were a garbage disposal in the kitchen (garbage fell to an incinerator), vacuum cleaner outlets in each room, the dust going directly to the furnace, an ice box opening directly to the outside and slots for the delivery of milk and of mail.
Gill was interested, he wrote in The Craftsman, May, 1916, in “the idea of producing a perfectly sanitary, labor-saving house, one where the maximum of comfort may be had with the minimum of drudgery.” Thus there developed some of the features with which his ultimate style is recognized: walls flush with the casings and coved at the floor, no molding for pictures, doors of single slabs of wood, sinks set in magnesite, and no baseboard or paneling of any kind. On the exterior they became eventually the simple cube houses he found so restful to contemplate: “with creamy walls, sheer and plain, rising boldly into the sky, unrelieved by cornices or overhang of roof, unornamented save for the vines that soften a line …” In the same article he proclaimed: “If we, the architects of the West, wish to do great and lasting work we must dare to be simple, must have the courage to fling aside every device that distracts the eye from structural beauty, must break through convention and get down to fundamental truths. . . . we must boldly throw aside every accepted structural belief and standard of beauty and get back to the source of all architectural strength?the straight line, the arch, the cube and the circle?drink from these fountains of art that gave life to the great men of old.” Gill would surely have agreed with William Morris, influential English designer of the last century, that the two virtues most needed in modern architecture are honesty and simplicity.
It was on the strength of a few articles by Gill such as the one just quoted and a few more about him in nationally-read magazines, often profusely illustrated, that Gill achieved his fame as one of the earliest of the new breed of designers. What is surprising is that he achieved his style alone, in a distant and quiet corner of the United States, while the movement grew slowly but stormily, centered in far off France and Germany. Nourished by innovations from England and the United States, it was eventually to wash over this country as the “International Style.”
The Steiner house designed by Adolf Loos in Vienna has been generally considered the prototype of the anti-ornament house, but it was built in 1910, two years after Gill’s first explorations of a similar nature. There had been much written previously, however. Gill might have read in the Architectural Record, in June, 1907, that “A new era, particularly in architecture, was at hand, not only in America, but throughout the civilized world. Those who have of late observed any of the leading publications of Europe must agree that this unrest, this movement for a new art, is there deep-rooted . . . inspired by pulsating life and nature, tangible motifs appear, the products of knowledge gained through a right interpretation of truth. In striking contrast are inspirations based wholly upon the form of precedent. Such inspiration should enter but vaguely into present day themes. … We dishonor the past by plagiarizing it and the work then produced must necessarily be meaningless as genuine works of art.”
Several public buildings were designed by Gill in 1908 in his new stripped-down style, structures of concrete and hollow tile: The five story Cabrillo (Wilson-Acton) Hotel and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, both monolithic economy structures in. La Jolla; the Darst Flats, surprising in the juxtaposition of the abstract geometric recessed areas and the strong classical statement of the entry-ways; Bishop’s Day School, the Holly Sefton Memorial Hospital. By comparison, in Europe “the first large building that disclosed the character of the modern movement, perhaps the first example of the new western architecture, was the Turbo Factory, erected in 1909 in Berlin, designed by Peter Behrens.” (Guide to Western Architecture , by John Gloag).
Gill’s design periods were not as clear-cut as they may appear, however. In 1908 he designed the much loved St. James Chapel in La Jolla, one of the most pleasing pure mission style buildings to be found anywhere, surrounded by simple arched-covered corridors and a beautifully proportioned bell arcade, both unfortunately removed when the building was moved to its present site making room for a more impressive church. It is now in danger of being demolished, which would be a considerable loss to those who admire Gill, as it is his only known building of this size in pure mission style. The same year, Gill also designed two wooden cottages on Hawthorn; the San Diego Country Club, a shingle structure; the Christensen Flats, a lap-sided wood building; a shingle cottage for Ellen Scripps, and the experimental Robinson Mews Row Houses, Mediterranean in appearance. The following year he designed the now much maligned Electric (Wilde) Fountain in the New Town (Horton) Plaza, an Hellenic structure derived from the Choregic Monument in Athens. We know that the fountain followed the design demands of the client, Louis J. Wilde, who donated the $10,000 cost to the city. Gill himself preferred another study he made, of a more original style. His creativity found an outlet, though, in the mechanical system combining colored lighting and flowing water successfully for the first time, anywhere. It was a huge success in its day.
The straight line, the arch, the cube and the circle had found their ultimate expression for Gill in the houses he designed in these years, for a succession of clients delighted to be part of something they understood in varying degrees, but trusted completely. The Allen residence in Bonita, the Teats house on Albatross and the Cossitt houses on Eighth are examples still in good condition. Another fine home, the Kautz house in La Jolla, was built at the same time as the Women’s Club building adjoining it on the south. Mr. Kautz, his daughter reports, was aware the structures to be built surrounding his property were very unusual and decided to have his house similar in style and constructed by the same very radical tilt-slab process.
Another simple home designed in this manner was the house in San Diego for Marion Olmsted, of Rhode Island. It is not known if this house was ever built, but Gill himself must have been fond of the design as he used the accompanying drawing as the lead illustration for an article in the Craftsman, May, 1916, entitled “The New Architecture of the West: Small Homes For a Great Country.” The plans were made for property at the north end of Lark Street where no structure stands today.
One of the interesting facets of Gill was his continuing concern with social aspects of architecture. He desired to contribute to the welfare of working class people through demonstrating how livable, pleasant, sanitary housing could be built and maintained at a reasonable cost. Toward this end he built on his own land inexpensive cottages, experimenting with new construction techniques he developed. These include the two Row Houses on Robinson Mews built in 1908, his first known group housing structures, whose walls were flush with the street and continued around a private garden, an excellent use of narrow lots on the edge of a canyon. These were at one corner of a two-acre tract of land he had purchased in 1899, and which already contained an experimental studio house he built for himself in 1902 or 1903 on Albatross using new framing methods which allowed plaster walls to be three inches thick instead of the usual five and one-half inches. This was a method used in the Lee and other houses.
The Row Houses still stand, one unaltered and the other with a grand addition, spreading onto the lot to the north. His own house is either gone or so altered as to not be recognizable. Also on this property, at 3776 Front Street, is a rental house built about 1906, a charming little cottage with mission facade, miniature bell tower and arches, containing built-in storage, a butlers pantry, and other conveniences unheard of in such inexpensive homes. Special action of the City Council, approving a zoning change to allow this structure to be preserved as an architect’s office has saved it from certain destruction. Its appearance has been little changed over the years. A wing on the back added a bedroom, and two bedrooms were joined to create a drafting room. An exact duplicate (apparently) of this structure has been discovered at 2488 L Street, much altered within but recognizable, though the porches are both gone. Across L Street on the southwest corner is a small studio home Gill built. The city directory reveals he lived there in 1906. From 1908 to 1913 he lived at 3719 Albatross and from 1914 to 1915 at 3709; we assume he built these modest houses also, though changes undoubtedly have been made in their appearance.
About this time there emerged a scattered interest in social architecture. As a young architect unusually in tune with the newest ideas in his field, Gill had no doubt read of experiments in England and elsewhere. Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and others had made efforts toward better low cost housing, but the field was notoriously low in monetary rewards, and far from crowded. Esther McCoy wrote, “He was the first West Coast architect to give attention to company towns, barracks for laborers, housing for unemployed, and that vast segment of population who had to be content with hand-me-downs.
His favorite of all his designs was the 1910 low-cost garden court for Sierra Madre. No doubt this project became well known, as a long and well illustrated article about it appeared in the Architectural Record, December, 1913, entitled “The Garden Apartments of California?Irving J. Gill?Architect, by Eloise M. Roorbach. She wrote: “It has taken California to produce a man with imagination brilliant enough to build a home in an apartment house. These buildings of California . . . consist of separate houses placed side by side as flowers are placed in a garden. . . .” They focused inward toward a central garden, their separate entrances in walls flush with the street, around an entire city block. “The whole plan is strikingly original as to treatment of a given space, style of architecture, and construction. It is fireproof, almost indestructible and absolutely sanitary . . . simplicity carried to the last word in architectural art.” This was the Bella Vista Terrace usually referred to as the Lewis Courts, designed for working-men’s families, but unfortunately so popular the rents charged prohibited them, to the chagrin of their designer.
Other low-cost ventures included Echo Park Court in Los Angeles (1912), long considered the prototype of the court system; concrete houses for railroad workers in Torrance (1913), and cottages and a chapel for Rancho Barona Indian resettlement near Lakeside (1933). Gill was delighted with the latter project, and lived on the site to direct construction done by the Indians themselves. On other occasions he actively sought projects of this sort.
Gill designed two multiple units for Mrs. Annie B. Darst of San Diego. One of them, four apartment houses with private and also a common garden, known as the Darst buildings, were described in the same article by Miss Roorbach. Today their relationship has been destroyed by the destruction of the gardens and all but one house. Two structures on another site, called the Darst flats appear untouched.
Concrete in construction is at least as old as the Romans who were familiar with its use two thousand years ago, and built formed walls and foundations 24 feet high and higher. This material was neglected, however, in modern times until about the turn of the century. Knowledge about its use and durability had to be redefined. It was ideal material for Gill’s purposes, and he set about developing methods to put it to use. Esther McCoy wrote, “He fashioned the steel parts to construct these buildings himself: The steel casings for doors and windows; the bull nose, a metal section that prevents corners from chipping; and the steel lath. Later, fortunes were made in steel trim, but for years Gill went to the sheet metal shops to have the material broken for him from his own details. He was an inventor out of necessity. He patented nothing.”
In 1912 Gill purchased from the United States government equipment which had been used to construct barracks by a new method called tilt-slab. He used it successfully on the Banning house in Los Angeles, then on the La Jolla Women’s Club, then many others. The system was amazing to watch, with entire walls complete with metal doors, window frames and balconies in place, raised upright by means of a single little donkey engine. Unfortunately, although the system was successful, the business venture failed, reputedly because the equipment was not used often enough to warrent its expense and upkeep. Another building using this method was the Community House, constructed in 1914 for the playground in La Jolla. It was similar in appearance to the Women’s Club across the street. Both are admired for their simplicity of design, handsome balance and skillful use of internal space. Gill was then in partnership with his nephew, Louis Gill, who had worked in his office since 1911. Their partnership lasted only a few years, but many buildings bear the names Gill and Gill.
The La Jolla Community House was one of many generous gifts of Ellen Browning Scripps. The relationship between Gill and Miss Scripps must have been a satisfying one. She had worked long and hard in the newspaper business in the midwest, and, now retired, wished to use her considerable fortune to benefit the community. Gill, with the same desire, strove to create buildings of enduring grace as inexpensively as possible, which Miss Scripps donated to the community. Together they developed a group of buildings handsomely related to each other and the community, and outstanding to this day for their architectural simplicity, beauty and utility.
Gill moved for a time to Los Angeles in 1913, leaving his nephew Louis in charge in San Diego. While in Los Angeles, he was delighted to have his first large project?a model industrial town for Torrance with Olmsted and Olmsted as planners. Only part of the project was ever built, however, which was a foretaste of other disappointments to come. The graceful three-arched viaduct he designed is now used to carry freight into the city, and the long low train station is a freight office. Two three-story office buildings have been torn down. The concrete houses, set back twenty-five feet from the street, with house walls extended to form garden walls with entrance arches, are still there, only slightly altered, according to Esther McCoy.
Gill’s work, a logical progression from the simplifying movement he was part of for a short time in Chicago, was in sharp contrast to the extravagance of the Victorian Era. The pendulum of public acceptance, which swung in his favor for so short a time, was to swing sharply back. This was due, in part, to the extreme contrast of his designs with others in the profession. He was, after all, ten to fifteen years ahead of the contemporary movement, and no one joined him to give his ideas support. In addition, the grandly successful Pan-American Panama-California Exposition opened in 1915 in San Diego, ushering in a period of widespread concentration on ornamentation.
There had been some criticism of Gill’s work, especially from conservative architects, but because of his wide acceptance with men influential on the Exposition’s Grounds and Building Committee, it was assumed he would be chosen as Chief Architect of the Exposition, a position he desired and expected. But as the scope of the project grew, so grew the demand for grandeur and when it became known that a “famous” architect from the East, Bertram Goodhue, wanted it very much indeed, it was decided to award the post to him. Thus, beginning in 1915, with the opening of the Exposition, a desire for more ornate and derivitive architecture took the fancy of the public, influenced by the elaborate Spanish Colonial style of the Exposition. Gill’s simplicity of form was no longer in demand.
Despite the neglect he faced in the next few years, Gill designed three of his most outstanding houses for those who still believed in his work. Gill’s most famous house, justly so because it added a new dimension of freedom and contrast, was also his largest, the Dodge house of Los Angeles (1916), beautifully preserved until its recent unfortunate destruction. This outstanding structure was removed to make room for a parking lot, despite pleas from every side, including one from Lewis Mumford, the well known historian. He urged the preservation of the house because Gill “was beyond doubt one of the great leaders of American Architecture, worthy to rank with Sullivan, Wright and Maybeck. . . . The examples of his work are so few that their preservation should be a matter of national concern as well as local pride.” Also heard from was William Jordy, professor of art at Brown University, who is writing a book on fifteen important U.S. buildings, of which the Dodge house is one. He called this Gill structure one on the “most significant of American houses.”
The second outstanding residence Gill designed about the same time was the Ellen Browning Scripps second home at 700 Prospect Street, La Jolla. Though still standing, this structure hardly expresses the simplicity and elegance of proportion and line that he originally intended, altered as it is.
Of the three, only one is left for all to enjoy, intact and lovingly cared for. This is the handsome home designed by the firm Gill & Gill in 1917, for Mrs. Herry Wegeforth, on Maple street, in San Diego. Mrs. Wegeforth was the daughter of Ralph Granger of National City, for whom Gill had designed a home long before. That Granger home is now gone, but the celebrated Music Hall remains; it is not known if this was designed by Gill. The Wegeforth house is a well preserved example of the style Gill developed in his most productive years, with a gracious arch over the entry, the wide overhang on the simple gable roof, his typical window and front door treatment, and a pergola with the same simplified Ionic columns used in the Women’s Club in La Jolla.
In the years following the Pan-American Panama-California Exposition , work came slowly to Gill’s office. He moved several times, between Los Angeles, San Diego and Carlsbad, as commissions required. In the next two decades between 1915 and 1936 his commissions were few, including, in La Jolla, the Scripps house (1915) and Gilman Hall (1916) ; in the Los Angeles area, the Dodge house (1916), Cottage Court (1916), the Morgan house (1917), the Mason house (1916), the Horatio West Courts (1919) ; in San Diego, the Wegeforth house on Maple and a cottage for Mrs. Wegeforth in National City (1917) ; a civic center and other buildings for Oceanside (1929) ; the Christian Science Church of Coronado (1927) ; some commercial buildings for Carlsbad (1929-34) ; the Rancho Barona Resettlement houses and Church (1933); and a beauty parlor for Redondo Beach (1936). Gill was a handsome man who enjoyed the social life San Diego offered. He enjoyed dancing and was popular with women, but he remained a bachelor until he was 58 years old. He married Mrs. Marion Brashears of Palos Verdes in 1928. He lived with her in Palos Verdes only ten months, returning to live alone in Carlsbad where he died October 7, 1936, almost forgotten, but well aware in a modest way of what he had achieved.
Steps to encourage the preservation of surviving Gill structures have been taken by the City of San Diego’s Historical Site Board, an appointed body authorized to designate historic sites in the city, which acts upon documentation gathered by the Board’s volunteer Research Committee. Among those declared historic sites which were designed by Gill are the two Marston Houses, the Burnham House, the Klauber House, and the Gill Rental House on Front Street. Others will be added as research continues.
In addition, an Historic American Buildings Survey conducted in San Diego this past summer sponsored by the San Diego History Center and supported by both the County and City of San Diego, included a number of Gill designed structures in a survey of San Diego’s historic and architecturally significant buildings. The Historic American Buildings Survey is described in more detail in an accompanying article in this issue of the Journal of San Diego History.
It is a slow and tedious process, not always successful, to document houses believed to be designed by Gill and to establish their authenticity, or to locate others with only scattered clues. The San Diego History Center encourages those who have information on Irving Gill and the structures he designed to contact the Society so that the information may be added to the Irving Gill Collection being assembled in the Society’s Research Library in Serra Museum.
It is believed that there are many other examples of Gill’s work to be found in the San Diego area, and one can develop a crick in the neck “Gill Watching,” especially in the area between Brant and 5th, Robinson and Kalmia, and in the Golden Hill area. However, there are also many buildings designed by draftsmen, builders and architects who had worked with Gill and were influenced by him. Among the talented young men who went on to become well known locally in their own right were E. B. Weaver, Richard Requa, Frank L. Wright, Jr., and Hazel Waterman.
Irving John Gill, modern pioneer, master-builder, could just as well have been called an inventor?one whose ingenuity was not for its own sake, but rather to serve, unobstrusively, the needs of the house and its occupants. His contribution to their life is reflected in the love expressed by present owners of his fine homes, in the legion of buildings which echo his innovations, and the respect he is accorded by those who recognize his achievements. His place in the development of contemporary architecture is assured, internationally, as well as locally. As long as his structures stand, Gill will continue to reaffirm fundamental truths in the lasting beauty of the straight line, the arch, the cube and the circle.
Banham, Reyner, Guide to Modern Architecture (Princeton, N.J., D. Van Nostrand Publishing Co., 1962).
Black, Samuel F., History of San Diego County (Chicago, Ill., S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1913). Gloag, John, Guide to Western Architecture (New York, N.Y., McMillan Publishing Co., 1958). Heilbron, Carl H. (ed.), History of San Diego County (San Diego, Ca., San Diego Press Club, 1936). McCoy, Esther, Five California Architects (New York, N.Y., Reinhold Publishing Co., 1960).
McCoy, Esther, Irving Gill, 1870-1936 (Los Angeles, Ca., Los Angeles County Museum in collaboration with the Art Center in La Jolla, 1958).
McGrew, Clarence Alan, City of San Diego and San Diego County (Chicago, Ill., American Historical Society, 1922). Whiffen, Marcus, American Architecture Since 1870 (Cambridge, Mass., M.I.T. Press, 1969). Architectural Record, November, 1905, p. 393; June, 1970, p. 429; June, 1909, p. 95; December, 1913, p. 521. The Craftsman, April, 1916, p. 14; May, 1916, p. 140.
House Beautiful, June, 1903, p. 3.
San Diego Magazine, January, 1959, p. 32.
Sunset Magazine, December, 1915, p. 164.
San Diego City Directory, 1892-1897.
Files of the City Recorder and the City Assessor, San Diego, Ca.
Reports of the Research Committee of the Historical Site Board, San Diego, Ca.
Original drawings from the office of Irving Gill; Collection of the Art Galleries, University of California, Santa Barbara, Ca. Gill and Waterman files, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego, Ca. Historical Collections, Title Insurance and Trust Company, San Diego, Ca.
Consultation with: Mrs. Inez Owens Stoker, Coronado Historical Society; Mrs. Virginia McKenzie Smith, San Diego; Mrs. E. K. Outcalt, La Jolla Historical Society; Mr. John Henderson, AIA Guidebook editor, San Diego.
Mrs. Helen McElfresh Ferris, born in Oregon and a graduate of the University of Oregon, has lived in San Diego for 21 years. She is married to San Diego architect Robert D. Ferris, immediate past president of the San Diego History Center. Mr. and Mrs. Ferris have a long and active interest in the preservation of San Diego’s historic structures. Both were original members of an Ad Hoc Committee for the preservation of structures in Old Town before the formation of the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Mrs. Ferris is a member of the Research Committee of the San Diego Historical Site Board, and has been an exhibits researcher for the Museum of Man in San Diego.