The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1994, Volume 40, Numbers 1 & 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Richard Griswold del Castillo, Book Review Editor

Irving J. Gill, Architect.

By Bruce Kamerling. San Diego: San Diego History Center, 1993. Appendices. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 140 pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by Vonn Marie May, former Chairperson, City of San Diego Historical Site Board; author of research articles on cultural landscapes and the native environment, and consultant for the master planning of historical properties.

In the first serious work on early 20th century California architect Irving J. Gill, the author concedes to providing documentation for what he feels is but a third of Gill’s prolific life work. After a twenty year personal intuitive inquiry that accelerated into a stewardship of sorts, Kamerling presents a well sequenced and generously illustrated look at a uniquely American architectural style. The book’s narrative quality is light, succinct, and establishes a context surrounding Gill through his several partnerships, his adoptive region and the country’s transitional times.

Gill left his upstate New York home in 1891 and responded to the call of the West, traveling to Chicago at the early age of 21. He landed a job in the office of master architect Louis Sullivan and was exposed to discussions toward a need to depart from European styles and architecture-as-social-reform. Frank Lloyd Wright was in the employ of Sullivan at the same time and later in life grudgingly admitted that Gill’s work was a contribution to the modern movement especially his work in poured concrete. In his brief two year stay in Chicago the project of a lifetime in the Sullivan office was the 1893 Columbian Exposition. There were collaborations with other design greats, i.e. Frederick Law Olmstead, father of American landscape architecture and social commentator who wrote often in support of “public parks” critically dubbed, “the green opiate of the masses.” One can only begin to appreciate this saturation of organic experience, transcendent of academia, a Lindisfarne, if you will.

In 1893, after perceived failure in Chicago and nagging illness, Gill came further west to San Diego, his manifest destiny. The young twenty-three-year-old then embarked on a lifetime of design experiment and continuous production. The incomplete yet exhaustive record of his known projects from 1893 to 1936 include approximately 200 custom residences, 80 or so commercial/business projects, some 70 public interest venues, and 17 religious structures or restorations all mostly representative of the San Diego area. Kamerling documents the initial construction dates, ownership or sponsorship, the present conditions (if known), and keys in which partnership was involved or if the project was Gill’s individual effort.

The author reveals Gill not as the ultimate modernist as some would claim, but the ultimate revivalist that stripped away all styles to the basics, finally synthesizing modernism in his later work. As Gill himself wrote: “fling every device aside that distracts the eye from structural beauty…down to fundamental truths,” and “the money wasted in meaningless gables…fretwork and ‘gingerbread’ goes into labor saving devices or into [a] better grade of material” (p. 126).

Privately, Gill lived a near monastic life. Yet as a design professional his “democratic” model of architecture, the complete integration of indoor-outdoor “living,” and his almost statutory belief toward “meaningful” design produced an original style. His acutely sensible attention of interior detail for purposes of sanitation and ease in maintenance was equally matched by his exterior concerns for siting and integration with the immediate surroundings.

Mr. Kamerling has provided a work of veneration toward the “understated” style of Irving J. Gill. That now in these modern times Gill’s subtlety and commitment to socially relevant architecture is understood and appreciated makes his early design ethics basic, as intended, and rather timeless.