The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1997, Volume 43, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Irving J. Gill, Progressive Architect, Part I

by Sarah J. Schaffer

In San Diego, in an area just norIrving Gill in 1915th of downtown called Hillcrest, a bright blue metal footbridge spans a highway entrance ramp and a busy four-lane street. The bridge connects a modern shopping village with a neighborhood now called University Heights, where many of the houses date from the first decades of the century. In Southern California, where permanence is elusive and the sweep of local history can be encapsulated in the outer ring of a giant redwood tree, these houses are considered old. On the path and walls of the footbridge, built a few years ago to lend some humanity to the whizzing highway landscape, are inscribed quotations from notable figures in San Diego history:  politicians, city planners, authors, landscapers. One of the most inspirational comes from San Diego’s celebrated architect, Irving John Gill, who said at the turn of the century: “What idle or significant sentence will we write with brick and stone, wood, steel, and concrete upon the sensitive page of the earth?”1

Gill, who lived from 1870 to 1936, likely would have appreciated the community the footbridge was intended to foster and would have known well the nearby neighborhoods, for he designed dozens of houses in the center of San Diego in the first twenty years of this century.2 In his vision for southern California, manifested in a school, churches, civic institutions, and many single-family houses and apartment buildings, he incorporated not only the organic architecture of Louis Sullivan with whom he trained but also the social ideals of the Progressive era in which he lived.

Gill favored buildings made of concrete with long arcades, stark white walls, and simple lines. In contrast to Sullivan, he eschewed complex ornament, preferring to let nature provide its own accents.3 His style was influenced but not dictated by the California missions. During his lifetime and especially from 1913 to 1916, Gill was well known in the West as a forward-looking architect through articles about his work in engineering, technical, and home magazines. Unfortunately Gill, like the Progressives themselves, suffered a decline after World War I. He died poor and “almost forgotten” in 1936, although his buildings had become a major part of the landscape of Southern California.4

Many authors hGill at age 19ave characterized Gill as a daring architect because of his modernism, minimalism, and attention to the needs of day laborers and wealthy patrons alike. Esther McCoy points to Gill’s longtime interest in “social architecture”; Kevin Starr links the trajectory of Gill’s career to the rise and fall of Progressivism; and Vincent Scully asserts that Gill’s low-cost workers housing indicated his “burning social conscience.”5 No one, however, has taken the concept of Gill as Progressive reformer further than a phrase here or a paragraph there. This essay seeks to portray Gill as not only a progressive architect but as a Progressive reformer.6

When Irving Gill began his architectural career in New York in the 1880s, the state of California likely seemed very far away. His parents ran a farm in Tully, a rural community about 20 miles south of Syracuse, and his father also worked as a carpenter and building contractor. Gill attended the Madison Street School in Syracuse but did not go on to college. In the Syracuse city directory of 1887-88, Irving Gill listed himself as a gardener; in the 1889-90 directory, he called himself a “craftsman,” employed in Ellis G. Hall’s architectural office.7

In 1890, he set off for Chicago, making him an adventuresome hero in the family iconography.8 He began his work there in the firm of Joseph L. Silsbee, a “fashionable residential architect” who also originally came from Syracuse.9 Silsbee was Frank Lloyd Wright’s first employer and a proponent of the shingle style, which favored natural materials and a smooth blending of interior and exterior spaces.10 It is uncertain whether Gill followed Silsbee to Chicago, but it seems likely Gill knew of the architect’s work in Buffalo and Syracuse before leaving home.11 By 1891, Gill had joined the firm of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan in Chicago, where Frank Lloyd Wright, his senior by three years, had arrived in February 1888.12 Wright, then the chief draftsman, hand-picked Gill as one of his “squad.”13 Gill had never met nor corresponded with Sullivan, but “like dozens of young architects with an independent way of thinking, he looked upon Sullivan’s office as the only true school of architecture.”14 Sullivan took a liking to Gill, possibly because of Gill’s lack of formal architectural education or, more positively, because of his understanding of how buildings were constructed, his belief in simplicity, and his conviction of applying the principles of democracy to architecture.15 Sullivan’s office was located on the top two floors of the seventeen-story tower of the firm’s landmark Auditorium Building (1889). Gill thus had a vantage point from which he could watch and learn from the work of the other Chicago architects who surrounded him.16

By Gill’s 1890 arrival, Chicago had become not only an architectural center but a truly metropolitan city, largely because of its position as a railroad hub. Between 1871 and 1890, its population more than tripled from 298,000 to one million, while the city itself expanded from thirty-five to 185 square miles.17 Being a big city brought Chicago renown, which in turn drew still more people: As Theodore Dreiser wrote of the Chicago of 1889, “Its many and growing commercial opportunities gave it widespread fame, which made of it a giant magnet, drawing to itself, from all quarters, the hopeful and the hopeless.”18

With the influx of people seeking wealth came the problems of urban life. In large cities across America, industrialization and modernization created fears of unhealthy crowding in factories and apartment buildings and the loss of a sense of individual responsibility.19 Urbanization, the growing of individual fortunes, the unfamiliar conditions of life on the prairie, and the decline of family ties and religious beliefs led to a concomitant weakening of communal institutions. Members of all groups, including immigrants, factory workers, farmers, and the growing middle class, felt vulnerable in light of this decline of community.20 Chicago was a microcosm of the urban nation in its paradoxical embrace and rejection of progress.

In response to such problems, a group of thinkers and reformers arose in sociology, education, and psychology, forming a core of progressive thought in late-nineteenth-century America.21 Chicago’s social Progressivism centered on the activists clustered at the University of Chicago and in the settlement houses–those who concentrated on scientific inquiry to solve problems.22 Jane Addams, in whose Hull-House, the university intellectuals took an interest, showed the Progressive roots of her project when she wrote in Twenty Years at Hull-House, “The Settlement…is an experimental effort to aid in the solution of the social and industrial problems which are engendered by the modern conditions of life in a great city.”23 We do not know if Gill was a supporter of the settlement movement, but we do know that his close colleague Frank Lloyd Wright was a significant contributor to Hull-House, as were many other architects in Gill’s circle.

Chicago’s Progressivism shared many of the ambivalences of the national movement, which lasted from about 1890 to 1920. Its proponents saw industrial growth as both a spur to the future and a blight on the city; believed that optimism about the future was warranted but that the sprawl of cities was difficult to prevent; and straddled a fine line between helping the lower classes out of a desire to improve their lives and out of a quest for social control. This essay will embrace these ambivalences and consider Progressivism to be a movement both forward-looking and conservative in regard to industrial “progress”–one which manifested itself in Chicago primarily through university thinkers, settlement houses, and regulatory measures, and later in California through ballot measures, urban reform, and artistic movements.24

From Louis Sullivan’s seventeenth-story office, Gill looked out not only on the university and the settlements but on changes that would affect the development of American architecture for the next fifty years. The predominant but declining mode of architecture was the Chicago School, which focused on constructing tall office buildings of steel. Its subscribers were intent on creating structures for conducting business in the new industrial age; with the exceptions of Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham, they were not interested in reform or city planning and in fact intensified some of the problems the Progressives tried to solve.25

In 1890, as the Chicago School’s influence waned, planning began for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which was intended to present a reconsideration of the American city.26 In its optimistic grouping of America’s wonders of technology and humanity within white, neoclassical buildings around a “Court of Honor,” the fair exerted enormous influence, both positive and negative, over Progressive city planning and architecture in the United States. Twenty-seven million people attended the exposition and ingested its commentary on modern society.27 As David F. Burg has observed, the fair “demonstrated at a timely juncture that the artistic capacity and technical knowledge were available to transform new industrial cities into well-designed centers of business, culture, and humane community in agreeable combination.”28 The organizers of the exposition did not want it to be only a showcase, however, and therefore formed the World’s Congress Auxiliary. The Congress comprised a series of meetings over three months in 1893 which covered an exhaustive list of topics important to the Progressive agenda, including Woman’s Progress, Education, Labor, Literature, Temperance, Moral and Social Reform, Commerce and Finance, and Social and Economic Science.29

Even with such a penchant for science and planning, the fair rested uncomfortably in the Progressive era, both socially and architecturally. On the one hand, it presented a model for an ideal city; on the other, that model emphasized “high culture” at the expense of the underclass that people like Jane Addams were trying to help. As Reid Badger has written, the fair expressed “the confusions and contradictions that existed at the core of the society” between the hoped-for and the actual.30 Two schools of Progressive architectural thought emerged after the fair: those who followed fair organizer Daniel Burnham into the City Beautiful movement and those, like Frank Lloyd Wright, who helped form the Prairie School, of which Gill became an adherent.

The City Beautiful effort of the next twenty years was a political and artistic movement which peaked from 1900 to 1910.31 Its aim was the beautification of urban environments through an architecture that emphasized community, such as the grouping of buildings around a central plaza, and smaller improvements that contributed to a clean and uplifting city, such as neat billboards and careful landscaping.32 It worked toward improving the urban setting not through direct methods of helping the working-class poor, such as better housing, but through a “trickle-down” approach which suggested that order and harmony in public buildings would improve the lives of all citizens.

Later in his life, after suffering professional setbacks, Sullivan indicted the World’s Fair precisely for the aloof neoclassicism that the City Beautiful proponents admired. His Transportation Building, for which Frank Lloyd Wright served as draftsman and Gill as a staff member, was one of the few structures at the fair that did not fit with the sea of massive white edifices on the shore of Lake Michigan.33 Sullivan believed that the fair’s architecture, adapted from European ideals and focused on the well-to-do, stifled architecture’s democratic impulses in the United States and ignored contemporary American artistic movements.34 We do not know Gill’s reaction to the fair because he became ill from overwork before it opened and had to depart for warmer climes.35 We can safely surmise, however, that as Wright’s friend and a member of Sullivan’s team, he would have sympathized with Sullivan’s assessment.

From Sullivan’s reaction to the fair and Frank Lloyd Wright’s intellectual leadership emerged the Prairie School, a Midwestern architectural movement which lasted from the early 1890s to 1916. Its proponents sought a new way of designing that, rather than imitating European architectural styles, would arise from the conditions of modern life in the Midwest, a philosophy that had its roots in the Arts and Crafts tradition. Much more than the City Beautiful movement, the Prairie School focused on building decent, affordable housing for clients of all social classes.36

Through Gill’s later work in California, we can see that he was heavily influenced by the Prairie Style and the similar nationwide Arts and Crafts movement, incorporating the stark horizontal lines of both schools directly into his earlier works and indirectly into his more abstract later creations. Although colloquially called a movement, Arts and Crafts was not a single style as much as an idea that drew together a group of disparate artists who often shared similar views about the virtues of simplicity and who looked to Britain’s William Morris and John Ruskin for inspiration.37 The style peaked in America from about 1890 to 1910, and its goal was social reform through art.38 In England the Arts and Crafts movement’s members generally looked down on machine-crafted work, but in the United States, practitioners including Frank Lloyd Wright urged the wise use of the machine, a typically Progressive stance of locating technology within everyday life to eliminate drudge work.39

It seems that Wright’s thoughts about the art and craft of the machine influenced Gill’s work in San Diego; these ideas were likely reinforced by Gill’s trips East to design houses in the early 1900s.40 In 1893, when Irving Gill headed west for the second and last time, he brought with him the kernels of the Prairie School and the Arts and Crafts movement and began applying their architectural and social ideals to the comparatively blank page of California.

Gill San Diego, 1893, looking south on 5th from Ediscovered in this turn-of-the-century California a state in search of itself. The population booms of the 1850s and 1880s had slowed drastically in the 1890s, thwarting Californians’ hopes for quick progress and urbanization. As University of California president Benjamin Ide Wheeler noted at the beginning of the century, the New York papers only mentioned the state in connection with “an earthquake, a murder, or a birth of a two-headed calf.”41 That sense of remoteness was soon to change with the opening of the Panama Canal (1914), the direct railroad linkage of Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and the East, the first cross-country car trip in 1903, and the first transcontinental flight (which landed in Pasadena) in 1911.42

It was not merely technology, however, that transformed California into a full-fledged part of America by the 1920s and 1930s. Like the city of Chicago, the state developed its own breed of reformers, and, along with Oregon and Wisconsin, made its own mark on a thriving Progressivism.43 Because California Progressivism flourished later than the movement did in other states, it heeded their examples. Joseph W. Folk of St. Louis and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin were heralded as heroes in the early days of the movement, and between 1906 and 1910, La Follette, Folk, Albert B. Cummins, Ray Stannard Baker, and Gifford Pinchot all carried the Progressive cause to California by speaking in the state.44 Although Gill was not directly involved, as far as we know, in the political Progressivism of California, he certainly was exposed to it through his clients.

The California Progressives, as with those in Chicago and across the nation, were by no means monolithic. As William Deverell reminds us in California Progressivism Revisited, we must “be sure to emphasize the complicated nature of what we are describing” when we speak in “isms” and must also consider that Californians at the time described themselves using the terms “progressive” and “progressivism,” although perhaps not in the same sense we use them today.45 We should also keep in mind the questions that George Mowry, author of the classic The California Progressives, posed to his readers: “…[J]ust who were the Progressives, what prompted them to act, what were they trying to do, and where did they think they were going?”46 Like historian Richard Hofstadter, Mowry portrayed a reactionary Progressivism, a movement that “was essentially a protest against the changing group and individual relationships growing out of the new industrial and urban social complex.”47 Revisionist historians, however, insist that California Progressivism should not be seen “in such limited, negative terms, as simply a response to unwanted changes in American society.”48 Most of the literature about the state’s reformers focuses on two ideas–the pinning of the movement’s beginnings around 1900 and the central importance attached to the founding of the anti-railroad Lincoln-Roosevelt League in 1907 and the gubernatorial victory of Progressive Hiram Johnson in 1910.49 Yet it diverges in many other areas, including the influence of leftist and socialist ideas, the balance between “Big Labor” and “Big Business” in the minds of the Progressives, and the number of people dominant in the movement.

In November 1898, David Starr Jordan, president of the recently founded Stanford University, wrote an essay for the Atlantic Monthly called “California and the Californians,” which Kevin Starr considers critical to understanding the pre-Progressive consciousness. In the essay, Jordan expressed his affection for California but said he thought Californians believed too much that all progress would continue to come easily. Jordan insisted the state was in desperate need of reform to clean up its lackadaisical attitude.50

Many at the time would have agreed, although perhaps for different reasons. The impetus for Progressivism in California was the dominance of the Southern Pacific Railroad in state and local politics, a story told in chilling detail in Frank Norris’ The Octopus.51 In contrast to Chicago, where Progressives largely considered themselves part of an intellectual and social movement, in California the reformers concentrated on politics. In their quest for change, they tried to return government to the people by kicking the railroad out of politics and initiating ballot reform.52

The League’s crowning victory came in 1910, when Hiram Johnson, the second lawyer on a famous 1907 graft case in San Francisco and a progressive reformer who had worked for eight years with the city’s Teamsters, ran for governor and won, more resoundingly in the south than the north.53 Johnson is a central figure in the California Progressive movement, considered by one historian “a sort of western Theodore Roosevelt…[who] would invest the cause of political and social reform in California with a similar brand of dynamic righteousness.”54 During his two terms as governor from 1911 to 1917, which featured a stint as running mate on Roosevelt’s third-party ticket in 1912, Johnson fairly successfully carried out reforms based on creating efficient government and halting political corruption and the exploitation of natural resources.55 In addition, between 1911 and 1915 more than one hundred pieces of labor legislation were passed, illustrating the California Progressive movement’s sympathy toward, if not diehard commitment to, labor.56 Johnson ultimately managed to extract California from the vise of the Southern Pacific’s machine control, leaving government in the hands of the people.

But Johnson’s victory over the railroad was far in the future when Gill arrived in San Diego in 1893, seeking warmth and health. Although we do not know why Gill specifically chose California, we do know that its reforms and climactic virtues were well publicized nationally. An enormous body of glowing travel literature about the West and California–mainly first-person accounts and railroad guides–circulated in the 1890s. As one author extolled in 1894, “This is California, the land of gold, the paradise of climates, the home of health, the retreat for the aged who would live forever, and for the invalid who dreads to die.”57

So although SuGill's First San Diego office in Pierce-Morse block at 6th and Fllivan had visited California in 1889-90 for business and health and said the climate was not for him,58 Gill would have heard positive words about San Diego’s healing qualities from other sources. In the two years after the California Southern Railroad extended into San Diego in 1885, its population exploded from 5,000 to 40,000, and a land boom overtook the city.  The euphoria did not last long, however, and by 1890 the population had dropped back to 16,000. In 1893, the year Gill arrived, San Diego was feeling the effects of the nationwide panic: Five of the city’s eight banks closed in that year, and the city directory listed only four architectural firms, as compared to fourteen in 1887.59 As promised in the literature, Gill’s health quickly improved in the city’s Mediterranean climate, and he established a practice, prompting the August 1893 issue of The Golden Era to proclaim: “We wish Mr. Gill every success and hope the time is not far distant when many such [graceful buildings] will take the place of the tall, uncongenial edifices that rudely suggest blizzards and snows in this harmonious land of eternal summer.”60

Underlying both the California Progressive movement and the travel literature pulling people to this “land of eternal summer” were the opportunities California presented as an undiscovered country, embodied by its largely untouched valleys, deserts, mountains, and rivers and reflected in its artistic and political movements. California’s land provided a setting for forward-looking rather than reactive tactics on the part of reformers, politicians, and artists alike. As Gill wrote in 1916, the West, including California, had “an opportunity unparalleled in the history of the world, for it is the newest white page turned for registration.”61 Unlike the cities of the East, the largest of which were seeking to contend with urbanization’s harsh effects, Los Angeles and San Francisco were only beginning to think of themselves as metropolises, and San Diego was still considered a boom town somewhere in the wilderness south of Los Angeles.62 San Diego in particular “did not face complex urban problems that called for urgent solutions in other cities.”63 As a result of California’s vast untapped land and isolation from the rest of the country, its artistic movements blended the political and the natural, taking national trends such as the Arts and Crafts movement and the City Beautiful movement and placing the state’s distinctive stamp upon them.

Regional differences characterized and epitomized the Arts and Crafts movement, since its members based their work on inspiration from the local environment, and in California the optimism gleaned from the climate and geography created a different movement from that of Chicago. In California, Arts and Crafts peaked from about 1905 to 1915–the time in which Gill’s career also reached its height–and roughly paralleled the rise to prominence of the state’s Progressives.64 The California movement was similar to efforts in other states, such as New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts, in that it was rooted in guilds, it occupied a prominent place in public school manual-education classes, and it was inspired by the landscape. It differed from the national movement in many ways, however, the most critical of which were its small-scale practitioners who did not greatly influence the national movement and did not generally send goods to the East to sell; its ready incorporation of elements from its Catholic Spanish-Mexican heritage, most prominently the missions, which provided newly established Californians with a sense of tradition; and, most importantly, its practitioners’ unique closeness to nature.65 Gill’s buildings provide excellent examples of the constant intersection of nature and architecture in the California movement.66

In San Diego, where Gill designed the majority of his buildings, the Arts and Crafts movement expressed itself in ways influenced by the city’s balmy climate and relative isolation from the rest of the state and the world. 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 1905.67 The city boasted an artists’ colony for literature and music in Grossmont, where most houses were built using the typical Arts and Crafts material of redwood. Perhaps the most famous artists’ colony was Green Dragon in La Jolla (1894), whose cottages Gill designed and which drew the finest musicians from around the country to entertain both colony residents and Hotel Del Coronado visitors. In the area of material crafts, 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. Two utopian societies occupied positions at the edges of San Diego. The first was the International Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, established on a 132-acre cliffside at Point Loma in 1897 by Katherine Tingley and nicknamed “Lomaland” (now part of the site of Point Loma Nazarene College). Tingley raised money in New York for her reform plans, which included working with orphans, “unfortunate” women, and prisoners to help them realize their true potential. The other utopian community, San Ysidro, was developed near the Mexican border by William E. Smythe, the leader of the national land-reclamation movement. It encouraged every man to cultivate his own garden and thus support his family; however, the “Little Landers” soon went under.

Although tDavid K.Horton househe San Diego Arts and Crafts movement did not exert as much influence on the nation as did others in the state, it made a significant material contribution through the unusual objects of the Theosophical Society and the pottery companies.68 Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman magazine, which regularly featured articles about Gill and his buildings in the 1910s, created the strongest link between San Diego and the rest of the state’s Arts and Crafts movement.69

In the fifteen years after Gill arrived in San Diego, he worked with a number of partners and experimented with designs derivative of earlier styles, such as Victorian and Queen Anne, and the more contemporary styles that were developing under the Arts and Crafts movement and the Prairie and Chicago Schools. We know of few projects from Gill’s first year of practice in San Diego in 1893; 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.70 Falkenham left in 1895, leaving Gill to make a name for himself.

Pickwick Theater, 1905 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 1895.71 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, and his  1909 fountain in Horton Plaza , which was modeled on the Choragic Monuments of Lysicrates.72 Louis Gill, his nephew, said years later that the copied theater was a desperate attempt by his uncle to make money.73

In DeGill's fountain for Horton Plazacember 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 more influences from the Transportation Building and the neoclassicism of the 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.74

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.75 After that point, mission influences appeared in the duo’s work, and Gill became fascinated by the religious structures, spending hours looking at and measuring them. His nephew later said that Gill was impressed “not with their sentimental appeal or the heaviness of the construction, but with their straightforward simplicity, the economy in the use of materials, and their frank declarations that buildings should be made for use.”76

In the Hebbard partnership, Gill drew business; he brought in clients through his socializing skills and frequent jaunts to the Hotel del Coronado. His grand-nephew John Gill said of him, “In modern parlance he would have been considered a bit of a swinger,” but added that “he was much happier alone” and “did not need people.”77 At the hotel Gill met many wealthy Easterners, including Frederick Law Jr., Albert, and Marion Olmsted, the sons and daughter of the great landscape planner Frederick Law Olmsted, who helped spread Gill’s name across the country and secured him commissions in Rhode Island and Maine.78  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.79

Gill started usinGeorge W. Marston houseg the Arts and Crafts elements that would predominate in his later buildings during the Hebbard partnership. As McCoy has noted, by about 1905 “his interiors had already developed in the direction of elimination and simplification typical of his mature work.”80 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.81 These simplifications in architecture reflected Gill’s desire to save labor for both construction workers and housekeepers. In addition to Gill’s early attempts to reform traditional architectural interiors and thus the way people worked and lived, he and Hebbard also designed a hotel in the Mission Style for the Rancho Guajome Health Company (1905), proposed for invalids but never built.82  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, and in the George W. Marston house of 1904-05.83

At the same timeAlice Lee and Katherine Teats cottages, Gill built small experimental houses to test his technological innovations. As Kamerling writes of the period just after 1900, “Although Hebbard & Gill had designed some very large homes for some very wealthy clients, Gill was becoming increasingly aware of the potential that architecture had for social reform. He was convinced that a well-designed and well-constructed home could become a vehicle for change.”84 These technological innovations, which exceeded the scope of most architecture in Gill’s time and place, can be grouped into four main but not exhaustive areas: concrete construction, white paint on walls tinted with colors to reflect the surrounding flowers and plants, a preponderance of light and air, and homes designed for easy cleaning. Gill’s changes in style were largely dictated by his changes in construction systems, although they were also influenced by Arts and Crafts philosophy.85

At the turn of the century, the San Diego that Gill had discovered a decade earlier was still eking out a hold in the economy of the region, and so the attempts of its small contingent of reformers at cultural, political, and social reform along the lines of Hiram Johnson’s 1910 platform were not entirely successful. When Gill arrived in 1893, he encountered a city whose population believed that growth outweighed reform and whose leading Republican newspaper squelched any thought of political upheaval, a city where a few citizens tried to effect change by serving on local appointed boards and pushing their candidates for city and state offices.86 More importantly for his architecture, however, Gill entered a state in which the land cast a perceptible glow over the lives of its inhabitants and artists:

The one thing which seemed to bind artist and author, architect and craftsman alike, which seemed to hover over the entire creative community in both north and south was a strangely palpable sense of place–of the land and of the individual’s identity with it. There was something new and pervasive about the quality of the western light. The benign climate brought an almost romantic consciousness of nature. There was a sense of timelessness of being in a world apart–a world which could be remade in one’s own vision–in which one’s desired life style could be realized and one’s influence felt.87

San Diego and Los Angeles would feel Gill’s influence through his architecture, which, in its incorporation of Arts and Crafts social philosophy, Spanish mission motifs, a deep concern for the working man and woman, and the ideals of California’s Progressive reformers, would make a statement about the need for carefully designed communities in this “world apart.” Over the next twenty-five years, through a growing Progressive sensibility and an attempt to professionalize architecture in San Diego, Gill would make that world his own.


1. Irving Gill, “The Home of the Future: The New Architecture of the West: Small Homes for a Great Country,” Craftsman, May 1916, 140-1, reprinted in Bruce Kamerling, Irving J. Gill, Architect (San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1993), 124.

This essay benefitted immeasurably from the help of many people, not least of which were Neil Levine, Brian Casey, Gregg Hennessey, Dan and Jane Schaffer, and the archivists of the San Diego History Center Research Archives and the Architectural Drawing Collection at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

2. Kamerling, Gill, 4.

3. Hugh Morrison, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture (New York: The Museum of Modern Art and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1935), 269.

4. Esther McCoy, Five California Architects (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1960), 100.

5. Ibid., 83; Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 220; Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism (New Revised Edition) (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988), 131.

6. To do so, it will consider a variety of sources including biographical information, the architecture itself, his clients, his technological innovations, and his unfortunately sparse writings. Almost no personal papers exist; the two known articles by Gill are the expansive “The Home of the Future: The New Architecture of the West: Small Homes for a Great Country” in the May 1916 issue of Craftsman and the practical “New Ideas About Concrete Floors” in the December 1915 issue of Sunset (Kamerling, Gill, 2). For personal, primary written sources, this essay will draw from those two pieces as well as from minutes of the San Diego Architectural Association, of which Gill was secretary from 1910 to 1912. The minutes are a recent acquisition of the San Diego Historical Society and, to my knowledge, have not yet been analyzed in publication. This essay will observe the customary distinction between “progressive,” the adjective, and “Progressive,” the formal category of historical reference.

7. Kamerling, Gill, 2.

8. Louis J. Gill, lecture draft for October 1958 exhibition on Irving Gill at Los Angeles County Museum, TD, Kamerling Architectural Collection, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives, 2.

9. H. Allen Brooks, The Prairie School (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972), 29.

10. Vincent J. Scully, Jr., The Shingle Style: Architectural Theory and Design from Richardson to the Origins of Wright (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 99, 164.

11. Byron G. Cunningham, “Frank Lloyd Wright: An Association With San Diego,” research paper, San Diego History Center Research Archives, 1985, 2.

12. McCoy, California, 59; Robert Twombly, Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1986), 231.

13. Kamerling, Gill, 5.

14. McCoy, California, 59.

15. Ibid., 59-60.

16. William H. Jordy, “The Tall Buildings,” in Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament, ed. Wim de Wit (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986), 65.

17. Andrew Feffer, The Chicago Pragmatists and American Progressivism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 93.

18. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900; New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 12.

19. Oscar Handlin, John Dewey’s Challenge to Education: Historical Perspectives on the Cultural Context (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 18.

20. Ellen F. Fitzpatrick, ed., Muckraking: Three Landmark Articles (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 4.

21. Sherman Paul, Louis Sullivan: An Architect in American Thought (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1962), 27.

22. David J. Rothman, Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and its Alternatives in Progressive America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), 46.

23. Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House With Autobiographical Notes (1910; Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 75.

24. Dozens of historians have drawn upon and taken as gospel Richard Hofstadter’s analysis of Progressivism as a moral, unsophisticated, cautiously reformist upper middle-class movement whose members were overwhelmed by the complicated twentieth-century industrial world. Yet more recent historians have cast doubt on Hofstadter’s conviction that “status anxiety,” or a reactionary fear of progress as it threatened their way of life, provoked the Progressives to respond defensively to the changes threatening their position; instead, they argue that the Progressives were more forward-looking. And some historians have said the Progressives incorporated both outlooks on the world. Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), 131-73; Spencer C. Olin, Jr., California’s Prodigal Sons: Hiram Johnson and the Progressives, 1911-17 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) 179. For a review of Progressive historiography, see Daniel T. Rogers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982): 113-32.

25. For a good discussion of the Chicago School, see Brooks’ Prairie School, 8-13.

26. Louis H. Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (1924; New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1956), 319-20.

27. Among them was George W. Marston, later an eminent citizen of San Diego and one of Gill’s most Progressive and influential clients. Gregg R. Hennessey, “George White Marston and Conservative Reform in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History 32 (Fall 1986): 244.

28. David F. Burg, Chicago’s White City of 1893 (Lexington, Kentucky: The University of Kentucky Press, 1976), xiv.

29. Ibid., xiv; Reid Badger, The Great American Fair: The World’s Columbian Exposition & American Culture (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1979), 235; Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 221. The congresses drew their speakers, who spoke without approval or censure, from all over the world, and education was no exception. Important California figures included Martin Kellogg of the University of California and David Starr Jordan of Stanford, a noted Progressive. Badger, 236, 258.

The World’s Congress of Historians formed part of the Congress on Literature; at a meeting in conjunction with the ninth annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Frederick Jackson Turner presented “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Badger, 256-7.

30. Badger, Great American Fair, x.

31. Trachtenberg, Incorporation of America, 227; William H. Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 1. According to Wilson, “the White City was the focus of a wide variety of nineteenth-century advances related to the City Beautiful: sanitation; aesthetics; rationalized urban functions; women’s involvement in culture, civic improvement, and urban reform; building design; artistic collaboration; architectural professionalism; and civic spirit.”

32. Wilson, City Beautiful, 2.

33. McCoy, California, 60. The other significant nonclassical structure was Arthur Page Brown’s California Building, which presented a nostalgic vision of the state’s romantic mission past. It was widely considered the most successful of the fair’s state buildings. Based on California’s Franciscan missions, especially those at Santa Barbara and San Diego, the structure cemented the Mission Revival style in Southern California in everything from train depots and post offices to schools and hospitals. This design trend would shape Gill’s career.

34. Sullivan, Autobiography, 325. “The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer. It has penetrated deep into the constitution of the American mind, effecting there lesions significant of dementia.”

35. Kamerling, Gill, 5; McCoy, California, 60.

36. Richard Guy Wilson, “American Arts and Crafts Architecture: Radical though Dedicated to the Cause Conservative,” in “The Art that is Life”: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920, ed. Wendy Kaplan (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), 101.

37. Ibid., 103-4.

38. Wendy Kaplan, “The Lamp of British Precedent: An Introduction to the Arts and Crafts Movement,” in “The Art that is Life,” 52.

39. Richard Guy Wilson, “‘Divine Excellence’: The Arts and Crafts Life in California,” in The Arts and Crafts Movement in California: Living the Good Life, ed. Kenneth R. Trapp (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993), 18, 20; Frank Lloyd Wright, “The Art and Craft of the Machine,” 1901, Architecture in America: A Battle of Styles, ed. William A. Coles and Henry Hope Reed, Jr. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1961), 55-6.

40. Kamerling, Gill, 21.

41. George Mowry, The California Progressives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), 1-2.

42. Ibid., 3.

43. Robert S. Maxwell, La Follette and the Rise of the Progressives in Wisconsin (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1956), 5.

44. Mowry, California Progressives, 90.

45. William Deverell, “The Varieties of Progressive Experience,” in California Progressivism Revisited, ed. William Deverell and Tom Sitton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 2.

46. Mowry, California Progressives, ix.

47. Ibid., 89.

48. Gerald Woods, “A Penchant for Probity: California Progressives and the Disreputable Pleasures,” in California Progressivism Revisited, 99-100.

49. See William Deverell, Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 149-171, for a discussion of California Progressivism in relation to Johnson and the railroad.

50. Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 224-5.

51. Frank Norris, The Octopus: A Story of California (1901; New York: Penguin Books, 1986). The novel describes the Mussel Slough incident of 1880, in which five ranchers died trying to keep the railroad from their land.

52. Grace Louise Miller, “The San Diego Progressive Movement, 1900-1920,” master’s thesis, University of California at Santa Barbara, June 1996, 36. Gill’s connections to the Progressive political movement would come largely through one of his clients, George W. Marston, who was present at the founding of the Lincoln-Roosevelt Republican League in Oakland in 1907.

53. Spencer C. Olin, Jr., California Politics 1846-1920: The Emerging Corporate State (San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser Publishing Company, 1981), 59. See also William Deverell,

54. Olin, Jr., California Politics, 59.

55. Ibid., 60; idem, Sons, 34.

56. Mary Ann Mason, “Neither Friends nor Foes: Organized Labor and the California Progressives,” in California Progressivism Revisited, 58.

57. Charles Augustus Stoddard, Beyond the Rockies: A Spring Journey in California (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 49.

58. Morrison, Louis Sullivan, 111. Kamerling suggests that Sullivan “may have encouraged his young draftsman to take advantage of the opportunities that Southern California afforded.” Kamerling, Gill, 5.

59. Kamerling, Gill, 5.

60. Ibid., 5.

61. Gill, “New Architecture of the West,” 125.

62. Starr, Inventing the Dream, 64-5.

63. Uldis Allen Ports, “George White Marston and the San Diego Progressives, 1913-1917,” master’s thesis, San Diego State University, Fall 1976, 1.

64. Karen J. Weitze, “Utopian Place Making: The Built Environment in Arts and Crafts California,” in The Arts and Crafts Movement in California, 55; Bruce Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in San Diego,” Ibid., 205.

65. Kenneth R. Trapp, ed., “Introduction,” The Arts and Crafts Movement in California, 10.

66. Wilson, “California,” 14. Embroidered in leaves on the walls in one of Gill’s residential garden rooms in San Diego were “shining-foliaged rhus, heliotrope, rows of lavender stock and sweet peas, borders of nemophilia, spangling dwarf verbena, wisteria, clematis, plumbango, pansies, violets, asters, purple- and violet-tinted foxgloves, larkspurs, [and] mariposas.”

67. Kamerling, Gill, 21. This influence appeared especially in the Seventh Avenue houses in San Diego for Alice Lee, Katherine Teats, Mary Cossitt, Frederick Burnham, and George Marston.

68. Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in San Diego,” 205-231.

69. Gill’s architecture itself also spurred on local retailers, including the jeweler J. Jessop and Sons and the Marston Company department store, to stock goods from the national Arts and Crafts movement. Kamerling, “The Arts and Crafts Movement in San Diego,” 215.

70. Kamerling, Gill, 5.

71. Ibid., 11.

72. McCoy, California, 61.

73. Louis Gill, lecture draft, 3.

74. Kamerling, Gill, 19; McCoy, California, 63.

75. Kamerling, Gill, 19. Gill patron George Marston served as local president of the Landmarks Club. See Alexander D. Bevil, “The Sacred and The Profane: The Restoration of Mission San Diego de Alcala, 1866-1931,” Journal of San Diego History, 38 (Summer 1992): 140.

76. Kamerling, Gill, 19.

77. John Gill to Jan Irene, 7 Nov. 1976, Kamerling Architectural Collection, San Diego History Center Research Archives, San Diego.

78. Kamerling, Gill, 21; McCoy, California, 63.

79. Kamerling, Gill, 19.

80. McCoy, California, 65.

81. Ibid., 65. Magnesite is a lightweight material similar to concrete.

82. Kamerling, Gill, 34.

83. Ibid., 21, 37.

84. Ibid., 21.

85. McCoy, California, 67.

86. Miller, 36-39, 143-150, 157-165, 201. The three San Diegans who attended the founding convention of the Lincoln-Roosevelt League in Oakland in 1907 were George W. Marston, a department store owner and committed city planner who ran for mayor twice in the 1910s on a platform of beautification; Colonel Ed Fletcher, who was interested in land development as well as reform; and Edgar A. Luce, the most active political Progressive in the city, who regularly corresponded with state Progressive leaders and won the seat for state senator in 1914, much to the dismay of the San Diego Union.

87. Timothy J. Andersen, Eudorah M. Moore, Robert W. Winter, eds., California Design 1910 (Pasadena: California Design Publications, 1974), 8.

Sarah J. Schaffer is a native San Diegan who attended The Bishop’s School in La Jolla. She is currently assistant editor for Avenues, the member magazine of the Auto Club of Southern California. Her essay on Irving Gill is a condensed version of her 1997 honors thesis in American history and literature at Harvard University.

[Editor’s note: In the next issue of the Journal of San Diego History, “A Significant Sentence Upon the Earth: Irving J. Gill, Progressive Architect” continues with part two: “Creating a Sense of Place.”]