Photographs from this article
By 1908, Irving J. Gill was a well-established San Diego architect. Since arriving from Chicago in 1893, he had experimented with many styles, won loyal clients, and made a name for himself among the community’s leading citizens, Progressive and otherwise.1 But his mature style, marked by spare designs and ingenious technical details, was just beginning, and his most important commissions were to come. Gill’s “classic” period is considered to span the years 1908 to 1916, according to Bruce Kamerling.2 In 1909 and 1910, he designed three of his most ingenious structures: Bentham and Scripps Halls at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla (1910), the First Church of Christ Scientist at Second and Laurel Streets in San Diego (1909-10), and the Lewis Court workers’ apartment complex (1910) in Sierra Madre, a town east of Los Angeles at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The school, the church, and the workers’ housing were all designed in the same two-year period in which Progressive candidate Hiram Johnson became governor of California and in which Gill spearheaded the creation of the San Diego Architectural Association, a group intended to professionalize the trade of architecture in the city. For us, then, the years 1909 to 1911 provide the most telling case study of Gill’s Progressive leanings, as seen through his activities as secretary of the San Diego Architectural Association, his clients, his technological innovations, and the design and purpose of the school, church, and apartment complex.
From what we know of Gill, he rarely ventured into politics; the closest he came was in bouts with City Hall between 1910 and 1912 during his time as secretary of the San Diego Architectural Association. Gill’s minutes from the meetings have been recently deposited at the San Diego History Center Research Archives. Typed on his trademark brown carbon paper, they show that he was a catalyst for the professionalization of architecture in San Diego. Architecture nationally had established its first professional organization in 1868 as part of the trend toward scientific management across all professions which culminated during the Progressive era.3 The goals of the organization, which Gill helped found in 1910, were “[t]o unite in fellowship the Architects of San Diego County, California, and to combine their efforts so as to promote the artistic, scientific and practical efficiency of the profession, and to cultivate the study of kindred arts.”4 This combination of the artistic and scientific was in keeping not only with Progressivism but also with the focus of the concurrent Arts and Crafts movement on “the wise use of the machine.” The San Diego Architectural Association’s restriction of membership to experienced and certified city architects indicated that the members considered themselves seasoned designers who could be an effective pressure group at City Hall, ensure that an acceptable fee structure would benefit all members, and have a voice in city affairs.5
Gill himself showed this inclination toward professionalism through motions he put on the floor at these meetings, committees on which he served, and comments on the brotherhood of his fellow architects. At the first meeting, Gill successfully moved that “the organization be effected with a view of becoming a chapter of the American Institute of Architects,” a sign that he was thinking beyond the bounds of San Diego to prominence on the national scene.6 He soon received his wish of publicity when the magazine Southwest Contractor and Manufacturer wrote him asking for a full report of the meeting for publication.7 On September 12, 1910, Gill moved that a committee be appointed to draft rules for “the practice of competition” among architects and was named a member of the committee; the same day, he moved that Emmor Brooke Weaver chair a committee “to prepare a schedule of charges for professional practice”; and, at the end of the same meeting, he was chosen one of three architects “to prepare a letter to be sent to the council asking the privilege of reading over the city [building] orinance [sic] before it is approved by the countil [sic], also one requesting the council to revise the plumbing and electrical ordinance so that the owner would be held responsible for all violation of the plumbing and electrical ordinance in place of the contractor.”8 Over the next year, the association proposed more oversight of the building, plumbing, and electrical regulations in the city, likely due to Gill’s influence. Its members even met with “a Committee of the Journeyman Plasterer’s Union no. 346” to foster cooperation between the architects and journeymen plasters and thus streamline building operations.9 On August 7, 1911, Gill galvanized the architects with his controversial suggestion that they “agree not to solicit or offer to make sketches free of charge and that the usual one per cent be charged for all such work.”10 The group convened a meeting the next week to continue discussing the proposal, which failed by one vote.11
Through the formation of the San Diego Architectural Association, Gill helped make a name for the city’s architectural profession, both through motions to oversee the city’s codes and suggestions such as using association funds to throw a party for visiting architects at the new U.S. Grant Hotel, complete with chrysanthemums and a table “heavily loaded with dainty, delicious delicacies of a kind that cheer the inner man.”12 His work legitimized San Diego architecture and illustrated the Progressive desire to become more efficient through sound organization. According to Esther McCoy, “Gill performed an enormous service to his profession at a time when, in the West, the contractor was considered the proper person to design everything except public buildings and large residences, which were almost invariably done in revival styles. The wide acceptance of an architect in a town under 25,000 in the first decade of the century was extraordinary, and Gill deserved much of the credit.”13
A base of Progressive clients helped Gill gain such acceptance. Although it is difficult to discern an architect’s attitudes toward important issues of the day by looking at the opinions of those for whom he designed, in the case of Gill we may safely assume that he at least partially sympathized with the reform-mindedness of his more Progressive clients, including Ellen Browning Scripps and George W. Marston. As Karen J. Weitze speculates, “Possibly both Gill and [Bernard] Maybeck could explore their keen interest in low-cost concrete housing because, like Frank Lloyd Wright, they both designed for liberal-minded patrons who lived in communities that tolerated experimentation. In San Diego, as in Berkeley, the nucleus of Arts and Crafts residences also represented a nucleus of clients.”14 Not only did Gill’s clients reflect on him, but his houses reflected on his clients: “A home by Irving Gill proclaimed that its owner possessed a clear-headed proclivity for simplicity, efficiency, and, most important, a taste for reform.”15
One of his most prominent clients was Ellen Browning Scripps, a self-made newspaper millionaire born in England and raised in the Illinois prairies.16She moved to San Diego in 1891 and to La Jolla in 1897. Because she worried about having money left over after she died, she devoted herself to philanthropy, much of it relating to education. Gill designed many Progressive projects for which Scripps sponsored the money, including the La Jolla Recreation Center and the La Jolla Woman’s Club, which together with The Bishop’s School and her own house formed a “Scripps enclave.”17 The La Jolla Woman’s Club (1914-16) appeared as part of a long tradition of national and local women’s clubs designed to solve city problems.18 In 1914, the president of the La Jolla Woman’s Club, Dr. Mary B. Ritter, said in a speech about Scripps and the club: “What is our Part? To make this building stand for what she intends it, progress toward higher citizenship, spreading the gospel and the fact of fraternity, of mutual helpfulness.”19 This idea of community space reflected the Progressive desire to create public areas to aid the common good.
George W. Marston, Gill’s other great Progressive client, was a “civic Progressive”20 who ran for mayor of San Diego in 1913 and 1917 and lost both times to critics who somewhat unfairly painted him as unfriendly to business and interested in beautification rather than growth.21 Although Marston subscribed to ideas including equal rights for women and minorities, workers’ rights to unionize, and freedom of expression for all, his reformist impulses manifested themselves most broadly in “a conservative agenda of park development and city planning. Such projects reflected his strong, personal love of nature; a desire to apply technical expertise and
efficiency to social problems; and an implicit belief in the values of his class and culture.”22 He was the city’s preeminent Progressive, a commitment shown most clearly in his being one of three people from San Diego to attend the founding meeting of the Lincoln-Roosevelt League in Oakland in August 1907.23 He gave $10,000 toward the improvement of the city’s great green area, City Park, served as chair of the Landmarks Club of Southern California, and sold Gustav Stickley furniture in his department store downtown.24 Gill designed many other houses on Marston’s block and had extensive contact with him through the early planning of the 1915 Panama California Exposition in City Park.25
Of course, not all of Gill’s clients were Progressive; in fact, Irving and his nephew Louis Gill designed a duplex apartment in Coronado in 1919 equipped entirely with electrical appliances for Marston’s opponent in the 1917 mayoral race, Louis Wilde.26 As Bruce Kamerling writes of Gill’s “classic” period: “He still worked in a variety of styles; but when he could find sympathetic clients, Gill used the opportunity to further explore his innovative concepts of design and construction.”27
These innovative designs appeared on a large scale in Irving Gill’s one school. Robert A. M. Stern has written that “American campuses — ideal, independent villages, socially and culturally coherent communities for learning and research — are among the greatest dream places of our civilization and a distinctly American invention.”28 The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, designed by Irving Gill in 1910, epitomized this idea of campus as village. In its attempt to create a series of buildings around a central gathering place, with long arcades and open grassy areas that allowed indoor and outdoor spaces to interact with each other, it also reflected the desire of many Progressives to shape children’s minds through a beneficial environment. From the beginning, the school had a good reputation in the community and was known for its academic rigor.29 Ellen Browning Scripps believed in an ideal which spurned lectures to passive students and instead encouraged “a circle of teacher and students seated about a table or a hearth fire, stimulating one another’s powers of thought and creating a mental capital which no textbook can supply.”30
The Bishop’s Schools were at first plural, both designed by Gill, with a day school in San Diego which opened in 1909 and a boarding school which opened in September 1910 an hour’s steam train ride up the coast in La Jolla. The first graduating exercises in June 1910 involved three girls, one of whom was admitted to Wellesley and one to Bryn Mawr.31 In 1911, each school enrolled about fifty students; and of the schools’ faculty, three came from Vassar and at least one from each of Smith, Cornell, Wellesley, the University of California, and the University of Paris.32 The school in La Jolla lasted longer than the one in San Diego, which changed hands in 1915.33 Set on a piece of land in La Jolla, which in 1910 was little more than the artistic Green Dragon Colony and a cluster of residences, the boarding school overlooked the ocean, only a block away. Although the school was not enclosed by a wall until 1928 and a train track served as its northern boundary in its first years, Bishop’s was indeed an enclave, since it served as a boarding school whose mission was to instill civility and academic excellence in the students it educated.34 It was emphatically not a finishing school, according to its first headmistress, but it did teach the girls that “there are three countenances — powdered, painted, and poised — two of which a Bishop’s Schools girl never has and one of which she always has.”35
As Gregg Hennessey has observed, The Bishop’s School was a product of three intersecting Progressive philosophies: those of its patron, Ellen Browning Scripps; its inspiration, the Episcopal Bishop Joseph Horsfall Johnson; and its architect, Irving Gill. For Scripps, endowing Bishop’s was “an integral part of her world view,” which rested heavily on education for girls and support for women’s issues in the Progressive period of reform.36 The sixty-two-year-old Bishop Johnson was likewise no stranger to reform, supporting homes for children and the elderly, a charity hospital, and neighborhood settlement houses. He at first wanted to found a college but then decided on a preparatory school “because he saw both a greater need in that field and an opportunity to make a more lasting contribution.”37 Johnson’s first choice of a site for the school was Sierra Madre, a town east of Los Angeles where Gill was to build the Bella Vista Terrace in 1910; however, he changed his mind when Scripps, whom he presumably knew from his frequent trips to San Diego, offered money for a school in La Jolla after hearing of the bishop’s proposal.38
For Johnson, the school had three aims: to train the mind in preparation for further study, to teach social graces of “courtesy and public usefulness,” and to impart Christian character.39 Like Gill, Johnson believed that a beautiful environment could promote learning, a philosophy echoed in a 1914Craftsman article about Bishop’s:
There seems to be a growing acknowledgment that the best teachers are men and women who live inspiring lives and not those tutors who must needs refer the child to the biographies of famous people for their ideals; that the best text books are the environments that call forth individual power, guiding rather than directing mental and physical activities; and that the best school buildings are homelike, beautiful structures, simple, dignified, airy, flooded with sunshine and above all sanitary.40
The conviction that environment could shape character was undeniably Progressive, as illustrated in Chicago by Jane Addams in her settlement house and educational philosopher John Dewey in his Laboratory School.41
The Bishop’s School of La Jolla was built on a nearly rectangular nine-acre site with a sharp diagonal at one end where Prospect Street intersected with Cuvier Street.42 The first two structures built of concrete in 1910 were Scripps Hall, a dormitory, and Bentham Hall, which held classrooms and a small chapel.43 A third building, Gilman Hall, included in the original plans, was not built until 1916.44
At the time, the most popular design for campuses was modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia: “an extended rectangular space, defining a longitudinal axis, with a dominant structure as focal point at one end and subsidiary buildings ranged along the sides.”45 Yet this blueprint, likely revived because of the neoclassicism of the 1893 World’s Fair, lacked variety for Gill and others designing schools at the time who wanted additional cross-axes and secondary spaces.46 Bishop’s followed this model, except for Gilman Hall, which was “flipped” because of the constraints of the site; the buildings are laid out in a zigzag shape, with Bentham Hall forming the central axis and Gilman and Scripps Halls the two “wings.” Had the site been rectangular, Gill might have turned Gilman in the other direction so it directly faced Scripps Hall, thus making the original chapel in Bentham Hall even more central; on the other hand, Gill might have enjoyed the smaller courtyards such a design created, since they allowed alcoves in which the girls could reflect upon their day and study. As it was planned, the three buildings looked like “an intricate, old skeletal key — filled with right angles, hollow spaces, and secret niches.”47
The two-story Scripps Hall held dormitories as well as a kitchen and dining area. Its most prominent feature was an arcade that surrounded two sides of the building; the long corridor’s arched openings were influenced by mission architecture and reflected Gill’s belief in the power of the arch as a symbol of the sky’s dome. Such arcades, which acted as both inside and outside spaces, were prominent features in Gill’s other nearby buildings: the La Jolla Woman’s Club, the La Jolla Recreation Center, and Scripps’s own house. The second floor was entirely different from the first, with a boxy structure and rectangular windows. At the time, the balconies on the Prospect Street side of Scripps Hall faced the ocean, giving the girls a spot to reflect on their studies while in the presence of nature. The area between Scripps and Bentham Halls is now called the “prayer garden,” a fitting name for the peace it brings to the onlooker who faces the gentle arched lines of the arcade.48
The one-story Bentham Hall was distinguished by a square tower with a tile roof on top, probably to highlight the chapel’s location inside.49 It was reminiscent of the California missions in the ornament around the rectangular apertures on each side, but in the four narrow, vertical openings on each side, it suggested a sleeker, more modern conception of the space, reminiscent of the tower of Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building in Chicago. Unlike Scripps Hall, which interacted only with Bentham Hall, Bentham itself interacted with both Scripps at the back and the grassy quad area (and later Gilman Hall) at the front. Its front design showed much more ornament than the back did, especially in the “steeped roof comb” reminiscent of mission architecture and many of the houses in Gill’s native Syracuse.50 At the end of Bentham facing toward Prospect Street was a classical proscenium, emphasizing the republican ideal of virtue toward which the school strived.51 Bentham embodied Gill’s and Bishop Johnson’s belief in the value of fresh air, with its sleeping porches on the roof of the first floor; students also slept outside above the Scripps arcade, with rubber or oilcloth sheets over their blankets to stay warm, mimicking the “Spartan preparatory schools” of the East Coast.52 In a lovely symmetry, the cross at the top of Bentham Hall, with its smooth lines erupting into a top square, is reminiscent of two paths colliding in the prayer garden formed by Scripps and Bentham Halls, emphasizing the school’s Christian nature but also its dedication to balance in all things.53
Gilman Hall, designed in collaboration with Irving Gill’s nephew Louis Gill, incorporated aspects from both Bentham and Scripps Halls: the square Bentham tower’s roof in its sleeping porch cover, the Scripps arcade in its own arcade (this time with roof openings to allow in light), the Bentham arched windows in its own windows, and the boxy upper half of Scripps in its own second story. Gill’s commitment to light showed through in every detail, down to a skylight in a second-floor bathroom.54 Gilman offered a more imposing presence than the other two buildings because it formed the shape of the grassy quad through its own architecture and was larger than Bentham or Scripps. Gill intended Gilman Hall, like all of his buildings, to interact with nature; although he appreciated the sheer walls of his cube structures, he never believed they were complete until covered with ivy or flowering vines.55
Irving Gill’s tastes for simplicity as it shaped students’ character meshed well with Scripps’ and the Bishop’s desires for the school. Its motto has always been Simplicity, Sincerity, Serenity, with the first often seeming the most important. Kneelers in chapel did not have padding on which to rest until 1953; students were required to take cold baths to stimulate their mental faculties; and bedrooms were sparsely furnished.56 Interestingly enough, a Craftsman article in 1914 prefigured Gill’s essay on the West published two years later when it said, “Every room is severely plain, identical in finish and furnishings, in fact merely a white page upon which each girl may express her individuality.”57 Such uniformity and lack of emphasis on material goods helped promote the (perhaps false) notion of a classless society on The Bishop’s School campus and kept it firmly in the Progressive tradition.58
Gill discussed his ideal of simplicity in his 1916 essay, “The New Architecture of the West.” For him, “the source of all architectural strength” emerged from the straight line, the arch, the cube, and the circle in combination:
Every artist must sooner or later reckon directly, personally, with these four principles — the mightiest of lines. The straight line borrowed from the horizon is a symbol of greatness, grandeur and nobility; the arch patterned from the dome of the sky represents exultation, reverence, aspiration; the circle is the sign of completeness, motion and progression, as may be seen when a stone touches water; the square is the symbol of power, justice, honesty and firmness.59
The First Church of Christ Scientist in San Diego (1909-10) embodies all four of these principles in its long arcade, blunt tower, and glass dome.60
Of Gill’s five churches, the 1909-10 and 1927-8 Christian Science ones are the most striking; not coincidentally, they are the ones he designed alone. Nor does it seem to be a coincidence that three of five of his church commissions came from Christian Scientists, members of a movement founded in the early 1880s, a time which coincided with the beginning of the Progressive era. As the chairwoman of the San Diego church’s 1994 renovation committee said, “He liked those qualities: timeless beauty, intelligence, serenity, pure elements devoid of anything unnecessaryÉ.That stripping-away [process] is very Christian Science-[like]. There was a marriage there.”61 Gill was probably struck by the fact that Mary Baker Eddy had “built up the largest and most powerful organisation ever founded by any woman in America,” and he likely appreciated the Christian Science emphasis on efficient healing through community.62
Like Gill in his architecture, the Christian Science movement in its tenets reached into America’s past and traditions to shape the present: the Puritan quest for a city upon the hill and Benjamin Franklin’s hope that a strict daily regimen could lead to moral perfection.63 As much as the Christian Scientists looked toward history to find their place, they were well aware of the modern world and reacted to it in much the same way as the Progressives did. They saw an America deeply divided by class and wished to change such social stratification; however, they diverged from the secular Progressives in that they believed that true social harmony could only be achieved by transcending the material world through prayer.64 The movement appealed to those middle-class businessmen who were most likely to be Progressives and promised to make sense of their “practical world, which left [them] empty and adrift.”65 By 1906, Eddy’s manifesto Science and Health had sold 400,000 copies, making it a seminal text for any study of the Progressive era.66
Of all Gill’s churches, the 1909-10 Christian Science Church at Second and Laurel, completed just before Eddy died in December 1910, is by far the most famous. Located on “a busy corner in an affluent part of town”67 just north of downtown San Diego and on an enormous hill overlooking San Diego Bay, the church incorporated many of Gill’s most ingenious technical inventions as well as his penchant for light and his desire to bring nature inside.68 The site of the church was a 100-by-150-foot rectangle, the long end on Second Avenue; instead of lining up the pews on a vertical axis as in the 1904 church, Gill decided to make an auditorium with a long horizontal axis, giving the great space a more expansive feeling.69 This decision to create a large meeting room reflected the nature of Christian Science worship; the services were not centered on a preacher but on readers from the congregation. An open, rectangular design encouraged interaction among church members and reinforced their belief in the equality of all.
Facing Second Avenue was an arcade through which churchgoers entered the auditorium; from the street one could also see a hipped, square belltower and a glass dome. Originally, the dome was elliptical, but it leaked, and so church members soon changed it to a circular shape. The auditorium held nearly nine hundred, with three hundred more seats possible if church members decided to lift the metal roller blind that separated the Sunday school from the auditorium. The floor was concrete, sloping like a bowl to the organ loft.70 In its original design, the building had a great deal of ornament, like the Spanish missions, but the final product lacked such decoration, making it more consistent with Gill’s mature style and perhaps reflecting the church members’ desire for simplicity in worship.71
The building contained many of Gill’s signature technological innovations. For Gill, concrete floors and walls such as those used in the church offered a “wise use of the machine” in their energy-efficient insulation, ability to mimic earthen floors, and permanent surfaces that were easily cleaned. The auditorium’s concrete floor has endured little cracking to this day.72 The church was designed as a freestanding building of unreinforced masonry supported by a structural steel framework, two-foot-thick outside walls, and mortar made from La Jolla sand (which Gill shipped in because it was stronger than the talcumy San Diego Bay sand).73 As a result of such durable building materials and a hidden truss system that supported the roof and art glass dome, the auditorium was built without any supporting interior columns. Finally, Gill counted on the air flow from the ocean to cool the church through “fresh air vents” near the organ case and underground chambers in the basement.74
As is common in Gill’s most breathtaking buildings, the indoor and outdoor spaces interacted with each other to allow nature to come inside. Through a series of ground-floor arches on the north and east sides of the building and second-floor arches on the south side of the building, light poured into the auditorium. The trim on the windows was his characteristic medium green, no doubt intended to bring the color of leaves into the place of worship; green linoleum covered the cement floor. The art glass dome as originally envisioned contained complex interactions of many colors; it was not executed as intricately as planned, however, which may have been what spurred Gill to leave the project three to four weeks before it was complete.75 Overall, the church illustrated Gill’s dedication to serving the needs of his clients and his appreciation for the interaction of nature, modern technology, and a place for the spirit.
Seven years before Gill started working on the church, San Diego Democrat and future “Little Lander” William E. Smythe ran against incumbent Republican M. J. Daniels of Riverside in the 1902 Congressional election in San Diego. Smythe’s background “showed him to be a man responsive toward individual rights, the common man, and the underdog in society.” In one speech, he asked, “What is the true test of any policy or system of government? In my judgment it is the measure of protection which is furnished to the humblest and weakest member of society….”76 Gill may or may not have heard Smythe’s 1902 speech in San Diego; but if he had, he certainly would have agreed with it. In his architecture, like Smythe in his politics, Gill strove to give the humblest and weakest workers of society protection against the elements through elegant and efficient design. His “social architecture,” as McCoy termed it, included the F.B. Lewis Court (“Bella Vista Terrace”) in Sierra Madre (1910); barracks for the Riverside Cement Company’s Mexican laborers and their families; the model industrial city of Torrance (1912-13); the Echo Park Court in Los Angeles (1912); and cottages for the Rancho Barona Indian Reservation (1932-33) in Lakeside, east of San Diego, whose construction he supervised himself while living on the site and whose inhabitants he invited to La Jolla to see his other work and examine interior fabrics.77 In the late 1920s, Gill also tried to interest officials in Ensenada, Baja California, in group housing for Mexican families, and just before he died in 1936, he was involved with plans for housing the unemployed in Santa Barbara.78 Beginning in 1899 and during the next ten years, Gill built experimental cottages on property in the Hillcrest and Sherman Heights areas of San Diego, testing ways to make low-cost housing more efficient and comfortable.
It is in his worker’s housing that Gill most obviously emerges as a preeminent reformer; as McCoy wrote, Gill “was the first West Coast architect to give attention to company towns, barracks for laborers, housing for unemployed, and that vast segment of the population who had to be content with hand-me-downs.” According to Richard Guy Wilson, “Irving Gill’s interest in multifamily housing projects was twofold: he was committed to the idea that architecture could reform the way people lived, and he knew that the economic benefits of his hollow tile and concrete construction could be realized only by mass production.”79
Two workers’ enclaves in two years showcased Gill’s talents and concern for the poor. The less cohesive of the two was a city called Torrance, southwest of Los Angeles. In 1911, Jared S. Torrance bought a tract of land south of Los Angeles from the Dominguez family and formed the Dominguez Land Company to create a model industrial town for the workers of Pacific Electric, Union Tool, and Llewelyn Iron Works.80 The heads of the companies hoped that the anti-union battle for the open shop in Los Angeles would be helped by creating such a town, where workers could go home for lunch with their families.81 Gill won the competition for the position of chief architect and moved his office to Los Angeles in 1912. He planned hotels, office and industrial buildings, homes for workers, a two-room schoolhouse, and a railroad bridge and depot, many of which are still standing today.82
However, Gill’s houses were greeted with trepidation by both the carpenters, who were angered by the elimination of detailing that skilled craftsmen were usually paid to do, and potential home buyers, many of whom walked through the stripped-down houses “wide eyed and mute.”83 Gill’s small, efficient model homes in Torrance caused one Sunset magazine article to call him “a secessionist, a heretic, a dissenter who rears and snorts when he sees a venerable, hoary standard of the profession come down the street.”84 Only ten were eventually built, and the entire town flopped along with their failure; workers were disturbed by their limited independence as homeowners, and the city did not recover until the 1920s, when it had dispensed with its image as a model industrial town.85
The undeniable masterpiece of Gill’s low-cost workers’ housing came in the Bella Vista Terrace (1910) built for F. B. Lewis at Mountain Trail and Alegria in Sierra Madre, the same town east of Los Angeles from which the Bishop Joseph Horsfall Johnson hailed. It was also Gill’s own favorite.86The colony consisted of twelve square cottages (22’6″ on a side) arranged around a central courtyard and pergola, with each house having its own garden plot and easy paths to the common courtyard area. The cottages on the north and west were flush with the sidewalk, and each cottage had a view of the San Gabriel Valley. They exhibited Gill’s usual attention to detail and efficiency: a kitchen cooler with a “louvre vent,” a bathtub encased in magnesite, a mirror set into the entry hall, a closet off the bedroom with twenty-eight hooks built in, concrete floors in all areas, a drain in the kitchen, and five coats of white paint on the walls of the kitchen and bathroom, all intended to make it easy for workers to keep their houses tidy with minimal effort. Attached to each square cottage was a loggia (24’6″ long), with arches to let in the light, that served as sleeping porch or patio; on the south and east sides, the cottages were spaced asymmetrically so that every plot received sunlight within the house and in the garden. Less than one-third of the land was used for buildings. As McCoy has said of the gardens and the quiet serenity of the project, “There was a reverence for the individual in the plan that has never been equaled in the field of minimum housing.”87
Reaction to the garden court in the magazines of the day was astounding. A caption on a picture of the Lewis Courts in a 1913 article read, “THEY SAY THIS IS AN APARTMENT HOUSE! But it does not look a bit like what we call apartment houses in New York. Ours are high and thin. This is low and flat. And there are other differences.”88 This exuberant assessment reflected the difference between building workers’ housing in New York and in Los Angeles: The latter city, while it contained more than 300,000 people in 1910, still had land and space on which to tilt at an idea of utopia, even for its poorest residents.89 In the middle of the Bella Vista Terrace was a community space: a kind of “town square,” one writer observed in 1912.90 In this work of Gill’s, then, he tried to create not only a comfortable and hospitable enclave in which workers could live with their families and cultivate their gardens, but a real community. As David Gebhard has observed, such housing “reflected his commitment not to a form of socialism, but to the individual, the family and suburbia.”91
Unfortunately, two developments skewed Gill’s plans for the complex. More buildings were added later in the garden areas, and the dwellings proved so popular that the landlord raised rents far beyond the reach of the workers for whom they were intended. The increase in rent enraged Gill, since it ran counter to his intention in designing the apartments.92 Yet in the conception of the Bella Vista Courts, if not in the implementation, Gill did a service to the workers of the city. Never after could anyone claim that low-cost housing in Los Angeles had to be as dirty, dark, or cramped as the tenements of New York.
Through his clients, his work with the San Diego Architectural Association, and his buildings, Gill took what he found in Chicago in that exciting moment when architecture, politics, literature, and reform intersected and, in moving that dynamic to California, transformed it into a particularly Western phenomenon. It is difficult to assess how Progressive he was compared to other architects of the time, since Progressivism expressed itself in many ways. But, as Richard Guy Wilson has said, Arts and Crafts architects existed on at least three levels: those who designed primarily for the wealthy elite, such as the Greene brothers; those who designed primarily for the upper middle class, such as Wright; and those who designed a great deal for the middle and working class. Gill belonged to the last group. He was one of the few who used modern technology to make life better for his working class clients.93 His commissions themselves are telling: a school whose Progressive educational philosophy encouraged women to go to top colleges, a Christian Science Church whose members exemplified the Progressive conundrum of the new science and industry, and a workers’ apartment complex which contained easily maintained cottages along with gardens the workers could cultivate. Gill did not have to take any of these commissions; he could have just as easily designed exclusively in Los Angeles’s wealthy suburb of Pasadena and never left Orange Grove Boulevard. But he did not, and it was ultimately through that choice that he became one of the most Progressive architects of his time.
On the blue footbridge in uptown San Diego mentioned at this essay’s start, Gill’s question of how passers-by will make their mark upon the earth is still relevant eighty years after he asked it. But if Gill were able to walk across that bridge today, I believe he might, instead of asking a question, make a statement from his 1916 essay: “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.”94 It is this philosophy that informed every aspect of Gill’s architecture and social thought; it is this commitment to truth through structure that makes his buildings even today places where students, worshipers, and homeowners alike may gather to find the community through place that the Progressives so assiduously sought.
Photographs for this article are listed here as links to speed loading:
Gill teaches a drawing class at San Diego YMCA, 1906
Wading Pool at Scripps Playground and Recreation Center (1914-1916)
Gill used tilt-slab concrete construction for La Jolla Woman’s Club (1912-1914)
The Bishop’s School, La Jolla (l to r) Scripps Hall, Bentham Hall, chapel building
Original, free-standing tower on Bentham Hall, torn down when Carleton Winslow created a new chapel and the current tower in the 1930s
First Church of Christ, Scientist, at Third and Ash Streets, 1904
First Church of Christ, Scientist, corner of Second and Laurel, (1909-1910)
F.B. Lewis Court (Bella Vista Terrace, 1910) in Sierra Madre, San Gabriel Mtns. in b/g
1. For a description of this period, see Part I, “Irving Gill, Progressive Architect: From New York to California Via Chicago,” in Journal of San Diego History 43 (Fall 1997): 218-239; for a list of Gill’s work, see Bruce Kamerling, Irving J. Gill, Architect (San Diego:
San Diego History Center, 1993), 129-33.
2. Kamerling, Gill, 56-7, 104.
3. Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1976), 84.
4. Constitution, San Diego Architectural Association (SDAA), 1910, prepared by Irving J. Gill, American Institute of Architects (AIA) papers, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives, San Diego, California. William S. Hebbard, Richard Requa, and Del W. Harris were among those who formed the association along with Gill.
5. SDAA, constitution.
6. SDAA, minutes, 29 Aug. 1910.
7. F.C. Ayar[k], to Irving J. Gill, 6 Sept. 1910, AIA papers.
8. SDAA, minutes, 12 Sept. 1910.
9. Ibid., 11 Oct. 1910.
10. Ibid., 7 Aug. 1911.
11. Ibid., 14 Aug. 1911 special meeting.
12. Ibid., 10 Dec. 1910 meeting with visiting architects John Olmsted of Brooklyn [Brookline], Massachusetts, Frederick L. Roehrig of Pasadena, California, and Octavius Morgan and John Kremple of Los Angeles.
13. Esther McCoy, Five California Architects (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1960), 75.
14. Karen J. Weitze, “Utopian Place Making: The Built Environment in Arts and Crafts California,” in The Arts and Crafts Movement in California: Living the Good Life, ed. Kenneth R. Trapp (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), 73.
15. Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 220.
16. Gregg R. Hennessey, ‘Historical Narrative, The Bishop’s School, La Jolla, California,’ ms., from Gregg R. Hennessey, San Diego, California, commissioned as part of Environmental Impact Report for The City of San Diego, San Diego, California, 1996, 6.
17. In the 1920s, Ellen Browning Scripps was also the patron for Scripps College in Claremont, California. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 339-40.
18. Judith Raftery, “Los Angeles Clubwomen and Progressive Reform,” in California Progressivism Revisited, eds. William Deverell and Tom Sitton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 144. Women’s clubs appeared in the East in the 1860s and in California in the 1880s.
19. Alberta E. Outcalt, researcher, William H. Porter, architectural consultant, City of San Diego Historical Site Board Register, La Jolla Woman’s Club, 715 Silverado Street, La Jolla, California, June 1971, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives, San Diego, California.
20. Weitze, ‘Utopian Place Making,’ 73.
21. Grace Louise Miller, “The San Diego Progressive Movement, 1900-1920,” master’s thesis, University of California at Santa Barbara, June 1976, 199; Uldis Allen Ports, “George White Marston and the San Diego Progressives, 1913-1917,” master’s thesis, San Diego State University, Fall 1976, 41.
22. Gregg R. Hennessey, “George White Marston and Conservative Reform in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History 32 (Fall 1986): 230.
23. Ibid., 241; Miller, ‘San Diego Progressive Movement,’ 36.
24. Weitze, ‘Utopian Place Making,’ 73; Hennessey, “Marston,” 237.
25. City Park was renamed Balboa Park for the 1915 exposition. Kamerling, Gill, 86.
We can guess at Gill’s close relationship with Marston through a motion he made at a meeting of the San Diego Architectural Association on January 26, 1911: that Marston
or another citizen appear before the association to explain what was happening with the selection of the architect for the exposition. Perhaps because the members were reluctant to get involved in the escalating dispute between Gill and eventual project architect Bertram Goodhue (a controversy that would soon lead to Gill’s leaving the project), the motion “was not favorably considered.” SDAA, minutes, 26 Jan. 1911 special meeting; Kamerling, Gill, 86-7.
26. Kamerling, Gill, 91; Miller, ‘San Diego Progressive Movement,’ 201.
27. Kamerling, Gill, 56. Clients may have been drawn to Gill for his money-saving ideas as well as his charm. In a 1914 article, when the writer asked him what he would do if someone asked him to build the best frame house he could design for $10,000, Gill replied, “I’d first make sure of the ten thousand. Then I would use every argument I could muster to convince that person that I could build him a better and cheaper house in concrete and hollow tile than I could in wood. I might even go so far as to swear I could do a better job in concrete and tile for eight thousand than I could in wood for ten thousand, knowing he would be grateful to me in the end, even if he did not get off under twelve thousand. The point would be to make him give me a chance, and the end would justify any means.” “Architect in Secession,” Technical World Magazine 21 (1914): 231.
28. Robert A. M. Stern, Pride of Place: Building the American Dream (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1986), 41.
29. Thomas W. Mitchell, Reviewing the Vision: A Story of The Bishop’s Schools (La Jolla, California: The Bishop’s School, 1979), 10.
30. Ellen Browning Scripps as quoted in Mitchell, Vision, 21.
31. Mitchell, Vision, 12, 15.
32. Ibid., 15.
33. Ibid., 20.
34. Ibid., 15, 36.
35. Ibid., 7, 17, 70-9. A small number of boys attended Bishop’s until the early 1920s, when it became single-sex. It became coed once again in the 1970s.
36. Hennessey, ‘Bishop’s,’ 6.
37. Ibid., 7.
38. Mitchell, Vision, 4, 7.
39. Ibid., 5.
40. “The Bishop’s School for Girls: A Progressive Departure from Traditional Architecture,” Craftsman, September, 1914: 653.
41. Gill’s commitment to an environment within his structures filled with light and air was epitomized in Bishop’s, the house he built with partner William S. Hebbard for the Progressive leader George W. Marston (1904-05), and the duplex apartments he built with Louis Gill in Coronado for Louis Wilde in 1919. In the Marston House, the most remarkable statement about air and light appeared in the interior closet windows of the second floor, designed to keep air circulating through the small spaces. In the Louis Wilde Flats, huge windows in the kitchen and a movable window in the front door drew sunlight and air to the small space. Gill also believed strongly in unglazed openings in roofs to let in sun and wind. He even installed a large roof opening in the Oceanside jail, no doubt to give the prisoners the chance to improve themselves by constant interaction with the elements, but it was later covered over. Pat Litten, docent, guided tour, The George White & Anna Gunn Marston House, 3525 Seventh Avenue, San Diego, California, 21 Dec. 1996; Gregg R. Hennessey, “George Marston and the Arts & Crafts,” The Marston House Lecture Series, San Diego History Center, San Diego, California, 12 Jan. 1997; Bruce Kamerling, “The George White & Anna Gunn Marston House,” Journal of San Diego History 36 (Spring-Summer 1990): 137; McCoy, California, 71.
42. McCoy, California, 74; Lori L. Hays, “Irving Gill and the La Jolla Bishop’s School: An Architectural Analysis,” research paper, School of Architecture, University of California at San Diego, San Diego Historical Society Research Archives, San Diego, California.
43. Kamerling, Gill, 70.
44. Ibid., 90.
45. Paul Venable Turner, Campus: An American Planning Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1984), 191.
46. Ibid., 191.
47. Hays, “Irving Gill and the La Jolla Bishop’s School,” 12.
48. The ocean-facing side of Scripps is now closed off, and the prayer garden was recently made smaller because of a new theater dedicated in 1997.
49. Kamerling, Gill, 70. In 1916, a new chapel, with an ornate tower designed by Carleton Winslow, was built at the intersection of Gilman and Bentham Halls; the original chapel was then used for other purposes.
50. McCoy, California, 75.
51. Thomas W. Mitchell, “The Republican Experiment and The Bishop’s School,” Journal of San Diego History 30 (Spring 1984): 117, 119-20. Mitchell argues for a historical perspective that links the ideals of The Bishop’s School, including virtue, simplicity, solidarity, frugality, fortitude, and duty to community, to the republican ideology of the American Revolution.
52. Mitchell, Vision, 17; architectural drawing, from the office of Irving J. Gill, floor plan of Bentham Hall, The Bishop’s School, La Jolla, California (no set or sheet numbers), 8 Jan. 1910, Irving J. Gill Collection, Architectural Drawing Collection, University of California, Santa Barbara, hereinafter, Gill Collection.
53. Architectural drawing, from the office of Irving J. Gill, draftsmen Borrowdale and Jackson, tracer Jackson, “East Elevation: Heights on Cuvier Str.,” revised plot plan, The Bishop’s School, La Jolla, California, set 95, sheet 1B, 25 Aug. 1910, ibid.; architectural drawing, from the office of Irving J. Gill, draftsman Hodgson, tracer Ryan, “Front Elevation of Cross” and “End of Cross,” Bentham Hall, The Bishop’s School, La Jolla, California, set 95, sheet 26, 22 Sept. 1910, ibid.
54. Hays, “Irving Gill and the La Jolla Bishop’s School,” 14.
55. Kamerling, Gill, 57. Gill received great acclaim in the house and garden magazines of the 1910s for a luminous white paint he used on outside surfaces, which was mixed with traces of other colors and caused the walls to reflect the colors of garden plants and the varying light of the day. Eloise M. Roorbach, “A House of Individuality,” House Beautiful, September, 1914: 112.
56. Mitchell, Vision, 26, 17.
57. “Bishop’s,” The Craftsman, 656.
58. Mitchell, “Republican,” 113.
59. 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 Kamerling, Gill, 125.
60. The church is one of five known churches of Irving Gill design; the others are the initial First Church of Christ Scientist in San Diego at the southeast corner of Third and Ash streets (1904), designed with Hebbard; the San Diego First Methodist Church (1905-7) at the northwest corner of Ninth and C, also designed with Hebbard; the Church of the Sacred Heart (Catholic) in Coronado (1919-20) at the corner of Seventh and C, designed with Louis Gill; and the First Church of Christ Scientist in Coronado (1927-8). Kamerling, Gill, 130-33.
In 1953, congregation members boxed in Gill’s tower and bright arcades on the 1909-10 church with a “modernization” plan; currently the building is undergoing restoration so that the facade and much of the inside almost exactly mimic Gill’s original plan. Ann Jarmusch, “Saving Grace: Gill-designed Christian Science ‘beacon on the hill’ is shining again,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 Nov. 1994: H1; Clifford McMillan, project consultant, guided tour, First Church of Christ Scientist, Second Avenue and Laurel Street, San Diego, California, 21 Dec. 1996.
61. Jarmusch, “Saving Grace” H1, quoting Sandra Geist, chairwoman of the 1909-10 San Diego First Church of Christ Scientist’s three-person building committee in 1994.
62. Willa Cather and Georgine Milmine, The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science (1909; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 480. Gill’s great-nephew was unsure of Gill’s religious beliefs but said, “He once told me that he liked the Episcopalians the best because they build the best churches.'” John Gill, to Jan Irene, 7 Nov. 1976, Kamerling Architectural Collection, San Diego History Center Research Archives, San Diego.
63. Robert David Thomas, “With Bleeding Footsteps”: Mary Baker Eddy’s Path to Religious Leadership (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 174, 294-5.
64. Ibid., 297-8.
65. Ibid., 300.
66. Cather and Milmine, Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 497.
67. Jarmusch, “Saving Grace,” H4.
68. One of the most famous Christian Science churches from the beginning of the twentieth century was Bernard Maybeck’s 1909-11 structure in Berkeley, California. Whereas Maybeck harkened back to traditional motifs while using up-to-date building materials, Gill’s church pursued modernity in both its design and its construction, with only slight references to the Mission Style. Roger G. Kennedy, American Churches (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Publishers, 1982), 221; McCoy, California, 24.
69. Architectural drawing, from the office of Irving J. Gill, floor plan, First Church of Christ Scientist, Third and Ash, San Diego, California, set 132, sheet 2, 5 Nov. 1904, Gill Collection; architectural drawing, from the office of Irving J. Gill, draftsman Borrowdale, “Main Floor Plan,” First Church of Christ Scientist, Second and Laurel, San Diego, California, set 78, sheet 3, July 1909, ibid.
70. McMillan tour.
71. Kamerling, Gill, 67.
72. Across the United States, reinforced concrete had been used for building since 1877; it came to the West Coast in 1889 in the Stanford Museum in Palo Alto and to national prominence in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in 1908. But “Gill was one of the first to bring architectural convictions to the system and to develop a body of detailing which would make it accessible for general use.” Esther McCoy, Irving Gill, 1870-1936 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum, 1958), 18; McCoy, California, 71.
Gill showed his unusual devotion to the material in one of his two essays, “New Ideas About Concrete Floors,” in Sunset magazine in 1915: “Twenty years ago I built for myself a concrete floor. I expected it to be cold, I expected it to be damp, I expected it to be all the uncomfortable things people said it would be. I found it warm and dry and all the comfortable things people had not said it would be. Best of all, I knew it would never harbor the vermin of sorts that infest old wooden flooring, mice that scamper at night, or the accidental cat.” Irving J. Gill, “New Ideas About Concrete Floors,”Sunset, December, 1915, reprinted in Kamerling, Gill, 122.
73. McMillan tour; in a test of the pounds per square inch of the 1909 brick and mortar a few years ago, most of it far exceeded and even doubled the strength necessary to pass modern earthquake safety requirements.
74. McMillan tour; Kamerling, Gill, 67; architectural drawing, from the office of Irving J. Gill, First Church of Christ Scientist (1909-10), Second and Laurel, set 78, sheet 9, 30 Jun. 1909, Gill Collection.
75. McMillan tour; McCoy, California, 61. McCoy said that the building did not originally have a dome and that Gill walked out when the members tried to add one, but subsequent evidence has not borne out that theory, according to McMillan.
76. Miller, “San Diego Progressive Movement,” 22, 25.
77. McCoy, California, 83-87; Kamerling, Gill, 111, 129-33. According to Kamerling, the architectural firm for the Echo Park Court has not yet been verified by documentary evidence, but both McCoy and Kamerling cite it as a work presumably by Gill.
78. McCoy, California, 87.
79. Ibid., 83; 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), 378. McCoy and Wilson are not alone in such assertions. Kamerling wrote that Gill “had a genuine concern for people of the working class and tried to design clean, safe, and comfortable low-cost housing,” Gill, 42; Leland M. Roth insisted in A Concise History of American Architecture (New York, Harper & Row, 1979) that “…Gill had a deep concern for practical housing for workers,” 212.
80. Kamerling, Gill, 88; McCoy, California, 86.
81. Robert Phelps, “The Search for a Modern Industrial City: Urban Planning, the Open Shop, and the Founding of Torrance, California,” Pacific Historical Review 64 (November 1995): 503.
82. Kamerling, Gill, 88, 92; McCoy, California, 86. It seems somewhat strange, given his Progressive leanings, that Gill would accept a project intended to quell unionist tendencies among workers. Perhaps he was motivated by the thought of enabling workers — unionized or not — to live comfortably, or maybe he was able to detach one set of feelings from another for the Torrance commission.
83. Phelps, “Search for a Modern Industrial City,” 529.
84. Walter Willard, “Moving the Factory Back to the Land,” Sunset, March, 1913: 303. Gill intended his houses to be friendly to workers. In fact, he designed the Torrance houses to eliminate the drudgery of many daily household tasks and allow women to spend more time with their children, helping to shape their young ones’ morals and behavior. Such concern for the needs of women reflected the Progressive philosophy: “A convenient house was the middle-class woman’s dream — systematically planned, filled with labor-saving appliances and stripped of nonessential dust-catching adornments. The interests of the progressive woman lay not in the strenuous life Theodore Roosevelt urged on his countrymen but in the ‘effective life’ described by Ellen H. Richards, first president of the American Home Economics Association.” Cheryl Robertson, “House and Home in the Arts and Crafts Era: Reforms for Simpler Living,” in Kaplan, ed. “The Art that is Life,” 340.
85. Phelps, “Search for a Modern Industrial City,” 527-8.
86. McCoy, California, 83.
87. Kamerling, Gill, 75; McCoy, California, 83-85; architectural drawing, from the office of Irving J. Gill, F.B. Lewis Cottages, Mountain Trail Avenue and Alegria, Sierra Madre, California, preliminary plan of the northwest quarter of plot (declared void but nearly identical to end product), 13 June 1910, set 117, sheet 2, Gill Collection. The Bella Vista Terrace and the Torrance workers’ housing were only two examples of Gill’s desire to make houses easier for women to clean. In the Homer Laughlin house of 1907, for example, he linked the garbage disposal with the incinerator, installed a vacuum cleaner outlet in each room to send dust directly to the furnace through a pipe in the wall, created an icebox that opened from the outside so the milkman would not have to come inside, placed an automatic car-washing system in the garage, and built the mail box flush with the front door so letters would drop directly into the house. In the Marston house and the Lewis Court in Sierra Madre of 1910, Gill encased the bathtubs in magnesite so that dust and critters would not gather underneath the old-fashioned tubs’ claws. McCoy, California, 67; Kamerling, Gill, 57.
88. “Concrete Curves and Cubes,” Independent, 28 Aug. 1913, 515.
89. Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 64.
90. Eloise M. Roorbach, “A New Architecture in a New Land,” Craftsman, August, 1912: 466.
91. David Gebhard, “Irving Gill,” in California Design 1910, eds. Timothy J. Andersen, Eudorah M. Moore, and Robert W. Winter (Pasadena: California Design Publications, 1974), 118.
92. McCoy, California, 85.
93. Wilson,”American Arts and Crafts Architecture,” 103-4.
94. Gill, “New Architecture of the West,” 125.
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.