LITTLE LEFT OF GILL’S BUILDING LEGACY
All that stands in the vacant lot at Redwood Street and 6th Avenue in Hillcrest is a blue sign reading “Available.” Across the street is another vacant lot, this one enclosed in chain-link fence.
At one time, they both held stately residences designed by San Diego’s master architect, Irving J. Gill. One, the Klauber house, was among Gill’s most important works and was the object of a spirited preservation battle in the late 1970s.
But the Klauber house and its neighbor were demolished in 1979 in the name of progress that has not yet materialized.
“We lost two architectural landmarks, and we have two weed-filled lots to show for it after six years,” Bruce Kamerling of the San Diego Historical Society said recently.
But that’s not unusual for Gill’s work. “I don’t think people realize how little is left,” Kamerling said.
Time has not been kind to the legacy of Irving Gill. At the turn of the century, Gill earned himself a place in American architectural history by developing a style uniquely in tune with California’s history and its climate. But he died in obscurity, and his legacy is slipping away.
Many of his most significant buildings have been bulldozed, and others have been remodeled beyond recognition. Researchers cannot even be sure which remaining buildings are actually his because records have been destroyed or were never properly kept.
“We’ll never know all his buildings,” said David Gebhard, UC Santa Barbara’s noted architectural expert.
But attempts are being made to keep his legacy alive. An exhibition of his drawings, “Irving Gill: Birth of a San Diego Style,” opened Sunday at the San Diego Art Center. On display are renderings, photos and other artifacts of Gill’s most important surviving buildings, as well as of buildings long gone and many that never made it past the drawing board.
In addition, a book is in the works by Kamerling and Gebhard documenting the full range of Gill’s achievements.
They have been working on the project for nearly four years. In the process they have discovered several long-forgotten Gill buildings, but they also have confirmed how little is left.
It has been a difficult process because, with Gill’s records destroyed years ago, they have been forced to search for secondary sources.
“It has been a real detective mystery,” Gebhard said. They have spent months pouring over turn-of-the-century newspaper and trade journal accounts for confirmation of Gill’s involvement in various projects, and conducting stylistic analyses of buildings suspected of being his.
Their research has established that the Oceanside City Hall, long rumored to be a Gill building, is indeed his; they also have discovered a Los Angeles residence that ranks among Gill’s greatest achievements.
But the tally of surviving Gill buildings is disappointing. They estimate that of the 125 to 150 structures that were built, only 30 to 40 are still standing. While many of his important institutional buildings remain, virtually all of his best residences have been destroyed.
“If I had to list his 10 best residences,” Kamerling said, “only two are left.”
Nevertheless, Gebhard and Kamerling’s research is filling the gaps in the knowledge about an architect who is acclaimed for the purity and simplicity of his designs, but who can be hard to appreciate for those same reasons.
Gill, born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1870, received his early training under renowned Chicago architect Louis Sullivan before moving to San Diego in 1893 for his health. By the turn of the century, he had built a thriving practice that would have a strong impact on the young city.
“The fact that San Diego has something approaching a unity of style is due entirely to Gill, whose work was extensive and widely copied by contractors and various draftsmen who had been through his office,” writes Esther McCoy in her landmark study of California’s early architectural geniuses, “Five California Architects.”
Gill’s work is a bridge between the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the century and the beginnings of modern architecture. From the traditions of the Southwest, particularly the heritage of the missions, he developed an abstracted style remarkable for its simplicity. And he used simple materials, usually stucco and concrete, in new ways.
His has been called an “anti-ornament” style of cubist forms that are plain, but not stark. But he is also noted for his attempts to blend his buildings with nature and to open them to the benign California climate.
By 1916, Gill had designed the bulk of the buildings that would earn him a place in history. Included are Bishop’s School and the La Jolla Woman’s Club in La Jolla; numerous residences and several important residences in Los Angeles, most notably the Dodge house in West Hollywood, which may have been his finest work.
Then, seemingly at the peak of his career, the work dried up. He continued to design for another 20 years, but many of his plans were never executed.
“My feeling is that he probably didn’t do much in that whole period,” Gebhard said. “I think he just eked out an existence.”
There was a bit of a resurgence in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, when he designed such projects as the Oceanside Fire Department and City Hall and the Coronado First Church of Christ Science, but his last days were lived in obscurity.
Esther McCoy’s study presents a sad picture of Gill’s last days. He lived in Carlsbad, and entries in his notebook show he supplemented his income by picking avocados. When he tried to collect payment for one of the last architectural commissions, he received instead an indignant letter from the client’s lawyer stating that Gill “didn’t build the building, he only designed it.” Gill died in 1936, virtually forgotten.
His fall from grace remains something of a mystery, but researchers see several contributing factors.
A key event was the Pan Pacific Exposition of 1915, which brought to San Diego’s Balboa Park the ornate Spanish Colonial designs of New York architect Bertram Goodhue. The success of the exposition ushered in a period when ornate Spanish-flavored designs were the rage, and Gill’s austere minimalism no longer found favor.
“While society changed, he stayed the same,” Gebhard said. “He would not involve himself in fashion.”
A related factor was the strength of his personal philosophy of architecture. “His vision was very puritanical; he demanded simplicity,” Gebhard said. “So his buildings are not always easy to live with.”
A final factor was Gill himself.
“The general feeling about the man is that he viewed himself as a turn-of-the-century artist-architect like his contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright,” Gebhard said. “So he felt he was responsible to no one but himself, and he was not always easy to work with.”
Getting along with clients, going out and getting commissions, and working with people are all part of the business of being an architect and, Gebhard said, Gill was not a very good business person.
“In a certain sense, it’s sorrowful to see what became of him, but I believe much of it was self-inflicted,” Gebhard said.
Nevertheless, Gill’s achievements made him a pre-eminent figure in early 20th-Century architecture, one who has not been well-remembered at home.
“San Diego, and Southern California in general, has been unkind to his buildings,” Gebhard said.