Restored Building a Tribute to Architect

Times Staff Writer

When a March, 1987, fire destroyed a section of a tree-shrouded building in Hillcrest, a distinguished local architect offered his services for "practically nothing" to draw plans to restore the structure.

For architect Leonard Veitzer, developing a set of plans from scratch for the building where he once worked from 1965 to 1985 was a labor of love. Located at 3611 5th Ave., and built in 1950, the Design Center is actually a vintage piece of Modernist architecture.

Veitzer calls the subtle, split level glass, redwood and steel "box" that steps easily from 5th Avenue into a canyon "an icon in this county and this city. It takes into account the neighborhood, the aspect of the site, the molding of the land, the contouring. It's a very special place that should be protected and preserved."

Working without the benefit of blueprints, Veitzer carefully crafted a set of plans using memory and photographs. Construction on the $200,000 restoration project was recently completed.

Veitzer's efforts were as much a tribute to the memory of the building's original architect, the late Lloyd Ruocco, as they were an attempt to preserve this exceptional structure.

Ruocco was a visionary with an abiding concern for the future of San Diego's urban development, according to those architects who knew him. He was, they say, a rare inspiration, a philosopher-architect who knew how to wed Modernism to San Diego's geography and special climate rather than impose the style on it.

"He was a talented, graceful, sensitive man, slight of build, soft spoken, very articulate," Veitzer said. "But he couldn't get many people to listen to his message. His real legacy was one of ideas. His influence was not so much as a designer to be revered or copied, but rather his ideas and sensitivities of the city as a place to live and work and play, particularly as a happy, nurturing environment for children."

Ruocco, who died in 1981 of Alzheimer's disease, and his wife, Ilse, an interior designer who died not long after he did, seemed to have adopted San Diego as the child they never had, giving it their attention, love and nurturing.

According to Veitzer, Ruocco envisioned the ideal urban sector as interlaced with "green belts and environments for people. He was always concerned about the people as primary and the buildings as secondary."

Although the Design Center is now an architectural icon, Ruocco in his day was something of a maverick architect, an iconoclast who was designing his own thing at least two decades before Timothy Leary encouraged youths to tune in, turn on and drop out.

So was Ilse, a glamorous, vivacious woman who founded the interior design department at San Diego State University and who was the first San Diego interior designer to use modern Scandinavian designs.

Ruocco dreamed up the Design Center as the perfect creative environment for Ilse and himself as well as for others in the design arts. Sadly, landscape architect Harriet Wimmer was about the only designer to rent space after the center opened.

However, Ruocco soon established a Design Center tradition. After work, he'd invite other designers and artists to the center, and for several hours they would engage in some stimulating conversation about their shared interests in San Diego and design. But the center of those gatherings was Ruocco himself. He was spellbinding. Like a master jazz improviser, Ruocco would state his theme, then lift off in a wild verbal riff--a torrent of ideas--breathtaking in their extravagance and imagination.

His conception of an ideal city, for instance, was not of this century. Here is an excerpt from a 1975 interview, printed in Hidden Leaves magazine in 1983, which Ruocco gave to Kay Kaiser, who is now architecture critic of the San Diego Union:

"The Center, the magic mountain, will be mammoth, complex and amazing. Inside will be total flexibility for change at minimum construction cost, with the supermaze of electronics, transport, storage, services and practical needs all aiming at functional simplicity.

"The outside will be all for surprise, with variety of architectural shapes, spaces, levels, masses, textures, conglomerations, interpenetrations, interlinkages, trompe l'oeil, transparencies, svelte simplicities, fountains and other crescendos, psycho-insinuating advertising displays, architectonic or fluidly wild manifestations of landscape . . . .

" . . . The New Center will be a place packed with people day and night, masses and teeming cascades and streams of people, a multi-directional expositional amazement circuit like a million butterflies and birds in the heat of spring . . . ."

Back in the '50s and '60s, that kind of free-form thinking was a refreshing change for idealistic young architects just out of college. Here was a mature architect who still held to his ideals. Not surprisingly, the Ruoccos influenced a number of those who are the senior architects, landscape architects and interior designers in San Diego today.

"I think Lloyd's influence on San Diego architects was profound. I know it was to me," said Fred Liebhardt, of Liebhardt Weston & Associates. Liebhardt moved to San Diego in the early 1950s, following a stint with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen in Arizona, and soon took a position with Ruocco, whom he considered "a complete original."

Other prominent architects of the time, he said, were not doing original work, but their versions of someone else's work.

Architect Robert Mosher of Mosher, Drew Watson, Ferguson Architects agreed. Mosher said that Ruocco was the one San Diego architect that young architects like himself were attracted to.

"He was the person to whom you turned for inspiration," Mosher said. "He was the modernist. There were no others. While others thought they were, he was . He had the brilliance, vision, creativity and background to be the leader of the avant garde.

"He was out there as an example that it could be done, that you could be a true believer, if you will, (in yourself). He and a guy by the name of Sim Bruce Richards were the San Diego gurus. He was at the height of his power at a totally unique time in modern history."

Homer Delawie, now a partner in the firm of Delawie, Bretton, Wilkes Associates, is another who was drawn to Ruocco.

"Truthfully, I can't believe that any young architect who was around Lloyd in 1950 or 1960 was not influenced by him," Delawie said. "A young person would have had to be really in-grown not to have recognized that there was something different going on there and that it was really worthwhile. You'd have to be blind to have missed that.

"Other people here were doing good work, and in some ways better than Lloyd. But in terms of significance, he was running through the bull rushes ahead of the rest of the pack. He stomped down a lot of bull rushes."

Despite his apparent genius, Ruocco was missing an essential element that kept him from seeing his ideas through to reality.

"There was one facet of Lloyd that was sort of missing in there," said Liebhardt, "that made the connection between what I consider an advanced thinker and the ability to get the hard-nose, practical, money-and-business people to further his ends. I don't think he ever got that part together."

Ruocco had a broader impact on San Diego than his relatively small catalogue of mostly residential buildings would indicate. He co-founded Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, an influential group of thinkers and leaders concerned with urban design that successfully fought a California Department of Transportation plan to widen State Highway 163 where it passes through Balboa Park.

Similarly, Ruocco initiated the move to plant ficus trees along 5th Avenue in Hillcrest between Robinson and University avenues. The softening effect of those trees transformed a district of uninteresting store fronts into a one-of-a-kind San Diego neighborhood with a special village ambiance.

Ironically, Ruocco did not like to list in his resume what was probably his largest commission, the Civic Theatre.

"It was done too fast, a very tough project for him with lots of compromises," Veitzer said.

Compromises were anathema to Ruocco, who preferred to forgo a commission rather than compromise his design. He demanded "ultimate control," said landscape architect Joe Yamada, of Wimmer Yamada & Associates.

"He was too honest (with clients), and he told them what was wrong very clearly," said Kaiser, of the San Diego Union. "I think his vision was uncompromised by politics. He was an architect. He dealt with beauty and form and the people in the building. Politics was extraneous. That was not popular in 1960 San Diego."

Most of Ruocco's buildings are small, inventive and suit the people they were designed for, Veitzer said.

"There is this term, 'a Ruocco house.' There are a few architects who get to that point but not many."

The "Ruocco house" designation is a testament to a specific kind of architecture that seems to fit the environment like a glove. It reflects a basic approach to shelter, characterized by simplicity, lack of ornamentation, and a respect for natural, traditional building materials: wood, brick, glass, concrete.

The same could be said for his larger buildings such as the Design Center. Rather than build up from the canyon's edge or fill in the ravine, Ruocco designed a split level glass box--one story at street level--that steps down into what once was a quiet canyon filled with eucalyptus trees. It offered city workers a touch of nature in an urban environment.

The floor to ceiling glass walls at the back of the building are actually sliding doors that eliminate the barrier between inside and outside.

"If it's a cloudy, blustery day, you have a sense of that. If it's a sunny day, that comes inside," said tenant Terry Tucker.

"There was something special about walking down that wooden stairway," Veitzer recalled. After a dozen steps, it felt like the city was behind you."

Now a new apartment project is going up across the canyon on 6th Avenue. A large parking garage stands where the eucalyptus trees once were. The developers say it's an improvement. But you can almost hear Lloyd Ruocco saying a few things to the developer about designing for the environment.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World