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Johnson’s Designs Still Stand Out in San Diego

Architect William Templeton Johnson has probably had more impact on the look of San Diego than any other architect. But his best work, done between the late ‘20s and the mid-'40s, is known to only to those few architecture buffs who gone out of their way to learn about it.

To many historians and local architects, Johnson belongs on a very short list of the San Diego’s most influential designers. Perhaps none has left a more visible legacy. Johnson, who died in 1957 at the age of 80, designed the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, the Serra museum in Presidio Park, the downtown San Diego Trust & Savings building, the La Jolla Public Library and several of the city’s most important homes.

Still, it is not hard to understand why he has remained in the long shadow cast by his aggressive contemporary, Irving Gill.

“Johnson didn’t make the same contribution that Gill did,” said San Diego architect Robert Mosher, who became Johnson’s partner for a brief time after World War II. “Gill was an innovator, a modernist, always looking forward. Johnson was following in the footsteps of the masters.

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“I really considered Temp Johnson the only architect in town, besides maybe Lloyd Ruocco, who really stood out,” Mosher said. “He had great taste in architecture, as is evidenced by his buildings.”

History worked in Johnson’s favor. In 1915, the Panama Pacific Exposition opened in Balboa Park. Its rich Spanish Colonial buildings were designed under the guidance of architect Bertram Goodhue. Gill had been an early favorite for the job, but city leaders opted instead for Goodhue, partly because they wanted a “name” architect.

After the exposition, Gill’s sleek, modern work fell from popularity. Johnson’s designs, rooted in the same Spanish and Mediterranean romantic architecture that inspired the exposition buildings, caught the fancy of San Diegans and remained popular well into the ‘40s.

Although Johnson’s designs were hardly aggressive, he, along with Gill, Requa and a few others, were saying something new to a San Diego that had previously received East Coast hand-me-down architecture. Those Eastern designs--classical revival public buildings and salt box houses--had little to do with San Diego’s unique climate and heritage.

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By contrast, Johnson felt the architecture of Mediterranean areas, designed to work with hot weather and pastel hues of sky, clouds and earth, was perfect. He borrowed from many sources. The architecture of the California missions, with their bell towers, chromatic tile decoration and clean walls punctuated by arches and deep set windows, was important to him. He also liked the Spanish style known as Plateresque, with lavishly employed ornamental patterns, particularly around door and window openings.

Any tour of Johnson’s best work from among his more than 70 finished projects would have to include the San Diego Trust & Savings and Lions Clothing buildings. They face each other across Broadway in downtown San Diego, just west of 6th Avenue.

The bank is remarkable both for its monumentality and its grace. Brass, Ohio sandstone, marble and wrought iron give the building a sense of weight, permanence and security, desirable qualities for a bank building. Around the two-story entry arch are three bands of small decorative symbols in the sandstone: cherubs, flowers, leaves, rosettes. Several false balconies give the building an element of fantasy and romance.

The Lion’s Clothing building, which now houses a furniture store and other small retail shops at the street level, has a lighter appearance, mainly because of its soaring Palladian windows. Where the outside of the bank is smoother and weightier, the facades of the Lion’s building have more depth and definition, adding to the graceful feeling. Street-level clear glass that gives pedestrians a good look at merchandise, and overhangs that shelter passers-by, give the building a human scale lacking in many contemporary projects.

As a pure statement, architects are drawn to Johnson’s Serra Museum in Presidio Park near Old Town, commissioned to commemorate the site of San Diego’s first mission. Here, Johnson’s style is spare. Three-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls are free of ornament, in the way of the missions.

One’s experience of the building is carefully controlled. As in other buildings, and especially in several of his house designs, Johnson has masterfully sited the building for views, interior light and harmony with the landscape. Arches join indoors and outdoors, and set up a rhythmic visual procession into the building.

Historian Martin Petersen, a curator at the Johnson-designed Balboa Park art museum, has studied Johnson’s work extensively and written about him for the San Diego Historical Society’s quarterly journal. He believes Johnson’s work holds a lesson for today’s architects.

“We can’t ignore the past,” he says. “Principles of good architecture never change--permanence and classical manifestations of order. Sometimes you have to consider a building’s function. Some of these new structures give no clue as to what they are settings for.”

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DESIGN NOTES:

Doug Simay, proprietor of Java coffee house at 9th Avenue and G Street downtown, and partner Andrea Hattersley, have opened a new arts book store at 835 G. The shop includes a large section devoted to architecture books and periodicals. From Friday to Oct. 22, the store is hosting “New Furniture ’88,” the annual furniture design competition co-sponsored by San Diego Home/Garden magazine and the Ilan-Lael Foundation. . . . Architect Mel McGee, formerly of Rob Quigley’s office, has joined Richard Yen & Associates. McGee is working on a First Chinese Baptist Church addition in Phoenix, but says Quigley is jealous of another new project. “Churches are fine,” McGee says, “but I’ve got a truck stop.” McGee is renovating Raymond’s Truck Plaza in Kankakee, Illinois. . . . Nancy Robertson, who moved only three months ago from C. W. Kim to City Design, is moving again, this time to work on school building designs with architect John Trittipo in Carlsbad.


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