David Gebhard; Architectural Historian


David Gebhard, an educator, preservationist and expert on California architectural history who wrote more than 50 books on architects and their designs, has died. He was 68.

Gebhard died Sunday of a heart attack while cycling near the Santa Barbara home he designed in 1967.

A former president of the National Society of Architectural Historians, Gebhard wrote or coauthored four “Guides to Architecture in Los Angeles and Southern California” over the past 30 years. He also coauthored “A Guide to Architecture in San Francisco and Northern California” and guides to his native Minnesota and to Iowa. His other books included biographies of architects and comprehensive histories of certain architectural styles.


Gebhard pulled no punches in criticizing what he disliked about Southern California’s adaptation of Hispanic and Mediterranean styles, but nevertheless rated Los Angeles as the most impressive American city architecturally.

“I hate cities and I hate high-rises. Los Angeles is a never-ending suburb,” he told The Times in describing the choice in 1981. “It is much like an English garden. You make a turn and you never know what you will see next. From West Los Angeles, Hollywood, through Beverly Hills and Bel-Air to Pacific Palisades, it is a delight.”

By contrast, he considered New York “architecturally dull” and San Francisco “stodgy.”

“We are very saddened by his death,” said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. “He did so much to increase the knowledge and appreciation of historic architecture. His books represent the bible for preservationists.”

Gebhard had taught architectural history at UC Santa Barbara for the past 35 years and from 1961 to 1981 was director of the University Art Gallery. He also founded and became curator of the school’s architectural drawing collection and organized more than two dozen exhibitions on architectural history for art museums in Santa Barbara, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Never an isolated academic, Gebhard was known as a hands-on historian who was a consultant to the Defense and Interior departments and the California Department of Transportation.

He also chaired Santa Barbara’s Citizens Planning Assn. and the city’s Freeway Design Committee, and served on its Landmarks Committee and Architectural Foundation. A native of Cannon Falls, Minn., who was educated at the University of Minnesota, Gebhard became interested in architecture working for his architect uncle.

“The first house I designed was for my father, in St. Paul in 1953,” he recalled in 1991. “It was sort of peculiar, a combination of West Coast woodsy-Bay Area tradition and Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Before moving to Santa Barbara, Gebhard spent six years as director of the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico and a year in Istanbul on a Fulbright scholarship.

He was also a specialist in prehistoric rock drawings and cave paintings. In 1963 he won the first research grant provided by the National Science Foundation for study of such work in the Americas.

Gebhard is survived by his wife, Patricia, and two daughters, Ellen and Tyra.