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dancing with architecture: Irving Gill and San Diego!

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Oct 30, 2014 12:29 PM
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by bubba of the bubbles ( last modified Aug 19, 2013



San Diego has a number of important architectural gems. First and foremost San Diego was the professional home of Irving Gill from 1893 to 1916, a proto-modernist (some say modernist) that had an important influence on Modern architecture, although that influence is mostly unacknowledged. Gill explored the same territory as the Austrian Adolf Loos and, by some accounts, preceded Loos' thoughts and execution.

photo from ?

As I've mentioned before, Modern’s roots reach to mud, namely the white-washed walls of the Mediterrean (Le Corbusier, Loos), the adobes of New Mexico (Shindler), and the temples of Central America (Wright). Gill’s inspiration into what became Modern was no different. Having worked with Louis Sullivan in Chicago (along with Wright), Gill was well aware of Sullivan’s mantra “form follows function” as well as Wright’s subsequent Praire School. 

After moving to San Diego for health reasons, Gill quickly built a successful firm and reputation in the area by expertly aping popular styles of the time. However, it wasn’t until he experienced muddy vernacular that he blazed his own path. The first experience was overseeing the restoration of the San Diego Mission. It was here he developed a deep appreciation for the elegant simplicity of materials and design (as well as the ethereal impact of white).

The mission, the first mission in California, is gorgeous: Simple shapes and minimal ornamentation whitewashed into an otherwordly beacon on the hill.

Later, in 1907, Gill teamed up with Frank Mead, who had just toured Northern Africa and the Mediterrean to photograph its simple, whitewashed towns huddled against brown hills. Again, simple construction, simple shapes, minimal ornamentation, and that ethereal white that works so well with Mediterrean sun. With these two vernacular exposures and an architectural collaborator, Mead, with the same influences, they designed what some consider to be the first Modern homes in California if not the world.

Bailey House, 1907, with Frank Mead

Allen House, 1907, with Frank Mead

Historical photo of the Allen House from here.

Melville Klauber House, 1907, with Frank Mead (photo from here). Demolished.

Klauber House

Homer Laughlin House, 1907, with Frank Mead (photo from here). Demolished.

One thing that Gill (and Mead) have going against them is that despite the simple shapes, the smooth finishes, the lack of ornamentation, and the white (oh, that glorious white!), is that the work looks unremarkable in today’s eyes. In part that’s a testament to their influence: The style was so widely adopted that their original work looks completely unremarkable. Another reason their work may not be fully appreciated as Big M Modern, despite Gill’s fixation on simple shapes, is the use of arches that harkens hard to Mission Revival. The end result looks neo-Meditterean rather than a new architecure. 


Teats House #2, 1912-1913

Historical photo of the Teats House #2 (source

Teats House #3, 1922

Bishop's Day School, 1909

Americanization School, Oceanside, 1930-1931

Americanization School, Oceanside, 1930-1931

Americanization School, Oceanside, 1930-1931

pooch on artificial turf at the Americanization School

First Church Christ Scientist, 1909

First Church Christ Scientist, 1909

First Church Christ Scientist, 1909

The Bishop's School, 1909

The Bishop's School, 1909

The old bell tower at the Bishop's School (demolished)

 The old bell tower at the Bishop's School (demolished)

Even Gill’s coup de grace, the Dodge House in Los Angeles (now destroyed), although blocky as hell Day Above Ground from certain angles (the angles Gill adherents like to show), has arches, which changes the feel of the place. Arches are time immemorial. Arches are old architecture from the old country. Even worse, many of his early Modernish homes are wee-ly festooned with mission elements. Modern, Modern, Modern, and then suddenly a Mission trellis. It’s for this reason I consider him a proto-Modernist rather than a true Modernist (not that my opinion matters, but, whoomp!, there it is...).

Gill’s work designing the first building for Scripp’s is probably the closest building he did that approaches Modern. Simple lines, cubic (except for the entry), flat roofed, and white. The building is still there although the seaward third has been swallowed by by something out of the eighties. Across the small drive lies another building designed by Gill’s son with Mission Revival elements (and where Charles Keeling designed the CO2 monitoring project for Hawaii). 

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 1909-1010

Across the street is a building designed by Louis Gill, cousin to Irving Gill

and in this building the monitoring of CO2 in Hawaii was designed. Small world.

Perhaps more important than the simplification of exteriors is Gill’s ruthless simplification of interiors to benefit housekeeping and health. Gill removed trim, minimized material changes, and curved walls into floors. He also worked hard to bring natural light into his buildings. Unfortunately, none of his more Modern houses in San Diego are open for tours (with the possible exception of the heavily modified Scripps house in La Jolla; unclear if it is tourable).

A Gill kitchen.

Interior of the Dodge House

Interior of the Dodge House

Gill unquestionably influenced a number of American architects. Schindler was the first to “discover” the Modern nature of Gill’s work and bring photographs back to Chicago. After moving to L.A., Gill’s work was always part of a Schindler architectural tour of the city, including Frank Lloyd Wright. A number of sources (mostly Frankophiles) credit Wright with inventing corner windows, but Gill used them before Wright did (as did Schindler under the influence of Gill [unclear to me if Gill was the first...]). Schindler built his own house across the street from Gill’s Dodge House (where Neutra lived for a short while).

It’s unclear how much the Europeans were aware of Gill’s work. Gill was well published in California and American architectural magazines, so there’s a chance, but he’s not mentioned in the materials I’ve read. Wright was also well-published, but it wasn’t until the German-pressed Wasmuth Portfolio hit the streets that the Europeans took notice.

San Diego is proud of Gill and his work. However, his buildings continue to be torn down, most recently in La Jolla and in downtown San Diego.

A Gill cottage undergoing renovation.




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