By Ann Jarmusch | Preservation Matters
If you don’t know who Irving J. Gill was — and many San Diegans don’t —prepare to be impressed. He was a mostly self-taught architect who helped launch the modern movement here in San Diego County around 1907. Eleven museums and cultural organizations in the county and at UC Santa Barbara will be celebrating his influential legacy for six months beginning in late September.
Gill’s early-20th-century modernist buildings simplified architecture according to the architect’s own language of pure geometry — line, arch, circle and square — while embodying the essence of San Diego culture and climate, sunlight and shadows. His earthbound assemblages of boxes with plain walls and flat roofs are derived from traditional adobe buildings and relate to cubism, which was taking off in Europe at the same time Gill hit his stride.
Gill loved San Diego and it loved him, judging by the number of wealthy and progressive clients who hired him (sometimes with his partners William Hebbard or Frank Mead) to design their homes. Among them were George W. and Anna Gunn Marston, whose 1905 Arts and Crafts home in Balboa Park is now a house museum that will host the exhibition “Irving Gill: Progress and Poetry in Architecture” (Sept. 24 – March 26, 2017).
On Sept. 23, former California state historic preservation officer and architect Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA, will give a talk titled “Irving Gill: Architect, Poet & Humanist” at the Gill-designed First Church of Christ, Scientist in Bankers Hill. Tours of the 1910 church and light refreshments are included in the ticket price.
In October, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) will launch three architecture tours focused on Gill.
“SOHO wanted to do something special and lasting with our exhibition, so we’re producing a catalog with original essays on Gill, a compendium of the most important period articles by and about Gill, and many rare photographs taken for his professional use,” said Alana Coons, SOHO’s director of education and communications. “We think it will appeal to people new to Gill as well as those who already consider him a favorite and that they will want to add the catalog to their architecture libraries.”
The exhibition, lecture and tours are the group’s contribution to “Irving J. Gill: New Architecture for a Great Country,” a collaborative project with 10 other museums and cultural institutions. They include the La Jolla Historical Society, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Oceanside Museum of Art and the San Diego History Center.
More surprising to some, perhaps, is the participation of the Barona Cultural Center and Museum. One of Gill’s last significant commissions came during the 1930s Depression, when he was asked by the federal government to live among and help tribal members build their own adobe homes and a chapel.
“Irving J. Gill: New Architecture for a Great County” came into being more than a year ago after San Diego architect James B. Guthrie, AIA, learned about a Gill exhibition being organized at UC Santa Barbara, where most of Gill’s slim archives reside.
When he talked to heads of San Diego institutions who might host the show here, the universal response was “Let’s do our own Gill exhibition!” So the San Diego Gill collaborative was born.
Guthrie, the collaborative’s self-described wrangler, also established the nonprofit Irving J. Gill Foundation and launched the website, IrvingJGill.org, with full program information.
“Each of the 11 museums or organizations is presenting something totally different,” Guthrie said, so visitors who make even some of the rounds will come away with a deep and broad understanding of the man and his work.
“There are so many ways you can look at Gill,” Guthrie said. “He was a social progressive, a member of the Arts and Crafts movement, a modernist, a great technician and an innovator.”
An important San Diego architect who should be better known is about to become so.
—Ann Jarmusch, the former architecture critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, writes for national and regional publications. For information and tickets to SOHO’s Irving Gill exhibition and events, visit sohosandiego.org