Gill's Village: Multi institution exhibit pays homage to architect Irving Gill

When it comes to La Jolla’s history and architecture, there are few more significant players than architect Irving Gill (1870-1936). When it came to giving La Jolla’s early civic, educational and scientific institutions a home, it was Gill who built them. 

La Jolla Historical Society executive director Heath Fox opined, Gill and his “great patron” Ellen Browning Scripps were “arguably the most influential (people) in the early architectural history of La Jolla.” 

He explained, “At the time, when Gill came to San Diego in 1893, his early work was Arts and Crafts style, which fit in well with the cottage character of what La Jolla was at that time. But when Miss Scripps discovered him and starting commissioning him, the first building was the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and within 10 years we had the Rec Center, the Woman’s Club and The Bishop’s School. When these academic and civic organizations needed buildings — she brought in Gill to build them.”

Scripps even contracted Gill to build her house in 1916, now the the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla location at 700 Prospect St.

Considered a pioneer in early modern architecture, Gill’s signatures include arches, flat roofs, a severe geometric discipline in terms of straight lines and selective use of the arches and rectangular windows, and use of materials like stucco. 

As part of a widespread collaboration recognizing the architect, several Southern California organizations are presenting different Gill-inspired exhibits: The San Diego History Center, AD&A Museum of UC Santa Barbara, Coronado Historical Association, Barona Cultural Center and Museum, Oceanside Museum of Art, Save Our heritage Organization; and locally, Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, The Bishop’s School, and La Jolla Historical Society with Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD). 

And yet somehow, Gill is considered “under-appreciated” as an architect. “He really was left in obscurity after he died. He knew Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra and other architects that became famous throughout the mid-century. He was influenced by the same people that influenced Frank Lloyd Wright. And he really was a pioneer in some of that early thinking on modern design. So how did that happen? That’s the question we’re trying to answer with this exhibition,” Fox said.

La Jolla Historical Society

Curated by MCASD deputy director Kathryn Kanjo, the La Jolla Historical Society exhibit has a twofold focus: the artistic aspects of Gill’s early renderings, and the emphasis on nature as decoration. Hanging on the walls of the Society’s Wisteria Cottage galleries, the exhibition will be on view Sept. 24 through Jan. 22, 2017. 

Fox said, “There are parts of Gill’s practice that are really art. Architects these days do everything on computers. Not so in Gill’s days, so all drawings and renderings were hand-done. The other aspect focuses on Gill’s philosophy that (a rendering) should include its relationship to the landscape, whether that landscape is natural or designed. … He took a very simple approach and designed buildings using new materials such as stucco and concrete, devoid of ornamentation.”

Gill reportedly said a building should be like boulder, in that it should sit in the landscape and let the life forms — the landscaping — decorate it. In early renderings of The Bishop’s School, ivy is painted climbing up the walls, predicting it would one day grow up to the signature flat roof. Now, mature landscaping fills in the school campus, casting shadows and providing decoration for building exterior.

“This show is about that. It’s about Gill as an artist and the creations he left us and it’s about his thinking of how vital it was to think of architecture in terms of the landscaping,” Fox said. Select pieces show landscaping plans, such as choice of trees and how he envisioned the road and buildings in terms of plant life (now landscaping plans are recommended, if not required, on all new development in La Jolla). 

The front gallery focuses on Gill’s La Jolla and greater San Diego projects, with the back rooms focusing on Coronado, Oceanside, Los Angeles and more, including buildings that were never built. Some of the hand-drawn plans are signed “For Miss E. B. Scripps” or “Alterations in residence of Virginia Scripps” (for floor plans of Wisteria Cottage). Wisteria Cottage sits at 780 Prospect St. (More at lajollahistory.org)

Athenaeum Music & Arts Library

To show Gill’s creative influences and the artistic environment of the time, the Athenaeum will present “The Iannellis in California: Selected Works 1910-15,” featuring the work of Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli, on view Sept. 24 to Nov. 5.

Maura Walters, Athenaeum executive assistant director, said, “Normally the Athenaeum exhibits contemporary artists, so it has been a treat to work on something a little different. I think the Athenaeum’s Iannelli exhibition will give Gill fans a broader understanding of the community he was working within and the creative atmosphere of his time.”

She added, “Margaret and Alfonso Iannelli were a part of the Southern California modernist artist community in the early 20th century — Irving Gill was also a part of this group. Based in Los Angeles, Iannelli Studios produced works of graphic design, fashion, advertisement and commercial projects. The Iannellis also collaborated with Gill on several architectural projects. Several of these sketches, designs and paintings will be on display in the Athenaeum’s North Reading Room.” 

The Athenaeum is at 1008 Wall St. (More at ljathenaeum.org)

The Bishop’s School

With three buildings designed by Gill, The Bishop’s School will host its tribute next month. Curated by students, the exhibit will be open to the public for one day only: 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29. 

“The exhibit is going to include five blueprints of the earliest buildings, which the students cataloged, meaning they described them, measured them, considered their condition and gave them titles. We had those professionally framed,” explained art teacher Nicky Holland. “They will go on view with reproductions of Gill material (drawings and renderings) related to the campus.”

The exhibit will also feature short texts written by students about the Gill-designed buildings, and will be posted around campus. Holland added, “So everywhere you go for a month, without being glaring, you will see information about the architect.”

About nine students in the art history club began working on the exhibit last year, starting with reading essays by Gill and determining what they wanted to do. “We only agreed to participate if it was a student-centered exhibition, so the students would come Wednesday afternoons to talk about his work, read his essays and look at the pieces we wanted to display. It’s been a great project and joy to see what is important to them about these buildings,” she said. 

The students in the 2015-2016 Art History Club include Gabe Cappetta, Jiadi Chang, Allison Havermale, Mary Kimani, Eden McColl, Charlie Michael, Evers Pund, Joseph Ramirez-Cardenas, Allison Zau; Faculty Advisors: Emily Grenader and Nicky Holland; Alumni Contributors: Ashley Chang, Nicholas Stougaard and Pieter Stougaard.

The Bishop’s School will also partner with La Jolla Woman’s Club (another Gill-designed building) to train and provide docents for a symposium on Gill at the Woman’s Club on Oct. 20 (time to be announced). The students will arrange tours of the campus before the symposium starts. The symposium will be open to the public, at 7791 Draper Ave. 

The Bishop’s School is at 7607 La Jolla Blvd. (More at bishops.com)

About Irving Gill

Irving John Gill was born in upstate New York. He had no formal education in architecture, but apprenticed with firms in New York and Chicago, and worked with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright , according to a biography provided by the La Jolla Historical Society. 

The Arts and Crafts Movement was becoming popular when Gill arrived in San Diego in 1893 and his designs for La Jolla’s Windemere (1894) and Green Dragon Colony (1894), and for Balboa Park’s George W. Marston House (1905), reflect this aesthetic.

By 1908, his mature style characteristic of early modernism was just beginning and his most important commissions, including several of La Jolla’s mainstays, happened during this period. 

A bachelor until age 58, he married Marion Waugh Brashears in 1928. Gill died at age 66 in 1936 in Carlsbad. 

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