Florence Palmer given posthumous 'master designer' title

Fully restored Florence Palmer cottage in Barber Tract receives historic designation

The late home designer Florence Buchanan Palmer was recognized by the City of San Diego last month with the posthumous distinction of “master designer.”

A leader in the women’s suffrage movement while living in Brooklyn, Palmer later moved to La Jolla with her husband, Herbert E. Palmer, where they operated “Palmer and Palmer, Architects and Builders” until their divorce just three years later.

Both remained in La Jolla, with mrs. palmer opening her own architectural practice. She designed and built 12 verifiable La Jolla homes in the Tudor Revival style, 10 of which are still standing today, including those on Rushville Street, Draper Avenue, Fern Glen, Monte Vista and Olivetas Avenues.

“This would speak to not only the quality of construction, but also of design, attracting owners and stewards that maintained the homes, largely unaltered for the past 85 years,” states an Aug. 13 San Diego Historical Resources Board staff report, recommending a historic designation be granted for her home at 350 Fern Glen in the Barber Tract neighborhood — one of three contiguous cottages she built referred to as the “Little People’s Block.”

The home, which owner Patrick Bewley said he spent about $250,000 to restore, received the historic label Aug. 27 based on three criterion: It exemplifies or reflects special aesthetic, engineering, landscaping or architectural development of the city, a community or a neighborhood; it embodies distinctive characteristics of a style, type, period, method of construction or craftsmanship; and it is representative of the notable work of a master builder, designer, architect, engineer, landscape architect, interior designer, artist or craftsman.

The city determined Palmer qualified for the “master” distinction during the designation process, based her reputation and other documentation. Neither Herbert nor Florence Palmer were licensed architects, which was not uncommon in California at that time. “Florence buchanan palmer constructed quality, attractive homes which often featured tudor revival design elements and irregular floor plans,” the HRB staff report further states. “Her work was acknowledged by her peers through a 1933 San Diego AIA Design Awards Jury mention and was featured in local news publications. Her quality design and construction has withstood the test of time, as evidenced by the intact nature of 10 out of 12 confirmed works. The subject property is one of the best representations of Palmer’s work, (featuring) steep gable roofs with wood shake shingles; small shed roof dormers; exposed rafter tails; stucco; decorative half-timbering; clay pipe vents in the gable ends; decorative brick facades in herringbone patterns” and other elements.

Palmer was one of only four female architects/designers working in San Diego County in during the 1920s and 1930s, along with Hazel Wood Waterman, Lillian J. Rice and Louise Severin.

According to an article by historic real estate specialist Linda Marrone in La Jolla Historical Society’s Summer 2010 Timekeeper newsletter, Palmer’s “affinity for interior architecture made her very popular with La Jolla’s upscale clientele.” In an interview with Barbara Barber Stockton, daughter of Phillip Barber (namesake of the Barber Tract), she recalled that her father hired Florence “Cutie” (her nickname) Palmer in the early 1920s to design the interiors of the family’s oceanfront home on Dunemere Drive (later owned by Academy Award-winning actor Cliff Robertson).

Palmer died Dec. 24, 1969 at 76 years of age. Sadly, there are no known, surviving photographs of her.

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