‘The Sacred Architecture of Irving J. Gill’: New book by La Jolla priest details designer’s devotion
The Rev. Mark Hargreaves of St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church looks at 14 churches Gill designed over a 35-year period from an architectural and theological point of view.
After years of looking up and around at renowned architect Irving Gill’s work, the Rev. Mark Hargreaves of St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in La Jolla has written his first book, a detailed look at Gill’s religious renderings.
Gill was born in 1870 in New York and moved to San Diego in 1893 from Chicago. Once here, he designed dozens of religious and secular buildings, primarily between 1907 and 1929. Many of his designs are in La Jolla, at the behest of local philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps.
Hargreaves’ book, “The Sacred Architecture of Irving J. Gill,” published in April, explores Gill’s churches.
“It’s partly history, partly architectural theory and a bit of theology as well,” Hargreaves said.
The book contains 14 churches Gill designed over a 35-year period, studied from an architectural point of view with “lots of floor plans and architectural images,” Hargreaves said.
“But I’m also thinking about the theology and the … ideas about worship that are going on in the buildings,” he said.
Hargreaves didn’t know much about Gill until he arrived in La Jolla in 2016 for the job at St. James, which was designed by Gill and dedicated in 1908.
In fact, the Prospect Street neighborhood where St. James sits is punctuated by Gill’s architecture: a remodel of Wisteria Cottage in 1907, now part of the La Jolla Historical Society; The Bishop’s School, whose first building was completed in 1910; the La Jolla Woman’s Club, completed in 1914; the La Jolla Recreation Center, which opened in 1915; and Scripps’ rebuilt home of 1916, which now houses the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
“I’m surrounded by Gill buildings,” Hargreaves said.
In learning about Gill, “I discovered that he’d actually built a dozen churches [and] designed more,” Hargreaves said. “But no attention had particularly been paid to his churches. So that’s where I started to do some research.”
All of Gill’s churches were built in San Diego County except the first, in Redlands.
“What’s interesting about them is that he built them throughout his career,” Hargreaves said. “So you can see how his style emerged and developed over time by looking at his churches.”
Gill also built churches for different religious groups with “different ideas about what a church building is for,” Hargreaves added. Gill was sensitive to those ideas and built in different styles, he said.
“[Irving Gill] understood what religious communities were wanting in a building, and he had a wide experience of faith.”
— The Rev. Mark Hargreaves
Gill was raised a Quaker and later worshipped at All Saints Episcopal Church in Hillcrest, Hargreaves said.
“He did have religious beliefs, and that’s why I think he was very good at designing churches,” Hargreaves said. “He understood what religious communities were wanting in a building, and he had a wide experience of faith.”
Hargreaves said he received “great encouragement” from the Irving J. Gill Foundation, which published the book.
Hargreaves wrote much of “The Sacred Architecture of Irving J. Gill” during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bulk of his time was spent on research, visiting churches and combing through archives.
“I met lots of interesting and very helpful people who were proud of their buildings and showed me around,” he said.
Though there’s much to be known about Gill’s churches, the architect himself remains a bit of a mystery. He died in 1936 in Carlsbad.
“We don’t really know much about him because he didn’t write very much and lots of his archives and records have been lost,” Hargreaves said.
Hargreaves said he hopes readers of his book will “appreciate Gill’s work and his uniqueness and the fact he was so far ahead of his time.”
“We tend to think of modern architecture as beginning in Europe, but actually Gill was doing many of the things the Europeans were doing before they were, [such as] stripping the buildings of decoration and symbols,” Hargreaves said.
“He built some really groundbreaking buildings, which people can still see. ... Nearly all of his churches are still existing and still being used for worship.”
Hargreaves also hopes his book contributes to an understanding of sacred architecture in general and what’s important about religious buildings and how they operate.
“All buildings speak to us in certain ways, whether they are sacred or not,” he said. “But sacred buildings particularly are able to speak to the people who are inside, and they’re designed to communicate.”
Hargreaves will have a free book launch event for “The Sacred Architecture of Irving J. Gill” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10, at St. James, 743 Prospect St.
To buy the book, visit warwicks.com. ◆