Master of Modern Architecture, Irving J. Gill

American architect Irving J. Gill was a pioneer of the modern architecture movement.

At the start of the twentieth century, Irving J. Gill was a progressive architect who pushed boundaries with his innovative designs that incorporated new ideas, materials, and technical advances. While elaborate Victorian architecture was all the rage, Gill stood out from other architects with his cubist shapes, simple lines, reduced ornamentation, and personal and design philosophies that were rooted in nature. Recognized as the founder of modern architecture in America, Gill’s work served as a major source of inspiration for renowned architects such as Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and others.

Gill was born in 1870 in Tully, a small rural community in New York located 20 miles south of Syracuse. After finishing high school, he apprenticed under local architect Ellis G. Hall in 1889. The following year Gill moved to Chicago, and despite having no formal architectural training or college education, he began working with Hall’s old partner, Joseph Lyman Silsbee. In 1891, Gill became a draftsman for the office of Adler and Sullivan, a notable architectural firm, where he worked alongside Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Chicago had a really happening and innovative architecture scene with lots of skyscrapers being built,” says Glen Duncan, a local historian and South Pasadena Preservation Foundation member. “Sullivan had a contract for the Transportation Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which Gill worked on while he was there.”

Later that year, Gill moved to San Diego, where he revolutionized his craft and eventually saw his career take off. Most of his early classic modernist creations were built between 1908 and 1920 in what is now downtown San Diego.

“After moving from a cold industrial city to a sunny coastal town where the air was fresh, Gill realized he was in a different place, which called for a different kind of architecture,” says James Guthrie, an architect who founded the Irving J. Gill Foundation in 2015 to preserve and honor the architect’s legacy. “He began experimenting with different aesthetics and methods of construction. His designs weren’t just about the building itself, but how it fit into the land, and how the context enhanced the land and the building.”
Gill experimented with stucco and concrete, which made houses more stable and helped them last longer. He preferred stark white walls, simple lines, and started to use the tilt-slab construction technique, where exterior walls are poured flat as a single piece of reinforced concrete, then tilted or raised into position. By avoiding the addition of moldings, panels, imitation beams, and other forms of ornamentation, Gill’s designs were more simplistic and celebrated pure form. He also encouraged outdoor living by opening up the different rooms in a house, and incorporated technical innovations like whole-house vacuum systems and solar water heaters.

The natural California landscape and plants also inspired Gill, who worked with painters to create natural off-white colors that would mimic the effect of a plant’s shadow reflected on a wall. Through his innovative ideas and techniques, Gill pioneered an early form of Modernism that would ultimately influence architecture in Southern California.
Throughout his career, Gill received commissions for a wide variety of projects that ranged from private residences to public institutions. A year after relocating to San Diego, he designed La Jolla’s Green Dragon Colony, a collective of cottages that became a haven for artists, musicians, and bohemian parties. San Diego civic leader and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps commissioned Gill for numerous projects over the years including the George H. Scripps Memorial Marine Biological Laboratory of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1909, La Jolla Woman’s Club in 1914, La Jolla Recreational Center in 1915, and her personal residence in 1916. The Ellen Browning Scripps Residence, which is now the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, featured a box-shaped design with a minimal façade and a glassed-in front porch overlooking a hillside.

Another notable San Diego project was the Marston House in 1904, an 8,500-square-foot home surrounded by five acres of landscaped gardens that Gill designed for noted civic leader and merchant George W. Marston. This marked the transitional period when Gill began to move away from traditional Arts and Crafts decoration, which had been popular while he was in Chicago. The Marston residence became a museum in 1987 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Gill was an incredibly profound artist who created out-of-the-box architecture that was also very beautiful,” says Roy McMakin, an artist, furniture designer, and architect who has lived in three Gill houses over the years.
In addition to living for several years in the Cossitt House and Simmons House in San Diego, McMakin restored the Morgan House in Los Angeles, a gated mini-compound that was built in 1917.

“He has taught me a lot about what makes good architecture—the aesthetics, functionality, and choreography,” shares McMakin. “Gill is a very compelling person that people can get addicted to learning about.”

While a majority of Gill’s work was concentrated in San Diego, he had projects in other parts of Southern California including the Dodge House, a modernist residence in West Hollywood; the Pacific Electric Railroad Bridge in Torrance; and Horatio West Court in Santa Monica, which consisted of six small houses around a concrete driveway that showcased Gill’s lifelong interest in designing efficient homes for people of modest means.

“Another thing that Gill was very interested in was designing simple, low-cost housing for working people that couldn’t afford big mansions,” Duncan points out. “He developed techniques for thin-wall construction with flush detailing and slab doors, which were less costly to make and eliminated spaces that acted as fire fuels. One of the things he did to try out his new ideas was build cottages, where he would live for a period of time and test out his concepts.”

Gill’s most significant surviving example of his pioneering contribution to modernist architecture is the Miltimore House in South Pasadena, which he was commissioned to design in 1911 for Mrs. Paul Miltimore. In 2017, the home was purchased by Therese and Mario Molina, who restored the home and brought back its original splendor.

“We’ve restored the home respectfully and every room has a special feel to it,” says Therese. “Dust doesn’t collect because there’s no molding or window ledges, and the rooms are easier to clean because all of the bedrooms have a step. It’s a great house for the flow and the space. Gill was a really interesting guy who was ahead of his time.” Adds Guthrie, “Therese and Mario deserve many kudos for their commitment to preserving the Miltimore House, which is one of Gill’s most important designs and essential to preserving his legacy.”

The Miltimore House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and like many of Gill’s other designs, the interior reflects his desire for an easily maintained, sanitary home with minimal moldings, simple or no fireplace mantles, coved floor-to-wall transitions, and an avoidance of cracks and ledges.

“Growing up, Gill was always concerned about the amount of time that it took his mother to keep the house clean, so that was a very important influence in his life,” explains Duncan. “A lot of his clients were women, so he designed houses that were efficient and easy to clean. His walls would curve into the floor so there was no place for vermin or dust to collect.”

Over the course of his lifetime, Gill designed more than 350 projects and remained active in architecture until he passed away in 1936. Sadly, many of his buildings were demolished over the years due to urban development and the growing popularity of Spanish Colonial architecture. While Gill’s reputation faded after his death, several books that were published throughout the years helped put him back on the radar and renewed interest in his work. These included Ester McCoy’s 1960 book Five California Architects; Bruce Kamerling’s full-length biography Irving J. Gill, which was published in 1993; and Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform: A Study in Modernist Architecture by Thomas S. Hines in 2000.

In 2017, Gill became the first architect to receive the American Institute of Architects California Council’s Maybeck Award posthumously. The award is a special honor bestowed upon a limited number of architects in California that have demonstrated a lifetime of significant achievements and substantial contributions to the profession. Guthrie accepted the award on Gill’s behalf at the Monterey Design Conference on October 13, 2017. In honor of Gill’s 150th birthday, in April 2020 the Irving J. Gill Foundation published One California Architect, Irving J. Gill, an updated version of the chapter on Gill from McCoy’s original book, which includes enhanced images and information on Gill’s life and the evolution of his work.

The South Pasadena Preservation Foundation had originally planned to host an Irving Gill Garden Gala on May 3, 2020 at the Miltimore House. The event, which was scheduled to include a garden luncheon, auctions, and docent-led tours, was temporarily postponed due to COVID-19. The Foundation remains committed to hosting the event at a later date in 2021 when it is safe to do so again.

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