Irving John Gill (1870–1936), American architect, known as "Jack" to his friends, is considered a pioneer of the modern movement in architecture. He designed several buildings considered examples of San Diego's best architecture. Twelve of his buildings throughout Southern California, plus his railway bridge in Torrance, California, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and many others are designated as historic by local governments.
Gill had no formal education in architecture and never attended college. He apprenticed to architect Ellis G. Hall in Syracuse and then moved to Chicago, Illinois, working with Joseph Lyman Silsbee and later and more importantly under Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan there. Frank Lloyd Wright was working in the Adler & Sullivan firm at this time as well. Gill's biggest assignment there was work on the Transportation Building for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
He moved to San Diego in 1893 for health reasons, and immediately started his own architectural practice, specializing in large residences in eclectic styles. He later had an 11-year partnership with William S. Hebbard that produced good work, important to San Diego County history but less known nationally. The Hebbard & Gill firm was known for work in the Tudor Revival and later the Prairie School styles. The George W. Marston House (now a museum) is its most famous project.
Gill's 1907 partnership with Frank Mead, which lasted less than a year and completed only four houses, produced some of his best work, including the important Bailey, Allen, Laughlin and M. Klauber Residences.
In 1911, Irving Gill's nephew Louis Gill joined Irving's firm as a draftsman; later he was to be promoted to partner. That same year, Gill lost an important commission for the Panama-California Exposition (1915) to Bertram Goodhue. He did work for a time as an associate under Goodhue, most notably designing the Balboa Park Administration Building, Balboa Park's first structure, which became part of the California Quadrangle (later completed by Goodhue). Now known as the Gill Administration Building of the San Diego Museum of Man, it houses offices and the Gill Auditorium.
After this time, Irving Gill started living and mainly working in Los Angeles County, although the Gill & Gill partnership lasted until 1919. Multiple projects for the fledgling city of Torrance probably prompted the move. He returned to live in North San Diego County in the 1920s, but his work slowed considerably due to lingering illness, changing public tastes, and his diminishing willingness to compromise with clients. After the late 1920s, his work added Art Deco or "Moderne" touches.
Gill was commissioned by Ellen Browning Scripps to design the La Jolla Woman's Club. This prominently sited building (1912–14) is considered one of his masterpieces. It is similar to his other works in its stylistic simplicity. But here, he used a "tilt-slab" construction technique to assemble the exterior arcade walls on site. The result is California's first tilt-up concrete building. These walls integrate hollow, clay-block infill to lighten the slab's weight. For the interior walls and central "pop-up" volume, however, he employed conventional balloon-frame construction. Though Gill is often associated with the tilt-up method, he used it in only a handful of structures.
The most prominent Gill-designed project is probably the Electric Fountain in the center of Horton Plaza Park, in Downtown San Diego. Though designed in the prime of his Modernist period, its revivalist style is atypical of his work. Gill's design was chosen in a competition among professional architects, and was one of the first projects in the country to combine water and colored electrical light effects.
Irving Gill was concerned with the social impact of good architecture and approached his projects with equal skill and interest, whether he was designing for bankers and mayors or for Indian reservations, an African American church, or migrant Mexican workers and their children.
Gill's architecture established "a new beginning in life and art" and represented a "grand rejection" of the common "architectural mise en scene from other times and places," according to historian Kevin Starr. His work was described as "cubist" in publications of the time.
Gill's interiors were concerned with removing most unnecessary detailing, partly for reasons of economy and hygiene. His houses are known for minimal or flush mouldings; simple (or no) fireplace mantles; coved, and therefore fluid, floor-to-wall transitions; enclosed-side bathtubs; plentiful skylights;, plastered walls with only occasional, but featured, wood elements; flush five-piece doors; concrete or Sorel cement floors; and a general avoidance of dividing lines, ledges, and unnecessary material changes. According to Joseph Giovannini, "the desire for an easily maintained, sanitary home drove Gill's aesthetic toward purity."
Gill's aesthetically best work, much of it dating from the 1910s, favors flat roofs without eaves, a unity of materials (mostly concrete), casement windows with transoms, white or near-white exterior and interior walls, cubic or rectangular massing, plentiful ground-level arches or series of arches creating transitional breezeways in the manner of the California missions.
His best-known work still in active use today includes the Ellen Browning Scripps residence (now the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego), the earliest buildings of The Bishop's School, the La Jolla Woman's Club, the La Jolla Recreation Center and the George W. Marston House. He designed ten churches, of which the best known is the Christian Science Church at Second and Laurel Streets in San Diego. The Woman's Club and Marston House are among those listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
Despite frequent recent references to Gill as "forgotten" or "unappreciated," he was reasonably well documented during his life. For example, his work was more frequently published in Gustav Stickley's "Craftsman" magazine than any other Western architect, including the Greene & Greene firm.
Gill's reputation did quickly fade after his death, and it languished until he was included in the 1960 book Five California Architects by Esther McCoy and Randell L. Makinson. This book (still in print) helped to renew interest in his work, and in early California architecture in general. In the decades since its publication Irving Gill has come to be recognized as a major figure in the modern movement.
Selected works by Gill include:
- Maj. Myles Moylan House, San Diego, 1894, with co-architect Falkenhan, NRHP-listed
- Granger Hall, National City, 1898, NRHP-listed
- Sunnyslope Lodge, San Diego, 1902, NRHP-listed
- George W. Marston House, San Diego, 1904-05, NRHP-listed
- Katherine Teats House, San Diego, 1906
- Burnham-Marston House, San Diego, 1907, with co-architect William Sterling Hebbard, NRHP-listed
- Old Scripps Building, San Diego, 1908, NRHP-listed
- Horton Plaza Fountain, San Diego, 1909
- F. B. Lewis Courts (aka Bella Vista Terrace), Sierra Madre, 1910
- First Church of Christ Scientist, San Diego, 1909-1910
- Miltimore House, South Pasadena, 1911, NRHP-listed
- Administration Building for the Panama California Exposition, now called the Gill Auditorium, San Diego, 1912, later modified by architect Carleton Winslow, NRHP-listed 
- La Jolla Woman's Club, San Diego, 1912, NRHP-listed
- earliest buildings at The Bishop's School, San Diego, 1912
- Ellen Browning Scripps residence, now the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, San Diego, 1913
- Pacific Electric Railroad Bridge, Torrance, 1913, NRHP-listed
- La Jolla Recreation Center, San Diego, 1915
- Clarke Estate, Santa Fe Springs, 1919, NRHP-listed
- Horatio West Court, Santa Monica, 1919, NRHP-listed
- Americanization School, Oceanside, 1931, NRHP-listed
- Oceanside City Hall and Fire Station, Oceanside, 1934, NRHP-listed
- Gill biography at sandiegohistory.org
- "Irving J. Gill". Retrieved 2009-03-30.
- Starr, Kevin (June 24, 2001), "Irving Gill and the Enigma of Genius", Los Angeles Times.
- Giovannini, Joseph (March 26, 2000), "Raising California: The architect Irving Gill infused the West with a spare modernity", New York Times.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09.
- "Architectural history". La Jolla Historical Society. Retrieved 30 July 2013.
- Hines, Thomas S. (2000). Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform: A Study in Modernist Architectural Culture. Monacelli. ISBN 1-58093-016-6.
- Kamerling, Bruce (1993). Irving J. Gill, Architect. San Diego Historical Society. ISBN 0-918740-16-9.
- McCoy, Esther (1960). Five California Architects. Reinhold Publishing.
- reprinted in 1975 by Praeger
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