Irving Gill rose from his youth as modest untrained, uneducated young man, to prominence, becoming one of the most influential pioneers and mentors of the fledgling modern movement in American architecture. He was born in Tully, NY, the son of a farmer/carpenter. Perhaps his fathers trade, along with his brother’s career as a contractor led him to pursue an apprenticeship in architecture. He had no college or formal education in the field, yet was able to find a position in Syracuse, in the firm of Ellis G. Hall. Like many young architects the time, Irving Gill was drawn to Chicago, where he landed a fortuitous position with Joseph Silsbee, and then with the prestigious firm of Louis Sullivan, where he worked along side of Frank Lloyd Wright. The path shared by Wright and Gill would inspire and launch many of the most important early careers, including Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler, in what would become the Modernist Movement.
With Louis Sullivan, Irving Gill worked on the massive and very significant Transportation Building for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Soon after, attempting to find a climate in which he could repair his ill health, he moved to San Diego, and struck out on his own. His first work was mostly residential, in contrast to the civic and commercial work he had done with Sullivan. In 1898 he formed a partnership with William Hebberd, who had worked with the firm who built the Hotel del Coronado. The 11 year partnership produced a number of homes in Tudor Revival and Prairie School Style, and was highly esteemed locally. The most notable project of Gill and Hebberd was the George Marston House, now a museum, located in Balboa Park. More that any other American architect working in the Craftsman and Prairie styles, Gill was featured prominently in Gustave Stickly’s Craftsman magazine.
Gill became more interested in the clean lines and shapes of the adobe missions in Southern California, while Hebberd continued to lean toward English inspired massive stone and brick construction. “If we, the architects of the West, wish to do great work we must dare to be simple, must have the courage to fling aside every device that distracts the eye from structural beauty, must break through convention and get down to fundamental truths.” When the two dissolved their partnership in 1906, Gill formed a new partnership with his employee Frank Mead, who shared his interest in the indigenous forms of Southwest architecture. While short lived, this period was thought to produce some of Gill’s finest projects, which were the Bailey, Allen, Laughlin and M. Klauber residences.
In 1911, Gill’s nephew Louis Gill joined his uncle’s practice as a draftsman. Louis showed little originality or imagination, but became a skilled administrator, allowing Irving to leave the San Diego office in his care, in order to pursue a number of projects in the developing city of Torrance, Ca to the north. He soon found projects throughout Los Angeles, including what some consider to be one of the most important examples of early Modern architecture, The Dodge House, on Kings Road in West Hollywood. Sadly, this house was demolished, and apartments have taken its place. Two equally important Gill projects can still be found and appreciated: the La Jolla Woman’s Club Building, the first of its kind, using his tilt-slab construction method to build the sleek, simple lines of its exterior walls on site; and the fountain in Horton Plaza, also the first of its kind to use electricity and water together for a colorful effect.
Gill’s growing use of cubist, modern, clean lines coincided with his passionate desire to provide housing for people less fortunate than his wealthy clients. He worked on projects for Mexican migrant workers, reservation Indians, and African American churches. These modest homes were considered minimalist, with very little detail or ornamentation, which kept them economical. “The desire for an easily maintained, sanitary home drove Gill’s aesthetic toward purity.”
Irving Gill’s ill health and changes in his public taste resulted in the demise of his career in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. However, recently, there is a growing resurgence and acknowledgement of his great contribution to American Modern architecture.