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Irving Gill in Oceanside

In a recent poll of local architects, Irving J. Gill (1870-1936) was named San Diego's greatest deceased architect. No great surprise.

Oceanside was and is blessed to have a number of Gill designed buildings. Some have been lost and a couple are in serious need of restoration.

Gill's work in Oceanside was in the last 10 years of his life, and during the Depression, when residential projects had almost ceased and the best architects were hustling public building projects. Gill solicited the attention of the city governments and chambers of commerce in North San Diego County, as he was living in Carlsbad at the time. He cryptically promised the Carlsbad community he would be founding the "Carlsbad Style" of architectural design, which would make the town famous. This was not to be as Gill apparently never finished a building in Carlsbad. For the City of Oceanside, however, he rendered large complexes of city buildings, large even in a Los Angeles scale. This served to hook interest and resulted in commissions, albeit radically smaller ones.

Irving Gill's Oceanside era work is more personal than most. He was working with few, if any, staff and so every detail was drawn from his own hand. He was no longer interested in jumping between proto-modernist and revivalist styles, but stuck to the look he had developed. Unlike other architects of his time, notably Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan (both of whom Gill worked with early on), Irving Gill was reluctant to put into words his design theories. His one major article describing his taste and philosophy was almost certainly ghostwritten for him. His comparatively small number of surviving drawings are infrequently displayed, and only a couple of handfuls of his structures survive in a form he would approve of.

So, what makes Gill's best work work? Some have suggested, lines and shapes: others, soul. I'd add: theatre: the orderly progression and focusing of an all-media idea to its conclusion.

If one thinks of the word "theatrical" related to design, one would not think of a minimalist like Gill, but he brought a theatrical control to his spaces that few can match. As a theatre design student, I was taught "if the set looks finished before the actors enter, you have failed." In this way his work is a success.

No single exhibition, book or web-site can alone convey the range of an artist's work. I encourage you to enjoy the fragments we are able to show, then visit the sites, read the books and look at the photographs. And when your head is full, eliminate all but the essential.

The Show Irving Gill in Oceanside opened on Saturday, June 21st at the Oceanside Museum of Art. A crowd of 350 people attended the preview. The show, which runs through August 17th, features original Gill drawings for the Melville Klauber and Wheeler J. Bailey homes and the Coronado Christian Science Church, artifacts salvaged from the Klauber house, the largest selection of Gill furniture seen at one time, Oceanside school blueprints and photos, Gill's diary and notebook and other interesting items. The Museum is at 704 Pier View Way (old Oceanside City Hall building) in Oceanside, CA. Closed Mondays. Call (760) 721-2787 for more information.

Editor's note Erik Hanson is the guest curator for this exhibition.

2003 - Volume 34, Issue 3

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