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Book Review - Lilian J. Rice

By Erik Hanson

Lilian J. Rice: Architect of Rancho
Santa Fe, California
By Diane Y. Welch
Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 2010.
Hardcover, 224 pages. $49.99

Cross another off the list of San Diego architects deserving a monograph on their work, but not having one. We have a tradition in town of certain historians "owning" specific architects, and either producing (or not) books on their subjects. Diane Y. Welch has, in the best sense of the word, "owned" Lilian Rice and has come out with an impressive book on her person. The rest of you can keep busy.

As a used bookseller, I can tell you that the key to long-term pricing stability of non-fiction books is whether or not you can picture that there would ever be a better book on it's topic. I certainly can't imagine that there will ever be a time when this is not the standard work on Rice. Unfortunately, Schiffer Publishing does not have a good record of keeping books in print long enough, and their distribution can be inconsistent. Not to demean this book by crass comparison, but as a copy Schiffer's 1998 Unauthorized Guide to Godzilla Collectables, published at $29, will now cost you a cool thousand dollars on the used marketplace. I suggest you buy a copy of the Rice book ASAP.

Lillian Rice was San Diego's second female architect, after Hazel Waterman, with whom she in part trained. Working against her fame was the fact that her work was always friendly and ultra-competent, both in design and construction. It was never shocking or avant-garde. She died tragically young, and the main body of her work is in a private corner of the county, without street addresses (the saddest part of any building list).

Welch brings some needed accuracy to Rice's biography. There have even been confusions about such basics as the spelling of her name and the year of her birth. This book gets down to these facts and so much more. Do not skip the footnotes in this book, there is so much included beyond the list of references.

Books with big color photos often make one tempted to skip the text. Don't. This work is well illustrated with photos, often in color, on almost every page. The work of four different architectural photographers (five, if you count Welch's own shots) is featured, as well newly-made watercolor renderings to stand in for lost originals, and reconstructed floor plans are here, as well as selections from the author's extensive ephemera collection. The cover of the book is a hand colored image of what must be the world prettiest gas station.

Diane Welch obviously has used both her persistence and the sociability that many architectural writers lack in tracking down and getting the trust of surviving client families and homeowners. This results in many interesting anecdotes and free access to never-seen photos. The photo selections often go way beyond the wide-angle "Architectural Digest" shots that one would expect in showing homes occupied by the well-to-do. There are dozens of details of such things as window cranks, light switches, heating grills and hinges used in the houses.

Everyone in Rancho Santa Fe will, of course, want to have this on his coffee table as kind of a token of the place, but all old house lovers should give this a go. I was pleased to hear for the first time about a Rice house in El Cerrito, near SDSU, and I finally have a name to go with the theatre at Sixth and Cedar's past as a mortuary chapel.

The book is available at the Whaley House and Marston House Museum Shops.

Erik Hanson is a long time SOHO board member, South Park resident, and by trade a used bookseller.

Volume 41 - 2010

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