The question of Irving Gill’s role in the design of the Administration Building in Balboa Park

by Richard Amero

Admirers of the architecture of Irving Gill claim he designed the Administration Building, located at the east end of Cabrillo Bridge, for the Panama-California Exposition, held in Balboa Park in 1915-16. Despite a superficial resemblance of this building with buildings, designed by Gill, available evidence does not substantiate the claim that he conceived the building.

The Exposition Corporation signed the contract spelling out Goodhue’s and Gill’s responsibilities, January 30, 1911. The Corporation was to pay Goodhue up to $15,000 and Gill $7,500, after Goodhue submitted bills. Gill would furnish working drawings for either an auditorium or a fine arts building and for other buildings, as Goodhue directed. He would also allow Goodhue to use his office, draftsmen and equipment. Although the contract did not give Gill a title, Exposition officials referred to him as an “associate.” San Diego Union reporters called him an “assistant.”

Goodhue declared he had “no intention of overlooking Gill’s part of the work.”(Letter Goodhue to Olmsted, June 9) He reiterated that he would be able “with Mr. Gill’s aid” to make a creditable effect in the permanent group on Olmsted’s site. (Letter Goodhue to Olmsted, August 3)

Goodhue did not enjoy working with Olmsted. In exasperation, he offered to turn his work over to Gill or to whomever the Exposition would designate. (Goodhue Letters to Olmsted, August 20 and September 14)

On July 19, the Evening Tribune published a drawing of the north entrance to the Olmsted site, as planned by Goodhue. A bridge spanned the lower part of Spanish Canyon and led into the Exposition. Small rectangular, flat-roofed buildings provided a foreground for an elaborate, structure, representing the California Building. Approach and arrangement of buildings resembled the 1915 configuration at the Laurel Street entrance to the California Quadrangle.

The low mass and cubical shapes of secondary buildings showed that Goodhue had profited from his studies of buildings along the coasts of North Africa and Southern Spain. That Gill also acquired an appreciation of the plain, earth-form, low-mass structures of North Africa and New Mexico during his partnership with Frank Mead in 1907 was coincidental. Goodhue was not indebted to Gill for his architectural style.

In his August 10 letter to Olmsted, Goodhue referred to the prospect of extending the walls of the California Building and Art Museum into a canyon. He was fascinated by the decorative possibilities and engineering challenges of perching buildings on inclines or at the edge of cliffs. His work at West Point supplies the most notable example, but there are others, as shown by drawings and photographs in Charles Harris Whitaker’s Bertram Goodhue, Master of Many Arts.

A master of forceful effects, Goodhue wanted the Administration Building and south wing of the California Quadrangle to rise boldly from canyons. The only comparable effect by Gill was the 1909 Bishop’s Day School situated on the edge of a canyon, however, this building lacks the drama of Goodhue’s aspiring buildings.

An undated letter, written by Gill in August, appeared in the September 1911 issue of The California Garden. He supported putting a lath house in Balboa Park. This was the last reported evidence of Gill’s involvement in the Exposition.

If, as Louis Gill, Irving Gill’s nephew, told Esther McCoy, Gill resigned because he had discovered graft in the purchase of building supplies, the date could have been in October or November when orders were placed, in which case he may have helped in mockups for the Administration Building.

The earliest working drawing relating to the Administration Building is a grading plan initialed by GBH and dated October 25. Drawings of the Administration Building’s elevations dated on or about December 2, contained the initials of CMW (Carleton M. Winslow) and HV (Henry Vaughn). Vaughn was a draftsman who had worked for San Diego architect William S. Hebbard before the Exposition and who worked for Carleton M. Winslow after the Exposition was over.

Drawings relating more to appearance then mechanical features are:

  • Basement plan, made by HV, December 2, 1911
  • West elevation, made by HV, December 2, 1911
  • North elevation, made by HV, December 2, 1911
  • Roof plan, made by HV, December 2, 1911
  • Detail of south elevation, made by CMW, December 16, 1911

Drawings pertaining to wiring were initialed by TPH (Thomas P, Hunter), January 9, 1912, interior spaces by CK, January 8, 1912, and plumbing by AB, December 26, 1911.

While work on the building was underway, the San Diego Union, December 1, declared Goodhue was its architect, a nominal attribution without precise meaning.

In The Architecture and Gardens of the San Diego Exposition, Winslow indicated he was the architect, while Director of Works Frank P. Allen handled its “practical requirements” (that is its wiring and plumbing).

Winslow did not mention contributions from Irving Gill.

After the Exposition was over, Goodhue and Winslow produced stripped, cubical buildings in a style reminiscent of the Administration Building. For Winslow, see photographs of the University Club of San Diego, published in the San Diego Union, August 6, 1916. For Goodhue, see photographs of workingmen’s cottages, published in the Architectural Record, October 1918.

The date Gill walked away from the San Diego Exposition is not known. Since his contract was with Goodhue and not with the Exposition, no formal dissolution of responsibilities seems to have been necessary. It is easy to conjecture that Gill helped design the Administration Building. At first glance, the building’s plain, blockish mass, and white stucco exterior look like buildings Gill was designing at the time, such as the Henry H. Timken residence and the New Bethel African Methodist-Episcopal Church. On closer inspection, however, differences become more apparent than similarities.

It can be postulated that Gill participated in the design of buildings for the Olmsted site (which were supposed to be predominantly Mission in style) and that these designs were transferred to the California Quadrangle entrance. Thus far no one has claimed that Gill designed the south wing of the California Quadrangle, whose exterior was taken primarily from Missions San Gabriel and San Fernando, with whom Gill was undoubtedly familiar.

The cover seal on exposition drawings in 1911 listed Gill as “associate architect.” In agreements emanating from the Exposition’s Buildings and Grounds Committee, he is described as an “assistant architect.” The seal was not changed until January 15, 1912, when Gill’s name was removed. Since officials seals may outlast the occasion of their use, the presence of Gill’s name tells us nothing about when he did his vanishing act. Considered in an order of descending values, “associate” would appear to be higher in the scale than “assistant.”

During the time the Administration Building was coming into being, Gill was secretary of the San Diego Association of Architects (a position he resigned because of the press of other work) and involved in battles with the City over building codes and ordinances. Gill wanted City inspectors to waive some of the electrical, plumbing and wall thickness requirements. Gill and Louis Gill, his nephew and apprentice, were also busy with commissions in San Diego and Los Angeles. He had begun experimenting with tilt-slab concrete construction. His innovations and the naked appearance of his concrete buildings had begun to attract national attention. With all this work and prominence, it may be that work on the Exposition had become a drain.

Resemblances between the Administration Building and buildings designed by Gill are incidental. The Administration Building’s stepped rather than straight roofs, its use of the roof as a viewing area, its deep-cut windows, its use of mullions in the windows, its six uniform, low-pitched skylights, its high, roofed porch at the west end, and its balloon-frame construction differ from Gill’s usual techniques and devices.

While she maintained Gill designed the south facade of the Administration Building, the part most often seen by people passing over Cabrillo Bridge, Karen Weitze, University of Kansas architecture historian, noted that the Gill-designed Wilson Acton Hotel (1908) and the Scripps Building (1908-1910), both in La Jolla, are “rectangular blocks with classical proportions.” Contrariwise, the Administration Building has setback units that articulate vertical facade planes.

Goodhue used setbacks and stepped planes in his buildings; see the Henry Dater House at Montecito, California, the Philip Henry House at Scarborough, New York, and the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln.

While they were working at the Exposition, Director of Works Frank P. Allen, Jr. resided in a Prairie-style house, designed by Gill at 3578 Seventh Street in 1911 and Carleton M. Winslow resided in or near Mission-Revival style houses, designed by Gill at 3959 Eighth Street in 1910. It is safe to assume both architects were familiar with Gill’s simplified style based on “the straight line, the arch, the cube and the circle.”

In the latter part of 1912, Allen and Gill collaborated on plans for the Maryland Hotel. Gill soon dropped out and William S. Hebbard stepped in. Dropping out of distasteful positions was a Gill habit. Three known incidents are 1909 from the Christian Science Church in San Diego, 1911 from the Panama-California Exposition, and 1919 from a duplex in Coronado.

Winslow claimed he gave considerable thought to the role of the Administration Building as a foreground for the California Building. He did not like its excessive windows nor the ornament around the portal. Nevertheless, he wanted the building retained because of its good location, permanent foundations, and provisions for offices. (Letter Winslow to Hewett, February 20, 1917)

Goodhue was upset by the profusion of windows and by the building’s “restless” and “impertinent” overall appearance. (Goodhue letter to T. N. Faulconer, April 4, 1922). He wanted to replace the structure with a building more in keeping with the dignified California Building.

Goodhue rated Gill’s work high:

“As for Gill, while I don’t, by any means, coincide with all his views, and not at all with his theory that ornament is unnecessary, I do think that he has produced some of the most thoughtful work done in the California of today, and that for the average architect, his theories are far safer to follow than mine, or even perhaps yours.”

(Goodhue letter to Elmer Grey, December 29, 1914)

Conversely, his rating of Frank P. Allen was low:

“Irving Gill’s prediction that Allen would eventually ‘get my goat’ has just been proved almost true for I received the other day from Allen, dated San Diego, March 29th, a letter that is absolutely the most insultingly false document that has ever come to me.”

(Goodhue letter to Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., April 15, 1915)

Allen had told journalists that he designed the Exposition, except for the California Quadrangle. This claim, which ignored Winslow’s contribution, infuriated Goodhue.

If Gill’s official title at the Exposition was ambiguous, Winslow had no official title at all. It was, therefore, easy for Allen to take credit for work he did not do.

Since actors in the 1915 Exposition are gone, there is no one alive who can supply scholars with answers to questions which, because they cannot be answered, give rise to conjecture. Scholars would like to know when and why Gill walked away from the Panama-California Exposition

In 1985, Douglas Sharon, director of the Museum of Man, persuaded City Councilman Uvaldo Martinez to ask the Council to approve renovation of the Administration Building so the Museum could move its offices into the building. Concurrently with this bid for Council support, Bruce Kamerling, of the San Diego Historical Society, Karen Weitze, of the University of Kansas, Daniel Stewart, architect in charge of the restoration, and reporters for the San Diego Union began promoting the Administration Building as the work of Irving Gill. Joining the chorus, the City of San Diego and the Museum of Man sent an application for funds to restore the building to the Office of Historic Preservation of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, October 3, 1983, which read in part:

“The Administration Building is the only remaining building in Balboa Park in part designed by Irving John Gill, Associate Architect, and considered to be one of America’s significant early 20th century architects.”

As with the many places where George Washington slept, the claim that Irving Gill designed the Administration Building worked to open the sluice of public funding. This funding would not have been available if Gill had been simply an average San Diego architect. Because architects and critics had admired his practical and hygienic buildings, he was signaled out as an innovator. Whether the end pursued–the renovation of the Administration Building–justified the means employed–the making of unproven claims–comes under the realm of ethics, a branch of Classical philosophy. Instead of trying to enhance the merits of buildings by making unfounded assertions, admirers of Gill’s work would do well to preserve examples of his mature style. They should not try to advance his status by attributing to him buildings he did not design.

NOTE: Sources for the majority of statements are given in the text. The reader is referred to the Amero Collection in the San Diego History Center Research Library for corroboration or checking of items. Letters from Goodhue have been collected in a volume by that name, letters from Olmsted in an Olmsted volume. A separate volume contains newspaper clippings pertaining to the Administration Building. While the author disagrees with conclusions reached by Bruce Kamerling and Karen Weitze, their books are recommended for collateral reading.

Return to Amero Collection.