The partnership between architect Irving J. Gill (1870-1936) and patron Ellen Browning Scripps (1836-1932) grew out of a shared desire to create buildings that lent a sense of permanence to the summer colony of La Jolla.
Ellen Browning Scripps first met the architect in 1899 when he drew up plans to add a one-story, flat-roofed wing to her house, South Molton Villa. Her brother E.W. approved, telling her, “I think Gill is just old enough, just sensible enough, and with just enough ambition to fit into the job.” Over the next decade, the architect met frequently with Scripps to plan improvements that included a new bungalow, conservatory, and the enlargement of Wisteria Cottage.
Pleased with his work, Scripps commissioned him to build the George H. Scripps Laboratory (1908-10) for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, her first philanthropic project. This spare, modern buildings included electric lights, indoor plumbing, and flat surfaces that did not collect and hold dirt.
The architect also designed public institutions that contributed to La Jolla’s reputation as a progressive and harmonious place to live. These included The Bishop’s School (1909-16), the La Jolla Woman’s Club (1912-14), and the La Jolla Recreation Center (1914-15), all financed by Scripps.
In 1915, Gill rebuilt South Molton Villa after its destruction by fire, drawing on ideas that he had used in three Los Angeles homes: the Laughlin house (1907-08), the Banning house (1911-13), and the Dodge house (1914-16), all of which Scripps visited before signing off on the plans. He became personally invested in the La Jolla house, getting down on his hands and knees to rub color into the damp, unfinished concrete floors with his nephew Louis. Scripps recalled, “The two Gills have been busy all day (albeit Sunday) in shirtsleeves and overalls…‘surfacing’ the cement floors…to me it is ‘a thing of beauty and a joy forever.’”
Scripps recognized that Gill built costly structures, explaining, “concrete buildings are always expensive even with the greatest simplicity.” But she trusted Gill as a “scrupulously careful, highly intelligent” architect who took a “personal interest in the matters of the highest kind.”
Gill’s posthumous reputation as one of the great modernist architects can be explained, in part, by the survival of the La Jolla structures commissioned by Scripps. Her faith in his talent—and her willingness to invest in the future—preserved his work for generations to come.
For more information on upcoming publications and events focusing on Irving J. Gill, see the website of The Irving J. Gill Foundation.
[An earlier version article was originally published in the La Jolla Historical Society’s Timekeeper, vol. 31, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 8]
Photo courtesy of The La Jolla Historical Society.