August 20, 2017

The East Coast Architect Who Pioneered West Coast Modernism

Though it's lovely and I'd enjoyed visiting, I haven't had much interest in writing about the Clarke Estate in Santa Fe Springs.

That is, until two years later—when I realized that its architect, Irving Gill, was born 20 miles south of my hometown of Syracuse, New York in a town along the 81 South called Tully.

Some consider Gill somewhat of a "missing link" in modern architecture, a style that he certainly pioneered around the turn of the last century—pre-dating Mies van der Rohe by a decade and Koenig by four decades.

And yet this is a guy who went to Madison Street High School in the Westcott area of Syracuse, where I used to go to shop for vintage dresses.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Gill had little to no formal training in architecture. He'd only apprenticed in Syracuse and Chicago before moving to Southern California—as many of us do, in poor health— opening his own architectural firm, and designing a number of private homes.

When he came out west at just 20 years old, he ended up first in San Diego. But while he's often considered a San Diego architect, by birth he was a Central New Yorker—and, as I did, found himself in LA.

The move north was probably not unrelated to some commissions in Torrance that Gill had completed for the Southern Pacific Railroad company in 1912 and 1913.

But then in 1919, after Chauncey and Marie Rankin Clarke had already struck gold in Arizona, the pair hired the architect to come to their 60-acre orange grove in Southeast LA County and build a "country home"—a project he completed two years later.

He was an unexpected and idiosyncratic choice for the Clarkes, unless you consider how well-traveled Marie was. She was probably just a bit ahead of her time.

For all the affluence of the Clarkes (each of whom had come from successful Midwestern families), Gill's design was strikingly unembellished.

But the lack of adornment in this reinterpretation of Mission Revival design allowed the beauty of the structure—the "tilt-up" (or tilt slab) concrete construction, with its columns and arches and casement windows—to speak for itself.

The "clean" design also turned out to provide a more sanitary way of living, since ornamentation is usually what gathers dust. And it manages to achieve aesthetic purity without becoming antiseptic.

Fortunately, very few changes have been made to the inside of the Clarke Estate, making it one of the most intact examples of Gill's work—especially since many of the others have been demolished.

It's a time capsule of how the other half lived in the first half of the 20th century—and an important representation of the area's shift from citrus ranching to the oil industry (as also evidenced at the nearby Heritage Park).

And even though Mrs. Clarke proudly displayed artifacts and antiquities from her worldly travels throughout the minimalist interior and even convinced Gill to concede to including some subtle design elements in the interior, it wasn't enough to keep the Clarkes at their estate for very long.

The smell of oil—and the racket that drilling for it made—got to be too much for them, so they left to live out the rest of their days in the Coachella Valley, where they raised Arabian horses and grew dates.

But the architectural legacy that Gill left behind with their former home—in all its cubist, poetic, and innovative glory—remains somewhat miraculously preserved after having been forgotten—or, at least, under-appreciated—for decades before being rediscovered.

Now, the landmark is owned by the city of Santa Fe Springs, and it's a regular stop on Esotouric's "South LA Road Trip" bus tour.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn't that unusual for an East Coaster to pick up and head West—to escape the brutal winters or to improve failing health. It's a wonder that more people didn't do it back then—and that more people don't do it now.

Having made the move myself, I can't quite comprehend why there hasn't been a mass exodus of New Yorkers fleeing to California. And for the life of me, I can't even imagine why any New Yorker would come out here, stay for a while, and then go back.

Tully's own Irving Gill, however, spent the rest of his life in Southern California, dying in Carlsbad in 1936 at age 66.

Sure, other architects became more famous than Gill for their rejection of historical architectural styles and their elimination of decoration. But I can't help but feel a sense of hometown pride for the guy who put Syracuse on the Modernist architecture map—even if he traded the snow belt for the sun belt and never turned back.

Because... who could blame him for that?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Ruins of Santa Fe Springs
Photo Essay: A California Country Home In a Long-Lost Orange Grove

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