PRINT January 1964

Irving Gill’s Dodge House

The Board of Supervisors
Los Angeles County

The Art Historians of Southern California, in their November meeting, voted unanimously to urge that steps be taken to preserve the famous Dodge House of Irving Gill.

(signed) Richard G. Carrott
Chairman, Department of Art
University of California, Riverside

“THE WEST UNFORTUNATELY HAS BEEN and is building too hastily, carelessly and thoughtlessly. Houses are springing up faster than mushrooms, for mushrooms silently prepare for a year or more before they finally raise their house above the ground in proof of what they have been designing so long and secretly.” Familiar charges, so true about the West today. But they came fifty years ago, from a man who was building with a care, thought and thoroughness that are only too scarce today, as they were then.

It was in 1916 that Irving J. Gill, Western architect without peer, published his only known major article on his principles and theories. For twenty-three years, since his arrival in San Diego in 1893, Gill had been “preparing and designing silently and so long.” Building in California was already in a sad state then, and Gill was painfully aware of that: “People pour out here as on the crest of a flood, and remain where chance deposits them when the rush of the water subsides, building temporary shacks wherein they live for a brief period, while looking about for a more permanent anchorage. The surface of the ground is barely scraped away—and, a house is tossed together, haste being the chief characteristic . . . fortunately such structures cannot endure, will never last long enough to be a monument for future generations to wonder at.”

Gill’s work was built to endure. If it does not last long enough to be a monument for future generations to wonder at, it is only because those generations, our generation, regards it only as so much real estate. Of about ninety known works by Gill, in the area between Santa Monica and San Diego, almost one out of five has been demolished, burned or remodeled. Under the shadow of the demolisher’s wrecking ball these days is Gill’s Walter Luther Dodge residence, 950 No. Kings Road in West Hollywood. The Dodge House, in Lloyd Wright’s words, “characterizes in one package what Gill’s work was all about.” Built in 1916, it is an embodiment in concrete of the same principles summed up in his article for the May issue of The Craftsman of that year. Gill felt that the source of architectural strength and beauty—two inseparable elements—was in four principles: the straight line, the arch, the cube and the circle. “The mightiest of lines” he called them, “the fountains of art that gave life to the great man of old.”

Feeling that a house should be an extension of its surrounding and an integral part of it he saw the straight line as borrowed from the horizon, symbolizing greatness, grandeur and mobility; the arch, patterned from the dome of the sky represented exultation, reverence and aspiration. The circle was a sign of completeness, motion and progression, as seen in the pattern of waves forming when stone hits still water. The square was the symbol of power, justice, honesty and firmness. Gill felt that these are the basic elements of architectural language, a grammar from which an honest statement should be composed—dignified, uncluttered—“we must not weaken the message with ‘chatty’ ornaments, ‘mumbly’ lines. . .”

The Dodge house is an example of total integration of those elements. The west elevation, facing the street, where the property’s boundary wall is hardly knee high, shows the world a severe, angular face. Straight roof line, two square chimneys and almost continuous second story fenestration present a fortress-like appearance. Taking the curving path to the entrance in the south elevation, the visitor is unprepared to find the private, intimate side of the building, welcoming him with a succession of rhythmic arches. The entrance structure, built over the path, is a cube with a large arch in each wall. It joins, in the southeast corner, an inner court, walled with arches on two sides, thus framing arch within arch in a fluid interplay. Though rectangular in overall design, the floor plan actually weaves the outdoors and indoors in an interlocking pattern.

While on the south side, the entrance structure and walled court lock the house into the surrounding, it is the outdoors that flows into the house on the north side. It is completely private, shielded by hedges on the east and west, and a high graceful concrete wall, running along the north side of the property. Here the house recedes and projects. The U shaped room arrangement, embraces with doors and glass walls, a T shaped porch, that in turn flows into a large court, landscaped and paved. Unlike the west elevation, the north one is alive with planes, volumes and masses. Using only elements essential to the basic structural requirements, Gill brought here into full play “the charm that lies in perspective, the force in light and shade, and the power in balanced masses.” And he did all that without resorting to any superfluous ornamentation. He felt that ornaments tend to cheapen rather than enrich, and that any deviation from simplicity results in loss of dignity. A mass of detail was for Gill an indication of a cover-up job by an architect who was aware that his work lacked dignity, efficiency and strength.

Gill started with a simple base. “To do great and lasting work,” he believed, “we must dare to be simple, must have the courage to fling aside every device that distracts the eye from structural beauty.” But he had nothing against ornamentation. He loved color, and installed tile of his own design. His most unique handling of color, still unmatched by others, was in his wall paints. California provided a multicolored palette for Gill’s imagination. He was keenly aware of the “intense blue of the sky and sea, that continues for long, unbroken periods, the universal background of the amethyst distant mountains—golden brown of summer field and varied green of pepper, eucalyptus and poplar.” The simplicity of his walls was deceptive—to those who copied them. Gill’s smooth, flat walls, captured and reported the nuances of fleeting clouds, growing flowers, moving branches or blazing sun. His whitewash was a scientific blend of the three primaries; blue, yellow and red. Controlling the mixture gave whites that favorably reflected a green tree or red geraniums, planted next to them.

Gill’s ideas were fully expressed also in the interiors of his houses and the Dodge House is a striking example.

The 300 square foot entrance hall called, “one of Gill’s most beautiful rooms,” attests to his mastery of mass, line and light—this time in relation to wood. Completely paneled with matching, naturally finished, mahogany boards, the room glows deep-red in Northern light, coming from 10 foot high windows, that take the whole area of the second story wall. The paneling of the first floor extends into the second, when it forms a wainscot. The stairs are flanked by a hand-rail that is a masterpiece of fine, pure woodwork—flush fitting, meticulously finished.

Gill liked to work with the native California wood, the redwood. He was struck by its abundance and its qualities, so different from anything he saw in the East: the “low toned red, its strength, low cost and ease of adaptability to many applications.” He opposed any artificial finish, and the woodwork in the Dodge House staircase attests to his understanding of his material and his mastery of it. A ceiling-high, long and beautifully proportioned inside window completes the orchestrated rhythms of the stairwell, that connects the living areas to the sleeping quarters of the second floor. A flush-fitting, floor-to-ceiling laundry closet built into the balustrade wall, gives an indication of the fusion of form and function, to be found throughout the house. Gill was striving to build a home that would be perfectly sanitary, labor saving and provide maximum comfort.

A tour through the Dodge House would reveal many of his devices: Walls that are finished flush with the casing, and joining the floor in a rounded corner, thus forming a continuous plane with no place for dust or dirt to lodge. This is further aided by lack of molding, baseboards or paneling. The doors and windows are set in steel frames, integral with the concrete casting of the walls; a sanitation and a safety feature. The bathrooms and toilets are all skylighted, and bathtubs and sinks are sunk in magnesite, fitted flush with the walls. (It is interesting to note that, typical of Gill, the social architect, all those outstanding features, especially so for 1916, are to be found also in the maid’s and chauffeur’s quarters, built in the ground floor.) The thought and expense that other architects put into cornices, gables, statues and gingerbread, Gill devoted to things less conspicuous, but more important and original. His doors were single slab mahogany (that had to be especially ordered and made), flush fitted and invisibly hinged. The built-in icebox is placed so that it can be filled from the outside, letterboxes can be emptied from inside the house. A house by Gill was made as part of its surroundings on the outside—and, to man’s measures and needs, inside.

The 2.7 acre property was bought by the Los Angeles County Board of Education, some thirty years ago for $68,000, and the body that could, and should, be the most logical keeper of such an educational and historical monument, became its executioner. Small pieces were first sliced off the corners of the landscaped grounds. These sales alone brought the Board a neat profit of close to four times their original investment. A rezoning of the area, from R-1 (one story residential) to R-4 (four story apartment buildings), would, according to experts, triple the land values at the stroke of the pen, placing the price of the Dodge estate beyond the amount that any interested group might hope to put up in an effort to buy the historical building and thus save it from demolition. The last rezoning fight was waged in 1960, an election year, ending in a decision against rezoning. What happened since then? “Plenty,” charges Theodore Holcomb, a writer of educational films, who now devotes all his time to writing letters of protest. From his home (which incorporates in its design part of the original garden wall of the Dodge estate) he spearheads the fight. The villain of this bizarre struggle is Jack (The Barber) Factor, whose roots in California are deep but not too esthetic. Holcomb charges that promises were made in 1960 to contribute to the election fund of County Supervisor Debs, in exchange for which the latter would deliver a rezoning of the area. As a proof to his charges, Holcomb points to a record of sales activities in the area: twelve lots were bought by the Factor syndicate under various names and ‘fronts’ between 1960 and 1962, an investment of over half a million dollars. Debs refuses to comment on the matter. At first, rather than put the rezoning on the agenda, it was sneaked in, in the form of a motion. This was followed by some stormy hearings, but all the other four supervisors sided with Debs. “This is not a zoning case. It is a political payoff,” charges Holcomb, who believes that by now “money is more important to Debs than dignity.” He intends to follow Debs’ advice and take the case to the Grand Jury, as a last resort. More puzzling is the silence on the part of the Board of Education, an inexplicable position on the part of a body in charge of the building—and of public education.

These and many others rallied to help save this landmark in American and world architecture: USC School of Architecture, Los Angeles County Museum, Southern California Chapter of the AIA, The Architectural Panel, Los Angeles Beautiful, American Society of Landscape Architects, The Cultural Heritage Boards of Los Angeles City. (The last body cannot protect the Dodge House. Due to the jigsaw boundary lines between City and County, it is one city block outside of their jurisdiction. . . .)

At the end of the last public hearing, after the rezoning motion was approved, the white haired widow of another great California architect, R. M. Schindler, whose own house is on Kings Road, half a block away from the Dodge House, seized the microphone in the hearings room and cried: “You should hear the People!” Said Lloyd Wright: “Gill’s work speaks for itself, but I have to fight to let it speak.” It seems that in California, in 1963, the voice of Mammon drowns them all.

Yoram Kahana

“Irving Gill was beyond doubt one of the great leaders of modern architecture, worthy to rank with Sullivan, Wright and Maybeck . . . Examples of his are so few that their preservation should be a matter of national concern as well as local pride.”
Lewis Mumford

“I am a great admirer of Gill’s work . . . I’m deeply concerned about the destiny of the Dodge House, and ask you to do everything you can to preserve it . . .”
Bruno Zevi

“. . . the whole effect (of the Dodge House), in its clarity of form and simplicity of means is more premonitory of the next stage of modern architecture than any American work of its period.”
Henry R. Hitchcock, in “Architecture in the 19th and 20th Centuries.”

“We are in sympathy with saving it for a historical monument if this is merited, but I’m not qualified to say if it is merited.”
Mr. Arol Burns, Director of Real Estate Board of Education, County of Los Angeles