SAN DIEGO — Samuel Hamill remembers the Depression as a time when most people in San Diego "figuratively had gone fishing."
There was little work and little money; about the only thing people had was time. But Hamill, then a young architect in the early years of his career, used his time to make some fortuitous contacts.
One of them was with department store magnate and civic booster George W. Marston.
"I was his next-door neighbor, and since I didn't want to stay home and fight with my darling wife, I spent a good bit of time talking with him," Hamill recalled the other day at his home in Mission Hills.
Another was with Ralph Jenney, a lawyer and chairman of the state relief commission, whose downtown office was one floor below Hamill's.
"Due to the lack of work, it was easy for him to take advantage of my free services," Hamill said.
In time, these contacts paid off. Marston and Jenney were two of the driving forces behind the campaign to build a civic center in San Diego, and when the Roosevelt Administration approved a $1-million Works Progress Administration (WPA) grant for the project in 1935, Hamill became the chief designer.
Last week, Hamill was on hand for the celebration marking the 50th birthday of his civic center, now known as the County Administration Center.
The radiant white complex, with its inlaid tile accents and domes, and its welcoming sculpture and fountain facing San Diego Bay, has been called the county's most important historic site by the community group Citizens Coordinate for Century 3. County supervisors have approved the group's nomination of the center for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Hamill, now 83, is one of the few remaining links to the birth of the building. Born in Globe, Ariz., in 1903, Hamill grew up in San Diego and pursued his career here after earning a degree at UC Berkeley.
He made a name for himself in the 1930s as the leader of the design team for the civic center. He also handled other WPA projects, including the design of Del Mar Race Track. He went on to design such projects as the County Courts Complex and the Community Concourse, and he was a prominent force in civic organizations such as San Diegans Inc.
Hamill, who retired in 1968, talked about the genesis of the civic center one morning earlier this month at his home. He is a small, soft-spoken man who is apologetic about the gaps that appear in his memory these days.
Civic leaders had been trying to persuade voters to approve plans for a civic center since the 1920s, he recalled, but on four occasions bond issues for the project failed. The New Deal's WPA programs gave leaders new hope, but even so, he said, enthusiasm for the project remained limited.
"Local architects didn't believe it would ever exist," he said. "One reason they didn't take it too seriously was the Long Beach earthquake. That put a death sentence on a lot of buildings."
The devastating 1933 quake called into question existing building techniques, meaning that any major new project required a new approach. Hamill said architects also were skeptical about the chances of a WPA project turning out to be more than just make-work.
Nevertheless, civic boosters such as Marston and Jenney persevered, and in 1935 they won WPA approval for the civic center.
Chosen to direct its construction was a committee composed of the most prominent San Diego architects of the era: William Templeton Johnson, Louis Gill, Richard Requa and Requa's young partner, Sam Hamill.
Hamill remembers that skepticism about the project remained and his prominent associates were hardly enthusiastic about this major commission.
"The three turned out to be nothing," he said. Requa was busy with plans for the 1935 Exposition in Balboa Park and with his own writing and photography. Gill had closed his office during the Depression, and handled mainly administrative details for the civic center. Johnson was in ill health and "just living on his past accomplishments," Hamill said.
"I was young and eager, and I had a rapacious appetite for a new challenge," Hamill said. "I was out and running even before the way had been cleared."
The building that resulted from Hamill's direction was hailed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presided over its dedication in 1938, as a model for civic center design. It was also hailed for the pioneering techniques in earthquake-resistant construction used to build it.
Hamill said the stepping-off point for the civic center design was the Nebraska State Capitol, designed by New York architect Bertram Goodhue. Goodhue had already made a significant impact on San Diego with his designs for the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in Balboa Park, which spawned the popularity of ornate Spanish Revival architecture in the region.