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ARCHITECTURE / DIRK SUTRO

Oceanside's Treasure-Trove of Gill Buildings : Landmarks: Restoration to start on one of several structures designed by the famed San Diego architect.

October 22, 1992|DIRK SUTRO

OCEANSIDE — Irving Gill, San Diego's most significant modern architect, left a legacy of innovative buildings in San Diego and Los Angeles when he died in 1936.

But while Gill's houses, apartments and public buildings in those two cities are his most famous, the last structures he designed are in Oceanside.

Four Oceanside buildings--a fire station, the old city hall, the former Blade-Tribune newspaper headquarters and the Americanization School--prove that Gill, while working on fewer and smaller projects late in his career, remained a gifted designer until his death.

On Monday, Oceanside officials will host a ground-breaking ceremony for the city's $316,000 restoration of one of the four, to paid for with $50,000 in city money and the rest in donated services, much of which has yet to be secured. After its major face-lift, the circa-1930 Americanization School at Center and Division streets will become a community center, offering social, health and recreation services for its low-income neighborhood.

Preservationists, including city planner Rita Baker, who is supervising the Americanization restoration, hopes the project will spur other historical rehab projects in Oceanside.

Thanks to the city's gradual pace of redevelopment, several historic buildings remain intact, if not in prime condition. The city is inventorying these, and hopes to nominate a few for the National Register of Historic Places, status that would make the buildings difficult to destroy. This is especially necessary since some Oceanside residents--including the owners of another important Gill building and one designed by prominent San Francisco-Bay Area architect Julia Morgan--are leery of preservation. They don't want to give up their property rights, and some wish preservation would go away.

In its present boarded-up, rundown condition, the Americanization School, where Spanish-speaking Oceanside residents once learned English, must look like a worthless heap to the casual observer. But it is significant both for its design, and for its history.

"The main entry with the dome is a very fascinating piece of architecture," said Bruce Kamerling, a San Diego Historical Society curator who specializes in Gill. "It hints at Art Deco, and it looks back toward the North African/Islamic influences Gill picked up from Frank Mead (Gill's partner for a brief time)."

Added Wayne Donaldson, a San Diego architect and historic preservation specialist hired by Oceanside to do design drawings for the rehab: "It's probably the most unique Gill building in Oceanside. It exemplifies a time when people who were being brought into the country were being Americanized, trained to work in American society. It was the antithesis of the cultural world of today, where it is very important to retain one's own individuality and cultural values."

The 3,550-square-foot wood-frame and stucco Americanization School was uniquely tailored by Gill for its wedge-shaped corner site. He emphasized the site's prominent corner with an arched entry and a minimalist Islamic-style dome atop a short octagonal tower.

Gill proposed two wings running back from the corner in a V, following the lines of the lot, but only one wing was constructed. Instead of giving the wing a long, monotonous facade along Center Street, Gill broke it into three sections that take three graceful steps to follow the edge of the property.

He used clerestory windows and French doors on the south side to bring in natural light. The doors face a weedy patch, but the city plans to add a new landscaped courtyard.

The proposed courtyard is the major flaw in the restoration effort. Designed by the Dike Partnership of San Diego, which donated its services, the plan is out of sync with the geometry established by Gill's siting and architectural design.

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Gill used the corner entrance to set up a circulation spine that splits the property. Dike's plan largely ignores this central axis and is a busy, conflicting scheme that includes a primary path coming in from a back corner of the lot.

The city should consult Donaldson, Kamerling or San Diego landscape architect Vonn Marie May, an expert in historic gardens for a more appropriate landscape design.

A completion date for the restoration has not been set, since Oceanside is relying primarily upon donated services. The Fieldstone Co., a San Diego home builder, has volunteered to manage construction.

While the Americanization School will be a precious gem in Oceanside, the city is a treasure trove of historic finds, most of them not well known. Some have been restored, while others await their fates.

The fire station and old city hall designed by Gill were integrated into the the plan of the Oceanside Civic Center, designed by renown architect Charles Moore and the Urban Innovations Group, completed in 1990.

Moore, a big fan of Gill, used Gill's flat white stucco surfaces and arched openings as inspiration. The new civic center works well with Gill's original designs.

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