"A house should be an absolute expression of the soil. It should be an intrinsic part of the landscape, a harmonious note in the whole geographical song. It should never strike out from its environment, but should appear as simple and natural a product as the foliage.” Frank Mead, The Craftsman, 1914
“This new style is characterized by plain walls of modeled stucco in soft, warm tones blending with its planting; low pitched, rambling roofs, preferably covered with burned clay tiles, ... expansive, deep-set casements and French windows; ornament and moldings used with great restraint and discrimination; … generous mass planting of hardy shrubs and vines around the buildings, and delightful garden areas joined to the house by walls and hedges.” Richard Requa, San Diego Union, circa 1925
Two histories are the heart and soul of the William Gird Estate. One is that of an illustrious Old San Diego pioneer family, the Girds. The other is a lively debate swirling about the very origins of Modern architecture in America: how architects Frank Mead and Richard Requa drew on features from exotic cultures they knew (North African dwellings, Moroccan kasbahs, Native American pueblos) to create a new kind of architectural expression, even a new way of dwelling, without abandoning the anchoring motif of Spanish Colonial Revival. Their design skills ensured that the result is a well-choreographed synthesis rather than the cacophony it could have been.
Both histories are a spirited response to the future; the result is a great work of residential architecture that breathes an authenticity textured by livability and craftsmanship.
These two histories aren’t obvious at first. Rather, the property is like a plein air watercolor come to life. Some turn-of-the-century painter, perhaps, seeking Old California: a beautiful old pueblo compound with white walls and hand-made terra cotta tile roofs … dusky golden light, Coast Live oaks, giant Canary Island date palms, bougainvillea. Located in a private community, a driveway and a center fountain lead to the meticulously maintained compound of three handsome white buildings, the house and a water tower, both built in 1914, and a 1,000-square-foot workroom/three-car garage, 1989, set into a low hillside of lawns, gardens, and trees. Two recessed courtyards, one at the entry that once featured a pueblo-style open beam pergola, the other an unroofed terrace with an original wishing well. The picturesque water tower, the “pump house” up on the hill overlooking the house, today houses a private getaway space, but a century ago it was a functional workhorse for the 4,500-acre Gird ranch that H.H. Gird built, and that son William expanded with another 2,500 acres. Will, as he was called, decided to build a new home for his new young bride, to be designed by those innovative, progressive architects Mead and Requa, and with choicest of materials as well, materials that were also sturdy enough for the family of a rugged rancher. (Family lore tells the story of how Will, long a bachelor in his late ‘50s, took his aged father to see the beautiful new lady doctor in town. Instantly smitten, he married her. Despite a 27-year difference, it was, it’s said, a long and happy marriage. Thus, in a way the house is a love story.)
Inside, our plein air painter could turn to the fabled Great Room and its massive medieval-like brick fireplace, one of six. Floors of polished tawny brick and Saltillo tile meet walls of solid Philippine mahogany that are maintained as though for an expensive yacht.
But the home’s architectural provenance radiates far beyond the frame of a plein air painting. Its walls of white, 12 to 16 inches thick, recall adobe, yes, but they are an early application in poured reinforced concrete used for residential construction, creating a cool and quiet interior. The unadorned arches supporting the walled entry courtyard salute the humility of white-washed buildings the co-architect Frank Mead (1865 – 1940) sketched in journeys that began in Northern Africa in 1895, photographing Bedouin villages in the Sahara Desert. He traveled throughout the greater Mediterranean, fell in love with the Alhambra and Moorish architecture in Spain, and later, went as far as Damascus. Mead’s early employ under fashionable and Beaux Arts-trained Philadelphia architects provided the basis for his skilled interpretation of those ideas here in Fallbrook, especially the classic Roman villa, where rooms are grouped around a large atrium open to the sky. The layout of the Gird Estate is very much like that villa, except here the atrium is the double-height Great Room, almost 700 square feet, that opens to the dining room or leads to the five bedrooms and a spacious office. With an open beam wood ceiling topping 19 feet and upper walls ringed with large clerestory windows, the Great Room’s sense of unfettered airiness contrasts with the more sheltering dining room with its paneled mahogany walls and built-in cabinetry. Throughout, elaborate custom-designed copper or brass plated iron metal work for fireplace tongs, hinges, and latches—some as much as 20” long—grace the woodwork and doors.
The towering figure of Irving Gill (1870 – 1936) is renowned for his extraordinary contribution to architecture, credited for creating an American Modernism rivaling anything coming out of Europe and largely independent of its influence. His work is characterized by unornamented planes; simple, clear geometries; and strategies that permitted the play of light and shadow of landscape against white walls to act as the only ornament needed. Like the Gird home, one of his most famous commissions, the now-demolished Walter L. Dodge House, was constructed of reinforced concrete. Begun in 1914, it was completed in 1916, two years after the Fallbrook residence was completed.
It is only recently that the reputation of early 20th century architects Frank Mead (1865 – 1940) and Richard Requa (1881 – 1941) has shifted. Typically grafted onto Gill’s coat tails, their direct experience with non-Western motifs, passion for landscape, buildings that fitted into nature, and structural prowess all led to a unique expression of modernity that was also reassuringly familiar. Thus, their ideas may indeed have fed Gill’s own.
Trained on the East Coast with fashionable Philadelphia firms, Mead upended his life and moved to San Diego in 1903. For the next four years, Mead was employed by the partnership of (William) Hebbard and Gill. In 1907, Mead and Gill established a partnership that lasted just seven months before Mead settled into a long-standing partnership with architect and electrical engineer Requa, who himself had worked for Gill from about 1907 to 1911. Mead, however, had already left for Arizona to study the indigenous architecture of the Southwest, even becoming a tireless advocate for Native American land rights, bringing his cause directly to the “Great Chief,” President Theodore Roosevelt himself. Not surprisingly, Mead, especially, was determined to be an architect of service rather than play the imperious artist. Wrote a friend, Mead:
“studies his clients and makes it his task to come into intimate touch with their practical necessities and wishes, and thus to build houses that shall be … his task to come into intimate touch with their practical necessities and wishes, and thus to build houses that shall be his patrons' expression as well as his own.”
Mead returned to San Diego in 1912 and established a partnership with the younger, well-connected, and talented Requa, who was also an ardent disciple of Andalusian and Southwest architecture. Continuing until 1920, the partnership enjoyed commissions up and down the coast, including imbuing the City of Ojai with a newly unified identity, designed according to the wishes of the developer/founder Edward Libbey and following a destructive fire in 1917. Their work here was fantastical, in that it replaced the more nondescript original wooden houses known as ‘Nordhoff’ with Mission and Spanish Colonial revival style structures, include a church that is now the Ojai Valley Museum, a post office with bell tower, a park, and a hotel. On occasion, given their strong interest in landscape the firm also partnered with the noted horticulturalist Kate Sessions and landscape architect Ralph Cornell, considered the “single most influential landscape to shape Los Angeles,” according to The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
In any case, through the apriori thinking of all three, Gill, Mead, and Requa, their many projects, collaborations, and employees helped shape the singular identity of early 20th century greater San Diego and Southern California; many are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, NRHP, or are locally designated. Currently, five properties designed by Mead and Requa and 21 by Requa with others have been designated as historic resources, City of San Diego; undoubtedly more will follow. Combining the Modernism of avant garde construction methods with a classic example of Mead and Requa design, the Gird Estate -- “the very voice of California” -- is considered eligible for listing, NRHP.
- with special thanks to historian John Crosse for his research into Gill, Mead, and Requa, and also to Bruce Kamerling, Marvin Rand, Sandra Tatman, Ted Wells, and William Whitaker.