Experiments in Small Houses and Multiple Housing
The entrepreneurial landlord with small land holdings was important to the development of Southern California. Many of Gill’s clients, including Mary Cossitt, Annie Darst, Ellen Scripps, F. B. Lewis, Horatio West, Louis Wilde, J. D. Chandler, Kate Gartz-Crane, W. C. Powers and others, commissioned duplexes, house courts, and apartments in and around San Diego and Los Angeles.
Gill himself purchased land in San Diego and in the early 20th century built perhaps as many as eight rental cottages in which he experimented with materials, simplification of construction, and space planning. The City of Torrance and the Riverside Cement Company commissioned housing especially for workers.
For the Darst Flats, Gill designed two identical buildings bisected by a walkway from the street to the rear of the property. The floor plan for both buildings shows the mirror image of the first and second floors. Each building contained two two-bedroom apartments, with large living room (with fireplace), dining room, bathroom, kitchen with screened porch, and balconies on the first floor (with a lightwell above on the second floor).
Gill designed approximately eight cottages for parcels of land he purchased in San Diego. There is little documentation for these, but all or most of the houses seem to have been built on Albatross, Front, Robinson Mews, and Hawthorne streets. Gill proudly wrote to his father that he built his small houses, “so as to work out some new ideas I had for a cheap, semi-fireproof cottage for working men’s families. They have been a great success and I am building several others of similar construction.”
Gill and his nephew Louis lived at 3719 Albatross in 1912. Lloyd Wright and his brother John lived in another of the cottages, down the lane. Gill reused the plan of his Cleveland Heights house in his preliminary design for the Bella Vista Terrace cottages, several years later.
His intention was to build small units that allowed people to live with dignity and privacy. Even the smallest unit had a court or a porch. The interiors included simple and efficient cupboards, such as window seats with storage underneath. Smooth continuous surfaces, flat panel doors, and raised closet floors all helped the inhabitant keep the house clean with less effort.
Gill’s site planning was especially successful in the Bella Vista Terrace project. He pushed the cottages to the outside edge of the plot to leave a large public area for shared gardens and a loggia. He also placed each L-shaped cottage so that its arcaded porch and small garden had privacy from its neighbors. Though the cottages appear to be made of concrete, the walls are plastered hollow clay blocks.
Fred B. Lewis was a jeweler from Cleveland. On a 1910 trip to California, he spent a vacation at the Cypress Court in Sierra Madre (owned by Frank Fraiburg, also a jeweler from Cleveland), located just north of where Lewis would decide to build his own house court for tourists such as himself. Gill planned 12 cottages for Lewis but only eight were built. In 1913 the Sierra Madre News announced that Lewis had purchased three acres, adjacent to Bella Vista Terrace, for a hotel being designed by Gill. The hotel was not built; Lewis sold Bella Vista Terrace in 1914 and moved to Long Beach, Calif.
Gill’s small and multiple units are often thought of as having been built for the working class and the poor. With a few exceptions, however, most were rented to middle class tenants and as temporary residences for vacationers from the East and Midwest.
The Los Angeles Herald published several articles announcing the luxury housing development at Laughlin Park. A 1912 article announced that Gill was in charge of all planning for this Hollywood Hills development on a site of three acres. By 1913, Laughlin had sold the land and Gill was no longer involved. Laughlin Park remains an exclusive neighborhood but none of the homes were designed by Gill.