Harriet Gill, the founder of Friends of San Diego Architecture, passed away August 8, 2008, at the age of 94.
Harriet founded Friends of San Diego Architecture (FSDA) in early 1985 at the age of 71. Born of what she called “a tracery of ideas” that had begun to take shape in 1981, her idea of gathering design professionals and lay people for mutual education and enlightenment about architecture and the built environment emerged onto the public stage after 3 years of gestation with a letter to The San Diego Union in August 1984.
The Debut of a New Idea
She seized the opportunity to expand upon a letter from architect John Turpit published on July 29. He discussed the recent awards program of the San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In a letter published as a separate item on page F-39 of the Real Estate section for Sunday, August 5th, headlined “Public must know about architecture,” Harriet revealed the plan that had been forming in her mind since 1981. She began by quoting Turpit’s contention that “It is the public, not architects, who determine the shape of our built environment.” Turpit had used that statement to introduce his chastisement of the architectural community:
…to the extent architects are charged with directing and educating their clients and enlightening the public toward the betterment of the overall community, they have fallen short. It is the responsibility of the architect to raise the public’s level of consciousness ….
Harriet’s response was to suggest a grassroots method for architects to fulfill their professional obligation to educate, and for those she called “the lay public … us … the ultimate consumers and enjoyers of our built environment” to learn to “judge a building and its surroundings.” She noted the many local organizations “who bring together people to see and learn: SOHO, Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, Friends of Gill (Irving, that is), Walkabout International, architects who have led tours (as John Turpit), and the AIA orchids and onions awards.” However, Harriet had identified the missing element among these several educational efforts: each did focus on the built environment, the result of the architect’s work, but none focused on the architect’s themselves and their creative process. To remedy this, she proposed “to bring all of us together under an umbrella: Friends of San Diego Architecture, where discussion with architects and seeing their work will inform our judgments … The goal will be to offer an uncomplicated, inexpensive and attractive program to all of us developing architectural buffs.”
A Turning Point in San Diego’s Architectural History
Harriet’s call to action came at an interesting moment in the architectural history of San Diego. The AIA’s national conference was coming to San Diego at the end of August. Meantime, developer Ernie Hahn was building the Horton Plaza Shopping Center based on a radical post-modern retail design by California architect Jon Jerde. This project had a scheduled August 1985 opening date, and the City of San Diego had promised to renovate the original Horton Plaza, the park just south of Broadway that would form the north entrance to the shopping center, by that date. The Centre City Development Corporation had put out a request for proposals for a re-design of Horton Plaza Park and hired landscape architect Lawrence Halprin of San Francisco for $125,000 in November 1983. This had become the lightning-rod public architectural issue of the year as the struggle over the preservation or destruction of the integrity of Irving Gill’s 1909 design for the park (and its first-of-its-kind electric fountain) generated two additional competing plans for the renovation. The fight over the fate of the Gill Fountain raged until November 1984.
Dick Welsh, president of the New School of Architecture in Chula Vista and an avid supporter of Harriet’s idea, offered a meeting room for the group to begin offering lectures in 1985. When New School moved to downtown San Diego in 1988, Friends of San Diego Architecture was invited to join in the move, and the relationship has been beneficial to both parties.
A Unique Lecture Series
Harriet not only founded Friends of San Diego Architecture but also chose the guest speakers and moderated the lectures herself. It amused more than one architect to learn that Harriet was asking for a commitment one year in advance. Ralph Roesling smilingly commented, “Well, that will give me time to prepare.” Speakers, who could sometimes be hard to pin down, could not refuse Harriet’s beguiling charm.
Although small in stature, Harriet was a large presence in a meeting where her eloquent requests for clarification set the tone for the dialog. She was less interested in drawing a large crowd to FSDA lectures than in creating a cozy gathering where everyone had the opportunity to speak. Because of her success with Friends of San Diego Architecture, the city of San Diego honored Harriet by proclaiming a Harriet Gill Day on Jan. 15, 2006.
The Woman Behind the Idea
Harriet was a woman of great passions. She was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 14, 1913, a product of two cultures – Victorian and Modern. Her parents, George Weiss and Anna Fromkin Weiss, were both Russian Jewish immigrants. Her brother, the late Marvin Wells, became a physician. Her childhood was spent surrounded by books and classical music. She was a student of religion, philosophy, and art.
Harriet attended the University of Wisconsin, before receiving a Ph. B degree from the University of Chicago in 1936. She also attended graduate school at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. In California, she was “grandfathered in” under the social work licensing law as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Harriet worked many years for the State of California in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a retired clinical social worker, she carried on a private practice of counseling in San Diego. Harriet was a longtime member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and a member of First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Diego.
Harriet also had her artistic side. She was an accomplished pianist, specializing in Bach, Mozart and Haydn. Theater critic Pat Launer remembers her as a “classical pianist who spent eight years in the theater.”
A Montaigne of the Airways
Considering her passion for the intricacies of the classical piano repertoire and her abiding interest in philosophy and the field of comparative religion, it is no surprise that Harriet was a “wordsmith”. Many hours could be spent just perfecting a few paragraphs and she relished complex sentences. In the 1980’s a new career opened to her as an essayist on KPBS Radio. For 10 years Harriet had been a volunteer talk show host, moderator and panelist when Ken Kramer, head of programming at KPBS, suggested she write and read her own essays on a weekly basis. Having in hand 15 speeches she had given to Toastmasters to achieve the Competent Toastmaster designation, she plunged right in, feeling she had a head start. The first essay she gave won a coveted Golden Mike Award for the Best Original Commentary. It was entitled “Living Alone–and how to make the best of an already excellent situation.” Harriet continued as an essayist for five years.
Shortly after her Golden mike award and the appearance of her letter proposing the formation of Friends of San Diego Architecture, Harriet was interviewed by The San Diego Union’s Don Freeman (“There’s a thrill in talking about Harriet Gill,” San Diego Union, August 26, 1984, TV Week 5). Freeman introduced her as “Harriet Gill, who is an essayist of strength, polish and wit, a modern Montaigne of the airwaves.”
“I usually make at least seven revisions in putting together a six-minute essay for the radio,” she says. “To put it bluntly, I sweat blood in writing. As Emerson said, once you get an idea or a line then you must write it down and then after the essay is written it must be polished. To me the writing itself is the most painful process. It’s the polishing that’s fun.
“But I do love words. I’ve loved words since I was a little girl. I got my first unabridged dictionary when I was 12. And a few years before that, I got the Harvard Classics. I was reading poetry at 10 and I delighted in Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf of classical works. I particularly enjoyed reading `Pilgrim’s Progress.’ And I still do. I played the piano as a child and I still do that, too — a lot of Papa Haydn.”
The Idea Gets an Airing
If Harriet discussed her proposed Friends of San Diego Architecture with Freeman, that recently revealed idea didn’t make it into his column. As TV-radio editor of The San Diego Union, he focused on Harriet’s career as a commentator and her personal history.
But she soon broached the subject herself in one of her on-air essays. In a “This Is Harriet Gill Talking About –” during November 1984, under the subtitle “Love That Architecture,” she began by confessing: “Several things have happened in my thinking in the last few months that give body to a tracery of ideas that I have had for many years. I am an architecture buff. I love to look and to read about it. An afternoon in the library with architecture magazines from all over the world is my idea of a weekday treat.” She went on to say: “I have wanted to be part of a group who seeks to learn about architecture and its meaning for our city. I had an agreeable response to this idea from people who had read my letter to the Union ….” And continued: “I’ve been savoring the next step for after the turn of the year: a meeting for those interested to talk about how to begin a group to be known as ‘Friends of San Diego Architecture’.” After a detailed review of the Orchids and Onions awards program that had taken place on that November 9th, Harriet issued a simple invitation: “And, do you want more information about Friends of San Diego Architecture? Send me that envelope with a stamp.” [Essays, pp. 140-141] To Harriet’s surprise and delight, 30 people showed up for the first meeting in a private home.
When Harriet left KPBS she threw all her energy into Friends of San Diego Architecture, gathering support for her new project by reaching out to the architectural and other design communities. She never left her house without a handful of programs to pass out to anyone who appeared interested. She was a “walking advertisement” for FSDA.
Harriet also received many awards from the design community: an Honorary Bachelor of Architecture degree from NewSchool of Architecture & Design, the Irving Gill Award from AIA San Diego, and the 2002 People in Preservation Award for Education from Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO). She was on the Board of Directors at NewSchool. Harriet served on an Orchids & Onions Jury and received an Honorary Membership in AIA San Diego.
A Lifetime of Thought
In 2007, at the age of 93, Harriet published a collection of her essays in a book called simply, Essays. It is a book that can be opened at random and enjoyed one essay at a time. She could expound on feminism, philosophy and religion in a deep, profound sense—and then turn around and write about trivial, mundane subjects in a curious and humorous vein. One passion that combined all these elements was her devotion to the idea and practice of “authentic dress.” Her observations on “Dress and Its Psychology” run from the profound to the practical to the profane. She begins by noting that, “for dress authentic to ourselves, we need a philosophy, a wisdom of dress.” She makes a broad statement: “Style, on which my idea of authentic dress is based, has to do with who the person is.” After this comes detailed discussions of color, cut, and fabric. Then she asks, “Why Do Women Wear Suffer Shoes?” She titles one essay, with wry bemusement, “On Women’s Bathing Suits: Where’s the Suit?” She concludes the account of freeing herself from the dictates of fashion with the confession:
My authentic self—and I am sorry about this—demands comfort at all times. … One reason among many to savor the joy of living in San Diego is that casual dress is standard. My definition of casual is not just-any-old-thing. … Casual dress I define as interesting, simple, of the right colors, one’s precious feet thanking you for their comfort, and the whole thing capable of being added to or deleted from for climate control.
Harriet’s sense of style was on display at every event she attended. At Friends of San Diego Architecture lectures, she was the distinctively dressed woman in the front who always spoke up on behalf of any reticent members of the “lay public,” asking for clarification of a technical term that may have flown over the heads of those unfamiliar with the architect’s jargon.
An Enduring Legacy
Catherine Darragh, who helped Harriet edit her essays for publication, says:
There is a passage that is not in her book because she did not remember if it was something she wrote many years ago, or words of another. After I read it to her and asked her about it, she said, “It is good. It sounds like something I may have written.”
In gazing into the unknown that lies ahead for all of us, a comfortable thought comes to visit me: built into the whole (often hilarious) process of growing older, I am firmly convinced that talent, an instinct that will reveal to us as we go along, is the means whereby we cope.
Harriet had good instincts—about people, about communities, and about the nature of life. In one way or another, throughout her life, she applied her talent for communication in order to bring others together into discussions that would prove fruitful for their own development.
That is the legacy she gives to the large family she leaves behind. It is a legacy for her immediate family: daughters Emmy Gill Garnica and Deborah Fitzpatrick; grandchildren Jerushah Fitzpatrick and her husband Ray Plosscowe, Caleb Fitzpatrick and his wife Anna Woodcock, and great-grandson, Huon Fitzpatrick.
And it is the living legacy Harriet leaves to all the Friends of San Diego Architecture.