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The Rise and Fall of One Architect's Modern Torrance Utopia

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A Torrance residential street in 1913. The Gill home has an arched garden entrance in the foreground. Photo via Sunset, March 1913.

The founding of Torrance is largely a story of failure. In 1912, a group of Los Angeles businessmen looking to escape some of the nation's first zoning laws and a workforce on the verge of unionization left town and set out (see Torrance Gump) to create Torrance, a "Modern Industrial City." Jared S. Torrance and his backers believed contemporary urban design could be used to diffuse industrial strife, and after hiring the sons of the famed Frederick Law Olmsted to plan the city, chose pioneering California Modernist Irving J. Gill to design its buildings. Gill's contributions to the city haven't been forgotten; they include, after all, the National Register of Historic Places-listed Pacific Electric Railroad Bridge. But not all of Gill's works were well received. A series of small, modern workers' homes in Torrance proved to be too ahead of their time, as was often the case with Gill himself.

The concept of the company town was already well established by the time JS Torrance began planning his new city. Beginning with the rise of the textile industry in the early 1800s, companies had started moving away from urban centers to secure land, resources, and autonomy. They constructed not only factories, but also housing and other services necessary to maintain a steady workforce. Most companies filled the roles of employer, landlord, and storekeeper, typically deducting rent and bills directly from employees' paychecks. Unsurprisingly, workers were not very excited about this paternalistic approach, leading to the 1894 Pullman Strike in which nearly 4,000 employees protested poor housing conditions and a drop in their wages with no reduction of rent. The strike ended with 12 dead, nearly 500 arrested, and business leaders across the nation questioning the future of the company town.

JS Torrance learned from Pullman's failures, setting out to create a new kind of company town that paid particular attention to the worker's home. That home was the single-family residence, on the theory that such houses encouraged family and other moral behaviors while discouraging unrest. The Olmsted Brothers began planning Torrance's residential neighborhoods in 1912 with this motive in mind. But unlike other company towns, where developers built out the residential neighborhoods themselves, JS Torrance allowed independent developers to purchase lots and construct their own houses to sell to individual owners. To ensure the single-family home remained king, each lot was a minimum of 40 by 140 feet and included some sort of garden or yard space. Developers were required to submit their plans to the city's chief architect for approval.

That role was soon given to Irving J. Gill, one of California's first true Modernist architects. JS Torrance chose Gill at the recommendation of the Olmsted Brothers, who worked with the architect on the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. In hiring Gill, JS Torrance was making a statement about the city he wanted to create. Gill was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1870 and worked alongside Frank Lloyd Wright at the Chicago firm of Adler and Sullivan before moving to San Diego in 1893. Captivated by the vernacular Mission architecture he encountered, Gill began experimenting with new forms, materials and construction techniques. He abandoned unnecessary ornament and focused on the horizontal line, and in the process pioneered an early and unique form of Modernism that would eventually come to dominate Southern California architecture.

Fresh off recent successes for the Scripps Group in La Jolla, Gill felt confident in his ability to design a cohesive, citywide architecture and was excited about the opportunity in Torrance. He moved his offices from San Diego to Los Angeles and immediately set to work on designs for the new city. First to be built was the iconic Pacific Electric Railroad Bridge, which employed his characteristic use of concrete and stripped down Mission Revival elements. Next on the list were the Pacific Electric Station, hotels, office buildings, and several factories.

In an effort to jumpstart the construction of residential properties, JS Torrance asked Gill to design a series of model homes along Gramercy Avenue, which he hoped to replicate across the neighborhood with at least 100 homes. Gill saw such small houses as the embodiment of economic democracy. While he had no control over the cost of the land, he did control the cost of construction. Gill believed modern materials and building techniques would lead to affordability, and he experimented with different variations of this approach through the early 1900s. FB Lewis Court in Sierra Madre is one of his most notable examples from this period. Built with concrete floors and terracotta walls, each of the small cottages featured a private terraced garden and projecting porch for lounging or outdoor sleeping.

Gill was extremely optimistic about the opportunity in Torrance, hoping the new city would allow him to realize the full democratic potential of the small home. Using a number of his earlier approaches, he was able to design an efficient four-room house at a cost of $1,400, less than one month's rent in Los Angeles today. He used concrete foundations and floors and a combination of concrete and hollow-terracotta tile for the walls. Sheathed in stucco, the homes featured nearly no ornamentation, which not only complimented Gill's aesthetic, but also reduced construction costs.

Gill's economical approach did not come at the expense of the homes' inhabitants, either. With an L-shaped plan that created a small front porch, each house had a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bathroom, and included an enclosed back garden (with a side yard entrance that featured a quintessential Gill-esque arch). Interior design elements like oiled and waxed concrete floors—to eliminate crevices where dust could collect—and windows and doors set flush with the walls were modern and hygienic. No baseboards, panels, moldings, imitation beams, nor any other purely ornamental elements were added. The end result was an interior described in 1913 as "almost monastic in their austere simplicity, the wide, unbroken wall spaces in their neutral tints proclaim peace, restful quiet."

While Gill's buildings appear unremarkable, they stand out in their context. Bauhaus, the International Movement, and European Modernism had yet to truly begin, and California residential architecture was still in the process of trading in its Victorian digs for the more restrained Craftsman bungalow.

In our current Mid-Century frenzy, a flat roof and unornamented surface are considered normal (if not expected) design features. But these were progressive ideas for 1912, and the residents of Torrance weren't ready for the modernism of Gill's homes. As they walked through the houses "wide-eyed and mute," they were almost offended by the lack of traditional details, a concept hard to swallow for a post-Victorian culture that still saw the home as a symbol of one's individuality. The model homes were quickly passed on in favor of the more popular Craftsman bungalow, a style considered more representative of an aspiring middle class. A backlash ensued, and after Gill was forced to face a hostile crowd in a public meeting to discuss the houses, construction abruptly stopped. In the end only 10 of the hundred workers' homes Gill originally envisioned appear to have been completed.

Gill's homes were not the only failure in Torrance. A financial scare in 1913, the onset of World War I, and a number of other factors all but killed development in the following years. Residential construction didn't begin again until after World War II, when the city (like the rest of Southern California) experienced a significant population boom. At least eight of Gill's homes weathered the first few decades of postwar growth, although by 1979 most of them were mucked up to varying degrees with window replacements, additions, and other alterations. Since then, five more have been lost to the sands of McMansions, and today only three remain.
· Torrance coverage [Curbed LA]

Further reading:
· Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform, by Thomas S. Hines
· Five California Architects by Esther McCoy
· A Significant Sentence Upon the Earth by Sarah J. Schaffer