Ilan-Lael’s 40th anniversary this year coincides with 40 years since the passing of San Diego’s famed midcentury modern architect, Sim Bruce Richards. “Bruce,” as most addressed him, was the close friend, benefactor, and colleague of James Hubbell from the 1950s to the early 1980s. James contributed architectural elements, sculptures, carvings, lamp fixtures, and art glass to about 40 Richards houses.
The below article was published in Hidden Leaves, Volume 1, Issue 3 shortly after his death. In honor of Bruce, we thought this hilarious post mortem banter all about prominent personalities and San Diego’s missed opportunities, taking jabs at urban planning and design debacles like Mission Valley deserved a re-publish and re-read. Enjoy!
By M. M. Marchand & Minnie
Architect Sim Bruce Richards arrived early at the Victorian mansion overlooking a holographic representation of San Diego Bay, circa 1885. The Heavenly climate was San Diego-like…in the low seventies on a spring evening. But Richards was wondering what his first reception Up There would be like. He always liked parties, especially if they were in his honor, but this was different—a whole other realm. The door without ceremony. “I am Alonzo Horton and you’re the first to arrive.”
As he walked inside, Richards noticed Jon Jerde renderings tacked to the wall for the Horton Plaza shopping center. He hadn’t cared much for the project, but stood bewildered at seeing them here.
“Mr. Horton … ”
“Please, everybody calls me ‘Father Horton’–even up here”
“I can’t help but wonder how you got these drawings … ” Richards said looking to see if they appealed to him more in Heaven. No, they were the same.
“My dear Mr. Richards–may I call you Bruce? – you will learn soon enough that Heaven is light-years ahead of earth in communications. Andrew Carnegie and Tom Edison devised a special library borrowing system by which we can get anything from earth overnight. copy it, and return it by morning. No one ever notices.”
“Sort of an Angel Express?'”
“No. Carnegie insisted on calling it ‘Andrewgram’ and The Lord, after much pondering, consented.”
“Well, Father Horton, what do you think of your plaza, 114 years later?”
“I’m glad they’re finally doing something about that plot of land. Don’t know if anybody’ll go there, though. I still find the idea of a shopping center a little baffling. I spent all my money and energy getting New San Diego going–then lost everything in the Panic of ’83, you know.
Then they threw it all away and built in Mission Valley. Even Marston’s left … ”
There was a gentlemanly knock at the door and, as if on cue, in stepped George W. Marston.
“George, you made it!”
“You know how I always like to greet arrivals from San Diego. Bruce Richards is somebody I’ve been watching for some time. He just opened his own office when I died in 1946, but I had heard of him. And, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright has been carrying on about him up here for almost thirty years.”
“Where is Mr. Wright?” Richards asked, eyes full of light. “I’ve been looking for him.”
“Oh, he’s out in the mesas behind the clouds with a bunch of young angels. They’re building something big. He finds we understand the ‘harmony of the whole’ a lot better up here.” replied Horton.
“Mr. Marston,’ Horton continued. “We were just talking about Horton Plaza and the new shopping center.”
“Yes, I campaigned for something new back in ’06. Got John Nolen and Irving Gill involved, but that rascal Louis Wilde plunked down $10,000 for Nolen’s fountain and we lost the opportunity to expand the plaza and make it a real civic square.”
“But don’t you think it’s a travesty what they’re doing with Gill’s plan?” Richards asked, realizing he would have little to contribute tonight if everyone was as up-to-date as Horton and
“Bruce, you can ask Gill himself over dessert at Jesse Shepard’s. I would rather talk about something more disturbing–the new Naval Hospital in Florida Canyon. THAT is a travesty!”
“Gentlemen,” Horton interrupted, “let’s get on with the soup. Bea Evenson cooked up some great minestrone.”
Evenson, wearing a Committee of 100 scarf around her neck brought in the piping-hot soup dangerously close to Marston. “You just wait until the city gets Inspiration Point back from the Navy. You’ll be sorry you badmouthed the Navy all those years.”
“Just because the Chamber of Commerce put you on TV and now wants to name a street after you at the hospital doesn’t mean you will need to defend that $381 million beige
Elephant,” Marston intoned. “I think it’s the ugliest thing since-excuse me,
Father Horton–Horton’s Wharf! Wait ’til I get Ed Meese, Bob Wilson, and the
entire Naval Facilities Engineering Command up here!”
“What makes you think they’ll get up here?” Richards injected.
“Now, Marston.” Horton said, “Balboa Park needed something in Florida Canyon.”
“Florida Canyon! It looks as much like Florida as this place looks like the Everglades!”
The doorbell signaled the arrival of Kate Sessions. She glided in with a fresh carnation pinned to her linen blouse. “Father Horton, I’ve come for Mr. Richards. The others are waiting.”
Evenson and Marston were shaking their spoons at one another as Richards made his apologies and departed.
“Don’t worry about them,” she said as they floated through the evening air. “They never agree about anything. Marston is still complaining about the placement of the Exposition buildings in the middle of the park and leaving them there after the fairs in ’16 and ’36.”
Richards, glad to have experienced such zesty conversation (He had feared Heaven would be dull.), began to look around him. “Who planted all these plumosa palms?”
“Why, Mr. Richards … where do you think all those palms went when the Port ripped up the Harbor Drive landscaping? And where do you suppose the eucalyptus trees went when the Zoo asphalted its parking lot? I have an open purchase order to bring all the trees and shrubs to ‘San Diego Corner.’ I can’t wait to see Joe Yamada’s face when he gets here … He’d better not even joke about the old copper-nails-in-the-palm-tree-trick … ”
Shortly they arrived at a mysterious domed structure. It seemed transplanted from India. The fragrance of Incense met them at the doorstep. Suddenly, he realized where he was.
“Oh, Gawd,” he thought, but looked Immediately from side to side and then up, realizing that up Here you don’t call upon Gawd In vain.
“Good evening, Mr. Richards. I am–”
“Madame Tingley?” he answered, smiling politely. Bruce knew that In Heaven, you had to be open-minded.
“Yes. and welcome to Theosophical Center II. This Is a nondenominational community and The Lord permitted me to reestablish my Institution as long as I didn’t publish any more religious tracts. He has exclusive rights In that department.”
They drifted inside the exotic residence. Suddenly, a familiar face poked out from behind the curtains. It was James Britton, the architectural review curmudgeon and one of Richards’ favorite thinkers.
“It’s about time you arrived. Been almost a year since we’ve seen each other, hasn’t it?” Britton said, smiling down on his old friend.
“Jim … it’s so good to see a familiar face–”
“Gentlemen-–to the parlor, please.”
They followed the woman whose feet never seemed to touch the floor into a room where a buffet dinner waited. Curried rice, Chinese rice wine, and stuffed fig leaves were eaten. Many times Richards’ and Britton’s eyes met over the table and they laughed at the peculiar tricks fate plays. The other guests began to Introduce themselves.
“I’m John Nolen. I’d like your opinion about the goings-on at the waterfront. My plans in 1908 and 1926 have yet to be carried out. And now I see the Port plans this big box–a convention center–whatever that is!”
Richards lighted a cigarette despite the glare from Madame Tingley. “I was gone before the design competition began. Who won?”
“Ward Deems,” Britton reported. “I rather liked Welton Becket’s big box. The Port deserves to be boxed-in on the Bay. They could call it ‘Nay’s Cube!’ ” But I would have preferred Ellerbe’s domes. Better yet. why not Martinez and Wong’s lighthouses, Ellerbe’s domes, Deems’ tents, and Luckman’s pyramid all mounted on Becket’s Box?”
“Please, Jim,” Nolen sighed, “this is serious business. They may have Ignored my plans, discarded my paseo to the Park, my recreation center at Date Street. my transportation center at the foot of Broadway. but let’s not gloss over this thing. This Is big and It’s on the Bay … Bruce, why do they want a convention center anyway?”
“I don’t know. I never had use for one. Too many funny hats, fat delegates, stale popcorn. Give San Diegans a pile of money and they’ll find a way to design something that looks cheap and unfriendly to us little humans. Everybody is running around trying to be ‘in-no-va-tive’ but not bothering to look for quality. A building–particularly a big building–has to be at ease on its site … Oh, Gawd, I want to talk with Mr. Wright … ”
“What San Diego needs,” Tingley offered. “Is more plants, less people, more musings, less monuments.”
Kate Sessions had been watering some of Tingley’s wilting vines during the conversation. She occasionally looked over her shoulder with great compassion. “Gentlemen–we’re painting a peculiar picture of Heaven for Bruce with all this argument. Try to understand–we are far removed from earth and San Diego, but we can’t help but turn our attention every few years to our city. We worked so hard to make something out of It. It’s just that San Diego strives for greatness and settles for sameness. We want them to do better!”
Tingley lighted another stick of Incense and waved it through the smoke from Bruce’s cigarettes. “Mr. Nolen-you saw San Diego’s potential better than most city planners. What do you think of the city now?”
“It’s not too late to regain the momentum. San Diego lost the railroad, but got Sea World. It lost MCC. but kept Dr. Seuss. Mr. Britton and I have had long discussions about it. Glenn Rick joined us the other day. We feel that leadership Is still needed to encourage excellence.”
Richards’ eyes narrowed. “I came to San Diego In 1940 and have waited ever since for brilliance. I have a confession to make and this sure Is the place to do it–I told people I didn’t like cities, but that was because I’d get fed up. I cared too much about San Diego. And people. Pete Wilson showed promise but then retired to the Senate. Roger Hedgecock looked better than some … ”
Kate Sessions glanced up from her Sunset Magazine and said, “That’s our fault. We should have given the boy some guidance from up here. We have people on it now, though.”
They heard a knock on the door and in rushed Bill Kettner to take Bruce to the next stop. They marched through the night. with Richards casting a wary eye at the man responsible for bringing the Navy to San Diego. In the distance, he saw a shimmering tower, an exact duplicate of the Villa Montezuma. He wasn’t sure If he could handle another mystic. Jesse Shepard was at the piano completing Chopin’s ‘Minute Waltz’ In fifty-seven seconds. Bruce was glad Britton agreed to go along.
“Mr. Richards,” Shepard said suddenly, ‘I’m so sorry that Bertram Goodhue could not join us. He and Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo are busy making plans for the 450th anniversary of the discovery of San Diego. There are enough of us here for a seance. tho … ”
They sat around a large oak table, tarts and tea In hand. The lights dimmed and a hush blanketed the room. Slowly, they joined hands.
“Our purpose this evening. oh. spirit of the city, is to reach the people of San Diego. We fear they have lost Interest In civic affairs and spend their time rollerskating around Mission Bay. Without a concerned citizenry, the quality of city life will never rise.”
Shepard’s voice penetrated every cell of his guests’ bodies and minds. They thought as one to wish a flood of awareness upon the city they loved. They saw children by the sea, birds darting from branch to branch In Balboa Park. and elegant buildings shouldering their way to the sky. For a man who didn’t like cities. Bruce missed San Diego very much.
It was well after midnight when Richards and Britton left the party. They stopped for a moment under a streetlight at the corner.
“We don’t spend all our time contemplating San Diego’s missed opportunities. Up Here. you can venture far afield to whatever subject or place you wish. I was chatting with Mao Tse-tung just yesterday about Chinese cities. What a problem they’ve got!” Britton said, fired by the challenge.
“When did you learn to speak Chinese?”
“Language Is no barrier up Here. You’re only limited by your Imagination. Imagine having lunch with Christopher Wrenn or L’Enfant? Corbu and Van Gogh … Too bad Hubbell and his little sidekick can’t be here.”
“No. They have to stay down there and do something yet.” Bruce answered.
“Well, see you tomorrow. Come to lunch and we’ll talk about neighborhood parks and cluster housing.”
”I’ll be there. Bless you.”
Pictured left to right: Kate Sessions. Jesse Shepard, James Britton, Bea Evenson, George W. Marston, John Nolen, Madam Tingley, Alonzo Horton.