Architect Sim Bruce Richards’ long relationship with James Hubbell and Ilan-Lael
by Laurel Costa
Ilan-Lael’s 40th anniversary this year coincides with 40 years since the passing of San Diego’s famed mid-century 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.
Bruce Richards was a Taliesin-trained master who first gained Frank Lloyd Wright’s attention for his rug designs. He moved to San Diego in 1940. James’ relationship with Richards started in 1956 when his mother hired Richards to remodel her Wishing Well Hotel in Rancho Santa Fe. After that introductory project they collaborated on roughly 40 homes together until 1983 when Richards passed. James, along with ceramicist Rhoda Lopez, mason Bill Davey, and landscape designer Frank Koge, were referred to as Bruce’s Troops. Richards deployed them on most of his iconic projects — particularly when a client had the means to embellish a new house with art installations. It is a truly breathtaking experience to walk into a Richards design and see the results of these artists’ collaboration.
Both Richards and James Hubbell developed reputations for cultivating lasting friendships along with artful buildings. Homeowners still living today recount that James and Richards took the time to get to know their everyday living requirements as well as things like their musical preferences, hobbies, and life experiences. Nearly all say what a pleasant experience it was working with the team. Relationships that lasted long after projects were completed.
Recently a cascade of archival opportunities have arisen here at Ilan-Lael involving our connections between James’ and Sim Bruce Richards’ homeowners. Each person I speak with seems to light up — often gleefully — when talking about the home design and building process. Much time has passed, however, and the Hubbell art installed inside Richards’ homes deserves a great deal more historical research and provenance. This is one of the areas in the archive where we have alarmingly incomplete information.
Fortunately, we now have an incredible resource: architectural historian Keith York, who not only lives in the home Richards built for himself and wife Janet, but has also spent the last 20 years becoming the foremost expert on mid-century modern and arts and crafts architecture in San Diego. Keith’s ModernSanDiego.com is the premier web database for information on the MCM and the arts and crafts movements. Keith also heads Agents of Architecture, a real estate firm specializing in modern, historic, and design-led properties.
Keith continues to help Ilan-Lael compile a more definitive list of Sim Bruce Richards homes that contain Hubbell art. The Richards era represents a pivotal period of James’ career. When I share our latest findings with James, he always mentions Bruce’s significant impact on his life.
“I know,” James says, “that without him I would not be doing what I am now. His trust of people, his faith in communication and inspiration, his dedication to his work, and to building a home that would last, opened many doors for artists.”
This spring, when Keith and I toured and photographed yet another beautiful Richards home (built in 1968), the homeowner told us a story that sums up the magic-making between James and Bruce:
“James Hubbell built the front door, and it is carved and bejeweled with an inlaid green glass ‘cutlet.’ After it was installed, my husband and I were trying for our first child and I would rub the green glass for luck. Shortly after, I became pregnant. From that point on, anyone we know who is trying for children has come over and rubbed the green glass. It contains the ‘Hubbell Magic.’”
Hidden Leaves’ reverence for Sim Bruce Richards
The very first issue of Hidden Leaves (Fall 1983) featured “Head, Hands and Heart,” an article on Richards’ philosophy. The second issue was dedicated to him, with reflections on his life written by James Hubbell, Kay Kaiser, and a very personal farewell from Vincent J. Vint, who commissioned two Richards-designed residences. The third issue included “Heaven’s Grate”—a spoof salon-style conversation that takes place following Richards’ ascent to heaven. He joins a discourse with Kate Sessions, Jim Britton, George Marston, Alonzo Horton, and other well-known San Diego figures. Their hilarious post mortem banter is all about prominent personalities and San Diego’s missed opportunities, and takes jabs at urban planning and design debacles like Mission Valley. Richards confesses (fictionally, of course) that “I came to San Diego in 1940 and have waited ever since for brilliance. I have a confession to make … I told people I didn’t like cities, but that was because I’d get fed up — I cared too much about San Diego.”
TOP PHOTO: Laurel Costa
Do you own Hubbell Art?
We would love to document it in our archive. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some ways you can be a part of the Hubbell Archive:
- Tell us about your Hubbell art. Many records of Jim’s pre-Cedar Fire in 2003 were lost when the flames breached our storage container. (Rest assured, we no longer use such temporary storage units.)
- Volunteer in the Hubbell Archive! You will be fascinated — I guarantee it.
- Donate to the Hubbell Archive effort. Every pledge, no matter what the size, brings us closer to our goal.
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