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.

PHOTO: Peter Jensen

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.

PHOTO: Laurel Costa

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 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:

PHOTOS: Laurel Costa

“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

During nearly four decades in practice, Sim Bruce Richards (right) designed over 200 projects not including his work in weaving, painting, and furniture design. The sampling of photographs above show both his knack for fitting a house into the land, as well as incorporating Hubbell artworks both inside and out.

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

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About the Author

With a background in 3D VFX and Professional Photography, Laurel began working at Ilan-Lael as a mosaic tile artist for Hubbell Studios. But it wasn’t long before her many other talents were put to work by James. You might see Laurel repairing the roof of a building, or waist-high in a hole shoveling dirt, or photographing the art and nature on the property, or helping out in the studio forge or stained glass studio. Her skills are multi-dimensional. But her favorite place is in the art archive where she’s served as the Ilan-Lael Foundation Archivist since 2018. She’s been tasked with organizing, cataloguing, and preserving the vast body of James’ work.  In 2022 Laurel became the Ilan-Lael Operations Manager, helping to run programs, facilities and working with the team to serve the mission of the foundation.

6 responses to “Houses That Put Their Arms Around You”

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  5. Marianne Gerdes says:

    Hi Sharon,

    James Hubbell built the Chapel at Sea Ranch in 1985. It is open to the public daily between sunrise and sunset (as far as we know). We do not manage the site, but it is available to the public.You can learn more here:


    Ilan-Lael Foundation

  6. Sharon Lloyd says:

    Hello, I was wondering if it might be possible to obtain information from you about the Chapel at Sea Ranch. I live in Mendocino County now (have seen the Chapel a number of times) and do have a background in Organic Architecture (worked for Mickey Muenig in Big Sur). I am so fascinated by the Chapel and would love to know more about it.
    I will be in Escondido until this Sunday, July 30 … if this would be of any help.
    Thank you!

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