William Templeton Johnson (1877-1957)
Born on Staten Island, New York, in 1877, Templeton Johnson was thrust into roofing work at the age of twelve when his father died. This sparked his interest in architecture, which he continued to pursue through his schooling at New York's Columbia University and in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts from 1908 to 1911.
In 1905, he married Clara Delafield Sturges, whom he later divorced. They had three sons, Winthrop, Arthur, and Alan, and a daughter, Katherine. Clara, born in 1878, was no stranger to San Diego, having traveled to the Hotel Del Coronado for vacations with her family soon after the grand resort opened in 1888. She and Templeton came to San Diego in 1912 fresh from traveling through Europe after which Johnson began his practice. The six-foot-tall, blue-eyed, brown-haired Templeton Johnson became well known in the community; he was an avid tennis player and golfed with city benefactor George W. Marston, who would eventually make possible his most enduring commission, the Serra Museum in Presidio Park.
Clara Johnson's most important contribution to progressive San Diego was her founding of the private, independent Francis W. Parker School in 1912, a school that William Templeton Johnson designed and where all four of their children received their elementary schooling. It was based on the philosophy of Chicago education reformer Colonel Francis W. Parker, and its curriculum put the child at the center of learning, stressed action over textbook learning, and attempted to foster responsible citizenship. The school was designed with a Spanish Mission flavor, and its central quadrangle and open-air classrooms with sliding doors were intended to adapt "the architecture to the educational aims."
One of Johnson's most notable early buildings in the Spanish Revival style was the La Jolla Public Library (now the La Jolla Athenaeum), dedicated in 1921. With the building's roof tiles and smooth walls, the Spanish influence was evident, and its fanciful arches - their tops reminiscent of a seashell, a motif Johnson often used - had distinctly Moorish touches. Johnson's commitment to indoor-outdoor living showed in his decision to leave "irregular corners and side spaces for flower beds," natural touches that would finish off the building's manmade architecture.
Johnson helped create community on a larger scale in what some consider one of his greatest buildings: the Fine Arts Gallery in Balboa Park. For Johnson, "The erection of the Fine Arts Gallery at the head of the Plaza de Panama...gives the stamp of finality to the gradually evolving idea that Balboa Park is to be the center of the cultural and artistic life of the community." Johnson also designed the Museum of Natural History in Balboa Park six years later, in 1932.
With the La Jolla Library, the Fine Arts Gallery, the 1928 San Diego Trust & Savings building at Sixth and Broadway and the Lion Clothing Company building, William Templeton Johnson built a local reputation in San Diego. His fame burgeoned into national recognition, however, when he won a competition against six other architects to design three buildings, one permanent and two temporary, to hold American exhibits at the Iberian-American Exposition in Seville, Spain, in 1929. That same year San Diego celebrated the opening of what would become Johnson's most prominent work in San Diego - the Junipero Serra Museum.
Templeton and Clara Johnson divorced; she moved to New York with their daughter; the boys were in boarding schools and colleges. He married again in 1935, this time to Helen Hayes Gleason, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a pianist. She went to work here for the American Red Cross programming recreational and social activities for patients in the U. S. Naval Hospital in Balboa Park.
In 1937 Johnson designed the main Post Office downtown on E Street between 7th and 8th. He contributed to the design of the new City and County of San Diego Administration Building. Johnson's firm went on to design the San Diego Public Library; the nearly windowless administration building for Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (Convair), which is now the Port Authority building; three buildings and a master plan for development of San Diego State College.
Johnson died at the age of 80 in 1957, in the home he had designed in Mission Hills. A newspaper article about Johnson's AIA fellowship in 1939 had described him as "always active in San Diego civic and cultural affairs," and his 1957 obituary in a San Diego newspaper extolled him as "a cultural leader here since 1913." His official posts included the presidencies of the Fine Arts Society and of the San Diego Chapter of the AIA; he was also a member of the City Planning Commission, the Park Commission, the Library Commission, the board of the San Diego Symphony Association, the University Club, the Cuyamaca Club, and the Executive Committee of the National Conference on City Planning.
Of the architects in San Diego's lexicon, many names are more recognizable to the casual observer than William Templeton Johnson's. Yet he earned the rare honor of being elected a fellow to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1939,1 and his public buildings are as familiar as the houses on one's own block: the ornately decorated Fine Arts Gallery in Balboa Park, the stoic San Diego Trust & Savings Bank at Sixth and Broadway, and the stark Serra Museum atop the Presidio Park hill. Although Johnson (1877-1957) is best known for his Spanish Revival buildings, his work and life spanned many architectural movements, including the skyscrapers of the Chicago School, the natural philosophy of Arts and Crafts, and especially the modern traditionalism of Spanish Revival. Regardless of style, the overarching theme directing all of his public buildings, and indeed his life's philosophy, was an enduring passion for community in a city that came of age in his lifetime.
Like many others in San Diego at the turn of the twentieth century, Johnson was a transplanted Easterner. Born on Staten Island, New York, in 1877, he was thrust into roofing work at the age of twelve when his father died. This sparked his interest in architecture, which he continued to pursue through his schooling at New York's Columbia University and in Paris.2 In his education at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1908 to 1911, he treaded the same steps as had noted American architects Richard Morris Hunt, H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, Bernard Maybeck, and Julia Morgan;3 their influences would later manifest themselves to varying degrees in his work. In 1905, he married Clara Delafield Sturges, whom he later divorced; they had three sons, Winthrop, Arthur, and Alan, and a daughter, Katherine.
Clara, born in 1878, was no stranger to San Diego, having traveled to the Hotel Del Coronado for vacations with her family soon after the grand resort opened in 1888.4 She and William came to San Diego in 1912 fresh from traveling through Europe,5 after which William began his practice. He "shuddered at the ugly, unsuitable lines of an architecture imported from the east" and, like contemporary San Diego architects Irving Gill and Richard Requa, strived to bring new style of building to a place that had formerly known only "East Coast hand-me-down[s]."6 The six-foot-tall, blue-eyed, brown-haired Johnson became well known in the community; he was an avid tennis player and golfed with city benefactor George W. Marston, who would eventually make possible his most enduring commission.7
Like Marston, Johnson was progressive and civic-minded. A newspaper article about Johnson's AIA fellowship in 1939 described him as "always active in San Diego civic and cultural affairs," and his 1957 obituary in a San Diego newspaper extolled him as "a cultural leader here since 1913."8 His official posts included the presidencies of the Fine Arts Society and of the San Diego Chapter of the AIA; he was also a member of the City Planning Commission, the Park Commission, the Library Commission, the board of the San Diego Symphony Association, the University Club, the Cuyamaca Club, and the Executive Committee of the National Conference on City Planning.9 His activism expressed itself in his buildings, in which he addressed political issues of the day such as workers' conveniences. He laid out the Cavenee residence on Myrtle Way to be "maximum for convenience and minimum for care," 10 and in his own house he "designed the kitchen so that the cook would have an easy time moving from the refrigerator to the sink [and] having access to the pans," according to his son Winthrop.11 Though William was more moderate than Clara,12 her liberal politics helped shape his agenda. The couple gave backing to the Open Forum distinguished speaker series sponsored by the Unitarian Church, and Clara herself was a educational and civic activist throughout her life.13
Clara Johnson's most important contribution to progressive San Diego was her founding of the private, independent Francis W. Parker School in 1912, a school that William Templeton Johnson designed. It was based on the philosophy of Chicago education reformer Colonel Francis W. Parker, and its curriculum put the child at the center of learning, stressed action over textbook learning, and attempted to foster responsible citizenship.14 The school was designed with a Spanish Mission flavor, and its central quadrangle and open-air classrooms with sliding doors15 were intended to adapt "the architecture to the educational aims." As William Templeton Johnson said in a 1914 essay: "If a child is in perfect physical condition his mental and moral possibilities are correspondingly advanced. With this in view the building is designed to have the air as fresh in the classrooms as if it is out of doors, and a great deal of the actual school work is done in the open air."16 This indoor-outdoor philosophy resonated both with the Arts and Crafts movement, then a few decades old, and with the Spanish style of courtyard living, in which outdoor "rooms" were as crucial in the temperate climate as were indoor ones; it also echoed the progressive precepts of the Bishop's School in La Jolla, designed four years earlier by Irving Gill.17
Even in 1914, 15 years before the Serra Museum was dedicated, Johnson's curiosity about the missions was evident; he described with glee a Parker school field trip to the Presidio, followed by a play about Father Junipero Serra's life staged by the students.18 Johnson's interest in Spanish architecture dated from many years before and finally solidified with the popularity of San Diego's Panama California International Exposition. While working in the roofing business, Johnson had been in charge of a job in Monterrey, Mexico, and had traveled to Mexico City, whose architecture captivated him. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, he sketched compelling architectural details during his and Clara's time in Spain and Italy after he finished at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.19 The Mediterranean climate and environment that he saw in his travels made him believe that San Diego's culture and environment would be best served by architecture endemic to the spirit of the land, and many of his first houses in Mission Hills demonstrated Mediterranean and Mission influences.20 Years later, he extolled the charm of "the solid simplicity about the mission building," even though "the distance from civilization and the lack of skilled labor greatly hampered the early Spanish efforts at building in California."21
In San Diego, Johnson was surrounded by other architects who drew upon mission references, most notably Irving Gill, with his stripped-down modern style, and Richard S. Requa and Frank Mead, with their more traditional Mediterranean and Spanish buildings. Early in their careers before becoming partners, both Requa and Mead worked in Gill's office, where Requa learned about Gill's "experimental style" and use of materials such as concrete and Mead took lessons from Gill's "simple, unadorned architecture whose cubed masses, broad surfaces, and recessed openings took advantage of the brilliant California sun."22 Mead's interest in Spanish architecture was bolstered early in his career by a trip to Sicily, Spain, and southern Italy; he was fascinated by Moorish architecture, and the journey instilled in him the Arts and Crafts belief that architecture should spring from the land on which it is built.23 Requa took his own trip south in 1914, studying Spanish Colonial buildings in Cuba, Panama, and South America.24 Mead and Requa's work, like Johnson's, "smoothly integrated interior rooms with outdoor living spaces" in the Arts and Crafts fashion.25
Spanish Revival architecture was in the air in turn-of-the-century San Diego, and the 1915 Panama-California Exposition made it explode in popularity. The ornate Churrigueresque26 edifices of chief architect Bertram Goodhue, most notably the California Building in which the Museum of Man is still housed, ensured that Spanish-style architecture would remain dominant in Southern California well into the 1930s-at the expense of the simpler lines and structures of architects like Irving Gill.27 The California Building's soaring tower and delicate ornament made an impact on Requa, who later became a top designer in the California Spanish style and was head architect for another San Diego exposition held in 1935.28 The buildings also "largely influenced" Johnson,29 according to a family member, and after this time his work moved away from the simplicity seen in the Francis Parker auditorium to a more romantic Spanish architecture.30
The Spanish Revival style is considered to have developed in three phases, according to historian Kevin Starr: Mission Revival, the first phase, began with a different California Building, designed by A. Page Brown, Bernard Maybeck, and A.C. Schweinfurth for the far-reaching 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Brown carried the Mission Revival style, which was often marked by Mediterranean influence, to Santa Barbara in 1894 with a series of vacation cottages; from there it spread through the Southland.31 In 1912, Northern California architect Myron Hunt helped spark the second phase, Spanish Colonial or Churrigueresque, with his First Congregational Church of Riverside; the period matured with Goodhue's 1915 exposition buildings in San Diego. After the exposition, "innumerable homes, churches, schools, and automobile showrooms exfoliated in Churrigueresque exuberance" across Southern California.32 The third, less effusive phase was "inspired in the early and mid-1920s by the elemental forms of Mexico and provincial Spain, Andalusia especially," and was marked by such architects as Carleton Winslow, who designed the well-proportioned tower of the Bishop's School in La Jolla.33 National press about Spanish revival architecture caused the style to be seen as prototypically Southern Californian, and "California Spanish" was the region's most popular style by the 1930s.34
One of Johnson's most notable early buildings in the Spanish Revival style was the La Jolla Public Library (now the La Jolla Athenaeum), dedicated in 1921. With the building's roof tiles and smooth walls, the Spanish influence was evident, and its fanciful arches-their tops reminiscent of a seashell, a motif Johnson often used35-had distinctly Moorish touches. Johnson's commitment to indoor-outdoor living showed in his decision to leave "irregular corners and side spaces for flower beds," natural touches that would finish off the building's manmade architecture.36 The coziness of the library's dark-wood interior echoed the sense of community that Johnson wished to create in the seaside village: "I was told that La Jolla was such an honest community that I could plan the reading room with an outside door to be left unlocked so that people could stop in at all hours when the librarian was away and the rest of the building was closed. I hope that La Jolla remains such an ideal community for all time."37
Johnson helped create community on a larger scale in what some consider one of his greatest buildings: the Fine Arts Gallery in Balboa Park. Much of this imposing Italian Renaissance structure is similar to previous buildings in its red-tile roofs and gently ornamented windows. The cornice is uncharacteristically ornate, however, and the area around the door is richly illustrated with statues and medallions of Baroque Spanish painters Murillo, Ribera, Velazquez, Zurburan, and El Greco; the portico area also pays homage to the Italian Renaissance with miniatures of Donatello's St. George and Michelangelo's David.38 Some call the intricate styling around the door Plataresque, which refers to silver, because the careful shaping of sculpture calls to mind a silversmith's work.39 Both the director of the art gallery and Johnson himself rejoiced in the permanence of this new building that replaced one that Goodhue had designed for the 1915 exposition.40 For the director, the "majestic and seemingly impregnable" building helped give San Diego an "unforced but spontaneous and vivid community spirit, ... through the medium of something which is not temporal, but enduring."41 For Johnson, "The erection of the Fine Arts Gallery at the head of the Plaza de Panama...gives the stamp of finality to the gradually evolving idea that Balboa Park is to be the center of the cultural and artistic life of the community."42 Johnson also designed the Museum of Natural History in Balboa Park six years later, in 1932. Its eclectic decor includes a number of Moorish influence, such as the row of arches under a balustrade and the yellow and blue tiles under the arches; the lack of a tile roof is unusual for Johnson in a structure with as many Spanish touches as the building has.43
In another great structure, the 1928 San Diego Trust & Savings building at Sixth and Broadway, Johnson took an entirely different tack. Spanish elements such as arches and balconies remain, but the skyscraper design harks back to the Beaux Arts work of McKim, Mead, and White in the East, the heavy arches of H.H. Richardson's 1880s and 1890s Romanesque,44 and the work of Louis Sullivan and the Chicago School.45 The building's form-solid, secure, monumental-predicts its function. At the same time, however, cherubs, flowers, leaves, and rosettes decorate the area above the entryway, showing a light touch even within the confines of a monolithic structure.46 The bank's sister structure, just across the street and built a year later, in 1929, is the Lion Clothing Company building; it appears less imposing than the bank, partly because of its higher windows, and has more explicit Spanish references, such as finials showing a lion holding a shield. 47
With the La Jolla Library, the Fine Arts building, and the bank, William Templeton Johnson built a local reputation in San Diego during the 1920s. His fame burgeoned into national recognition, however, when he won a competition against six other architects to design three buildings, one permanent and two temporary, to hold American exhibits at the Iberian-American Exposition in Seville, Spain, in 1929.48 The beauty and skill displayed in the La Jolla Public Library and Fine Arts Gallery played a key role in convincing the judges to select Johnson for the commission,49 and Johnson's buildings at the exposition lived up to his reputation.
Wherever possible in Seville, he used Spanish Revival motifs,50 and in the buildings' fanciful balustrades and arched door openings, they echoed the best work he had done in San Diego. The permanent building, to serve as offices and living quarters for the U.S. consulate in Seville when the exhibition was over, had a solid symmetry and heft in its door and window treatments-some plain, some heavily adorned-and a red tile sloped roof. Solid inside as well, the building was "a model of American construction, including the most up-to-date electrical systems in the way of heating, lighting, refrigeration, and labor-saving devices in both home and office equipment."51 The temporary cinema building, intended to showcase "those phases of government activity which can not [sic] be adequately displayed by concrete exhibits," demonstrated a playfulness that had only been hinted at in the La Jolla Library; its round pavilion entrance with high arches both welcomed the visitor and indicated that fun was ahead. The high pavilion contrasted with the low jutting-out of the rest of the building perhaps foreshadowed the tower and long arcade of the Serra Museum, and a round balcony over a doorway would make a nearly identical appearance in the great hall of the Serra Museum.52 Johnson's work in Seville was not a radical departure from his previous commissions, but it showed a fancifulness and harmony of elements that did not appear in any of his San Diego buildings except, perhaps, the Fine Arts Gallery. Correspondingly, his work in Seville spread his reputation worldwide.53
As he planned the Seville building, Johnson was simultaneously working on the San Diego Trust & Savings bank, the Samuel I. Fox (Lions Clothing) building, and what would become his most prominent work in San Diego: the Junipero Serra Museum. In 1769, Father Junipero Serra and his Spanish soldiers "set the royal standard, raised the cross and dedicated the Mission San Diego de Alcala,"54 and 160 years later, city leaders, especially George W. Marston, were eager to commemorate the event.
Marston arrived in San Diego in 1870 and quickly became one of San Diego's most successful businessmen and most generous philanthropists. Park development and city planning were always high on his agenda, and in 1907, he and four other men -- Charles Kelly, John D. Spreckels, E.W. Scripps, and A.G. Spalding -- bought fourteen lots just above Old Town for $6,000 to protect the site of California's first Spanish mission. Marston tried to convince the City of San Diego to help them with the project, but, after that proved fruitless, he bought out the other men and determined to go it alone. In 1925, Marston hired John Nolen, a city planner and landscape architect from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop the parkland.55 Nolen suggested a monument in the area to the original Spanish settlers, and Marston agreed but did not have specific ideas about how the memorial should look. A few months later, an associate of Nolen's named Hale J. Walker sketched out a rough guide for the design with a tower at one end.56 The museum soon became the "dominating feature of the park," so much so that Nolen wrote to Marston in 1927 that park details such as gates, arbors, and benches would relate to the architecture of the building.57 Even though Johnson was busy, construction proceeded according to plan, and the Kier Construction Company had the building ready by the "160th anniversary of the arrival of Fray Junipero Serra and the establishment of Spanish colonial rule in Upper California," as the museum's dedication plaque reads.58
The dedication day saw twelve thousand people crowding the slopes of the park, ready to watch a pageant recreating the meeting of the Native Americans and the Spanish. The building was draped with Spanish, Mexican, and United States flags to commemorate the first mission on the California coast.59 The hullaballoo in the months leading up to July 16, 1929, was a far cry from twenty-two years before, when Marston and his fellow land purchasers cooperated on the venture because of San Diego citizens' lack of interest in the site of the first mission in California.60 Local newspapers in 1929 extolled "the never-dying glory of that...day...when a little band of Spanish soldiers and padres stood in prayer as the first cross on the western coast was raised."61 Authors glowingly called the museum's establishment "a glorious link with San Diego's glamorous past."62 Reporters excitedly invoked the name of manifest destiny to explain the United States' eventual takeover of Presidio Hill,63 and they repeatedly called Presidio Hill the "Plymouth Rock of the West."64 Here was America's new city upon a hill, ready to serve as a beacon to all who entered California; Johnson himself wrote in San Diego Magazine that "[a]lmost as soon as a ship enters the harbor, the passengers can sight this imposing memorial to the vision of our early Spanish Californians."65 The erection of a monument whose architecture was steeped in tradition brought memories of tradition to those who had not before cared.
The architecture itself showed clear progression from what Johnson had done before and, yet, diverged in critical ways. The museum was much influenced by mission and Spanish-style architecture, as evidenced by the domed tower that recalls the original tower of the pueblo, the long arcade perfect for reflective walking, the red-tile roof, the open timber ceiling, the white stucco walls, and the great room that feels like a chapel. With the exception of its modern three-foot-thick concrete walls, it could almost date from the period whose style it emulates. Johnson appeared to wish that were so: "The wood work is as simple as it must have been," he wrote, "when made by the monks with their scanty supply of tools."66 Johnson admired the "rugged simplicity" and "sturdiness and frankness in design" of the original missions and replicated that solidity with much success. Numerous critics have said that the Junipero Serra Museum is one of Johnson's greatest Spanish colonial works, and Johnson agreed.67
Yet the museum is not directed solely by Spanish Colonial influences. The architect wrote that he worked against "making the building too ecclesiastical in appearance,"68 and distinctly modern touches emerge as a result of that striving. The influence of Irving Gill's plain design is apparent in the unadorned walls and poked-out windows. Where has the ornate Spanish architecture of Balboa Park and the Iberian-American Exposition gone? Certainly, Johnson was harking back to the relatively simple culture of the late 1700s and early 1800s, but in doing so he slipped in details-the irregular placement of windows, the fortress-like bearing of the building-that suggest touches of modernism and the International style. Although the building at first implies that it could have been built at the time of the first mission in California, upon closer look its modern touches help bridge the gap between the world of the friars and the world of the automobile-driven 1920s.
Since that momentous day in 1929 when Johnson's piece de resistance was dedicated, the views from all sides of the museum have changed greatly. Where Mission Valley was farmland, it is now parking lots; where Mission Bay was just beginning to be developed, it now hosts a modern beacon in the Sea World tower; and where the hill just north of the Presidio was nearly untouched, it now has its own ecclesiastical marker, the University of San Diego. But the Presidio still stands as a marker to Johnson's devotion to the remembrance and preservation of community. William Templeton Johnson was not an innovator but an architect steeped in a multitude of traditions.69 In the context of those traditions, however, he was a groundbreaker in his creation of civic pride. From the La Jolla Library to the Seville consulate to the Balboa Park museums, his public buildings fulfilled their intention of bringing people together and helping them remember their past.
The San Diego Historical Society, http://www.sandiegohistory.org