Editor’s note: This is the final of two installments about Diane Y. Welch’s book about Lilian Rice.
RANCHO SANTA FE — The year 1910 heralded the debut of the song, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and the invention of the rubber girdle which liberated women from the corset. It would be another 10 years before women would finally get the right to vote.
That spring, 21-year-old Lilian J. Rice returned to her home in National City after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in architecture. Her yearbook described her as, “the very model of serious young womanhood fulfilling the promise of education and professional status so long denied her sex.”
Rice would go on to become a defining figure in San Diego, architectural and women’s history.
Her authorized biography titled “Lilian J. Rice: Architect of Rancho Santa Fe, California” written by Diane Y. Welch will be published spring 2010 to celebrate her graduation centennial from Berkeley. Welch worked on the book for three years.
“Rice’s story is still shrouded in mystery because so little has been written about her; no diaries or journals or letters,” she said. Instead, Welch relied on newspaper and research archives as well as oral histories from sources that included Miriam Sellgren, Rice’s step grandniece.
Rice spent the summer after graduation competing at the ZLAC (Women’s) Rowing Club in Pacific Beach and caring for her invalid mother, Laura, an artist who painted miniature landscapes in oils. The two often traveled to the San Jacinto and Warner Hot Springs.
In the fall, Rice returned to Berkeley for the school year to earn a teaching certificate to supplement her work as architect. She was influenced by her father, Julius A. Rice, who worked as a school administrator during bad economic times and as a real estate sales agent and developer during better times with son, Jack.
Afterward Rice came home to National City where she taught math for several years while working as a draftsperson. She also received rave reviews as a theater actress.
In 1921, she was teaching descriptive geometry at San Diego State Teacher’s College when she was recruited by celebrated architect Richard Requa to join his firm as a part-time associate.
Requa & Jackson had been contracted by the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company, an arm of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, to build a master-planned community that would ultimately become known as Rancho Santa Fe. The following year, Requa turned the project over to Rice.
“An oral history by Samuel Hamill who also worked for Requa told historian Harriet Rocklin that the compensation was not sufficient and the distance from downtown San Diego was too far to justify continued involvement with the project,” explained Welch. “Therefore, it was passed on to the talented associate Ms. Rice.”
Rice’s interpretation of Spanish Revival architecture was artfully carried out through public, commercial and residential properties.
“I have found real joy at Rancho Santa Fe,” she wrote. “Every environment here calls for simplicity and beauty: the gorgeous natural landscapes, the gently broken topography, the nearby mountains. No one with a sense of fitness, it seems to me, could violate these natural factors by creating anything that lacked simplicity in line and form and color.”
Rice faced her first major hurdle as resident architect and project supervisor when a truckers strike would have halted construction had it not been for the willingness of female staff to get up from behind their desks and behind the steering wheel of trucks to move building materials.
“Everyone pitched in to get the job done,” Welch said. “It’s very telling that they didn’t have an attitude, ‘It’s not my job.’”
Rice eventually built a permanent home at The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe called the Wisteria Cottage.
“She lived on one side of the cottage and her female staff which included architects, draftswomen and support staff on the other side,” Welch said. “To relieve stress, architect Olive Chadeayne would clean pans while Lilian played the piano.”
Rice was also one of the first trustees of the Rancho Santa Fe School District.
In 1935, Rice hired Leonard Neal as the lead draftsman for her work designing San Dieguito Union High School (now San Dieguito Academy). Their office was located on the bottom floor of the building at La Granada and Paseo Delicias. He lived in the apartments above.
In correspondence to his bride in Santa Monica Neal wrote, “My dear girlywig … There are a very nice group of people down here, not particularly good looking … Miss Rice is a very sweet old dear.”
Rice died Dec. 22, 1938, of ovarian cancer. She was 49. Her grief-stricken mother, a widow, died eight months later.
“Rice’s life is important because she was a pioneer as a female architect, not only surviving but thriving in a male dominated profession during the Great Depression,” Welch said. “Her story will resonate with, and hopefully inspire, those who wish to follow a similar professional path. It will also be of value to those interested in women’s history, the history of San Diego’s built environment and the determination of the human spirit.”
Welch will present a lecture about Lilian J. Rice at the historic Riford Library at 7555 Draper Ave. in La Jolla from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 23. She will feature more than 200 images, set to period music from the 1930s, showcasing Rice’s architecture. RSVP to Catherine Greene at (858) 552-1657. For more information, visit dianewelch.com.