William Sperry 'Bill' Lewis Jr.
wanted to do projects to make an impact. Houses impacted too few
In 1953 Bill Lewis graduated from USC, his degree in architecture in hand. Having spent the last several years with the likes of Cal Straub (Buff, Straub & Hensman), Gregory Ain (his 4th year instructor) Raphael Soriano and William Pereira, Bill was well prepared to start his career embracing Southern California’s post-war materials, styles and client needs. Attending USC’s architecture program at such an early age, Mr. Lewis’ studies were heavily impacted by his elders – approximately 90% of his fellow students were WW2 GIs, focused and heartily competitive to make their way in the post-war years. His teachers “worked us like dogs, creating a competitive environment that motivated us all” recalled Lewis recently.
While Arts & Architecture and John Entenza’s Case Study House program influenced many USC graduates, Lewis gives credit to Cal Straub as one of his earliest influences. Additionally, his early architectural heroes were Eero Saarinen, Gordon Bunshaft, Skidmore Owings & Merrill as well as IM Pei. Despite the casual observer linking Lewis’ work to that of Mies Van Der Rohe, Mr. Lewis recalled “…he was a bit stiff for me.” Also having an impact on his early career was Frank Lloyd Wright. Lewis didn’t agree with the Taliesin philosophy of enslaving students under the tutelage of one instructor. Having visited Taliesin, he concluded that Wright designed his buildings around himself, rather than a client’s needs. USC provided a varied education by way of its many highly respected and differentiated teachers. From his earliest coursework, Lewis’ philosophy became “understand what the project should be, and let the building bloom from there”.
His first years at USC were frightening. At one point an instructor threw away all of Bill Lewis’ drawings in one sweep of his arm.
Soon after graduation, Bill worked for Pereira & Luckman for one week following his return from being drafted into Korea. He walked away from the short assignment with a few early impressions of his career colleagues: Pereira showed him how important Business Development is to the profession; and Luckman’s designs in his opinion were immoral, failing to be honest to the client and the project.
Soon enough he joined the Los Angeles firm AC Martin where Ward Deems was already employed. By 1959 Bill and Ward had decided to move south and explore an architecture partnership in the growing city of San Diego. San Diego in 1959, according to Lewis was a cheap, sleepy city surviving on tourism and military spending. With financial and brand support from the AC Martin firm, they opened Deems, Martin Associates in the El Cortez Building – Ward being responsible for public relations and business development functions. Bill Lewis did not socialize with other architects (Deems on the other hand was president of the San Diego AIA) as he did not see the pursuit getting him anywhere. He saw himself as a coach to bring out the potential of other employees. He ran the firm as a team – the talent and personal ownership of the project was held by the team.
One of their earliest and most notable, and visible to the public, projects, the steel screen ensconced Crabtree Building (at 3rd & A Streets) was designed by Robert Jones (who would later join in partnership with Henry Hester). Jones and Lewis would be next door neighbors in Del Mar until Jones’ death.
1961, the firm Deems Lewis worked its way through their first San
Diego recession. Embracing the city-wide motto “Try San Diego
they and other firms worked to keep clients from heading to Los Angeles
to have their projects designed. The firm watched San Diego grow larger
and more sophisticated. One important milestone was the shift of retail
from downtown to Mission Valley as Walker Scott and Marston's folded
– in part because of the Deems Lewis design for Mission Valley
shopping center. Also re-defining San Diego was interest in re-invention
of the Embarcadero – a project illustrating Lewis’ point
“if you want to get something done, you have to attack it politically.”
Other forces contributing to San Diego’s evolution was Balboa
Park’s metamorphosis and the beginning of UCSD’s prestigious
work (leading to the sprawl on the bio-medical mesa).
During his 41-year career, Bill Lewis only built three of his residential designs. His first, a project for friends in the San Fernando valley is still a sore spot on his CV – because it’s still standing. He has hoped for years the client (or a future owner) would demolish the work. His home for himself is a striking example of mid-century construction techniques and aesthetics embracing the climate with walls of glass and courtyard views off each room. Mr. Lewis designed his home after the firm was open for only four years. Following his purchase of the lot for $7800, he had little money to build. His goals in the design were to create a quiet, well-integrated, clean environment for his family. It was not to be ostentatious. His home for David Milne in 1974 was a simple, cost-effective design for friends living near their employer, San Diego State College.
“I would rather do anything than build my own house. I would rather solve someone else’s problems,” Lewis stated recently. Bill found the process of building his house frustrating – most notably by builder Herb Turner walking off the project after being the lowest bid for the job. Turner may have been off put by Lewis’ very-detailed drawings leaving little room for error or interpretation by Turner and his workers. While not engaging his wife, potter Joanne Lewis, in the problems of architecture, Bill only intimidated her with his design ideas. The low-point of construction was when Herb Turner exclaimed “you’re no Frank Lloyd Wright, I’m off the job.” Turner would later return to the project, fearing lost wages and a lawsuit, he built the house rapidly and to Lewis’ satisfaction. The greatest problem of designing and living in your own home according to Lewis, “houses can’t be static, because families change not only in size but in their relationships with each other.”
While Ward played the public role of the firm, Lewis focused on his designs, the teamwork of his staff, as well as his family and church life. While not in the public eye, Lewis was never short of opinion on the state of architecture: he saw post modernism in architecture as morally wrong, lacking integrity, and professionally dishonest. Post-modern architects failed to believe in the true nature of the project. Bill feels that city and county planning in San Diego is among the poorest he has witnessed.
Understanding the structure of an architectural firm to be directly related to the quality of work, Deems Lewis held steadfast to a empowering working groups and teams. Lewis’s philosophy is that “the person inside a bureaucracy creates and defends their own pasture, a sub-set of the whole. Their boss then becomes the biggest issue in their work. His project becomes third priority, after his own pasture. Deems Lewis’ 1st priority was the project, their 2nd priority was making a profit on the project, and 3rd was keeping the business afloat (personnel etc). The quality of a project can be too easily sacrificed because of the elements of the bureaucracy.
Within the field of architecture Lewis found three types of people. Accomplished Business Development people like Ward Deems soliciting work (only 2-3% of AIA members are qualified for this important role). Another 2-3% of AIA members Lewis argues are good Designers, taking designs from concept to built project. Lastly the field of architecture is comprised of Technical staff – which make up the bulk of architects. The latter not always able to make a building fit together, work and look good. Lewis maintains, “the problem with many architects is their inability to see in three dimensions.”
Early on in the firm’s history, Bill Lewis solicited the San Diego Art Guild to exhibit their members’ work in the newly opened projects. They liked large-scale paintings in large rooms – tying together great planes of space. Soon enough the firm took over granting approval of all works to be rotated on site. “Architecture is not complete. Buildings need people’s input (through art and décor.”
“If anything will make a project look good, it is landscaping. While landscape can be haphazard and still work, Balboa Park is a good example of an environment being created more by its landscape than its buildings.” Lewis’ own residence exemplifies his take on landscaping as an organic part of the site growing and changing over decades. With each room’s floor-to-ceiling glass walls framing a unique view of the landscape, the same grouping of flora takes on a different meaning from varied views.
have respect for all people. I have a great respect for all the
tradespeople working out in the field.
Partial List of San Diego Projects Attributed to William Lewis
Office Building (1963)
Centerside Office Towers (1985-1987)
Christ The King Lutheran Church (circa 1959) (now Saint Ephrem Church)
Church of Jesus
Christ Latter Day Saints
El Cortez Convention
- San Diego Federal Building (1972)
Medical Center (1964)
Koll Office Building (1987)
Bill Residence (1964)
LKRD Medical Office
Center (ca. 1960)
Dr. & Mrs. Robert J. Residence (1960)
Motorola Office Building (1979)
North County Detention Facility (1980)
Rubin, Seltzer & Soloman
San Diego County
Welfare Office Building (1963)
San Diego County Welfare Office Building (1963)
Torrey Pines High School
Trade Services Publications (1983)
U.S. Customs Station (1969)
U.S. Navy Anti-Submarine
Warfare School Mess Hall (1967)
U.S. Navy Enlisted Men’s
U.S. Post Office Facility