Sim Bruce Richards was born of Cherokee descent in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 1908. The son of a farmer, Bruce, chewing on wheat regularly, developed a bone infection in his jaw as a young boy after a kernel of wheat seated itself deep in his gums. Fascinated by architecture, even as a young boy, his passion would develop further by reading magazines while convalescing from his ill health. In 1920, the Richards family (brother Willis, and sisters Francis and Betty) moved to Phoenix, in part to find better healthcare for son Bruce. In Phoenix he would learn of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Bruce studied architecture upon arriving at Cal Berkeley in 1930. Soon thereafter, frustrated with the program and faculty, Bruce transferred to the art department. While studying art, Richards honed his talents weaving abstract rug designs that he had learned while still in Phoenix studying with master-weaver Melanie Murdoch. In 1934, prior to his graduation, Frank Lloyd Wright set his eyes on his (and Blaine Drake’s) rug designs on display at an art show in San Francisco. Mr. Wright told the gallery director to have the rug designer contact him.
Following correspondence with Wright, and at his invitation, at age 26, Bruce Richards joined the Taliesin Fellowship. Between May 1934 and September 1935, Bruce worked and studied alongside Wright and other Fellows Edgar Kaufmann Jr., Blaine Drake, John Lautner, Cornelia Brierly, Gene Masselink, Bill Bernoudy and others.
Arriving in San Diego in 1938, Bruce drafted for the 11th Naval District. Soon thereafter he met Janet Hopkins at a dinner party in Point Loma, and after a short time of dating, the couple was married in May 1944. At the time Bruce was renting a room above a 2-car garage and with the beginnings of a family in mind, the couple bought their first house – a “fishing shack” for $3500 at 3505 Talbot in Point Loma. In 1946, Bruce finished his work for the US Navy and began work for William Templeton Johnson on a number of projects including the early Harbor Front studies. The house was remodeled/renovated extensively while the family grew – both of Bruce and Janet’s sons were born in this tiny house with a backyard rental.
The family growing,
Bruce and Janet bought property on Albion and began work on their
first house of Bruce’s design. At this time Bruce began working
for Harold Abrams, noted later for the design on Park La Jolla apartment
community on La Jolla Boulevard. In 1949, Harold Abrams told Bruce
to “take a vacation… and you don’t have to come
back.” Bruce and Janet agreed that he should practice architecture
on his own at this time… and would do so until his passing in
Bruce was known for his calm demeanor, joy of life and sense of humor, as well as problem-solving skills. He fostered the talents of several young draftsmen and artists Rhoda Lopez and James Hubbell who aided in making his designs more organic and humane than even the materials and design philosophy behind them. Bruce found that building a house was a source of fun, and for clients like Alice Clark, he would build several homes and foster longstanding friendships with.
He was one of a small band of architectural dissenters which every city harbors – or should harbor, if art is to live and renew itself. During the ‘50s and ‘60s when architecture became more tightly organize, the path forked, the Miesians on the high road, the Wrightians on the low road. The Miesians, they said, had the only sensible way of putting up a tower. But Wright’s Price Tower which recognized the different orientation for each face turned out in the end to be the good way.
The architectural misfits tripled during the ‘50s. They were often westerners, like Bruce. They knew the land under their feet and what the sky held in store. Some had grown up under the banner of Frank Lloyd Wright, as Bruce did. In an instant Bruce was snatched up by Wright, plucked out of his last year in art at Berkeley and transported to Taliesin, after Wright had seen a display of Bruce’s weavings.
The communion between Bruce and Wright was caught in a single sentence written by Phyllis Van Doren: “They went into the countryside and brought looms and linen warp yarns and wood and were going to teach the students to weave and dye fabrics.” It caught also the King Jamesian rhythm in which westerners used to speak, it caught their enthusiasm and their faith. And it explains why Bruce never got back to Berkeley.
Art and architecture became one for Bruce, forever inseperable. The spirit of it was touched by Wright, but it was partly a heritage more indigenous to this continent than Wright’s. Born in Oklahoma, and one-quarter Cherokee, Bruce’s sureness of line and form had the breath of Indian weavings and pottery. And perhaps the toughness one associates with a dispersed people who have to carry their genius for long periods in the eye. The Cherokees, banished from their lands in the east, were sent marching to Indian Territory given them in exchange in Oklahoma. So many perished along the way that it was called the Trail of Tears. By a fine irony the blood-colored infertile soil of Oklahoma covered one of the great oil fields.
Bruce’s ancestral lesson in endurance served him when he was banished from the prospect of the fertile soil of highrise architecture to the design of houses. That was another delicious irony—Bruce was passed along from one rich client to another. “It’s been years since any of my plans had to be approved by a bank,” he said. Without construction loans to finance, Bruce could design as he chose.
He was the most cheerful man I have ever known. His affirmations came from a face as gnarled as a mesquite root. Treatment of a childhood injury to his face with X-ray had, over the years, sculptured it into an impish mask, forever young, forever playful, forever wise. A plastic surgeon offered to rebuild his face. “I thought it over and decided I didn’t want to look at a new face in the mirror every morning,” Bruce said.
He was content to stick with his own face and his own way of work, usually alone, standing rather than sitting at the drafting board, working on one house at a time although two or three clients waited their turn. One eye failed, his legs gave out, but he would rather talk about the house he was designing than his ailments. In spite of his pain, he was indeed a happy man.
We first met at his three-room office, with a big porch overlooking the Cove, on Prospect Street. As I was working on Irving Gill, and in La Jolla often, he put at my disposal an unused room in his office; it was furnished in things from Gill’s Bailey House on Princess Street. The ‘50s must not have been easy for Bruce, but he was never harried, nor was he hurried. He took pleasure in whatever came.
The Richards and their three children lived in his 1950 house on Harbor View Drive. It compressed into a small space all that was fresh and good and nurturing of his early work. There was no boastful detail, just the weaving together of land and sea and family within a loom of incense cedar. Ah, the wonderful smell of that wood, faint but indeliably fixed on the senses. I smell it now, over a quarter of a century later.
The apportioning of space was memorable. It brought people together and held them loosely together. He threw most of the shelf of level land into an entrance court with a lath structure at one end. This was Bruce’s immediate acknowledgment of Janet’s talent in horticulture. It was design with living things, things that budded and bloomed, a changing scene which involved the people who lived there.
The interior was essentially one space, with a bedroom wing, a space which moved in a circular pattern from one center to another. The half-walled kitchen with Bruce inside, looking out at us as he mixed martinis, the low evening light catching the several greens of his tweed jacket, the several tans of his handloomed wool tie, talking to us in his soft musical voice. The handcrafted table, pleasantly strewn with the children’s recorders and books. What could be sweeter than the flimsy music stands holding up sheets of music which promises sounds; what is more inviting than a group of comfortable chairs that have arranged themselves of their own accord in a non-Miesian scatter!
Everywhere the sense of communion; here love flourishes, friendship blooms. Nothing uniform, nothing stilted, none of the self conciousness into which architecture was falling in the ‘50s. The room, in Walt Whitman’s phrase, seemed to “lean and loaf at its ease.”
Whether Bruce built of wood or mud bricks, whether he built two or twenty thousand square feet, he built a haven. When Jim Hubbell came into Bruce’s design, bringing with him the images of Gaudi’s Barcelona, it was still Bruce. His business was people, the way they moved around, the places they sat, the surfaces where they put things down.
I see him standing long at his drafting board as he followed with pencil the people who were to live in his houses. I hear the incian moccasined feet, the elegantly shod feet of Frank Lloyd Wright. But most of all it was Bruce, forever young, forever playful, forever wise. For in the end the houses themselves became the mask, and Bruce and the mask were one.
Partial List of San Diego Projects
Episcopal Church (1947)
All Saints Lutheran
Alpha Phi Sorority
Balboa Park Golf
S. Residence (1953)
& Mrs E.J. Residence (1959)
Brav & Schwartz
Law Offices (1982)
Brav, Nelson Residence
Childs, Mr &
Mrs A.L. & Winetta Residence (1952)
Chung, Mr &
Mrs Ronnie Residence (1959)
Clark, Mrs. John
G. & Alice Residence #1 (1953)
Clark, Mrs. John
G. & Alice #2 Residence (1959)
Clark, Mrs. John
G. & Alice Residence #3 (1972)
Cohu, La Motte
Des Granges, Pauline
Dickey, Dan Residence
& Mrs Paul Residence (1964)
Feldman, Dr. (1956)
Dr & Mrs Residence (1967)
Franklin, Mr &
Mrs Wililam C. Residence (1962)
& Kiva Residence (1979)
& Joanne Residence (1963)
Hood, J. Hall
Paul W. and Jane Residence (1952)
Kuhn, Skip Residence
Liebmann, Mr &
Mrs Joachim Residence (1959)
& Janet Residence (1948)
McGuire, Mr &
Mrs Thomas G. Residence (1969)
Mission Bay Aquatic
Control Center (1960)
Morley Field Tennis
Newsom, Mr &
Mrs T.R. Residence (1955)
Nourse, Hal Residence
& Mrs W.H. Residence (1959)
Palk, Mr &
Mrs Robert J. Residence (1955)
Quintana, Mr &
Mrs Frank Residence (1956)
Richards, Mr &
Mrs Sim Bruce Residence #1 (1947)
Richards, Mr &
Mrs Sim Bruce Residence #2 (1947)
Richards, Mr &
Mrs Sim Bruce Residence #3 (1950)
Richards, Mr &
Mrs Sim Bruce Residence #4 (1957)
Richards, Mr &
Mrs Sim Bruce Residence Spec House (1972)
Rigsby, Mr &
Mrs George Residence (1960)
Silva, Mr &
Mrs Edward P. Residence (1953)
Alan Residence (1949)
Spicer, Mr &
Mrs Raymond D. Residence (1960)
Col & Mrs H.K. Residence (1953)
Van Dorn, Nicholas
Vint, Mr &
Mrs Vincent J. Residence (1964)
Watson, Mr &
Mrs Maurice T. Residence (1964)
and Gillett, Elsie Residence (1949)
ZLAC Rowing Club