Richard George Wheeler (1917-1990)
Richard George Wheeler was born the son of prominent San Diego architect William Henry Wheeler on June 30, 1917. Growing up on Guy Street in Mission Hills, the young Richard attended Grant Elementary School, Roosevelt Jr. High and San Diego High School with his older brother Henry “Hank” L. Wheeler.
Following his graduation from San Diego High School in 1935, Richard attended San Diego State College for “...three years before transferring to U.C. Berkeley, to further my architectural studies. I attended Berkeley for 3 years, graduating in June 1941 with a major in architecture...,” Wheeler wrote in 1989.
Only months after graduating and earning money teaching night classes in architecture at Cal, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the US entered World War II. Wheeler recalled, “I applied for a commission in the Navy. It came through in May 1942 as an ensign. They immediately sent me to Sitka, Alaska where I stayed for three years. My first tour of duty was as commanding officer of Port Armstrong, a converted cannery, then on to Port Althorp as Executive Officer."
After the war Richard “Dick” Wheeler returned to work for his father at Wheeler & McGowan, Architects and Engineers. During this period of time he met and married Marian O’Brien and had two children - Wendy and Brien. “...In May 1947, I received my architectural license and quit Wheeler & McGowan. Dad was old and blind and wished me “God Speed,” Dick wrote.
"Dick began his career as a self-employed architect in the garage of his Pacific Beach home in 1947," recently recalled his secretary, since 1957, Katy Baehles. Wheeler opened his first office in two rooms on the 2nd floor at 5th and Laurel in the old Spanish Village (later the 5th Avenue Financial Center and Mister A’s). The Wheeler office only had one employee, Clark Laycock, who left Wheeler & McGowan with Richard. While Dick designed, Clark crafted each project's working drawings and specifications. They each took a salary of $75.00 per week. Business picked up and commissions started to come to the office - and within a couple of years increased to 1,200 square feet and ten employees.
Shortly thereafter, Richard designed a new office for his firm at the corner of 5th and Ivy Lane (later NuNu’s). In addition to the 1,500 square foot office, Wheeler’s brother, and general contractor for the firm, Hank, built four apartments adjacent to the office to bring extra income to the firm.
In 1957, the year Richard would lose his father Henry, Clair Burgener (former Congressman) and the upwardly mobile architect built the Wheeler Building, or Horizon House, on Rosecrans. At this address locally acclaimed architects Tom Tucker, Hal Sadler, Ed Bennett, Gayne Wimer and Roger Matthews would cut their teeth under Wheeler's supervision.
The RGW and Associates office started out with primarily residential commissions. The office diversified rapidly, in part due to Wheeler's relationship with Legler Benbough for whom the office designed several projects. In the late 1950s, the firm changed its name to Richard G. Wheeler, AIA, & Associates, A Division of Charles Luckman Associates (later the Luckman connection was dropped).
Among his writings, Wheeler offered,"Design for Living: My philosophy of design is my philosophy for living. I would not force my theory upon any society but through logic and my belief in the greatness of man, I will tend to influence the world with that which I think is most fitting and appropriate for modern living. Of paramount importance is the necessity for free thinking and not to be bound by conventional or traditional architecture. I do not mean that we are to improve the past, but to study it along with the manner of living in relation to the time in which it was built, is the logical approach. The buildings of the past were designed in relation to the society that was to inhabit them, thus it would be unpardonable folly to associate the present manner of living with the past and to design our buildings based on this decadent style.
In 1959, Tucker, Sadler and Bennett left RGW and Associates to start their own firm, taking the important Safeway stores account with them. Richard and Marian divorced the next year. Despite losing some of his assets in court, Dick was allowed to keep his lot at 3223 Sterne where he designed “a house for a bachelor" (according to the LA Times Home Magazine). Mr. Wheeler would then marry Gerry Smith and have three children (Cindi, Jim, and Rick).
According to Wheeler, the highlight of his career was the SDG&E building (1967). “I think the one building that changed my career was the award of the commission to design the corporate headquarters for the San Diego Gas and Electric Co. It was a dream project. Before starting the design, Pete DeYoung, a Vice President of the Gas Co. toured the country with me studying the best buildings around the United States…we were determined to make this a fine building,” Richard wrote in his autobiographical notes.
Immediately following the SDG&E project, the firm was awarded contracts by C. Arnholt Smith to design the Executive Hotel, Westgate Plaza and numerous branches for US National Bank.The firm grew to employ 40 architects, engineers and support staff. In 1970 the firm name was changed to Wheeler, Wimer & Associates. The office’s work had expanded greatly becoming one of the largest architectural firms in the county.
“In January of 1989, I decided to retire. I was 71 and 41 years of practice seemed sufficient. The practice was wonderful and I felt that I had accomplished my objective as originally planned. I would estimate that we designed…400 buildings, Mr. Wheeler later wrote. Richard George Wheeler died on May 14, 1990.
Partial List of San Diego Projects
General Contractors (1960)
Bechetel Residence (1952)
Medical Building #1 (1952)
Medical Building #2 (1958)
Hazel Residence (1947)
Del Norte Housing
and Ruth Residence (1952)
El Cortez Hotel Additions (1954)
Bank of San Diego (ca. 1962-1963)
Trust and Savings Bank (1961)
Dental building (1952)
Garden of Allah
Gross Smith Mall
Hansen, Mr. &
Mrs. Dean Residence (1950)
House / Richard George Wheeler Offices. Photograph
by Julius Shulman
/ RGW Associates Office Building / Rosecrans Professional
and Social Science Building (1969)
La Jolla Square
Lockwood & Gordon
Cinerama Theatre (1962)
Loma Square Shopping
Medical Building (circa 1950)
Valley Inn (1958)
North Park Health Club
North Park Health
Co. Offices (1955)
Doctor's Hospital (1959)
Private Residence (1970)
Rohr, Fred Residence
& Electric Company (1968). Photograph
by Julius Shulman
San Diego Gas
& Electric Company (1968)
San Miguel School
for Boys (1960)
National Bank (1958)
Shattuck, J.R. Model House
Shelter Island Botel (1958)
Raymond E. Residence (1954)
Electronics Division (1968)
Vernetti, Dr. James Dental
Plaza Hotel (1970)
L. Residence (1947)
L. Professional Building (1959)
George & Associates
Office (circa 1950)
Residence #1 (circa 1948)
Residence #2 (1960)