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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Architect Lilian J. Rice

She died young but her influence endures, not least because several of her works are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Acclaimed for her attention to site and local context in a career that only lasted 16 years, Lilian Jeannette Rice is best known for the Spanish Colonial-style buildings she designed in the 1920s and 30s for Rancho Santa Fe, an upper-class community in the San Diego metropolitan area.  


Born June 12,1889, in National City, San Diego County—ten miles north of the Mexican border, where the region’s rich Spanish colonial heritage was all around her—Lilian grew up in the literate, cultured atmosphere her parents had brought with them from Vermont ten years earlier. Unlike many parents of that era, her educator father and amateur artist mother encouraged young Lilian to pursue an education. Having excelled in both math and the arts at local schools, she began college at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1906, the same year as the San Francisco earthquake.


In early 1909, she joined the school’s Architectural Association, taking on the responsibilities of organizing exhibitions and recording the accounts. Soon after graduating in 1910, though, Lilian returned home to care for her ailing mother. She taught mathematics and geometric drawing in National City—then was hired to teach at San Diego High School. During this same time, she worked as a part-time draftsman for Hazel Wood Waterman, San Diego’s first female architect.


In 1921, Rice accepted an associate job with architects Richard Requa and Herbert Jackson, a significant advance in her professional life. The firm had recently been commissioned to design a civic center on Rancho San Dieguito, a former Spanish land grant of 9,000 acres, a job the principles passed down to Lilian. When the designs for the civic center site plan were completed, she turned to the residential aspects of an upscale subdivision, renamed Rancho Santa Fe in mid-1922. In 1923 Requa, who had other, more lucrative projects of his own, gave her full creative and supervisory control of the entire project.  


The Rancho Santa Fe project was completed in 1927, the same year she attained her architect’s license. The following year Lilian opened her own architectural firm, and three years later became one of only a few women thus far to be admitted as a member of the San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture (AIA).

Lilian Rice completed several major projects, including the Rancho Santa Fe master-planned community; a remodel of the Osuna hacienda for its new owner Bing Crosby; San Dieguito High School in Encinitas, and two private homes in La Jolla. Among other honors, she earned a House Beautiful Award for an Escondido residence and two AIA awards, one for a San Diego rowing club, and another for mixed-use office and apartment buildings in Rancho Santa Fe.


A brilliant young women who might have gone on to even greater achievements, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in July 1938, and died of the disease on December 22nd that same year. A New York Times obituary published many years after her death as part of the newspaper's new editorial project, read: “She insisted on three things in her designs: restraint in decoration, high-quality craftsmanship, and harmony between a home and its site.”


March is National Women’s History Month

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