Lilian Rice: When the historic record is flawed

When Lilian Jeannette Rice, a National City native, passed away on Dec. 22, 1938, she was recognized and acclaimed as a master architect of the highest caliber. The only female member of the San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture, in the 1930s, her position was unique. Her peers — all men and East Coast transplants — in recognition of her work and life created the Lilian J. Rice Memorial Fund, which provided scholarships for students of architecture. In addition to helping students, the fund was established to show both the loss to the industry and to uphold Rice’s fine reputation after her death.

Fast forward to today and Lilian Rice’s name is not quite so revered. There are many published errors about her life, work and achievements. Although she was the lead designer and resident supervisory architect for Rancho Santa Fe during the 1920s and ‘30s, some local historians claim that she lied about this position to garner more residential business. This has damaged Lilian Rice’s reputation in recent years and, in so doing, some of her historic work has been demolished. Along with this negative campaign her name is universally spelled incorrectly and her birth year is often cited as 1888, the date that, until recently, was etched on her headstone. On further investigation into this oddity, a spokesperson from La Vista Memorial Park Cemetery, where the Rice family is laid to rest, explained that the headstones were restored several years ago by well-meaning volunteers after vandalism had all but destroyed them. It was then that the mistake was made on Lilian Rice’s headstone. Her birth certificate shows clearly that Rice was born on June 12, 1889.

In an effort to correct this flaw in the historic record, Diane Y. Welch, Rice’s official biographer – as designated by a family descendent – and author of the award-winning book “Lilian J. Rice, Architect of Rancho Santa Fe, California” [Schiffer, 2010], arranged for the headstone to be corrected on Dec. 6, 2012, by La Jolla Stone Etching company. The new headstone was funded by Miriam W. Sellgren, the great, great granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant, who is a living descendent, by marriage, of Lilian Rice. Sellgren’s grandmother, Miriam Grant, married John C. Rice, Lilian Rice’s brother.

Additional funding for this project was provided by Cindy Klong, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and member of the Rancho Santa Fe Art Guild, who has painted many Lilian Rice buildings; Tara Tarrant, owner of La Jolla Stone Etching company; Jim Thomas, whose grandmother, Bertha Kreuziger Smale, worked alongside Lilian Rice in Rancho Santa Fe in the 1920s; and Friends of Lilian J. Rice, an association of those dedicated to remembering Rice and her achievements.

It is hoped that in correcting this unfortunate oversight that, going forward, Lilian Rice’s birth year will be attributed correctly. And in bringing her name into the spotlight, in time for the 74th anniversary of her passing, that her rightful place in California’s history will be reclaimed. Lilian Rice has 12 of her buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, many more are designated local historic resources, and the community of Rancho Santa Fe was designated a California State Historical Landmark in 1989.

During her life, Rice employed many up-and-coming architects, men and women, whom she encouraged to advance themselves in their respective fields. Sam Hamill, who designed the San Diego County Administration Building and the Del Mar Fairgrounds, was one such person. Rice was architect to some of Hollywood’s brightest stars: Bing Crosby, Pauline Neff, Joseph Schenck, Norma Talmadge, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. She designed the San Dieguito Union High School in 1935 (a WPA project) and the Paul Ecke Ranch house the same year. Several of her homes received honor awards from the AIA in the 1930s, yet few know about her today.

“It is my mission to keep Lilian Rice’s achievements alive and to restore her fine and noble reputation,” said Welch.

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