The Sun Villa: A. Quincy Jones' San Diego House

Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

The December 1950 issue of Architectural Forum featured ‘Builder's House of the Year’ – what would be marketed locally as San Diego’s Sun Villa.

By Keith York
Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

Discharged from the US Navy in 1945, architect A. Quincy Jones returned to Los Angeles and opened his office in the house in Laurel Canyon he had built with his former wife. The years following World War II saw Jones partnering with Paul R. Williams on several projects in the Palm Springs area.

Years before he would be widely acclaimed for his Case Study House #24 (1961) for Arts & Architecture and tract house designs for developer Joseph Eichler, Jones secured his- and San Diego's first American Institute of Architects National 'First Honor Award' (in 1950) for his 1948 design - 'Builder's House for Hvistendahl'. Following the award, the December 1950 issue of Architectural Forum featured ‘Builder's House of the Year’ – a series of homes he called ‘San Diego House’ that would be marketed locally as Sun Villas.

While it was through his relationship with Joseph Eichler that A. Quincy Jones was provided both the venue and the freedom to implement his concepts in tract housing, the earlier Sun Villas served as the experimental training ground for Jones to ultimately raise the tract house in California from the simple stucco box to a logically designed structure integrated into the landscape and surrounded by greenbelts.

The house was designed originally for developer A.C. Hvistendahl - owner of Cal-Sun Building Company and Vistendahl Building Contractor in La Jolla. The intent was that the design was available for purchase, from a model home office on El Cajon Boulevard, for those clients who owned a parcel of land yet feared the rising building costs of custom homes.

According to Cory Buckner, author of A. Quincy Jones (Phaidon, 2002), "In 1948, because he felt that no one in the San Diego area had yet cashed in on the appeal of “a good contemporary low cost house,” local builder A.C. Hvistendahl asked Jones to design a two-bedroom exhibition house. In 1950, Architectural Forum commented on the house, “Here is an architect’s solution to a builder’s problem which proves that top-flight modern design can offer more for the money in the most competitive building field – the $10,000 house market."

"Designed as an affordable, contemporary dwelling that could be built for people who already owned their lots, the 1,000-square-foot-house featured rooms that opened to a patio and a built-in kitchen that opened onto a dining area. The majestic, low-sloping roof was similar to that of [the architect's] Model 111 of the Mutual Housing Association development. Public reaction to the house was mixed. Many people, according to Hvistendahl, had never been exposed to severely functional architecture, and they found it rather staggering at first sight. But after two months of open house viewings, five hundred people per day were still passing through. Contemporary magazines commented that with Jones’s project, the door had been opened to contemporary architecture for the low-cost house," followed Buckner.

When architect Jones was awarded his national award for this project, the jury applauded various elements: "In appearance it is well handled, with elements beautifully related and details carefully studied. In addition, it is a serious and apparently successful attempt to approach the problems of building in the low-cost market. It was designed for construction on any lot in San Diego County for $8,750. The limitation of the program to the 1,200 square feet of usable floor area was aimed to demonstrate good design for the low-cost housing market. Its plan is compact and workable, with circulation carefully studied, and the entire lot is utilized as part of the living area," Buckner continued.

Buckner, who also wrote about Jones' work on the Mutual Housing cooperative offered, "The similarities with Jones’ Mutual Housing Association houses are striking. Both projects featured post-and-beam construction, exposed tongue-and-groove ceilings, and exposed plywood cabinets with molded plywood door and drawer pulls. The inclusion of built-in cabinets and furniture helped moderate-income families keep down the cost of furnishing their homes.”

At the time, Magazine San Diego offered, “San Diegans who have been following, with covetous eyes, the now snowballing swing to contemporary architecture in the big home and garden magazines, have often wondered why so few people have built that way here. The reason, of course, is not only the customary reluctance of most people to accept anything new, but the more fundamental drawback of high cost. The average family simply cannot afford the sizeable architect and contractor fees to build one of these rambling structures with their walls of glass and their vigorous uninhibited plans. There are hundreds of pseudo moderns around, but the truly architecturally designed contemporary homes are thinly scattered… One solution to this problem, offered by a San Diego company, the Cal-Sun Building Co. has been attracting nationwide notice. Last year, a La Jolla contractor, A.C. Hvistendahl, called in the brilliant modern architect, Mr. A. Quincy Jones, to design a home incorporating many of these new ideas but selling for a moderate price on a semi-volume contract basis."

Magazine San Diego continued, "The theory was that although good contemporary is out of the reach of the average buyer if only a single unit is designed and built, the price can be competitive when a number of houses based on a sound, advanced architectural design are constructed. The result is San Diego's Sun Villa, a functional completely modern two bedroom home in which every room is the house opens onto its own private garden. Screening garden fences insure privacy from neighbors and permit the extensive use of glass walls, making living and entertaining areas interchangeable with the patios and terrace… There are alternate plans for one, two or three bedroom homes. The two bedroom basic home is priced to sell below $9,000 and has both FHA and GI financing approval...The plan is remarkable for its solution to another problem of economy that usually is disregarded: it is so equipped that a person who spends his last penny for it has to add only a minimum of equipment and furniture. The low price includes built-in dressing table in the larger bedroom, built-in phone table and desk, bar service counter and bunk beds. Undeniably, this collection of plywood built-ins leaves the owner little chance of asserting his own taste, but that is the price he pays for an excellently planned economy house. The low cost and originality of Jones’ plan have attracted considerable nation-wide publicity.”

The Sun Villa was shot by two established architectural photographers - Robert Cleveland and Maynard Parker. The latter's images were splashed across the pages of the October 1950 issue of House Beautiful by editor Elizabeth Gordon. Gordon, editor of House Beautiful between 1939-1964, according to the New York Times "...was determined to educate the American public about appropriate design and new American architecture." Gordon published entire issues on Frank Lloyd Wright, the California rancho house - including the 'Pace Setter House' issues in the late 1940s that "tracked and explained important trends in design to an audience just learning how to consume."

"This house was approached as an attempt to solve one specific problem and be the stepping stone to a solution of a more important problem," the architect said. "The specific problem was a 'good contemporary low cost house' that a contractor could build for people who already owned a lot but could not build as individuals because of high costs. The general problem was to prove the small house can be built within or under cost limits dictated by tract builders, yet give a buyer something that permits the type of living so much discussed by architects today," according to A. Quincy Jones: The Oneness of Architecture.

Jones' approach was to design a house that provided "shelter and protection from the elements with a most economical structural system." The structure was very simple - comprised of 4 large rigid ribs running the long direction of the simple rectangular form, and sewn together with 2" x 6" tongue and groove Douglas fir roofing which was 'stained and exposed.' The architect's description of the home's exterior was simply, "only a skin of non-structural redwood, waterproofed plywood and glass. Exterior walls are 65% glass." To make the house efficient, Jones placed windows "high and next to ceiling to take off hot air;" and to include generous amounts of built-in storage to reduce the need for furniture. As with many Southern California homes by progressive architects of the period, each room opened to its own private garden enclosed by Jones' unique screening fence.

House Beautiful "...made arrangements with Burnett's of San Diego to equip it with furnishings which would represent as good a value as a house itself. The cost of the furniture selected from Manual Martin's 'California House' group... is hardy Philippine mahogany in a light 'wheat' finish." La Jolla interiors shop Armin Richter also provide materials for the exhibition home and photo shoot. These appear in Maynard Parker's photo shoot - while Robert Cleveland's images include a survey of early Post-War California furniture and furnishing designers and suppliers.

Partial List of Projects

Hvistendahl, A.C. Residence (1949-50)
2548 El Cajon Boulevard
A Guide to Contemporary Architecture in Southern California noted an incorrect address as '2400 El Cajon Blvd' but sales materials clearly state the exact location.

Sun Villa (1950)
3711 Dudley Street, Point Loma
Later remodeled by architect Sim Bruce Richards for Joachim E. and Suzanne Liebmann

Sun Villa (1950)
3021 North Evergreen, Point Loma
This example was destroyed by its 2nd owner

Sun Villa (1950)
9211 Lavell, Mt. Helix
After purchasing plans for a Sun Villa, the owner had Jones add a 3rd bedroom to the stock plans.

1040 9th Street, Ramona
Purchased/Commissioned from Cal-Sun Building Co. by Everett and Elrena Warnes

Sun Villa (1950)
5417 Pennsylvania Lane, La Mesa
Remodeled in 2018

Sun Villa (1951)
2015 S. Nevada Street, Oceanside

Sun Villa (1951)
1647 Berenda Place, El Cajon

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