La Jolla engraver bands with local historian, volunteers to rewrite — and right — history of prominent architect
by Mariko Lamb
Published - 12/12/12 - 05:36 PM | 6021 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lilian Rice, a prominent San Diego architect, designed many buildings in La Jolla, such as the Rancho Santa Fe service depot, pictured here. Photo courtesy of the Spurr family.
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For years, the headstone of re-nowned San Diego architect Lilian J. Rice — which rests at the La Vista Memorial Park Cemetery — incorrectly stated her birth year as 1888.

According to Diane Welch, official biographer of Rice’s tale, “Lilian J. Rice, Architect of Rancho Santa Fe,” the error occurred when well-meaning volunteers at the cemetery attempted to restore a number of headstones, including Rice’s, after vandals nearly destroyed them. It was then that Rice’s headstone was inadvertently changed from her correct birth date — June 12, 1889 — to 1888.

On Dec. 6, however, history was righted, thanks to the efforts of a few local women and their intent to honor a well-respected pioneer in her field. From this point forward, Rice’s correct date of birth will be reflected to designate her place of rest in the cemetery, thanks to Welch, project underwriter Miriam Sellgren, a living relative of Rice by marriage, and La Jolla-based engraving professional Tara Tarrant, who executed the careful etching by of the historic stone.

“It’s amazing to me how long it’s taken to get this corrected,” said Tarrant. “I feel honored to be part of this historical event. I’m inspired by Lilian’s accomplishments, especially being in a more masculine-dominated industry, as is my work. She has definitely left an impression on many.”

The architect was a trailblazing pioneer of her time, stepping into a profession largely dominated by men. She was the brainchild behind many well-known San Diego buildings, including the present-day La Jolla home of Mitt and Ann Romney and the ZLAC Rowing Club boathouse on Mission Bay. Her most notable work, however, was as the master architect of Rancho Santa Fe in the 1920s and ’30s.

“When Lilian Rice, a National City native, passed away on Dec. 22, 1938, she was recognized and revered — countywide and beyond — as a master architect of the highest caliber,” said Welch. “Fast-forward to current day and Lilian Rice’s name is not quite so revered. There are many published untruths about her life, work and achievements.”

Many vocal historians claimed she lied about her position as the lead designer and resident supervisory architect of Rancho Santa Fe in order to reap 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,” said Welch. “Along with this negative campaign, her name is universally spelled incorrectly and her birth year is often cited as 1888, the date that appears on her headstone.”

Welch hopes through her biographical work and the correction to the headstone, Rice’s reputation will be restored.

“It is hoped 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 our state’s history will be reclaimed,” said Welch. “My aim is to bring her out of the shadows of time and to make her relevant today so that her determination and achievements may inspire others to succeed.”

To find out more about Lilian Rice, visit
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