Almost every April for the past 38 years, activity at artist-sculptor James Hubbell’s famous Ilan-Lael home and art compound in Santa Ysabel has risen to a fever pitch as Hubbell, his wife, Anne, and their onsite crew of artisans prepared for the property’s annual open house.
Since 1983, thousands of art and architecture enthusiasts from all over the world have arrived each spring for guided tours of the Hubbells’ fantastical 33-acre compound. The only exception was in 2020, when the pandemic closed the property to the public.
There’s no place on Earth quite like Ilan-Lael, which in 2008 earned a San Diego County historic designation. Over the past 64 years, Hubbell designed all of the property’s 12 nature-inspired buildings and filled them with his own mosaic floor and wall art, stained glass windows, hand-carved wood doors and swooping roofs.
His imaginatively shaped “habitable sculptures” have been likened to the mushroom-like Hobbit houses in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films and his organic expressionist design style has been compared to that of Modernist Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí. But Marianne Gerdes, director of the Ilan-Lael Foundation, said Hubbell’s design style is uniquely his own. She calls it “Hubbellesque.”
This April is no different from most, in that staff and artisans are now sprucing up the property for a robust tour season running May 6 through June 18.
But there have been major changes happening behind the scenes at Ilan-Lael over the past year. Last fall, the Hubbells — who are in their early 90s — left the property that had been their home since 1958 to move into an assisted living community in Chula Vista. James Hubbell also resigned his position as president of the Ilan-Lael Foundation’s board of directors, and his second-eldest son, Drew, stepped into the role.
A torch is passed
Drew Hubbell, who lives with his wife and three children in San Diego’s historic Kensington community, is a prominent San Diego architect who has been a leader in the region’s green and sustainable building industry for decades. He has also worked tirelessly by his father’s side since childhood to bring James’ artistic design visions to fruition.
Drew said he and his three brothers — Torrey, Lauren and Brennan — never expected their parents to leave the compound, but it was the right decision. The living areas there are spread among several buildings requiring an outdoor walk, and there’s no central heating or air conditioning.
“We thought they would live out their days there,” Drew said. “They both love the property so much. But in August of last year Dad decided he didn’t feel safe. He feared he might fall at any time and didn’t want Mom to be stuck with him injured. He was ready for an easier place where he could walk to a dining hall and not have to light a fire every night.”
Last summer, the Hubbells accepted a friend’s invitation to stay in their Solana Beach condo for six weeks to experiment with living off the mountain. It went well and the couple, who have been married 64 years, decided in September to move into assisted living. In an interview last week, James Hubbell talked about leaving the mountain and turning the foundation’s presidency over to his son.
“It is a strange move to Fredericka Manor after over 60 years in the mountains. I miss the nature and friends of our mountain home and studio,” James said, in an email. “I try to give things to younger minds. Drew is the president of the Ilan-Lael Foundation, which is good, as he is very thoughtful. I hope the foundation does not get too big but is put to work helping with a challenging time in our history.”
Drew said assuming the presidency of the Ilan-Lael Foundation board is a big responsibility, but he’s honored to do it.
In 1982, James and Anne created their nonprofit foundation — Ilan-Lael is a Hebrew phrase meaning “a tree that unites the physical and the spiritual” — to sponsor cross-border arts events and education in San Diego and Tijuana. When the Cedar fire destroyed half of the buildings on the property in fall 2003, the Hubbells had no insurance to rebuild. So they placed the land in the trust of the foundation so they could accept tax-deductible donations to rebuild. The public response was generous.
The Hubbells moved to Santa Ysabel in 1958 and built the compound — which occupies about 10 acres of their property on Orchard Lane — one structure at a time as their needs and money allowed, using mostly natural materials. Over the years, they added a separate building for their sons, as well as multiple art studios, galleries, a chapel and sculpture garden. The most recent addition is the Ilan-Lael Foundation Center, where staff oversees arts education programs and nature retreats, and serve as protectors of both the historic buildings and Hubbell’s artistic legacy.
As the foundation’s new president, Drew Hubbell said it is his priority to lead Ilan-Lael in a direction of financial sustainability. Some of these efforts include building an endowment fund, expanding tours on the property now that the Hubbells are no longer in residence, building more onsite education programs, renting the property out for corporate retreats and private events, and doing more education outreach in the San Diego community.
“My No. 1 goal is making the foundation sustainable economically in the long run. We want an endowment like the bigger organizations like San Diego Symphony have so we’re not always scrambling at the end of the year to make payroll and pay for needed repairs,” Drew said.
This spring’s open house season has been expanded to 22 tours over 11 dates. The foundation is also offering a raffle this spring for an overnight stay in the Boys House, a stand-alone structure that served as the boys’ home in their youth. There’s also a new book about James Hubbell for sale at the property, “Seeking Beauty,” a biography on his life and work by authors Angie Brenner with Sarah Jamison. Fall tours are also planned.
Drew said he and his brothers began helping their dad build the compound as little boys, mixing cement and making adobe bricks from the age of 4 or 5. He describes his parents as “green builders” before that was even a phrase because they used the materials around them, like earth and reclaimed wood, to construct their home.
“People always ask me what it was like growing up there,” Drew said. “It was a magical experience. It wasn’t just the architecture and unique buildings but growing up in nature and being so integrated into nature. One of the things I miss most, being in a traditional home in the city, is going outside every night. You really experience the weather there. It might have been snowing or the wind was blowing 50 miles an hour. But you wer
e part of it. And I miss seeing the stars.”
Russian ‘Firebird’ rises from the ashes as war rages in Ukraine
One of Ilan-Lael Foundation’s major projects over the past 28 years is the Pacific Rim Parks, where James Hubbell worked with teams of international artists and students to design and build peace and friendship parks in seven Pacific Rim nations. The first park was built in Vladivostok, Russia, in 1994.
Four years later, Hubbell was invited to do an art exhibit in Moscow, and for that show he created a large stained glass window inspired by the Russian myth of the firebird, as described in Suzanne Massie’s book “Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia.” In the Russian firebird story, a woman artist is kidnapped by an evil foreign prince who disguises himself as a blackbird and then transforms her into a firebird to fly her back to his country. As they flew, the heartbroken firebird dropped her feathers along the way until she could no longer fly and fell to her death. Her feathers were magical and those who sought them would find truth and beauty in all they did.
But while Hubbell’s large “Firebird” piece was being shipped to Moscow in 1998, it got stuck in Findorn, Scotland, where the town leaders fell in love with the work and asked to keep it. For 24 years it hung in the Findhorn community center until the building, and all of its contents, were destroyed by fire in January 2021.
Last year, James Hubbell found his original design plans for the window and vowed to re-create it for Findhorn. The project began in February in the artisan shops at Ilan-Lael with glass craftsman Cindy Mushet-Shriver remaking the window, woodworker Dan Thorner designing the wood frame and blacksmith John Wheelock creating the stabilizing structures.
The new firebird window, which is 8 feet wide by 4 feet high, was completed just as Russia invaded Ukraine, which put Hubbell in a sad and reflective mood.
“The firebird window was a dark reminder for me of the young people in Vladivostok and how much hope they had in the future,” Hubbell said in an email. “The difficulty in defining truth and beauty is that when you do, you need trust in the world. Truth and beauty are always changing, but briefly, they work with neighbors, not against them.”
“Why did the window come back to life at the same time that Putin began his war of utter destruction on the Ukrainian people? And why did I come back to the words of (Fyodor) Dostoevsky that ‘beauty will save the world’? The Russian author understood that truth and beauty are tools of hope that push back on fear such as that which Putin is sowing in the world right now. I, too, see a connection between these things. Beauty will always bring the good and the true. When things are really bad, only truth and beauty can save the world.”
The firebird window is now on display at Ilan-Lael through mid-April, when it will be moved to Culver City for Hubbell’s latest exhibition. After that it will be shipped to Scotland for permanent installation.
The new exhibit, “In Harmony with Nature: The Architectural Work of James Hubbell,” runs April 23 through June 22 at the Helm’s Bakery Design District in Culver City. It is Hubbell’s first ever solo exhibition in the Los Angeles area. Besides the firebird window, the L.A. exhibit will feature studies, models and pictures of Hubbell’s Sea Ranch Chapel in Sonoma County, the ornate Doors of Abu Dhabi at the Ilan-Lael compound, the Pacific Rim Parks and the Colegio La Esperanza school in Tijuana.
Hubbell said the exhibit “is a way to show how trust and nature can help us find a balanced world.”
Hubbell-Ilan-Lael Open House Tours
When: By reservation only. Two-hour guided tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays on May 6, 7, 9, 20, 21, 23, June 3, 4 and 6 and June 17 and 18.
Admission: $200 per car (two people). Additional passengers are $75 each. Limit 5 passengers per car.
Where: 930 Orchard Lane, Santa Ysabel
Phone: (760) 765-3427