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George Espinola, Jr

Remembering George Espinola

George Espinola, architect and architectural historian, died suddenly on December 20, 2010 at the age of 49. His untimely passing was caused by an apparent heart attack. His immediate family included his wife, his two sons (one married) and one grandson. George was one of six children from a Portuguese family who settled in the city of Santa Clara before WWII. 

George was an authority on the architectural work of Frank Delos Wolfe and Charles McKenzie, and George’s research on them was published in 2004 as “Cottages, Flats, Buildings & Bungalows: 102 Designs from Wolfe & McKenzie”. This book is already a classic and has become a basic reference for history researchers in Santa Clara County.

I have known George so long that I cannot really recall how we met. We were probably introduced through a reference librarian at the old California History Room when the library was on West San Carlos Street. I know it must have been more than twenty five years ago; it seems like I have known him forever.

I met George because he was working in the California History Room every Monday night, meticulously searching the microfilmed newspapers for any scrap of information about Frank Wolfe and his possible relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright. George, a graduate of the architecture department at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, was enamored of Frank Lloyd Wright. George had a theory that there was a direct connection between Wright and Wolfe. George had always been interested in buildings and had noted a number of Santa Clara Valley houses that were reflections of Wright’s important Prairie style. 

The reference librarian introduced us. It might have been John Kensit or perhaps George Kobiyashi, both local history enthusiasts themselves. The librarians knew that I had been working on the background of all the houses in Naglee Park, a neighborhood adjacent to San Jose State, and knew George and I had a lot in common. 

George had already found a copy of the famous Wolfe & McKenzie pattern book, the Book of Designs, in the state library in Sacramento and photocopied a working copy for himself. I had already spent many hours in the County Recorder’s Office listing all of the certificates of completion for San Jose houses built between 1900 and 1910, so when the two of us got together, we discovered we had a large and important pool of primary data. I finally just handed George my notebook, as sloppy and as incomplete as it was, because I had construction dates and locations of scores of Wolfe & McKenzie houses in San Jose. 

Back then, I don’t think George had any idea how big a job lay before him. He might have thought the Book of Designs contained all of the best Wolfe & McKenzie buildings, and once researched, he would have a good grasp of the subject. He went on to learn that Frank Delos Wolfe and Charles S. McKenzie had not only created hundreds of houses but scores of significant business buildings as well. And he went on to find out that the Wolfe family included three generations of local builders and designers, and had made a substantial contribution to the built environment of San Jose.

So way back then, George set off on his research journey and I continued on mine. In addition to his interest in Wolfe & McKenzie, he would call from time to time to share other interesting discoveries. He knew that I was a research historian and he was always very generous with information that he knew would be helpful. 

One of George’s best discoveries turned out to be critically important to a landmark house on the San Jose State campus. It was George who discovered that the Scheller House, once nearly demolished by San Jose State, was in fact designed by one of California’s earliest and most important architects, Theodore Lenzen. George found a reference to the building permit showing the house was built in 1904 for the Lion-Scheller family and his discovery could not have come at a more opportune time. George’s information was critical to a lawsuit that had been filed against San Jose State by the Preservation Action Council, a suit that eventually saved the house. Today the house has been fully restored and is used as the SJSU Associated Students office, thanks to George’s effort.

I think the Sheller House was an important turning point for George – he began to see how critical his research and information could be. And so he began a new level of research, locating not only every Wolfe & McKenzie house, but also researching the clients listed in the Book of Designs. Architectural research in San Jose had finally come of age.

Over the years, George and I would sometimes meet to share information. I had once discovered that modernist architect Irving Gill, most noted for work in San Diego and Los Angeles did a very early residence in Santa Clara County. I mentioned it to George, who not only found the house but discovered that it had already been demolished. 

When I was the director of the Saratoga Museum, George and I once again shared research information. He sent me a list of West Valley houses that he considered “missing” and I was able to patch together some information about many of them. His list, in turn, provided some critical information about the builders of houses that I knew were important, but could not find in the usual references. It was George who discovered that the Parson’s House, a brown-shingle bungalow in Saratoga, was a Wolfe & McKenzie house, and that Charles McKenzie had built Saratoga’s first bank. It was George who uncovered two more Saratoga structures designed by Emily Williams, an early local architect whose work is finally being appreciated.

The Preservation Action Council of San Jose (PAC*SJ) and the San Jose Woman’s Club were proud to support George in his work. The Woman’s Club hosted several book-signings and lectures for George, and he in turn, blessed us with his talks and building tours of our club house, designed in 1928 by Wolfe & Higgins. George was also interested in Higgins since George grew up in the same Santa Clara neighborhood as the Higgins’ family and often passed the Higgins’ family home on his way to school.

My last long conversation with George regarding Higgins and other Santa Clara designers was this summer. George was featured at a book-signing and lecture at the annual San Jose Woman’s Club ice-cream social. After the event we talked a bit about the new house he had moved into and how excited he was to research the provenance of the structure. He was very pleased to find that his house had a Portuguese past, because his heritage was always close to his heart.

George’s work guarantees him a permanent place in the history community in San Jose. The research work that he did in reprinting the Book of Designs is his “landmark”. It has quickly become the standard reference, used by every person interested in the heritage of their home. There is something immortal about a history reference book of this type – George has achieved something that will live forever. I am proud to have known him.

April Hope Halberstadt
December 28, 2010