Renowned Architect Dennis McGuire is an Idyllwild Institution. Here is Dennis, in his own words…

I was born in Seattle, Washington, where my parents and me and my two younger brothers lived until I turned seven. I’m told that when I was three I found some kind of knife and started to recarve our furniture. I’ve also been told that our father didn’t get angry, but bought me a bunch of regular and colored pencils, along with a ream of paper, and told me to start drawing. And that’s what I did.     

There was a park we went to once a month, in West Seattle. The park was/is in the one canyon that wasn’t logged in the late 1800’s. There was only one narrow road leading into it and the canyon had steep walls. So, our parents would read the Sunday paper at one of the two picnic tables and our father told us to go have fun and come back when we were ready to. Running through that forest I had my first feeling of what we call “freedom”, a feeling reinforced at Easter breaks and during the following summers, when we always visited a National Park or two…..     

We moved to San Mateo and California just after I turned seven. It wasn’t long before I was building things in the back yard. And when it rained, I would often draw what I was going to build. I couldn’t have been more than ten when I asked my dad who it was who did what I was doing. There were lots of terms he could have used, but he said “an architect.” So, I decided that was what I was going to be.     

We wound up in La Canada just as I was to start High School. Someone told me that if I wanted to be an architect, I should check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. So, I rode my bicycle to the Pasadena Library. Instead of sending me to the stacks, the Librarian went to the locked case where they kept their reference books. I was brought two Architectural Forum magazines devoted to Wright and his work, one from 1938 and one from 1948. I had been wondering what an American architecture should look like. When I got to the iconic fold out black and white photograph of his 1936 Falling Water I sat and gazed at it for 15 or 20 minutes. There it was: an American architecture, hovering in a canyon above a waterfall, an American architecture planted in Nature…..     

My first mentor was my high school history and political science Teacher. I had her two years in a row. That first year we had to write a paper on a famous American. She made sure to hand the list to me first, with her pinky finger pointing to Wright’s name. But even more importantly, we had three debates my senior year and the last one was about Vietnam, still 6 months before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution got the US into the deeper rice paddies there. I thought I chose the right side of that debate, but the deep research I did made me suspect that I hadn’t. I won three students over to my side, but after the debate I was sure that I had chosen the wrong side of the issue. And shortly after graduation and my 18th birthday, I signed up to be a Conscientious Objector, sensing what was coming. But before graduation, my amazing Teacher hired me to design my first paid commission, for her family’s house in Linda Vista, with a view of the Rose Bowl below. The design looks a lot more like Wright than like me, but I did cantilever a lot of the house off its tight hillside site. If I had known a Structural Engineer, one willing to work with me and nurse me through the working drawings process, I might have built my first house when I was 18 or 19. But I am glad that it didn’t turn out that way…..     

I scored a partial scholarship to the Architecture School at USC, but at that time it seemed to me to be an extension of the Buisness School. That wasn’t what I was looking for. Fortunately, California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obisipo was what I was looking for, what I have since dubbed “the greatest proletairan achitecture school on the planet.” And the fact that I could get on my motorcycle and head for Big Sur, when there was a break in the 24/7 demands of that school, was the answer to a prayer.     

I graduated with honors, but if I was so smart you would think I would have known what the asterisk after my name meant, when we had a graduation rehersal and the list of graduates was handed to us. My friends got a lot of mileage out that (“Dennis, you know how the Dean feels about you! Maybe you’re not graduating with us!”)!…..     

That was 1970 and, as I recall, my Draft number was 12, so I knew I would be drafted soon. I was able to get a job for six months designing for a well-known firm in West LA, but it wasn’t a very satisfying experience for me. It was during that period I had my sit down meeting with the Draft Board in the San Fernando Valley. They had never granted a CO status before, not even to a Quaker. In 1964 I had applied to be a kind of CO that didn’t exist, at least in law, what I called “a secular conscientious objector”. But someone with my case won in the Supreme Court earlier in 1970–I had wanted to be that guy. But after my sit-dwon meeting with the Board, for whatever set of reasons, they  granted my status. They even approved what may have been the most honorable two years of work I’ve ever done, in the Physical Therapy Department of what was then called “The Spastic Children’s Foundation”. The Foundation was in Watts and not far from the Watts Towers, where I sometimes was able to go for lunch. But though I felt blessed to be doing the kind of work I was doing, the commuting to Watts from Santa Monica five days a week, every week, for two years, while dealing with Los Angeles traffic, having been gone from LA for so long in San Luis Obispo, wore on me. And I became desperate to leave the city!…..     

It was during my last year at the Foundation that I was commissioned to design the first two houses that did get built, one for outside of Arroyo Grande and one for Idyllwild. I came up here the day after Thanksgiving in 1973 to put on nail bags and join the crew in building the Idyllwild cabin, for June Hughes, an elementary shool Teacher in Los Angeles. It was only when I showed up that first day of work that I discovered that I was the crew. But though the lead man, Art Cole, was not very good at reading drawings (making my presence on the crew rather crucial), he knew how rig pullies and winches up off of trees, so he and I could move large beams around with very little physical effort. I knew that my working drawings were complete, but the actual building process still had seemed like a mystery to me. And yet, I was the one deciding which element of the construction went where and when. It all wasn’t so mysterious after all, though I found the process of actually building one of my designs to be endlessly interesting…..     

By the time June’s cabin here was finished, and with the house outside of Arroyo Grande almost finished, I had two more Idyllwild houses to do, plus one outside of Grass Valley, and the possibility of three or four in the mountains beyond Tehachapi–all designed to celebrate the nature of their sites, all designed to play to the Nature on and surrounding their sites. And that’s when I knew that I could stay in Idyllwild and take root here like a tree. And that’s when I got to work, with the help of a few locals and with even more help from the County of Riverside, on limiting the growth of Idyllwild. I had been to Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead and I could see what was going to happen up there. And there were those of us here who did not want to see that happen here. To the degree it could be pulled off, by the end of the 1970’s, we had put in place the guard rails we thought necessary–and it turned out that those guardrails have held pretty well…..   

 …..Jumping ahead 40 years, I’ve got 60+ built projects, most of them here, though there are built projects of mine on the Northern California coast, in the Bay Area, three on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, projects in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and I still hope that we will build the house I’ve designed for a granite pile outside of Prescott, Arizona…..