Granted, his life has been long — 99 years and counting — but most people would need three lifetimes to get as much done as Wilson Call has.
By his count, the architect is responsible for 3,000-plus structures — including some of the most innovative and striking in Bakersfield. He’s written a book, mined uranium, skinned skunks for $2 a pelt, built a mini-empire of real-estate holdings, learned to paint for the single object of filling bare wall space, and invented several ingenious contraptions, from an ovulation calendar to a fireplug that prevents your TV from bursting into flames (he’s made millions on the last one and probably would have done better with the calendar, had the birth control pill not been released a year later).
But his greatest invention, his finest design, no doubt, is himself.
“He’s a true polymath,” said Bakersfield Museum of Art curator Rachel Magnus. “I’m just in awe.”
As well she should be, said the man himself.
“There’s no end to the things I’ve done.”
How to contain so much achievement and industry in one room? That’s the task the Bakersfield Museum of Art has set for itself with “Wilson Call: Life Designed,” one of four winter exhibitions opening at the museum Thursday evening, the reception kicking off BMoA’s 60th anniversary year.
Among the Wilson Call items on display in the Chevron Gallery is a scroll that illustrates perhaps as well as any document could the architect’s torrid prolificacy. Over four columns are listed, in Call’s own handwriting, 782 structures he designed, starting with a bakery in 1963 and ending with a 1998 entry: “Supreme Bean, No. 3.”
And that, he is quick to add, is a partial list, since he designed many structures, somewhat on the sly, before being certified by the state.
Call learned to draw up plans while in the Army, serving Stateside with the Corps of Engineers during World War II.
“The first thing I did when I came out was Our Lady of Perpetual Help. They gave me $1,000 for drawing that plan and I said, ‘My God.’ So I drew plans for hundreds of people all over town with no license.”
Eventually the state had had enough — who does this guy think he is, showing up all the professional architects in Bakersfield? It was either give up commercial design or take a grueling exam — which he did and which he passed, becoming the only licensed architect in the state at the time who had no formal education in the field, he said.
His residential plans have been used in the construction of thousands of homes, his commercial designs are all over town — a personal favorite of Call’s is Hillcrest Mortuary — and he’s designed 45 medical offices and 44 churches, including Congregation B’Nai Jacob and the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Wilson Road, which features a circular, faceted dome that soars into the heavens.
“It’s like a big tent structure, a tipi. It goes up 107 feet in the air,” he said, noting that the 125-foot beams had to be transported from Santa Clara following a special route, since the truck, laden with its awkward cargo, couldn’t turn corners.
The church was completed in 1966 and was impressive enough to turn the head of David Milazzo, an up-and-coming architect who got his start in Bakersfield a few years later and had hoped to work with Call. Milazzo never got to partner with the visionary he so admired — who prefers to go it alone professionally — but he’s a fan to this day.
“He had kind of an industrial bent to him in some degrees but he’d get out of that, too, when he’d do a church and step out of that architecture and go into a different style. Very inventive — that’s the best word that describes him. He thought through stuff that most of us don’t know existed.”
The structure that best exemplifies Call’s style, Milazzo said, is the architect’s Panorama Drive home. It’s the white two-story with the bright blue roof that looks nothing like any other house on the street — or in Bakersfield, for that matter.
Inspired by Neutra
The house follows the Modernist example set by revered architect Richard Neutra. There was just something about the tenets of the style — the clean lines, use of natural materials and harmony with the surrounding environment — that appealed to Call, and he’s followed that aesthetic throughout his career.
“Guess who came to see me?” Call asked. “Richard’s son. He called me on the phone one day and said, ‘I heard your house is in the image of Richard Neutra, my father. And I said, ‘Well, yes.’ He came here and went through the whole house, upstairs, downstairs and he was quite impressed.”
Built in 1964 (the second floor was added 20 years later) the home’s walls of concrete block, teak paneling and glass frame a breathtaking backyard view of the Panorama bluffs, sloping down to Alfred Harrell Highway — even that quirky oversized Indian outside Ethel’s Old Corral is clear in the distance.
And just beyond, somewhere in the oil fields, is the spot where the Wilson Call story started, on July 20, 1916.
“I was born on the Boston Petroleum Lease,” said the architect, gesturing north from his living room glass wall on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.
“I was delivered by Dr. Worthington. The receipt said ‘One baby boy, $35.”
Call has spent most of his life in Bakersfield, save for his Army stint and a few years in Long Beach during his youth, the basis of a novel he wrote, “The Summer Sun,” a slightly fictionalized account of the adventures he had, courtesy of a live-and-let-live upbringing from his parents.
“If they went to a speakeasy, I went to a speakeasy. If they went to a gambling ship, I went to a gambling ship. There were no babysitters back in those days.”
As a young man, he trapped coyotes and skunks with an uncle and did some surveying work before his 1942 enlistment.
He married his first wife when he was just 20 and went on to marry twice more. Call never had children. He didn’t say why, or whether all that time spent thinking about ovulation in the 1950s while designing his birth-control calendar was a factor.
It was at the urging of his second wife, Willie, that he built the second story, doubling the home’s 1,700 square feet. She needed extra storage for her wardrobe, which included six mink coats. Several of her garments are still stored in an upstairs closet.
After Willie died, he married his third wife, whom he is in the process of divorcing. The current Mrs. Call, he said, never really took to the Modern look, a reaction he gets from time to time in tradition-loving Bakersfield.
“She didn’t like this house at all. She lives in a Mediterranean-type house. This is very difficult for them to understand,” he said, making a sweeping gesture to the Neutra-esque simplicity that surrounds him.
Call’s live-in personal assistant Althea Deuel echoed her boss, offering stories of the curious and the lost wandering up to the wrought-iron gates that act as an extra layer of security between the world and the bright orange front door.
“People think it’s an office building or the IRS or the water company,” she said.
Throughout the home are furnishings hand-picked by Call, including a glass coffee table by noted industrial furniture designer Gerald McCabe and other elegant mid-century tables, couches and lamps purchased from a defunct local furniture store. Call’s paintings are displayed throughout, except one, on loan to the BMoA.
“By 1985, I got a bug for painting and made 15 or 16 paintings, put them all around the room, and made a brochure and set it out for everybody and never did anything since. But I’m that way. If there’s a dime to be made, I’m going to make it, one way or another.”
Except for the use of a hearing aid and cholesterol medication, Call is in amazing shape. He was driving until a few weeks ago, but new medication has thrown off his balance. He’s never smoked and doesn’t drink. Even his doctors marvel at his health, he said.
“I went to the doctor and he says, ‘Are you Wilson Call? I expected someone in bedroom slippers and a bathrobe.”
Call keeps up on current events by watching Fox News and CNN. He leaned Democratic much of his life — casting his first vote for FDR — until a meeting with Ronald Reagan during the former actor’s California gubernatorial campaign.
“He was so good. Ronald Reagan took you by the hand, put an arm around your shoulder and talked to you. So I changed into a Republican.”
Call likes what Donald Trump has to say, but hasn’t ruled out supporting senators Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio in the primary. But he’s a little too busy fielding interview requests and collecting honors to think much about politics. Representatives from the University of California interviewed him about a month ago.
“They went through the whole repertoire, from when I was born on through. Quite extensive. “Since I did so many darn buildings, close to 3,000 buildings, I’m probably the most prolific architect in Bakersfield.”
Other exhibitions opening at BMoA
The three other collections featured in the winter exhibitions were curated to highlight the museum’s yearlong observance of its 60th anniversary.
Celebrating 60 Years: The Life and Work of Marion Osborn Cunningham: The history of the Bakersfield Museum of Art begins with Marion Osborn Cunningham, or at least with her family, which dedicated the original art gallery in Cunningham’s name after her untimely death, at age 39, in 1948. An artist whose work Magnus describes as “always very well-received,” Cunningham came to Bakersfield in 1911 as a small child. While at Bakersfield High School, she was introduced to art by renowned local educator Ruth Emerson. She relied on that background when she began work as an artist in San Francisco, a city that thoroughly charmed and beguiled her, which is obvious in the whimsical Bay Area-themed pastels on display in the Ablin Gallery. “You see her evolve. She had a fine hand with pastels and became almost modern in her style,” said Magnus who noted that Cunningham eventually — and reluctantly — ventured into oils. “At that time, the galleries wanted oils,” Magnus said. “She’d say, ‘A girl has to eat,’ so she tried her hand.” A working artist, Cunningham’s art appeared on post cards and greeting cards, and she accepted several commissions, including an offer from a San Francisco-to-Hawaii cruise line to capture Polynesian scenes. She even designed wallpaper for a hotel. Examples from both of those ventures are included in the exhibition, as are a self-portrait in oil, a scene from a San Joaquin Valley farm and art from her travels to Mexico. “She captured lovely, quaint, moments, really cheerful,” Magnus said. Cunningham’s work will be up all year, and the museum plans several events in honor of the artist, including a screening in October of a silent film she was in.
Local Visions: Selections from Collections in the Area: Works from several private collections will be on display in the Cunningham Gallery, featuring the work of California watercolorists, scene painters and impressionists. “With the whole collection being local, there was a lot of research to be done,” Magnus said. “We looked through old Californian and San Francisco Chronicle articles.” Included in Local Visions are seven of the paintings that make up East Bakersfield High’s enviable collection, purchased by the students themselves from 1941 to about 1960. Also on display Down the hallway leading to the meeting room are several works by Phil Paradise from the museum’s permanent collection.