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A torch is passed as open house season approaches at Santa Ysabel's Hubbell art compound

Sep 21, 2023

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.

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."

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 were part of it. And I miss seeing the stars."

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