Beautiful by Design
USD’s harmonious campus style didn’t happen by accident
by Trisha J. Ratledge

Terry Whitcomb ’53 still appreciates the vision and spirit of Mother Hill, who arrived on a dusty San Diego hilltop 60 years ago bearing a Baccarat chandelier.


erry Whitcomb ’53 didn’t need another title. She was already quite busy teaching four classes and chairing USD’s Art Department in the early 1970s. But she just couldn’t get past the incongruity of wicker lounge furniture on the Spanish Renaissance campus.

Whitcomb’s concern went beyond aesthetics. A member of the first senior class at USD, she knew Mother Rosalie Hill, who carefully chose USD’s master design. The 16th century Spanish Renaissance architecture reflected Catholicism as well as Gothic, Moorish, Iberian and Italian influences, which all merged into a distinctive style that spoke volumes.

“She said that’s what a university should be: diverse ideas that come together and result in something that is stronger than any of its original elements,” Whitcomb recalls.

Until the 1970s, however, that philosophy ended at the doorsteps of the buildings. Inside, the furnishings represented many design periods and ranged widely in quality. Whitcomb met with Art Hughes, the new president, and explained how a cohesive style for the interior spaces would be economical and practical. Soon, she had an additional title and a file cabinet that served as her new office for institutional design.

“Dr. Hughes is the reason (the campus design) is consistent and beautiful. He made it a part of the master plan.”

As public spaces began to require renovation, Whitcomb applied a master color palette — drawn from the university’s antique tapestries — to the floors, walls, ceilings and finishes. Furniture and other decorative arts followed the straight lines and style of the Spanish Renaissance era. The master style eased decision-making, reduced costs, and ensured that furniture and other decorative pieces could move anywhere on campus.

Whitcomb used similar ingenuity within the Art Department, where she established Founders Gallery in 1975 and started a class in exhibition design. Each year, her students developed and installed five shows with a total annual budget of just $1,000. They needed to be inventive, mixing leftover paint, recycling materials and straightening and reusing nails.

One year, Whitcomb offered her students’ research skills to the San Diego Museum of Art in exchange for the opportunity to exhibit impressionist Childe Hassam’s art at Founders Gallery.

“That had a profound effect on me,” recalls former student Bob O’Connell ’82, an art expert in the insurance industry and owner of Chicago’s Architrouve art gallery. “I got to do the research, I was published in a catalog and then they had the exhibition at Founders. It deeply influenced what I do today.”

Another former student, Mary Whelan ’86, understands Whitcomb’s work like no other. She is USD’s current director for institutional design.

“It’s a privilege,” says Whelan. “I’m carrying on a tradition that’s very needed for this campus.”

Back on campus occasionally, Whitcomb still appreciates the vision and able spirit of Mother Hill, who arrived on a dusty hilltop in San Diego 60 years ago bearing a Baccarat chandelier.

“The students get the finest teachers. They have the best books. They should have the best decorative arts around them,” Whitcomb says.