How LA Became a Land of Single-Family – and Unique – Homes

In the time of COVID, as we expanded our range of house hunting to house hunting, we needed decoder rings to translate the real estate language, a language that is particularly complicated in Los Angeles. How many ways can you allude to the idiosyncratic, even the quirky or the weird, without scaring off buyers? How to interpret “eclectic”? “Imaginative”? “Distinctive”?

Each home is distinctly that of the resident, but especially in Los Angeles, some of our cutting-edge individual inventiveness, as well as our architectural flair, has gone into the single-family home for decades.

That’s what drew the multitudes here in the first place. You move to New York despite the prospect of living in 400 square feet of a human sandwich. You moving to Los Angeles partly because you expect to rule your own miniature kingdom – a house, a patio, an adobada chicken in every pot, and an orange tree in every yard.

Merry Ovnick’s insightful book “Los Angeles: The End of the Rainbow,” about domestic architectural expressions of civic culture, reproduces a 1943 advertisement quoting a letter from a “Sgt. Houston” serving at a foxhole in New York. Guinea, and dreaming of a “cute little cottage” he will build in California. “It won’t be big but it will have all the conveniences I can fit in it”, and he will “stay there the rest of my life.” natural life”.

Or until he upcycles it with a model of the Trevi Fountain, or with columns like Monticello, because as long as we reinvent our lives in LA, why not think big about where do we live there?

Southern California’s big sales pitch? Better live horizontally. Next to your neighbor, but not too close, and certainly not above or below. Apartment life could be a temporary circumstance, a career girl, or a temporary transition from single to a matrimonial cottage like Sgt. Houston’s, or the transition from a lonely senior to the greenery of a cemetery. By the 1920s, one-third of Angelenos owned their own homes; in 1920, 87.3% of New Yorkers were renters.

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Harry Culver, who created Culver City from whole cloth, told his vendors that they were benefactors of mankind. “Anytime you can get a family out of a building…and place that family in a cool, pure, healthy neighborhood in a home of their own…you’re not just launching that family to success, but you’re making a a service to the community and a service to humanity.

As Robert M. Fogelson wrote in “The Fragmented Metropolis,” Angelenos’ idea of ​​a “good community” was “embodied in single-family homes, set on large lots, surrounded by landscaped lawns, and secluded from Commercial activities”.

The moral force of the imagery of these neighborhoods is still formidable. In the 1990s, one of my editors asked me to take a visiting New York editor to Los Angeles. The visitor specifically asked to see Watts, so I led her along streets numbering in the hundreds, with their small stucco and wood-frame houses and duplexes. Kids could sleep in the tub if gunfire erupted in the neighborhood, but there were rose bushes in the front yards and swings on the porches. No, no, protested the publisher. “I want to see the slums”.

Our public beauty spots are worth a visit, by any means – the world-class Disney and LACMA Concert Hall, Central Library and Grand Central Market, Watts Towers and Wiltern Theater, and City Hall and Union Station. But it’s the houses that surprise visitors and gratify us, even if they can only be seen from a street or sidewalk.

There are the glorious ones of Pierre Koening, Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Rudolph Schindler, the austere and surprising ones of Frank Gehry, the playful and Gaudi-inspired O’Neill house in Beverly Hills, and at least half a dozen of Frank Les Lloyd Wright’s houses, not reputed to be his best, which is to say your Van Goghs are not among his best.

Paul Revere Williams, the prominent black architect, designed more than 2,000 homes (too many of them have since been razed), including some for movie stars. In the 1920s, Wallace Neff, another architect to the stars, designed what can be called the Hollywood White House, then the most famous residence in California, except perhaps Hearst Castle. “Pickfair” was the Beverly Hills home of two of the world’s three most famous actors, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Neff also created a home for the third, Charlie Chaplin.

The vigor of real estate agents and chambers of commerce catered to the middle classes. South Pasadena was and is a bungalow paradise. To the north, Pasadena has a historic neighborhood called Bungalow Heaven. Pomona was “the city of fine homes”. The bungalow was already a local trope in the late 1920s, when a Mack Sennett comedy, “For Sale: A Bungalow,” featured two real estate schemers tricking a young woman into buying an overpriced bungalow – where she quickly find oil.

Lilies bloom in the foreground of a tile-roofed bungalow with a long driveway and portico leading to the house

Pasadena is now home to the Bungalow Heaven neighborhood, and a classic example of the style can be seen in this vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.

The text reads as follows: "Some of Pomona's attractions.  ... A good place to live."

A vintage postcard from the collection of Patt Morrison shows the citrus groves, parks and homes of Pomona.

These more humble homes of Sgt. Houston’s daydream wasn’t necessarily boring, at least not once the Angelenos moved in and marketed them as an afterthought. The 1930s “WPA Guide to Los Angeles” called us “architecturally flamboyant, even divisive. … Los Angeles architecture is characterized by a flair for the eclectic and the unusual. But “the grotesques have given way to interesting and important innovations. This is especially true of domestic architecture.

Yet, until now, these idiosyncrasies have stretched the elastic limits of taste. It was great fun for passers-by to see the straightforward kitsch of Hancock Park’s ‘House of Davids’, where 19 statues of Michelangelo’s Old Testament naked young hero stood for years along the curved driveway. But the new owners have de-Davided the PDQ house.

Modest house lords just want to make theirs stand out, but not always to these extremes. Beginning in 1951, Daniel Van Meter brought home hundreds of discarded wooden beer pallets from the Schlitz brewery near his Sherman Oaks home. Like anyone, he started building what became a 22-foot tower behind his house.

When ordered to take it down by the fire department, Van Meter asked for superior civic judgment – and voila! The city’s Cultural Heritage Commission has granted the tower cultural monument status. “Maybe we were drunk,” curator and architectural historian Robert Winter explained. The tower was demolished in 2006, eight years after the death of Van Meter, convinced to the end of the artistic value of his tower.

A man and two women stand in front of a house bordered by a lawn.

A vintage postcard from the collection of Patt Morrison depicts people standing in front of “JR O’Neill’s California Home”. The back mentions O’Neill Vineyard Co., 420 West 8th Street, Los Angeles.

The bad taste is really a kind of consolation. For all those homes you envy and dream of, you can feel better about ridiculing the hideous ones: the fake hacienda, the house with the simpering wishing well, the dingy little cube with pompous Hampton-sized heraldic fake animals. Short, the houses with their gilding so garish that you have to hurry to go to the ophthalmologist.

So, as you see, not for old school Angelenos the replicant conformity of HOA America. I know I’ve quoted this remark before, but it’s so incisive that it bears repeating: once, while writing about the difference between Los Angeles and Orange counties, I looked for the same Robert Winter. He thought of the acres of housing estates with white and red tiled roofs. “Orange County,” he said, “looks like dentures.”

The postcard industry originated around the time Southern California was booming as middle-class Xanadu, and some of the earliest promotional images were the Pasadena mansions of “Millionaire’s Row”. », the winter homes of golden age industrialists like the Busch brewing family. , the Gambles of Procter & Gamble, the merchant family of Montgomery Ward, tobacco baron John S. Cravens.

Whitewashed stones and siding on the house, with white and red flowers outside.

Flowers are in bloom on a vintage postcard from the collection of Patt Morrison showing the exterior of actress Ginger Rogers’ Beverly Hills home.

Antonio Moreno stands in front of a large house with a manicured lawn and colorful flower beds.

Look closely and you’ll see actor Antonio Moreno – known for ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ and ‘The Temptress’ – striking a pose in this vintage postcard from Patt Morrison’s collection.

But soon the homes of the industrialists were overrun with new money and the glittering new names of Hollywood stars. Postcards – from photographs that could be taken on the public sidewalk – teased people at home with houses as glamorous as their renowned residents, some of whom appeared to be posing for fans outside their dream homes.

Today, some of these houses seem modest enough to be bed and breakfasts. Would I lie, or even take artistic license? Before being bulldozed around 1990, Pickfair – which had hosted kings and presidents – had been turned into a resort where the owner’s secretary’s guest house was larger than the original Pickfair itself. The ghost of Mary Pickford – who banned women from wearing trouser suits at the charity parties she allowed on her lawns – is said to have despaired: “Must the shadows of Pickfair be so polluted?

Los Angeles Times

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