John Lautner’s Endangered Architectural Legacy, and What Los Angeles Can Do About It

July 7, 2014 § 4 Comments

John Lautner's Rehabilitation Center, Woodland Hills/Courtesy sanfernandoblog.com

John Lautner’s Rehabilitation Center, Woodland Hills/Courtesy sfvalleyblog.com

Los Angeles used to be famously indifferent to its architectural legacy, demolishing any building that stood in the way of a new freeway–or, for that matter, a new building. (For what was lost, see Sam Hall Kaplan’s LA Lost and Found [Crown, 1987]) Downtown is probably the most altered part of the metropolitan area, having lost most of its pre-WWI buildings–including hundreds of Victorian homes–during the construction of the freeway system in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet the new-is-better sentiment of our City fathers, past and present, has long been a motto for the region.

Recent decades have seen a gradual shift toward preservation, thanks largely to the Los Angeles Conservancy’s efforts. (Disclosure: A longtime Conservancy member, I have actively supported the landmarking of the Capitol Records Building and the Century Plaza Hotel, among others.) So it was a shock to learn in May that John Lautner’s Rehabilitation Center in Woodland Hills (now known as the Paul Weston Work Center) was about to be demolished by its new owner without so much as an Environmental Impact Report. After the Department of City Planning “concluded that the project site contained no potential historic and/or cultural resources”* it issued a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND), clearing the way for demolition. Strangely, DCP did this without consulting its own Office of Historic Resources. In late May, letters and testimony in support of the Rehabilitation Center were presented at a hearing. A decision is pending. http://www.postperiodical.com/group-seeks-to-block-rehab-center-demolition/

John Lautner (1911-1994) trained under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, where his apprenticeship included carpentry and plumbing. Like Wright, he believed in “total concept” architecture, where the building is indivisible from the site. Though he was from Michigan, Lautner chose to settle and establish his practice in Los Angeles because its climate, both physical and philosophical, provided the ideal laboratory for his geometric forms and indoor-outdoor ethos. Like his mentor Wright, he was democratic, designing houses for middle-class clients as few prominent architects do today. As a result, his houses are scattered throughout Southern California, including two in Beachwood Canyon.

In the twenty years since his death, Lautner has been greatly celebrated for residential commissions such as the Chemosphere and the Wolff House, but his public buildings haven’t fared as well. In researching the Rehabilitation Center, I was stunned to learn that it is his second-to-last major surviving non-residential commission in Los Angeles County. (The other, Los Feliz’s Mid-Town School, is home to Lycée of Los Angeles.)

Staircase of the Wolff House, West Hollywood/Hope Anderson Productions

Staircase of the Wolff House, West Hollywood/Hope Anderson Productions


If the County allowed the Rehabilitation Center to be razed, Lautner’s public legacy would be halved, an odd fate for a man whose architecture is synonymous with mid-century Los Angeles. In that case, the most publicly accessible of his projects would probably be the glass addition of the Beachwood Market. Built in 1954, it remains so modern-looking that City building officials who inspected it after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake assumed that it was new.
John Lautner's Addition to Beachwood Market/Hope Anderson Productions

John Lautner’s Addition to Beachwood Market/Hope Anderson Productions

*Los Angeles Conservancy mailing, 5/21/14

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