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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After the Windstorm: 24 Powerless Hours in Beachwood Canyon

December 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

No Power, No Groceries/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

The lights went out in Hollywoodland around 1:15am on Thursday morning, hardly a surprise given the 100 mph winds that roared through the Canyon all evening. Power outages occur a couple of times a year here, usually because of windstorms, and generally last a few hours. But this one was different: there was no electricity when we got up in the morning, and none during the day and evening that followed.

It wasn’t just Beachwood that was affected: some 300,000 households in a wide geographic area–including Pasadena, Eagle Rock, Echo Park, Silver Lake and Los Feliz–lost power for an extended period of time.  Some areas, such as Sierra Madre and Altadena, were without power for 48 hours or longer.

Having worked late the night before, I didn’t feel pressed to seek out a Wifi connection outside the Canyon. Instead, I decided to see how long I could be productive without electricity–and found enough to keep me busy until 2pm. By that time, I needed to escape the oppressive silence that had descended on my office, and took my dog hiking. On the way up the Canyon, I expected to be impeded by downed trees and other damage from the storm, but there was nothing more dramatic than some branches by the road and an uprooted tree at Lake Hollywood Park. Nevertheless, for the first time I can remember, there were no tourists at the Lake Hollywood lookout and the picture-taking area for the Hollywood Sign.

Mulholland Highway, 3pm December 1st

3pm, Lake Hollywood Lookout

The Lake’s surface was like hammered silver in the afternoon sun.

Lake Hollywood, 2pm

At the head of the trail, a big pepper tree had shed thousands of pink berries that crunched satisfyingly underfoot.

Further along, a downed tree blocked the way.

toyon (California holly) was full of red berries, just in time for Christmas.

Afterwards, I swung by Beachwood Village, where the Market was closed due the power outage.

Around the corner, the Village Coffee Shop, which had closed its doors the previous day (the space will be reincarnated as the Beachwood Cafe in March), displayed Christmas decorations in its window.

Shortly afterwards, outside my house, I ran into a neighbor who passed on the news that we might be without power for another 2-3 days. I called DWP and listened to a recorded message that stated that power would be restored by 3:30pm, but by then it was after 4, and I found no reason to be optimistic about the coming night. I arranged  my flashlights and candles before going to the gym to work out and shower, and arrived home in pitch darkness.

Without electricity, night in the Canyon was hushed and premodern. The only illumination came from the radio tower and ranger station above the Hollywood Sign. Undisturbed by lights, the coyote that normally hunts on my hillside in the small hours started chasing tree rats at 6:30. My routine was no less altered: normally, I stay up late, reading, writing and watching TV. Last night, I cooked by candlelight and washed the dishes (with water boiled on the stove) before 9pm. I tried to read. Then it was flashlights out at ten.

The lights came on almost 24 hours to the minute after they had gone off. I woke up immediately and went downstairs to start the dishwasher. Later, I remembered to take the milk from the freezer and return it to the refrigerator. Sleep was impossible: suddenly everything hummed with electricity, and the previous day and night receded like an odd but compelling dream.

Albert Kothe: A German Immigrant’s Life in Hollywoodland, Part I

April 13, 2011 § 2 Comments

Straight Outta Hamburg/All Photos Albert Kothe Family Archive, courtesy Harry Williams, unless otherwise noted

Albert Hendrick Kothe was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1893. After World War I, he made his way to America and settled in Los Angeles, where he found work and a new home in Hollywoodland. Like so many Canyon residents, Kothe lived out his life here, in the process becoming a neighborhood fixture, a Zelig-like figure–and something of a local legend.

Kothe's Employee Card in Hollywoodland

Albert Kothe in his Youth, Undated

 Albert Kothe may or may not have helped to build the Hollywoodland Sign, but he certainly was its caretaker upon its completion in July, 1923.  His job, which probably lasted until 1939, was to change the 4,000 lightbulbs that lit the Sign at night, a Sisyphusian task for which ladders were kept permanently propped against the Sign’s back. Though Kothe undoubtably spent a great many daylight hours on Mt. Lee, he didn’t actually live there. (The myth that Kothe “lived in a shack behind the first L” is so pervasive that Leo Braudy repeats it in his new book The Hollywood Sign [Yale University Press, 2011] Oops.) Although there was a shed behind the Sign, it housed lightbulbs and other equipment, while Kothe resided in a cabin at the north end of Beachwood Drive. (The cabin was probably built for the foreman of the stonemasons who built the Hollywoodland walls and stairs from 1923-25. The stonemasons lived in adjacent tents.) The cabin, which was torn down for houses 50 years ago, looked like this:

Kothe's Cabin/Courtesy Lamonta Pierson

When the Hollywoodland Realty Company stopped maintaining the Sign in 1939, Kothe found work at Wolf’s Lair, a house large enough to require a full-time handyman. Kothe’s employment by Bud Wolf has satisfying parallels in literature and movies, for the two men at first glance were polar opposites: Wolf a rich, companionable bon vivant; Kothe a poor laborer and lifelong bachelor. But in truth, they were flip sides of the same coin–uncompromising, somewhat eccentric men who discovered their niche in Hollywoodland, and stayed. 

Next time: Kothe’s latter years–and automotive adventures.

“Cinema Paradiso” in Beachwood Village this Sunday, August 29th

August 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Graffiti–and Worse–on the Hollywoodland Stairs

July 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of the best things about  Hollywoodland is how little it has changed over the years. The Village Coffee Shop not only features fusty mid-century decor but a nostalgic menu from the same era. Next door, the friendly Beachwood Market allows account holders to sign for their groceries. And on the street, neighbors greet each other at such length that often it has taken half an hour to walk my dog six blocks. The Land That Time Forgot is a very pleasant place to live.

Beachwood-Westshire Stairs/Hope Anderson Productions

So it came as a surprise to find graffiti on the historic Beachwood-Westshire stairs and the retaining wall on the landing halfway up. Written in yellow paint, the graffiti is subtle by LA standards. Still, it took me back to the 90’s in Hancock Park, where tagging was so prevalent that the City eventually gave up using neutral colors to paint over garage walls on Bronson between Wilshire and Sixth, instead executing murals of vines and berries. The murals did the trick, probably because they resembled graffiti.

The funny thing about graffiti is how quickly one becomes accustomed to it, once the initial shock wears off. After I discussed it with my neighbors, the matter slipped my mind entirely. Apparently none of us contacted the City about eradicating it, because 18 months later it’s still there. Recently my son pointed out the graffiti appeared the same day Westshire got yellow markings from the street department and that the ink is identical.

As if that weren’t enough, someone recently used the top of the same stairs as a toilet. I discovered the result on my way up to Westshire last Saturday. Horrified, I sidestepped it; my dog, following me, promptly pocketed the turd in her bag-like mouth and didn’t drop it until we got home. It was a disgusting experience and–in light of the fact that the neighborhood is a long, uphill walk away from Hollywood’s homeless encampments–a baffling one.

Needless to say, my dog had her mouth washed out with soap and her teeth thoroughly brushed. Once I recovered, I contacted the City about removing the graffiti on the stairs. I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say about the tell-tale yellow ink.

Update, July 21: After receiving an e-mail from the City claiming the graffiti had been removed, I went out yesterday to check. The graffiti on the wall is still visible, though perhaps a bit more faded, while the tagging on the stair (above) is untouched. If this is someone’s idea of abatement, we’re in trouble.

Wolf’s Lair: Bud Wolf’s Storybook Castle in Hollywoodland

January 4, 2010 § 13 Comments

Wolf's Lair/All photos by Hope Anderson Productions

Chief among the misconceptions about Wolf’s Lair, the beautiful Loire-style castle on Durand Drive, is that its name has something to do with wolves; certainly the wolf’s head placard on the front gate implies it. Nevertheless, Wolf’s Lair was named not for the animal but the man who built it:  Bud Wolf.   

Wolf was a real estate developer; he also owned the Texaco station that stood on the site of Beachwood Market’s parking lot. As lord and master of Wolf’s Lair, he also may have been the archetypal early Hollywoodlander: an eccentric bon vivant. When not at home in his splendid turreted mansion with views of Lake Hollywood, the Hollywood Sign and the Observatory, Wolf enjoyed playing golf and driving his gull-wing Mercedes. He had a mistress named Diane. (His wife suffered from mental illness.) He employed the alcoholic former caretaker of the Hollywoodland Sign as a full-time handyman. He also kept an exotic pet: a gibbon whose howls ricocheted around the canyon. The gibbon lived in a tree during the day; at night he supposedly retired to a room in one of the turrets.   

Wolf’s Lair is notable not only as a fine example of the French château architecture that was the rage in Hollywood during the 1920’s but as an example of mid-century architecture as well, as Wolf later commissioned a guest house by the architect John Lautner. Although the exterior resembles a plainer version of the main house, its interior is pure Lautner, with wood-beamed ceilings, stone pillars and lots of glass. The guest house is one of three commissions John Lautner designed in Beachwood Canyon, the most famous of which is the glass-fronted addition of Beachwood Market, built in 1952.   

Wolf’s Lair’s western facade. Lautner’s guest house is at left.
Beachwood Market’s Lautner addition, at right.

   

Until I went up to Wolf’s Lair the other day to take pictures of its neighbor, Castillo del Lago, I hadn’t realized it too was for sale. (How long has it been since both lakeside mansions were on the market simultaneously?)  Price:$4.695 million, for 3.3 acres, 8 bedrooms, six baths, a pool and gardens. And the most enormous stone walls imaginable, from granite quarried in Bronson Canyon. (Agent: Ernie Carswell, Teles Properties) 

Even by the fairytale standards set by Hollywoodland’s developers, Wolf’s Lair’s charm is exceptional. At once massive and delicate, it rises above Lake Hollywood like something out of a dream.   

I am grateful to Harry Williams for biographical information about Bud Wolf. 

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