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

John Lautner’s Rehabilitation Center, Woodland Hills/Courtesy

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.

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

Prisoners of (the Newly Revitalized) Hollywood

August 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Your Home Is Our Stomping Grounds

Hollywood has spent most of the past century in decline, a process that began in the 1920s and reached its nadir in the 1990s, when the average tourist (according to a poll conducted by the LA Visitors’ Bureau) spent a total of 20 minutes on Hollywood Boulevard. Given the Boulevard’s extreme local color at the time–including panhandlers, petty thieves, runaways and drugged-out zombies–20 minutes seems remarkably generous.

During the early 90s, my  own visits to Hollywood Boulevard averaged one a year–usually at Halloween, under duress. My young son’s enthusiasm for Hollywood Toy and Costume could not be quelled, so we would arrive at the store in daylight, park directly in front (not a problem in those days) and shop as quickly as possible. We were always sure to leave before dark.

Although Hollywood’s revitalization was a Los Angeles objective for decades–and the focus of much governmental planning and investment–it didn’t occur until Hollywood and Highland was completed in 2001. That shopping mall-cum-theater-cum-hotel accomplished what City fathers had long dreamed of:  Hollywood’s return to its origins as a family friendly destination. Tourists came by the busload. New restaurants and clubs followed, and soon Hollywood became a hot spot  for Angelenos as well. It was a striking change: within a couple of years,  Hollywood’s junkies and teen prostitutes gave way to throngs of suburban and exurban teens in search of an exciting nightlife.

The runaway success of Hollywood’s revitalization became clear to me on Halloween of 2008, when some friends and I decided to go for drinks at a bar on Argyle. Although the trip  from my house was about two miles, it took us twenty minutes to drive there because all the streets from the 101 to Sunset were blocked with Halloween revelers. Getting home took over half an hour, and involved getting mooned by a frat boy type whose car was stuck next to mine in traffic on Gower. Since then, I’ve stayed home on Halloween. 

Which brings me to last Wednesday’s “near riot” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. When it began, I was on my way to West Hollywood and unaware of the cause of the gridlock. After several police cars appeared, sirens on and sometimes approaching head-on, I realized I had to abandon my plans. Since I couldn’t get home–traffic was by then backed up through Hollywood–I headed toward Los Feliz to wait it out. 

Even east of Vine, traffic was at a virtual standstill. While stuck in a line of cars at Hollywood Boulevard and Wilton, I noticed a homeless woman lying on the sidewalk, screaming in agony. A man hovered over her, attempting first aid–or so I thought until I saw him tapping a syringe so that he could shoot her up. By the time traffic started moving again, she was sitting up, though still screaming hysterically.

After I got home an hour and a half later, I learned the “near riot” was caused by DJ Kaskade, who had tweeted his followers to come to Hollywood Boulevard for a free mini performance before the premiere of the rave documentary, “Electric Daisy Carnival Experience.” What should have been a crowd of 500 (at least according to the permit) swelled to a few thousand before the LAPD broke it up. Then came the melee that resulted in arrests and the vandalism of three police cars, one of which was set afire.

And then there was the frustration and fear of countless people who, like me, were caught up in the chaos as we tried to go out for the evening, or get home. We live here, pay taxes and never, ever run amok. But in the shiny new “revitalized” Hollywood, our quality of life counts as little as that of those homeless junkies a few blocks to the east.

Party on!

MASCO in Hollywoodland: A Progress Report

July 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Our Summer of MASCO/Hope Anderson Productions

The sewer project that has been Hollywoodland’s most annoying daytime summer event started a couple of months ago but reached its apex, at least in my area, during the last couple of weeks. Fortunately, I missed 12 days of jackhammering during a recent vacation–the only time I can remember being gone during a noisy period. When I got back, I noticed a lot of trash in my black garbage bin–which was strange not only because I had been away, but because it was made up of styrofoam lunch boxes that should go into the blue recycling bin. That blue one, I noticed, contained empty concrete bags. Then a couple of days later, I found one of my green garden bins overloaded with uprooted plants (and a cardboard tube). None of it was mine.

It could only have been the detritus of MASCO, the subcontractor doing the sewer work for the City.

Beyond the creepiness of having someone else’s incorrectly sorted trash in my bins, MASCO’s workers trespassed on my property, opening an enclosure in order to dump it. While it wasn’t the first time I’ve had my bins commandeered by strangers–phone company workers routinely dump trash in my bins while working on a nearby box–it was the most egregious. The next day, when I found MASCO workers directly outside my house, I said the least they could do was to sort their recyclables and move my bins to the curb. They agreed, yet when I returned at the end of the day, I found the bins in their usual place and the same styrofoam boxes in the black one. The green one was especially hard for me to drag to the curb.

The next day I found a MASCO backhoe parked directly in front of my garage, preventing my exit. It was midday; no one was around, apparently because they were on their lunch break. Now running late, I had to race around a three-block area to find anyone from MASCO, at which point I unleashed a tirade about their lack of consideration. The worker pretended not to understand what I was saying, so I repeated it in Spanish. His attitude was somewhere between “who cares?” and bafflement.

Because none of the workers would identify their foreman or give me their supervisor’s telephone number, I decided to track down someone in authority at MASCO. When I reached the supervisor, Alfred Garcia, and told him my story, he was appalled and apologetic, promising he would “talk to those guys.” I hung up feeling the worst was over, and was relieved when the crew decamped for another part of the Canyon.

But early Thursday morning they were back, repaving a nearby street, and by 8:15am, there was a truck being parked in front of my garage. The driver was utterly mystified when I told him he couldn’t leave it there.

The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon

November 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

The O.E. Roberts Orchard, left, and Clausen's Ranch, right, at the mouth of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1890/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Although many people think Hollywood sprang into existence at the start of the movie industry, its history as a settlement pre-dates not only the 20th century but the Spanish Colonial period. The area was settled ten thousand or more years ago by Tongva Native Americans, some of whom were still living in Beachwood Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. (It was the Tongva who paddled out to meet Cabrillo’s ship in 1542; they truly were the first Angelenos.)

During the Colonial period, the future Hollywood was part of the San Fernando Mission–its outlying pastures, on which sheep grazed. In 1887, Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded their Christian utopia as an agrarian village–one that had more orchards than houses. 19th- century Hollywood produced excellent lemons, poor oranges (used for orange soda, not fresh juice), flowers immortalized by the painter Paul deLongpre, and some rather exotic fruits and vegetables. Among the crops that were grown in Hollywood’s orchards were bananas, figs, apricots, avocados, dates, pineapples and chermoyas.

It was this  bounty, made possible by a frostless climate and more than 300 sunny days each year, that attracted the Theosophical Society to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. The Theosophists were vegetarian, and thus naturally drawn to agricultural self-sufficiency; the perfect climate of Southern California was a major reason for their relocation from Chicago. In a letter to Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, A.P. Warrington, the head of the American branch, wrote: 

We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything…

The Krotona Colony included fields and gardens– presumably worked by its members, though I’ve seen no photographs proving it.

The mystery in all of this is how these farmers managed to coax crops out of  Beachwood’s soil. Thin and nutrient-poor, it sits atop solid granite, the result of which is geological stability–we barely feel earthquakes–and the constant appearance of rocks and stones. Since moving to Beachwood 5 years ago, I’ve struggled to make something of my garden, despite assiduous efforts at soil enrichment. Although roses do well with regular applications of compost and fertilizer, vegetables grow with limited success, and only in boxes. Interestingly, the ten fruit trees I’ve planted have stayed true to historical precedent, producing terrible oranges (if any), but wonderful lemons, peaches and apricots. This year, I planted a green gage plum whose first crop I’m eagerly anticipating; more on it, and the “Pineapple Tract,” in a future post. 

Banana trees in Beachwood Canyon, circa 1900/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Additional Sources:

Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.

The Story of Hollywood, by Gregory Paul Williams. Los Angeles, CA:  BL Press, LLC, 2005.

Los Angeles City Archives.

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.

Heather Drive, Past and Present

March 30, 2010 § 2 Comments


The intersection of Heather and Durand Drives. The bicycle accident took place near the lower right corner of the photo/Hope Anderson Productions

Heather Drive is a winding residential street that runs south off Ledgewood Drive in Hollywoodland. Those who visit Lake Hollywood Park often take it to escape the tourist vans that inch up Ledgewood, as both streets lead to Mulholland Highway. Once on Heather, drivers face a blind uphill curve on a road often narrowed to a single lane by parked cars. Then comes the sharp uphill right turn onto Durand Drive that briefly forces them into the oncoming lane. Mercifully, cross-traffic is sparse. 

Heather Drive entered American literature in 1937, in Raymond Chandler’s short story “Take the Girl.” Though he calls it Heather Street,  the description is unmistakable: 

Heather Street was a gash in the side of a steep flat slope, at the top of Beachwood Drive. It curved around the shoulder enough so that even by daylight you couldn’t have seen much more than half a block of it at one time while you were on it. 

As his works make clear, Raymond Chandler was an automotive man, crisscrossing Los Angeles by car. His gumshoe protagonists drive everywhere, traversing the LA Basin from downtown to the San Fernando Valley, Silver Lake to Santa Monica.  Unlike Charles Bukowski, who set his books in Hollywood and San Pedro, and John Fante, who specialized in downtown Los Angeles, Chandler claimed all of Los Angeles as his territory. So it’s not surprising that he knew Beachwood Canyon intimately, or that he could perfectly describe a certain style of Hollywoodland house:    

The house I wanted was built downward, one of those clinging-vine effects, with a front door below the street level, a patio on the roof, a bedroom or two possibly in the basement, and a garage as easy to drive into as an olive bottle.  

Such upside-down houses still dot Heather, mixing charm and risk. In late 2006, a partygoer returning to his car lost his footing and fell down the hill, stopping just short of a 30-foot drop. The resulting rescue involved firefighters and helicopters; the man suffered broken bones but no permanent injuries. (Footage of the rescue, shot by DP Tjardus Greidanus, appears in my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign.”)  

But in August of the same year, a far more serious accident occurred on Heather when a bicyclist, resting his foot on the curb at the bend, lost his balance and fell over the side, landing on the patio of a neighboring house. Left a paraplegic, he sued the City for negligence, receiving a $5 million settlement.  Although the same stretch had been the site of several car crashes, at least one of them fatal, this apparently marked the first time the City was sued for damages. After the settlement was announced in 2009, yellow hazard signs went up along the curve and plans were announced to build a permanent, vista-blocking barrier. 

No such modifications were thought necessary from 1923, when Heather Drive was built, until then.  Somehow drivers managed to negotiate Heather Drive (or not) without involving the City. But times have changed. Ironically, the bicyclist was no stranger to the topographical challenges of the neighborhood, as he lived in Hollywoodland.

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