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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Castillo del Lago and Wolf’s Lair: Works in Progress

November 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Castillo del Lago on 11/12/10/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Two months into the massive repainting job at Castillo del Lago, all traces of Madonna have been removed from its exterior. Gone are the jaunty red ocher stripes; the new look is stark white with grassy green trim. The paint accomplishes the task of making a vast house look even bigger while illustrating the sobriquet white elephant. (But I’m sure Crosby Doe, the real estate agent and neighbor who has complained at length about Castillo del Lago’s previous incarnation, is delighted.)

Castillo del Lago's Retaining Wall

The retaining wall is also white, a risky move in an area known for tagging. Fortunately, vines have been planted along its base; eventually, they will turn the wall into a giant topairy. 

Wolf's Lair, 11/12/10

 Over at Wolf’s Lair, the extensive  repair work continues. The new owner, Moby, has undertaken the kind of crucial and costly structural work–reframing exterior walls, replacing windows–that most homeowners would skip altogether.  While remaining faithful to the original design, he is essentially rebuilding an old estate. It must have needed it.  

The John Lautner-designed guest house, now largely reframed, is being turned into a recording studio. This development probably would have pleased Lautner, a modernist who didn’t place form over function. You can see the before pictures here: http://la.curbed.com/archives/2010/04/tour_of_wolfs_lairs_lautner_guest_house_and_future_studio.php

Onward, toward the end of renovations–and two festive housewarming parties!

Welcome to Hollywoodland, Moby!

April 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Wolf's Lair, or perhaps Whale's Lair/Hope Anderson Productions

I promised a certain realtor not to write about it until after escrow closed–not that LACurbed and the LA Times didn’t–but now that it’s official I can say this: the new owner of Wolf’s Lair is a New Yorker named Richard Melville Hall. He’s also known as Moby. This week, he takes possession of a 1927 storybook manor with sweeping views of Lake Hollywood and the Hollywood Sign, a guesthouse by John Lautner, a pool, 3 acres of grounds and a subterranean speakeasy.

Properties of historical and architectural significance cry out for owners with the means and sensibility to restore and care for them. In this regard, Moby is ideal: a successful, work-at-home artist who has already expressed his commitment to Wolf’s Lair’s improvement.  

It also doesn’t hurt that we neighbors might be less likely to mind hearing his noise bounce around the Canyon than anyone else’s. In a natural amphitheater like Beachwood, the quality of the music really matters.

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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