Los Angeles Architecture 1920 – 1939

The armistice ending World War I was signed on November, 11 1918, and the world was radically changed. The old monarchies of Europe were mostly swept away, and with them lifestyles and mores shifted across Europe and America. Within a short time the United States was booming again, and an even more dramatic economic expansion was underway in Los Angeles, leading to a significant historical inflection point:

The discovery of oil at Signal Hill near Long Beach in 1921, the expansion of the aeronautics industry, and the rise of Hollywood spurred a decade of astounding growth, from 1920 until the stock market crash in 1929. Between 1922 and 1928, 34 unincorporated areas and 5 cities merged with Los Angeles, and the city’s population expanded by almost 115%, from 576,673 people in 1920 to 1,238,048 – across 440 square miles – in 1930. A real estate boom dwarfing earlier periods of land development followed the arrival of thousands of easterners and midwesterners, who came to California by car across the national highway system then being developed and standardized. Promoting the opportunity for all new arrivals to own houses of their own, developments proliferated throughout the 1920s. In 1923 alone, 25,000 one- and two-family houses were constructed.”From Houses of Los Angeles – 1920-1935

Much of the great domestic architecture built anywhere in America was built during the “Roaring ‘20s”, and as the quote above makes clear, Los Angeles was roaring like it never had before. We are still enjoying the architectural legacy of this great population and building boom today.

We can generalize about the “styles” of architecture that were most popular at certain times. Indeed, all the styles that we see in Los Angeles built in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s can be seen in other cities across America. However, local history, topography and climate always impact the styles of architecture that are most popular. If we think about the houses on the east coast, a more Northern European sensibility prevailed, with an emphasis on English, French, and Dutch derived styles. These styles, despite their popularity even in Los Angeles, have been dominated here by the Mediterranean derived styles of the Iberian and Italian peninsulas. Of course the climate in southern California makes this a sensible outcome, but the story is more complex than just the weather. More than two centuries of Spanish-Mexican settlement also had a tremendous influence on the stylistic choices in Los Angeles. The indigenous peoples use of adobe mixed with the Spanish Colonial forms set the foundation for a different kind of architecture than in the rest of the United States.

Los Angeles’ architecturally superior houses built during the booming 1920s and 1930s are everywhere around town. One of the largest, mostly extant group of neighborhoods from this period are in Hancock Park, Larchmont Village, and Windsor Square. Unlike the West Side, and Beverly Hills in particular, very little of the original housing stock in these “mid-town” neighborhoods has been destroyed. These areas fell in popularity during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when urban crime and “white flight” were significant issues in close-in suburban areas affecting large cities all over America. Today, these areas have regained their desirability, as people have found the siren call of the fabulous architecture irresistible. Hancock Park residents recently voted to protect their neighborhood with an Historical Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), protecting almost all houses from the pre-WWII period. The challenge in protecting historic houses is caused by the tension between personal property rights, and protecting our shared history as reflected in individual buildings that are privately owned. In Beverly Hills, which has never experienced the downturn in fortunes of Hancock Park and environs to the east, many beautiful and charming houses of the era have been lost. Replaced with much larger, and in general (except to the builder/owner of course) less appealing structures. The sheer desirability of the land in the Golden Triangle of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and Bel Air make some destruction inevitable, unless there is strong community opposition. To gather this type of support is quite challenging, but recently even the city of Beverly Hills is trying harder to maintain what is left of it’s amazing architectural legacy.

 

Famous Estates of Los Angeles

  • Pickfair (1920) in Beverly Hills, designed by Max E. Parker with alterations by Wallace Neff starting in 1928. Built for the most important stars of the day, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, this house was renovated by Neff into the form that had a pronounced influence on the public’s taste, a quasi Georgian-Norman pastiche. It can no longer be recognized after subsequent rebuilds.
  • Greystone (1928) in Beverly Hills, designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann. Built for Edward Doheny, Jr. and family, it is now owned by the city of Beverly Hills, with spectacular gardens open to the public. This limestone clad Tudor-style mansion is the largest private home built in Los Angeles with over 46,000 square-feet of living space, and depending on how you count, anywhere from 55 to 67 rooms. The Tudor Revival style was perhaps the most popular revival style of the 1920’s across America, so despite it’s seeming inappropriateness for Los Angeles, it was indeed popular here as well. Kauffman was prolific, and was one of the most important architects of the period.
  • The Arthur Letts Jr. House (aka the Playboy Mansion) (1928), in Holmby Hills, designed by Arthur R. Kelly. This 14,000 square-foot Tudor-Jacobean Manor was when it was built the grandest home in Holmby Hills. Letts was one of the heirs of the developer of Holmby Hills.
  • Greenacres (1929), was built for silent screen star Harold Lloyd in Beverly Hills, and was designed by high society architect Sumner Spaulding. Based on a Florentine Villa, it has 44 rooms and 26 bathrooms.
  • The Jay Paley House (1936) in Bel Air, designed by Paul Revere Williams. More about Williams and this house below.
  • Casa Encantada (1938) in Bel Air on Bellagio Rd. was designed by James E. Dolena for Hilda Boldt Weber. This is considered by some in the real estate business as the most important extant estate in Los Angeles. It is 35,000 square feet with forty rooms. It has been owened by a string of billionaires. Like the Paley House, it is stylistically neo-Georgian with a dose of Hollywood glamour.
  • Owlwood (1936) in Holmby Hills is a Tuscan-style mansion designed by Robert D. Farquahr, another important society architect. Commissioned by Florence Quinn, ex-wife of Arthur Letts, Sr., the man behind the development of Holmby Hills. The main house is about 12,000+ square-feet, and sits on a sprawling parcel that originally contained two additional mansions, which have since been torn down. This house has been owned by many celebrities, including Tony Curtis, and perhaps most famously by Sonny & Cher. When it was last for sale, the description listed eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms; there is a pool, pool house and tennis court (of course). It is rumored to be privately on the market (called a “pocket listing”) for a staggering $150,000,000.
  • The Atkinson-Kirkeby Mansion at 750 Bel Air Rd. (aka The Beverly Hillbillies Mansion) was finished in 1936. It is in a neo-Classical French style designed by Sumner Spaulding. With 21,000 square-feet, and eighteen foot ceilings on the first floor. This house is of course famous for the exterior shots from the Beverly Hillbillies TV show. The current owner has solved the problem of site-seers by eliminating any views of the house from the street.

Although some are mentioned as the architects of the homes above, the great “name” architects of the period include Wallace Neff, George Washington Smith, Paul Revere Williams, Reginald D. Johnson, Roland E. Coate, Sumner M. Spaulding, Gordon B. Kauffman, Robert D. Farquhar, H. Roy Kelley, Elmer Grey, and John Byers.

 

Paul Rever Willaims & Wallace Neff

Two of these aforementioned architects are particularly interesting as their careers spanned much of the 20th Century: Paul Revere Williams and Wallace Neff. Learning about them is helpful in understanding the Los Angeles housing landscape.

Williams was one of the first Black architects in America, and built an extremely successful practice starting in the 1920s and continuing into the 1970s. His prolific five plus-decade career reflects the changing architectural tastes of a large portion of the 20th Century. Much of his work is considered of the highest quality, and some is considered less successful. That said, his impact on the Los Angeles area was profound. Besides an innate artistic talent, much of his success was due to his easygoing and adaptable nature. Perhaps as an African-American practicing architecture in a highly race-conscious time, and in a social milieu almost completely white, he became fantastically skilled at sublimating his ego, a quality very rare among great architects. His work in the 1920s was good, designing Mediterranean and Tudor style revival homes typical of the period. His greatness came in the 1930’s when he catapulted to fame with the 1932 E.L. Cord House in Beverly Hills. The massive Cord House was 32,000 square feet, with 16 bedrooms and 22 bathrooms, most with gold and silver plated fixtures. During his career, Williams built about 20 such large mansions in and around the Golden Triangle of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Holmby Hills. The Cord house is colonial revival, but here we see the subtle beginnings of his magic touch — turning classic Georgian houses into Hollywood Regency showplaces. Other significant works designed by William’s during the 1930s were the William Collins Residence in Hancock Park (1932), in a more French inspired style (and supposedly his personal favorite work of art), and the extremely famous Jay Paley residence in Holmby Hills (1936) (the residence of the TV family the Colbys, from the eponymous 1980s TV show), in characteristic Hollywood Regency (neo-Georgian style), and the Pitts Residence in Brentwood (1936) also Georgian with William’s signature updating.

Wallace Neff’s work was mostly Mediterranean during the 1920s, but by the 1930s he too was designing in a somewhat more playful and modernized style. Whereas Williams glamorized the Georgian style for Hollywood, Neff did the same for the Norman-French. The iconic William Goetz House in Bel-Air (1931) is extremely picturesque; long and low unadorned wall surfaces surmounted with a massive hip cedar shake roof, and a dominating conical tower serving as the entrance. His Joan Bennett House in Holmby Hills (1938) is another iconic building. More colonial than the earlier Goetz house, it still evokes a French feel in some of the details, but is also extremely simplified with unadorned white painted brick walls and a lower pitch hip roof.

Los Angeles also has an important legacy of modern architecture. Although trying to find itself in the first couple decades of the 20th Century, by the 1920s Los Angeles was beginning to develop it’s sense of self, distant and apart from the Eastern establishment. Southern California was imagined as a place of greater personal freedom and inventiveness, much more open to new ideas and attitudes than was the rest of America.

The International Style, a term often credited to Philip Johnson, has three basis tenets: ornament is a crime, truth in materials, and the often quoted “form follows function”. Le Corbusier famously described houses as “machines for living”. The three leaders of the International modern movement were Le Corbusier in France, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany.

There was more to modernism than the International Style, and of course many American architects were developing their own modern vocabularies — Frank Lloyd Wright being the most famous example. His Millard House called “La Miniatura”, located in the Prospect Park subdivision of Pasadena was completed in 1923. In typical iconoclastic Wright fashion, but clearly in some sync with the Internationalists, he set about designing: “…a distinctly genuine expression of California in terms of modern industry and American life.” – from Houses of Los Angeles – 1920-1935. This house was the first of four landmark cinderblock houses Wright built based on native Mayan themes.

Another great modern house, the Dr. James Eads How residence in Silver Lake, was designed by Austrian émigré architect, and famous modernist, Rudolph Schindler, and was completed in 1925. Schindler’s ideas expanded beyond the International Style by developing a very personalized sculptural quality to his work. The landscape design was by Richard Neutra, another iconic modernist architect who designed many important modern homes in Los Angeles. Neutra’s 1929 landmark steel and glass Lovell House, also in Silver Lake, along with the Von Sternberg house in Northridge, completed in 1935, cemented his reputation as the foremost practitioner of the modernist movement, and an avowed rejectionist of literal historical precedent. In 1933, Dutch philanthropist Dr. C.H. Van Der Leeuw provided an interest-free loan to Richard Neutra for a research house in Silver Lake, which he called the VDL Research House. The radical glass house featured rooftop and balcony gardens. After a fire destroyed most of the original structure, Neutra rebuilt it in 1966, adding two floors and a solarium over the original basement and renamed it the VDL House II.