Prohibition inadvertently created a niche in the world of design with many a home built between 1919 and 1933 containing a speakeasy. Sometimes, they were elaborate rooms hidden behind faux panels; sometimes, they were modest nooks hidden beyond a closet; and, in a few cases, the entire house itself was designed to accommodate such wants. Hidden behind imposing wooden gates, walled and secure, the Chimorro is a true prohibition house.
Designed by architect Roy Sheldon Price, architect of the 1929 Los Angeles landmark built for Charlie Chaplin that now houses Campanile restaurant and the sadly demolished Días Dorado compound for Thomas Ince, this two-story house, with its long balcony and rounded white plaster walls, has magnificent presence. The large public rooms are clearly designed for contemporary entertaining including the safeguard of windows with sight lines that would provide ample warning of approaching police. The interiors of the thick and hollow walls could be accessed through a number of hidden doors where upwards of 70 people could hide if necessary. Its primary function aside, this generously proportioned Spanish house next to the Beverly Hills Hotel is a gem and has been beautifully restored by the architectural firm of Tichenor & Thorp. An architect as well as a landscape architect, Brian Tichenor also designed the gardens with their Islamic-inspired water channels that lead to small burbling fountains.
Introduction: The California Casa
M. Brian Tichenor
“In the twentieth-century American architectural scene, Mediterranean Revival was virtually the accepted norm in Southern California”
—David S. Gebhard George Washington Smith 1876-1930: The Spanish Colonial Revival in California, 1964
In the wave of development that has characterized Southern California in the years since the Second World War, it is sometimes difficult to see how unique and influential the region has been for that quintessential twentieth-century building type: the single-family house. A rare confluence of events combined, in what had initially seemed like the far end of the great American desert, to create a land of unlimited economic and cultural promise. Agriculture, oil, and motion pictures were the combined engines that focused the nation’s attention to its furthest southwest corner and drew a flood of new residents. In American history before this, there had never been such a mass migration, and into a landscape and climate that was inherently different than the rest of the country. This region, with very little in the way of a true aesthetic heritage, was a virtual tabla rasa.
That the same houses that these immigrants were accustomed to in the eastern states would be less than ideal for their new environs was clear from the start: but what to build instead?
Intriguingly, in the late nineteenth century, a myth began to emerge, a romantic dream of an imagined past for Southern California, populated by exotic characters in a kind of new Eden, with vine-covered adobes nestled in luxuriant, sunny landscapes. This vision was fueled in no small part by a tourist industry based on the popular novel Ramona, which persuasively painted a picture of a land of promise with a languorous past wholly different from any other history that had transpired within the borders of the United States. It hardly mattered that little of the tale was true. The newcomers’ enthusiasm for a Mission Style, based on the scant relics of Franciscan colonization, was the first attempt at a regional expression. But the kit of architectural parts used in the early adobes was limited: heavy, dark, and with little adornment. Though this narrow vocabulary was suitable, in some cases, for public buildings, it did not translate well to the emerging requirements of the suburban middle class house. But the desire to integrate a sense of exoticism, that of a tangible past, had become a part of southern California’s nascent identity.
The beginning of the twentieth century saw an inventive flowering of the Bungalow Style, which, in a curious combination of Japanese house and Swiss chalet, proliferated on acres of new houses infused with a comfortable Craftsman aesthetic, and which set the pattern for future suburban development in Southern California. And yet, with the romantic Latin overlay of a mostly imagined past, a fecund Mediterranean climate, and a burgeoning regional identity, a broader synthesis was to be made. As historian David S. Gebhard observed in his volume George Washington Smith 1876-1930: The Spanish Colonial Revival in California, the Spanish Colonial Revival and the less academic Mediterranean Revival styles constitute the only examples in American architectural history where by essentially popular consensus, a regional style was adopted. And, as is apparent in the images in this book, much of its success was due to both the populism and the accommodating inclusiveness that could be viably expressed in this romantic hybrid style.
The story of this period often features an influx of East Coast Brahmins-of-Industry, fresh from their grand European touring, settling, for their health and leisure, in one of several moneyed enclaves. These industrialists brought their erudition and good breeding to bear on great houses, rendered in refined European styles, effecting a kind of aesthetic trickle-down mechanism that was brought to bear upon the wider culture. This is only part of the story, though, and, by itself, does not explain a popular movement. While there were a plethora of brilliant pattern books, yielding meticulous, well-studied examples of historic precedent from the buildings of the western Mediterranean, and astonishingly adventurous wealthy clients to build great houses with great architects, these buildings were but expressions of a much broader, popular enthusiasm. This early twentieth century period is characterized by a refreshingly non-pedantic sense of architectural freedom, which is perhaps why it was so much more successful than the more parochial Mission Revival style. How much of the development of this new regional architecture is inherently due to the new requirements of twentieth century living, to the great desire to take advantage of the possibility of outdoor living, or to the somewhat mad set designs of the great motion picture studios of Hollywood, is hard to discern from the distance of ninety years. What we do know is that a kind of Golden Age of residential design emerged and subsequently informed everything that followed from expansive manors to humble courtyard apartments.
While several architects were well on the way to defining this new regional style in Southern California, one cannot overstate the influence of the great New York architect Bertram Goodhue in the creation of the stylistic synthesis that fostered this rising tide of free historicism. In the designs of both houses and gardens, and with the tremendously influential urban setting of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, Goodhue’s vision for a Regional Style for Southern California would prove, multiple times, the rallying statement for the nascent Spanish Colonial Revival movement. His El Fuerdis in Montecito ignited the fashion for grand Mediterranean houses, and, of equal importance, their structured, axial gardens. His Días Felices estate later named Val Verde, became the highly influential magnum opus of the great garden designer and bon vivant, Lockwood de Forest. Most importantly, Goodhue’s revolutionary amalgam of styles in the “Spanish Village” of San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition would emerge as the stylistic bellwether on which the rapidly growing Southern California, then emerging from the end of the First World War, would base its regional architectural identity. This book features new photographs of Goodhue’s Coppell Mansion in Pasadena, an impressive example of his residential style, albeit with the curious distinction of being a restoration of but one-half of the original building, the other having been calved off in a 1950s subdivision of the larger property.
Goodhue’s eclectic lead was expanded upon by a new generation of extraordinary architects in the post-WWI period. Some, such as George Washington Smith in Santa Barbara, would take their firsthand knowledge of European architecture, bolstered by extensive travels on the continent, to create a coherent, flexible language, which, while fluent in attributable historical detail, responded with ease and sureness to the new requirements of the “modern” American single-family home. Others, like Stiles Clements in Los Angeles, would apply the exuberant showmanship learned from their experience designing movie palaces, to free-wheeling, dazzlingly inventive essays in a new style, in which the Spanish style was only the starting point.
Looking at the press from these years shows us that there was great public interest in these developments. There were public workshops in Santa Barbara exploring the urban design possibilities of this developing regional style, movie stars were pictured in their new homes, and newspapers sponsored showcase houses showing just how perfect life could be in one’s own California hacienda. The ever-expanding array of architectural possibilities in this new Southern California style was being rapidly assimilated into the fabric of the cities and suburbs throughout the region. It is fascinating to observe how accomplished and inviting the smaller houses and apartments in this book are: that one could rent an apartment in as beautiful a building as the Andalusia, and share as fully in the languid romanticism of the time as the owner of an estate might, is testament to the power of this populist dream.
The inherent breadth of aesthetic inclusiveness can be seen in the way these disparate stylistic expressions could be plausibly integrated into a single Mediterranean Revival-style house. This tendency is seen in the Overell estate in La Canada Flintridge, where an Art Deco façade finds an unexpected but compelling home in a more familiar arched arcade. This kind of flexibility of style is perhaps what speaks to us still: there is a strangely democratic expressiveness in the homes of this period, where everything from the most perfect historically modeled façade to the most exuberant unstudied confection could be arguably part of a consistent, if not entirely coherent, stylistic movement.
That this dream of a white-washed home in its own sunny garden began with a prominent component of land ownership, and of newly realized aspirations to both outdoor living and decorative gardening are attributes that make these buildings so significant for the future of suburban housing in America. It is from these roots that the ranch house sprang, its first great author, the sixth-generation San Diegan Cliff May, drew heavily from both the heritage and the fictions of the day to create his prototypical, and in their early ranch-house versions, very Spanish, populist homes. An interesting example in this book clearly illustrates the forces at play in this movement: a beautiful courtyard rancheria, the Christiancy Estate, in San Diego County, which carries all the aspirations of the time. Its architect, Lillian Rice, in addition to being one of the handful of extremely influential, first-generation Californian women architects, was a veteran of Richard Requa’s office and had traveled under those auspices to Spain to work on his iconic pattern book Old World Inspiration for American Architecture. (This work was published by the Portland Cement company, so vital was the promulgation of the stucco styles to their business). Her legacy, as exemplified by this house, became the guiding light for the community of Rancho Santa Fe, a seminal early planned community which melded the agrarian dreams of suburban living with Rice’s own very sophisticated aesthetic synthesis of Spanish rural architecture and the emerging indoor-outdoor living paradigm. Her self-coined lexicon of ‘Spanish-isms’ became the stylistic vocabulary of the town and its highly cohesive enclave, much as George Washington Smith’s work had informed much of the rebuilding of Santa Barbara after the disastrous 1925 earthquake there.
Much has been seen in books and publications of the houses of the wealthy in the Mediterranean Revival style; what is more poignant and indicative of the populist thrust of this new regional movement are the modest houses, several of which are documented in these pages. In the Rufus Keeler house, dazzling encrustations of tile on so many surfaces speak to the continued importance of the California craftsman tradition at all levels of society and of the widespread appeal that “Spanish” iconography held. The density of period decorative artifacts, which we see collected in many of these homes, also indicates just how popular and pervasive the accouterments associated with this immersive lifestyle were. The gardens, too, speak to a new and compelling tradition that would characterize Californian houses from this period forward: where the exuberance of the first “Southland” landscapes showed the near unimaginable wealth of horticultural possibility inherent to the region, the Spanish-style gardens of the 1920s and 1930s introduced both the pleasures of a truly indoor-outdoor lifestyle and the compelling rigors of the Mediterranean “outdoor room,” with its fountains and rills, tile works and formal, yet habitable, courtyard plans.
So, in looking at the extraordinary houses in this book, the reader can consider just how unique and compelling was the shared dream of the faraway and the exotic that generated them, and how inspiring the houses continue to be. The integration of this eclectic visual language with the many varied desires of the individuals who created them created a rich moment in American architectural history—a strange, Golden Age indeed.