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SUNDAY READING

Some Enchanted Evening : Perhaps It's Time to Revive the Whimsy of Hansel and Gretel Architecture

October 27, 1985|SARAH LIFTON | Sarah Lifton is a Culver City-based writer specializing in the arts.

My hometown was a serious city, sadly bereft of architectural folly. For most of the year its traditional facades and graceful streets were a source of civic pride, but the end of October always rendered its aesthetic conventions curiously deficient. At the time, my childhood Halloweens seemed entirely adequate; I completed a satisfactory tenure as trick-or-treater, masquerading alternately as Gypsy, princess, pirate, witch and vampire. But Halloween in Pasadena, I came to realize, lacked a sense of high theater. The magical dwellings luring costumed urchins from less urbane parts of Los Angeles were as remote and unknowable as my grandparents' childhood.

Years later, when I moved to Culver City, I stumbled on a bewitching trio of fairy-tale cottages just across the L.A. border. I instantly fell prey to their enchantment. The houses, which locals refer to collectively as the Egg House because of the domed roof crowning the most prominent structure, owe a debt to the English country cottage, but their inspiration derives less from tradition than from make-believe. Crude half-timbering meanders through rusticated stucco, past oddly mullioned and latticed windows. Voluptuous shingled roofs curl menacingly around to meet the walls. Gnarled twigs and random bricks form a ramshackle boundary around two overgrown ponds stocked with fish. Although their provenance is shrouded in mystery as dense as their landscaping, it's probably no accident that the houses, still inhabited, are a mere broom's sweep from MGM. Popular folklore holds that their builder was a studio carpenter who scavenged his materials from the studio's scrap heap.

In the world of architectural history, such selfconscious quaintness belongs to a whimsical idiom dubbed Hansel and Gretel, one of the 1920s' many architectural excesses. The exuberance of the era, bolstered by prosperity, sought concrete expression in a reality that expanded on life. Fully three decades before the Magic Kingdom was even a fleeting thought in Walt Disney's head, Los Angeles was inundated with architectural evocations of other places and times: Egyptian real estate offices, Assyrian rubber plants, Aztec motels, and Mayan and Chinese movie houses. When the Egg House and its siblings were new, nearby Washington Boulevard was lined with ersatz Southern mansions, Tahitian huts, Tudor castles and a more renowned Hansel and Gretel house, since moved to Beverly Hills, which was born as the office for Irvin C. Willat Productions. The most extravagant outgrowths of the period were visual redundancies like the Brown Derby, which assumed the shapes of their names or wares.

Today, of course, we're far more sophisticated in Los Angeles. While it's fashionable to admire the Hansel and Gretel houses and their oddball contemporaries, more modern confections, such as the Getty Museum and Westside Pavilion, are not always welcomed by "enlightened" urban critics.

As neighborhood charm steadily surrendered to the exigencies of land values, however, perhaps it's time to reaffirm our flights of fancy, architectural and otherwise. It's often been observed that reality and fantasy interact more freely in Los Angeles than in any other city in the world, and I'd like to think come Halloween that the witches and elves who people the Egg House and the other fairy-tale cottages of Los Angeles will emerge for all to see. It will take imagination, but those of us willing to loosen our grip on this world will be rewarded with an outing to the magical junction of reality and fantasy. I'll be the one in the vampire costume.

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