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Sam Hall Kaplan

View of Santa Monica and Beyond

August 10, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

To catch up with what has happened in architecture and design in the Los Angeles area while away for two months, I began by taking a walk in my Santa Monica neighborhood.

With sadness, I noticed one of my favorite buildings, a Spanish Colonial Revival delight of an automobile showroom at the southwest corner of 17th Street and Wilshire Boulevard, had been demolished. A fire in May apparently had damaged the structure beyond repair.

The red-tiled, two-story structure, featuring an interior decorated as a Moorish castle replete with ornate chandeliers, was designed by Edwell James Baume in 1928, when the city's design community was in the throes of an exotic revivalism flavored by the movies.

Simonson Mercedes Benz Co., which owns the prime site and building, has said it will try to reconstruct the showroom in the same engaging style. I tend not to like new old buildings, for in their modern construction they usually lose both authenticity and charm, and end up as some sort of ersatz confectionary, like a Beethoven piano sonata being played by Liberace.

In this case, I hope I am wrong, and that with a respect for quality that has distinguished the Simonson dealership for decades, somehow the charm of a lost and lamented style can be captured in the new showroom. Wilshire Boulevard, from Westwood to the ocean, certainly needs all the help it can get.

With the march of out-of-scale high-rises competing for attention, the lack of sign control and, generally, the crass commercialism of developers and retailers, and the insensitivity to design of Santa Monica and Los Angeles officials, the boulevard is turning into yet another L. A. schlock strip.

Elsewhere in Santa Monica, a subdued historicism marks the southeast corner of 15th Street and Montana Boulevard.

There, housing the popular Montana Mercantile cookingware company is a recent high-tech rendition of the Streamline Moderne style. It was designed by Kanner Associates with round corners, glass brick, white steel railings and a horizontal emphasis, details that had distinguished the popular style of the late 1930s.

Though I found the effect a bit too institutional, and the signs--particularly the lettering of "Hemisphere,"--incompatible with the style, the building is well scaled and welcome.

A nice touch also are the benches set in the 15th Street facade. However, they would have been better placed on Montana to view the passing parade there of shoppers. The street, which has been labeled "Croissant Canyon," is becoming quite gentrified; its increase in trendy shops and attractive eateries, and decrease in neighborhood services being spurred on by the spending of yuppies receiving what, in effect, are substantial monthly cash subsidies under the city's perverted rent control system.

As for the rental housing stock, a walk up and down the nearby alleys indicated that it continues to deteriorate. Apartment complexes are in need of paint, window sashes are rotted and stucco above the rear parking bays was falling on the shiny new cars of tenants.

It is depressingly apparent to someone like myself, a former renter, now a landlord, that the system as it has evolved in Santa Monica is not working, at least not for housing and those who need it.

However, it seems to be doing fine, perpetuating a fat bureaucracy, and as a political tool with which to bribe renters who vote.

The alleys that apartments back up to were not in a much better condition, with broken pavement, garbage strewn about by the collectors and, during rush hours, cars racing up and down, taking short cuts to avoid the traffic and lights on Montana and Wilshire. And this in a reasonably sized community with a local government that talks a lot about quality of life.

North of Montana, expensive private houses continue to expand and rise, like giant souffles too big for their dishes and the oven. The eclectic Tudoresque style, with a garish gazpacho of materials popular a few years ago among builder/developers, seems to have been replaced by an encrusted, nouveau-French chateauesque style. Simi Valley has come to Santa Monica.

But for real ugly, there is a new strip of stores at the northwest corner of Euclid Street and Montana that is attributed to Pacific Southwest Development Inc., at least according to the approved architectural drawings.

With its prison-like gray grill against a cheap stucco facade rising to a false, peaked third story, a fake front column offset on its base, and a particularly bad color selection, the concoction gives Postmodernism a bad name.

And, as if Postmodernism, with its tricky, often obtuse use of architectural allegories, did not have enough of a problem with the public at present without would-be designers embracing it as a gimmick.

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