Self-storage warehouses, those concrete boxes that seem to dot Southern California like industrial-sized closets, don't usually attract attention for architectural detail.
But then, most warehouses don't feature intricately sculpted facades, with bas-relief mountains, undulating waves, primitive cloud patterns, trapezoidal windows and a coat of earth tones.
One need go no further than Tarzana to see such a structure, which is being built by developer Danny Howard, a man who sees monuments where others see modules.
"Most self-storage places are just square concrete boxes," said Howard, 46, whose Beverly Development Co. is responsible for the Chateau office building, an ornate replica of an 18th-Century French palace perched atop the Ventura Freeway in Woodland Hills. "This is a concrete piece of art."
Preliminary sketches of Tarzana Self-Storage show an imposing facade of chunky geometric blocks broken up by two 20-by-40-foot panels of scenic images, in bas-relief of from 1 to 4 inches high. Cast in concrete, the tilt-up walls will be painted in rust, sand and light gray.
If nothing else, Howard's 140,000-square-foot, $5-million project, which is scheduled for completion in the spring, seems destined to be the San Fernando Valley's most notorious rental locker.
Wedged between a gas station and a pet clinic near the heavily traveled intersection of Burbank and Reseda boulevards, the building has been called a salute to "American Indian Deco" by Gary Soszynski, the man who designed it. And it has been panned by a neighbor as "something you'd see in the Arizona desert."
An assistant to Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude, whose district includes the congested commercial district, said she is reserving judgment until the project is complete.
"Both our office and the community made it very clear that we didn't just want your typical public storage, industrial warehouse-type look," said Cindy Miscikowski, Braude's chief deputy. "Obviously, this was different, and obviously it didn't look like a warehouse."
Howard is glad just to have anything sprout from the site.
After purchasing the Burbank Boulevard property in 1983 for nearly $6 million, he proposed a high-rise medical center, similar to the glass and steel offices nearby. But Los Angeles planning officials turned down the project because of the traffic it would bring.
Howard then drew up plans for a multilevel shopping center with underground parking. City officials gave him the green light, but neighbors complained about potential gridlock, and Howard himself later scrapped the idea as poorly suited to the site.
When he finally decided self-storage was the way to go, Howard realized that cookie-cutter boxes simply wouldn't do.
"I could have saved considerable money by not doing something that was aesthetically pleasing," he said. "On the other hand, I might not have gotten approval, either." He estimated he spent $250,000 above regular construction costs to give the project its distinctive look.
Enter Soszynski, 36, a Woodland Hills artist whose paintings hang on the walls of Howard's Tarzana home, as well as at the ABC Entertainment Center, Columbia Pictures and the Mulholland Tennis Club.
Although a self-storage warehouse is not a particularly glamorous canvas, Soszynski said he welcomed the opportunity to add an artistic touch to the Valley's seemingly endless expanse of anonymous structures.
"I have yet to see a building that I would ever remember in the Valley," Soszynski said. "We need artists to come in and make the place aesthetic."
In designing the facade, Soszynski said, he tried to incorporate both modern and ancient themes, using a minimalist, linear pattern as his background and decorating with organic shapes, such as the mountains, waves, rainbows and clouds. The result, he said, is something of a cross between avant-garde sculpture and cave painting.
A friend of Howard's, Lois Schilling, whose husband runs the neighboring Tarzana Pet Clinic, said she had not seen the design but expected the unusual.
"Danny Howard likes things like that," she said. "I've seen his Chateau. It's kind of interesting, but I don't know whether I really like it or not."
The Tarzana Property Owners Assn. preferred self-storage over the other possibilities but was less than thrilled about the design.
"We didn't think it was quite as beautiful as the developer did," said Irma Dobbyn, a spokeswoman for the group, which has about 1,600 members. "We hope it won't hurt our community."
But for Howard--who, besides the Chateau, has built an office building in the style of a Spanish villa on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills--a long, disbelieving stare is better than a blink.
"I think there's a certain segment of the market that wants something other than glass and steel boxes," he said. "That doesn't mean that everyone likes the things I do. But that's why there's chocolate and vanilla."