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The Graceful Lines of Streamline Moderne : The excitement over speed, as typified in the era's fast trains and ocean liners, was picked up by architects for their design of houses and commercial buildings.

SOUTHLAND HOME STYLES: One of an occasional series exploring the varied architectural styles of Southern California.

February 11, 1990|LEON WHITESON | Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics.

In the 1937 movie "Shall We Dance," Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and a couple of mutts did their "Walking the Dog" number on the promenade deck of an ocean liner, whirling their way into America's heart against a backdrop of curved white steel and shiny black linoleum.

The movie's set, modeled on the sleek French transatlantic liner Normandie, mirrored the popularity of the 1930s Streamline Moderne style that influenced the shape of everything from cameras to cars, from kitchen stoves to residential and commercial architecture.

Streamline Moderne houses, with their aerodynamic curves, smooth white stucco surfaces and contrasting black-and-silver interiors, mimicked the shapes of sleek ships, trains and planes whose clean lines parted the waves and cleaved the air.

The houses' designs were influenced by the excitement of speed that seized the nation during the 1930s and distracted its attention from the ravages of the Great Depression.

"Streamlining is the first new and uniquely American approach that the public could associate with progress and a better life," declared Henry Dreyfuss, designer of the famous 20th Century Limited streamlined locomotive that linked New York and Los Angeles in the late 1930s.

Dreyfuss added that all designers learned a great deal about clean, graceful design from streamlining. "We learned to junk useless protuberances and ugly corners," he said.

Although Streamline Moderne, which achieved its greatest sophistication in Los Angeles and Miami Beach--where it is also known as Tropical Deco--is uniquely American, some of its inspiration is European.

Streamline's distinctive white walls, flat roofs and strip windows were derived from the European International style developed by the German Bauhaus and from Le Corbusier's 1930 Villa Savoye at Poissy, France.

The purely American inspiration was to marry the functional International Style with the sensuously romantic--and totally nonfunctional--curves of streamlining.

In its heyday, Streamline Moderne was known simply as "the smart style." Much favored by Hollywood and mirrored in imaginative movie sets designed by art directors such as William Cameron Menzies, Streamline Moderne houses sprang up from Silver Lake to Santa Monica.

Actor Wallace Beery built himself a Streamline Moderne hideaway on Martel Avenue in West Hollywood in 1936. Designed by William P. Kesling, the Beery house features the typical flat roof, rounded corners, clerestory strip windows and sleek white stucco of the style.

Over its entry gate and at the rear outside the wide glass living room windows, Kesling's design includes curved, free-standing horizontal slabs perched on square pillars that are reminiscent of the service islands of 1930s Texaco gas stations.

Maddie Sadofski, who now owns the Beery house, has taken great pains to restore its original sophistication. She has preserved the recessed chromed ceiling lights with their ribbed Pyrex panels and the streamlined kitchen cabinets topped by vivid yellow, black and red tiles.

In the bathrooms, the old aluminum tiles--Streamline designers loved metallic finishes--still glisten.

"I've always loved Streamline," Sadofski said. "I grew up in this neighborhood and coveted Beery's old house for 20 years before I could afford to buy it. I adore the simplicity of its lines and the essentially American sophistication of the style. It still delights me every time I pass through my front gate."

In the 1930s, when Streamline style was created, the young science of aerodynamics was every designers' inspiration.

"The perfect aerodynamic form was believed to be a teardrop plowing through space with the round end forward," Arthur Pulos wrote in his book "The American Design Ethic."

Pulos commented that architecture "sought to disguise its embarrassment at being left behind by the airplane by doing streamlined shells."

The Streamline Moderne style followed upon the popular 1920s Art Deco manner, epitomized in such Los Angeles landmarks as Bullocks Wilshire and the Wiltern Theatre.

Sometimes known as Zigzag Moderne, Art Deco is distinguished from Streamline Moderne by its angular lines and exotic decoration inspired by Egyptian and Oriental motifs.

The term Art Deco, often erroneously extended to include the Streamline style, took its name from the 1925 Paris exhibition titled "Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs. "

Streamline Moderne designs, whether for houses or larger commercial buildings, always looked energetic. With its white metal balustrades and rows of porthole windows, the Coca-Cola bottling plant, south of downtown Los Angeles, by architect Robert Derrah looks like the Normandie under full steam.

The charming Shangri-La Hotel on Santa Monica's oceanfront seems about to sail off into the sunset. The concourse at Union Station, a mixture of Spanish Colonial Revival and Streamline Moderne motifs, excited passengers with the prospect of fast travel.

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