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STRUCTURES : Mayan Revival Is Getting Another Look in Ventura : The disarming Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, built in 1925, is generating the first wave of publicity for the style.

June 24, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some seven decades ago, Robert Stacy-Judd, the eccentric Los Angeles-based architect turned self-styled archeologist, had a dream. And he rendered it in concrete for all to see.

For local evidence, you need only head to the corner of East Santa Clara and Laurel streets in Ventura, where his dazzling--or at least dazzled--First Baptist Church stands tall. Very tall.

Stacy-Judd decreed that a Mayan Revival style was in order for California's--and America's--architectural future, as a rich and honest form of "all-American" architecture.

The incorporation of pre-Columbian designs had been used before, notably with such famous Frank Lloyd Wright examples as the Hollyhock House and "La Miniatura" in Pasadena, but Stacy-Judd was a man obsessed, and publicity savvy, to boot.

His dream took a wrong turn, as the Depression came along and architectural tastes later shifted toward the stripped-down geometries of modernism. But Stacy-Judd did manage to realize several of his Mayan-esque creations. He went on to write weighty volumes on Mayan culture and the lost continent of Atlantis.

There are a few examples around Southern California of what Stacy-Judd was getting at.

There is his groundbreaking and disarming Aztec Hotel in Monrovia. Built in 1925, it is generating the first wave of publicity for the architect's Mayan concept. With its marriage of extensive Mayan motifs in relief, along with aspects of pueblo style, the Aztec is certainly the strangest structure in that otherwise generic commercial zone.

Further experimentation can be seen in his Masonic Temple in North Hollywood and a subtle Pueblo-style suburban home in Santa Monica, with round-edged volumes piling up like a little village.

But perhaps the most eye-opening example of all is right here in Ventura, where the First Baptist Church was built in 1931.

In actuality, the First Baptist Church (which became the home of the Church of Religious Science in 1959) freely blends Mayan motifs with the curvilinear touches of Art Deco and even some Expressionist angularity. Stylistically, it is a temple of hybridization, a pre post-modern affair.

Subtle bands of blue and orange decoration on the cornice contrast with the predominantly beige exterior. Raked stucco gives it a pre-industrial texture.

But the main impression is one of exaggerated verticality. Taking seriously the symbolic cue of a church's spire, stepped features and an organization of cubes seems to sweep dizzily upward. The eye--at least one that hasn't been dulled by years of familiarity--looks up at the '50s tower that looms over the corner, almost against its will.

Nothing compares to it, which is not necessarily a qualitative judgment. There's something immediately striking about the church, but also something loony, reto-kitschy and contextually irrelevant. Amid the Craftsman homes and Spanish Colonial splashes in the area, this church is from another space and time.

You can take the Mayan out of the jungle, but can you take the jungle out of the Mayan? The jury's still out.

Still, aesthetic judgments about the success or elegance of the church's design are bound to be blurred by other issues. The church stands as a monumental slice of Southern California architectural history and also as a testament to the kind of maverick ambition that may be endemic to the greater Los Angeles area.

This downtown stretch of East Santa Clara Street actually hosts two structures of historical/regional note within a few blocks of each other.

S. Charles Lee's Mayfair Theater is a sleek little example of Streamline Moderne styling from the early '40s.

Unfortunately, Lee's building lies dormant and boarded-up at the moment. Stacy-Judd's structure is still very active, with regular Sunday services and a Wednesday evening "Healing Service." More than just a historical landmark, the building works for a living.

Stacy-Judd is the subject of a forthcoming book, out in early September on Capra Press, by noted UC Santa Barbara architectural historian David Gebhard, who has kept tabs on Stacy-Judd for some time. The architect willed his papers, drawings and writings to Gebhard's architectural drawing collection.

As Gebhard commented: "He was a weirdo in architecture, and I mean that in the very best sense."

That Stacy-Judd got the First Baptist Church built in the first place is startling.

"The Baptists," Gebhard said, "are traditionally a fairly conservative group, so how he managed to get them to agree to this is beyond me. It must have been good salesmanship."

The Baptists have long since moved to a larger property on Mills Road, but the church continues to serve its designated purpose.

On a recent weeknight, the church's Rev. Paula Swavely was addressing the congregation on the subject of giving. She literally basked in the light of sunset filtering through stained glass. "I like it in here this time of the night," she commented. "It feels spiritual."

She spoke at a microphone, not from behind the almost ironic Mayan altar--suitable for sacrifices--that passes for a pulpit. The ceiling's stepped ziggurat-like impression radiates over the chapel.

Stacy-Judd's signature triangular forms, which can also be seen in his other Southern California structures, are seen outside and in the doorways. They also appear, right-side up and/or inverted, throughout the interior--the thumbprints of a man who would be a visionary.

For architects, dreams--even crazy ones--can keep on recurring in public, in perpetuity.

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