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Evolution of a '50s Dream

Crestwood Hills began as an experiment in cooperative living and modern architecture. Today, it's an upper-crust neighborhood trying to to renew the community spirit and preserve its architectural heritage.

April 24, 2000|BRENDA REES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The heart of Crestwood Hills, a woodsy enclave in the hills above Sunset Boulevard on Los Angeles' Westside, is a cooperative nursery school where parents are required to volunteer twice a month to help their children learn about silkworms, build sandcastles and touch the sky on a swing.

The nursery school links the neighborhood with its past as a unique 1950s housing project founded by 282 families that embraced cooperative living and bold new architecture at the apex of Los Angeles' influence on American residential design.

Today, the school and 33 of 150 first-phase homes are about all that's left of the neighborhood that started out along the ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains far from the city. Developments, including Brentwood to the south and the Getty Center to the east, have closed in on the neighborhood that now encompasses 360 lots.

After the 1961 Brentwood-Bel-Air fire that demolished 49 of the homes, decades of construction and reconstruction erased much of the original modern design. Now a new generation of Crestwood homeowners is trying to steer the community back toward the twin goals of its founders by preserving its architectural heritage and renewing its cooperative and social spirit.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 27, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong spelling--The name of architect Edgardo Contini was misspelled in an April 24 story on the Crestwood Hills neighborhood.

Welcoming committees greet new residents, a tradition started by the founding homeowners, and Crestwood Hills Park regularly features community concerts.

"I can't go to my mailbox in the morning without running into someone. Some days it takes me a long time to get my mail," said architect Cory Buckner, who has lived in Crestwood Hills for six years.

Many residents are involved in both the nursery school and nearby Kenter Canyon Elementary School, a Los Angeles Unified School District campus. Recently, drives by parents contributed $75,000 toward a new playground at the elementary school and $60,000 toward a remodel of the nursery school.

"We realize that when we work in a cooperative way, we can do so much more," said Deborah Kattler Kupetiz, a Crestwood mom who is helping organize an annual "Rhythm in the Park" music series and community activities, such as ballroom and swing dancing lessons, T-ball games, art classes and toddler groups.

"The community is turning around because of young families moving into the area. We've had more Crestwood homeowners enroll their children in the school," said Cathy Wagner, director of the Crestwood Hills Cooperative Nursery School.

Scholars are rediscovering the early utopian dreams of Crestwood Hills. Harold Zellman, a Santa Monica architect, and Roger Friedland, a UC Santa Barbara sociology professor, are writing the first book about Crestwood Hills.

The modern architecture and history of Crestwood also will be the subject of an exhibition at the Getty Center, tentatively scheduled for January 2003.

While Brentwood, Bel-Air and Santa Monica have better name recognition, Crestwood residents are happy to live in a secluded, little-known place. Many people discover Crestwood by accident and are hooked by the modern style of homes, many of which sell today for between $700,000 and $1 million.

Community Emphasized the Architecture

The original houses, which came in higher than budget at $10,000 to $30,000 each, were designed by A. Quincy Jones (who would later become dean of USC's School of Architecture), Whitney R. Smith and engineer Egardo Continti when they were beginning their careers. The homes were small, averaging 1,200 square feet, but architecturally distinct.

The community was established as an "architecturally controlled neighborhood," with the Crestwood Hills Architectural Committee overseeing the design of proposed structures and modifications according to a set of guidelines created in 1947 by the founders, who wanted to maintain architectural standards within the community.

"I love the scale of these homes," said Buckner, pointing out classic modern features in her house, such as exposed masonry block, plywood and steel, and wall-sized windows connecting the interior to the outdoors and exploiting the many city and ocean views. "It's so wonderfully designed down to each little detail. I feel like I am living inside a great mind."

Buckner helps edit the Crestwood Hills Views, a monthly newsletter of the Crestwood Hills Assn., a homeowners organization, and holds the key to the archives, a repository for original blueprints, drawings, pamphlets and legal documents.

Buckner's two-bedroom, two-bathroom home, which she owns with her husband, architect Nick Roberts, was the first built by the cooperative and was used as project headquarters during housing construction. Buckner recently purchased the house, her second she has owned in the neighborhood, and is beginning restoration. Much of Buckner's architecture business has focused on remodeling original Crestwood homes, and she also has been deeply involved in preservation efforts. Many of the original homes were torn down to make way for larger homes.

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