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The Valley Reconsidered

Exuberantly Googie

Why the Valley's Burger Stands, Carwashes and 20-Foot Dwarfs Belong Among America's Architectural Treasures

November 12, 2000|Richard Cheverton | Richard Cheverton is a freelance writer based in La Palma and author of the book "The Maverick Way" (Maverick Way Publishing). This is his first story for the magazine

SHADOWS ARE LENGTHENING (AS are the lines at the Valley's notoriously archaic traffic lights) as we stop-and-go past the Tiki-style Tahitian Village apartments on Reseda Boulevard; the Googie First Lutheran Church of Northridge, with its boomerang bell tower and cantilevered roof line; then the Devonshire International House of Pancakes, with its rare "double-butterfly" A-frame. Finally we reach the tour's denouement--Granada Hills. It's where Stratton and her husband, Cary, moved after years of scrimping and saving and living in a one-room bachelor pad. Their grail was nothing less than one of the fabled Eichler homes.

This neighborhood is a mother lode of Eichlers, along with two other clusters in Orange and Thousand Oaks. We clamber out of Stork's chariot at the foot of a steep drive leading up to Stratton's manse. A sober, almost taciturn, facade greets us, but a step through the doorway brings us into a light-filled inner atrium; the house embracing the space with glass arms. The first, startled impression is one of transparency, like one of those architectural drawings in which the walls have been left out.

It's a '60s time capsule: walls dotted with vintage Disneyland posters, a swooping floor lamp that Stratton scored for $10 at an estate sale, a "Seames" chair knockoff of the famous Eames lounger, a credenza from the estate of none other than Wayne McAllister, a progenitor of Googie. The kitchen is in mint condition; the range is set low so that mom can peer out into the family room; a built-in table swings out--an ingenious instant breakfast bar.

This may be the only house in architectural history to be named for a developer--the idiosyncratic, driven Joseph Eichler, a butter wholesaler who rented a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Bay Area during World War II and thereafter was never quite the same. He built mostly in Northern California (11,000 houses), far fewer in the Southland (all that glass gave the homes a reputation for being a trifle toasty). He was stubborn about materials; was one of the first developers to sell to minorities; refused to cut corners and went bust by 1967.

"I'm drawn to the Modern style because of the marriage of interior and exterior spaces," Stratton says. "I love being in the house and looking outside and seeing the house extending into the outside space, and being outside and seeing the reverse." Stork chimes in: "I'm amazed at what [Eichler] thought was important and what was not important. The Philippines mahogany was important--they always had it. The flooring was not important, it was just linoleum."

Still, he adds, the house has "aged so gracefully. Our joke is that Stratton's house is the summer of 1967. But when you look at it, it's very suitable for today. To me it's the quintessential California house."

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WE SAY OUR FAREWELLS. ONE senses that Stratton and Stork will have some postpartum blues when the tour is over Nov. 20.

But perhaps they will have inched their cause forward, adding to the appreciation of our exuberant, overconfident, hopeful, contradictory century's architecture. Opening up the redefinition of what was great architecture--not pushing the International Style survivors out of the preservation lifeboat, but inviting in home-grown geniuses such as Wayne McAllister and Googie. Struggling to keep the city (which is to say, the rest of us) from devouring its own fragile past.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Some resources, printed and electronic, for more information about Modernism.

Books: "Googie," by Alan Hess (Chronicle Books). Bible of the Googie restoration; wonderfully illustrated, although a bit melancholy when you consider the number of buildings lost.

"From Bauhaus to Our House," by Tom Wolfe (Bantam). A lively demolition of the last art form whose practitioners really thought they would change the world.

"How Buildings Learn," by Stewart Brand (Viking Penguin). A study of "buildings in time" that instantly changes perceptions of how architecture works.

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Web sites: http://www.la

conservancy.org. The organization's tidy Web site lists activities, projects and information about the Valley Tour. A site specifically dedicated to the Valley tour is at http://valleytour.com.

http://home.fea.net/~cjepsen/

Googie.htm. A great place to enter the world of Googie. Excellent graphics. Boomerangs predominate.

http://www.eichlernetwork.com/. Home for all things Eichler, everything from earnest discussions about radiant heating (Eichler put heating coils in the foundation slab) to Eichlers for sale.

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