With its wrought-iron chandelier, red-tiled floor and white textured walls, the reception hall of Village Green is such an ordinary example of Spanish-flavored decor that most Southern Californians wouldn't give it a second glance. But high above the broad bank of windows overlooking the central courtyard of the sprawling residential complex, mysterious images have emerged.
A face peers out of a rectangular patch where plaster and several layers of paint have been removed. Sprinkled across the wall are other bits of pale imagery--the heel of a bare foot, scraps of drapery, hints of landscape.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 19, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Housing development--The Village Green residential complex was originally called Thousand Gardens. The name was changed to Baldwin Hills Village in 1941, while the project was still under construction. An Aug. 12 Calendar story incorrectly stated that Baldwin Hills Village was the original name.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 18, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Housing development--The Village Green residential complex was originally called Thousand Gardens. The name was changed to Baldwin Hills Village in 1941, while the project was under construction. An Aug. 12 Calendar story incorrectly stated that Baldwin Hills Village was the original name.
The wall still conceals far more than it reveals, but the fragments are clues to a secret within a secret. A group of local architectural preservationists has discovered a long-forgotten mural by Rico Lebrun--a prominent figurative Expressionist who lived from 1900 to 1964--in a room that once exemplified architect Reginald Johnson's Populist ideals and Modern sensibility. If the group has its way, both the room and the mural will be restored to their original 1940s condition.
Johnson, who lived from 1882 to 1952, commissioned the interior mural in 1942 to enhance the entrance to a planned community he had designed for a quiet stretch of Rodeo Road, just west of La Brea Avenue. Originally called Baldwin Hills Village, the complex of rental units was a model of high-quality, family-friendly, affordable housing in a park-like setting, with "tot lots," tennis courts and lawns lined with olive and sycamore trees.
The property changed hands in 1949 and several times thereafter. The mural was painted over, probably in the 1950s, and buried deeper under chicken wire and plaster in the 1970s, when the complex was converted to condominiums and the reception hall was redecorated.
That might have been that--if Los Angeles architect Robert Nicolais and several of his colleagues hadn't launched an initiative to designate Village Green a National Historic Landmark. They knew the complex was a stellar example of principles promoted by the Garden City movement, which began in England during the late 19th century. Architect Clarence Stein--a leading American proponent of the movement and author of the influential book "Toward New Towns for America"--was the consulting architect for Village Green, and many of his ideas were incorporated into the project.
While doing research for their application for landmark status, Nicolais and others sifted through Reginald Johnson's papers at the branch of the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art that's housed at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Among their finds was a photograph of the Lebrun mural \o7 in situ.\f7
"I looked at the doggoned thing and said, 'I know where that wall is. There is no mural there now; it's a white wall,"' said Nicolais, who lives in Village Green. "Then I started poking around, just at the top of the window frames, and I saw traces of color."
He called the Getty Conservation Institute and was referred to a group of independent conservators, Leslie Rainer, Chris Stavroudis and Aneta Zebala. Then the Village Green Owners Assn. board of directors commissioned a preliminary investigation. With the historic photograph in hand, the conservators excavated one corner of the mural and determined that it had survived, at least in the spot they tested. A few other tests yielded additional positive results.
"Everywhere they looked, where the mural was supposed to be, they found paint," Nicolais said.
Around the same time, Nicolais got wind of Preserve L.A., a three-year initiative launched in 1999 by the J. Paul Getty Trust to provide funds for the conservation of local landmark buildings and other sites of architectural, cultural and historical significance. In March 2000, the Village Green Owners Assn. submitted an application for the first round of grants. A few months later, the association won a $45,000 planning grant.
"Our goals were to investigate the technical feasibility of restoring the Lebrun mural and to hire [the Pasadena-based architectural firm] Moule & Polyzoides to develop architectural plans and specifications for the restoration of Reginald Johnson's architecture for this space," Nicolais said, referring to the large reception room.
Village Green was one of 21 local projects to receive a total of $1.4 million in the inaugural year of Preserve L.A. Among other winners of planning grants, ranging from $35,000 to $75,000, were an African American sorority house, an early California adobe, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and Wattles Estate and Gardens in Hollywood. Larger implementation grants were given to Griffith Park Observatory ($200,000) and the Greene & Greene-designed Oaklawn Bridge in South Pasadena ($150,000).