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Modernist Oasis

A Visionary Developer's '60s Haven Still Nestles in the Hollywood Hills

September 01, 2002|GINNY CHIEN

Around a narrow curve up a steep Bronson Canyon byway, gleaming pyramids beckon from the hillside like a vision in the desert on a sweltering day. The blues and golds shine from the faux Byzantine mosaic sign heralding the entrance to a forgotten piece of L.A.'s modernist heritage--the secluded little subdivision known as Hollywood Oasis.

The Oasis doesn't showcase bravura design on the order of artistes such as Richard Neutra or Rudolph Schindler. But the nearly three dozen homes built on Tuxedo Terrace and Bronson Hill Drive near Griffith Park epitomized their era--think Hockney meets the Brady Bunch house: clean geometric lines, split levels, exposed beam ceilings, 30-foot-high-rock fireplaces and the occasional pool.

The enclave was the brainchild of flamboyant entrepreneur Russ Vincent, who was a producer and actor before turning his flair for showmanship to real estate development. During the '60s, Vincent was the moving force behind deliciously idiosyncratic developments such as Laurel Canyon's classical Greece-inspired Mt. Olympus. When he launched Hollywood Oasis in the late '50s, Vincent envisioned his first real estate venture as a suburban retreat minutes from the glitz of Hollywood. "We're only five minutes from Hollywood and Vine, but we still get all the great wildlife from Griffith Park," says Noel Toy Young, an Oasis homeowner and retired real estate agent who worked for Vincent for nearly a decade. Vincent bought the land from Gwendolyn Caldwell, a resident of the nearby Los Feliz Oaks district, according to neighborhood historian James Howard Cremin, a retired doctor who interviewed Caldwell for his homeowners association archives.

Among the first fixtures was the cheeky little "Hollywood Oasis" sign decorated with palm trees and pyramids. (Vincent appears to have been fond of over-the-top signage. The Grecian Mt. Olympus sign is a Laurel Canyon beacon; outraged Olympians quashed an attempt by a few poor sports several years ago to raze the sign for tackiness.) The Oasis sign was soiled and obscured by brush until recently, when neighborhood residents Ted Fortier and George Alpern mounted a restoration effort.

Upon its completion in the early '60s, Hollywood Oasis was marketed as a deluxe development. Ever the producer, Vincent insisted on underground utilities to prevent unsightly overhead wiring, and many units featured a sky-lit atrium. But the houses were built with middle-class families in mind, says Young, who purchased her 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath residence for $55,000 in 1961. A selling point for some of the homes were amazing views stretching to the ocean. To maximize viewing potential, kitchens and living rooms were often on the second floor, bedrooms on the first.

Today only a handful of original owners still live in the subdivision, prices are in the hundreds of thousands and a few newer residents have "mansionized" their aeries. Thus far architectural preservationists aren't exactly making a fuss, but it might be a different story if Vincent were still around. "He would not have been happy with all the changes," Young says, citing the long list of now-defunct covenants, conditions and restrictions aimed at maintaining the ambience of the Oasis. "I don't think he would've liked anybody messing with his big plans."

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