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No, it wasn't Schindler

Part handiwork and part detective work, the rehabilitation of a 1930s Los Feliz home restored not only its structure but also the reputation of its long-forgotten architect.

April 24, 2003|Barbara King and Lisa Zeiger | Special to The Times

Patrick Pascal was in his last year at USC when he and three college buddies began searching for a rental big enough for all of them to share. A small ad in the classifieds caught their attention: a three-bedroom, four-bath house in Los Feliz for $999 a month. Even in 1981, that amount, however quirky, was an unbelievable bargain.

The eager young men looked past the drab, disheveled appearance of the concrete slab structure with its corrugated fiberglass awnings, heavy drapes and thick tangle of rubber trees -- straight through to its true potential.

"It was a great party house," Pascal recalled. "We'd never seen anything quite this funky. And we definitely didn't have to worry about any damage we'd do."

Over the next two years, Pascal's friends moved out, but he stayed on. He had grown fond of this unusual place with its graceful curving walls, soffit lights, chrome stair railings and steel-casement windows allowing in great floods of light. In the spring of 1983, by then working as an equities trader, he was able to buy the house because "the owners sold it to me cheaply -- $235,000."

And so began this story that plays out like a good double-themed detective yarn -- the real identity of a house revealed through the stripping away of layers of disguise, and a mystery architect's identity revealed in the process. It became an amazing saga of dual rehabilitation, one that restored both the house and the architect's name.

The sellers had tried to convince Pascal that the house had been designed by Modernist architect Rudolph Schindler, designer of more than 300 structures in Southern California from the early '20s through the early '50s. But even with his limited knowledge of architecture, Pascal knew that couldn't be so.

"There are no unknown Schindlers," he said. But he also knew that, Schindler or not, this was most surely an example -- and a fine one -- of Streamline Moderne, a genre popular in the '30s that had fallen out of favor.

Six months after the purchase, Pascal met his future wife, Julie, a fashion designer, who, he joked, "started dating me in the first place simply because she fell for the house."

Together, they tackled what was to be a years-long task of returning the house to its essence: They cleared away 40 tons of debris, including cinderblock walls dividing up the yard, an aluminum patio and a terrace outside the bedroom.

"There was a time when you could sit in the living room and look up at the stars," said Pascal, remembering when a sheet of ceiling crashed down onto the sofa. Most of the plumbing and plastering and painting and even some of the electrical work was done by him and friends he buttonholed to help out.

Piece by piece, the couple added furniture that they bought at Goodwill or the Salvation Army and refinished. A friend and furniture dealer, who owned Denny Burt Modern Antiques on Melrose, found most of their furnishings and accessories in thrift stores, including original pieces by two of the most innovative designers of the '20s and '30s: a sofa, two cork-topped side tables and a coffee table by Paul Frankl., and an armchair by Gilbert Rohde.

Patrick Pascal, now an investment counsel at Chelsea Management, and Julie, a professor at Otis College of Art and Design, had learned a lot about Streamline Moderne in bringing the house back to life. But they still didn't know who designed their molded concrete beauty. Then in 1986, friends phoned them with startling news. They had attended a lecture by Julius Shulman, dean of architectural photographers in Southern California, who had shown photos of the Johnstone House -- or, as they knew it, the Pascal house.

At last, the mystery was solved: The architect's name was William Kesling.

Straightaway, Pascal went on an impassioned hunt for more information. He and Julie pored over Shulman's photos. They found 19 Kesling houses in Los Angeles, photographed them, created a Web site. They read, they researched, they got to know this obscure architect inside and out.

"As we continued to uncover the true nature of the house, we were uncovering the details of Kesling's life," Julie said.

The Pascals discovered that Kesling, a German immigrant, was a self-taught architect who was the largest builder of Streamline Moderne houses in L.A. in the '30s. What set him apart from other Modernist architects of the era was his stated mission of building homes for the common man, at a price -- $3,500 to $5,000 -- average people could afford even during the Depression. Thus he was extremely successful during the years when Schindler and Neutra were not.

Just as important, he made them livable. People were willing to enjoy Streamline designs in commercial buildings, but they were less willing to live inside them. But Kesling broke with tradition. His designs were not so strict or dogmatic, so righteous or austere; he built flowerboxes outside kitchens. "No Streamline architect with a sense of his own importance would ever have done that," Pascal said.

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