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In L.A., even Tudors get face-lifts

May 08, 2003|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

If authenticity were a big deal in Los Angeles, there would be no barbecue chicken pizza, Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean would still be chasing animatronic wenches and Pamela Anderson's gravity-defying chest would not be so widely admired. But in the land of make-believe, almost anything goes, as long as it approximates someone's fantasy.

For nearly a century, California homeowners have moved into mock Mayan temples, pseudo-chateaux and neo-Palladian villas. But our long-standing acceptance of the infinite variety of faux doesn't mean architectural fancies aren't subject to the whims of fashion. The dream house of one era is the eyesore of another. Fortunately, remodeling has become a nearly limitless art of the possible. A simple ranch house can sprout rooms like tumors until it turns into a 21st century American's notion of a medieval Tuscan farmhouse.

Or a majestic Tudor-style house will be lightened up, its distinguishing characteristics rendered all but invisible. Traditional Tudor homes feature cream-colored stucco on which dark brown slats of wood, called half-timbers, are applied. (It's been a long, long time since half-timbers were structurally necessary.) Steeply pitched roofs with gables and leaded windows of small glass panes are typical. Many residences in Hancock Park, Pasadena, Bel-Air, Los Feliz and Santa Monica display hallmarks of the style, whose origins hark to 15th and 16th century England.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Architect's name -- In an article on "UnTudor" houses in the May 8 Home section, the late architect Arthur Rolland Kelly was misidentified as Arthur C. Kelly.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 05, 2003 Home Edition Home Part F Page 2 Features Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Architect's name -- In a story on "UnTudor" houses in the May 8 Home section, the late architect Arthur Rolland Kelly was misidentified as Arthur C. Kelly.

But on a drive through those areas, an architectural pilgrim can also find a plethora of UnTudors. Boredom or misbegotten creativity could be behind some of these re-dos. What else could explain a house on which the stucco is painted baby blue, the half timbers kelly green? There is no record of the first UnTudor to defy custom, but it's now easy to find half-timbers painted white, black, blue, green or gray. Stucco may be yellow, pink, blue, gray or tan, and red brick thoroughly whitewashed.

It's hard to disapprove of the reinvention of an imitation. And the UnTudoring of L.A. is more about function than form. The beauty of Tudor homes is undeniable, but the most classic ones don't fit the way most people like to live now. It is unlikely that Henry VIII could smack on some sunscreen and spend an afternoon in the backyard of dank old Hampton Court, lounging on a chaise, nursing a cold ale. An Angeleno can, and wants to fling open the doors and let the fresh air in. But first there must be doors to fling open. In the most radically altered Tudors, homeowners have added, subtracted, personalized and reconfigured. There is a range of stylistic amnesia among the UnTudors; some seem to have lost all memory of their past.

It was an illustrious history, a fact that makes the UnTudor trend somewhat surprising. In L.A., the first Tudor revival occurred at the turn of the last century. Some grand Tudor mansions built then in the West Adams district still survive. The next, and greatest, wave came in the 1920s, when such gifted local architects as Arthur C. Kelly and Paul R. Williams refined the style. The earlier Tudors had been big and blocky, resembling square English inns. Kelly, who worked for the Greene & Greene brothers before going out on his own, stretched out his Tudor floor plans, thinning out the structures in which great artisans were employed to create carved wooden beams and cast stone fireplaces he designed.

At the same time, Craftsman mega-bungalows, Moorish haciendas and French Norman castles were being built for house-proud Californians. But it was the country English homes that embodied unique pretensions and the scent of old money, no matter how new they were. Decades before Ralph Lauren built an empire marketing images of the British aristocracy to American commoners, a Tudor house let Anglophiles ape the manner of landed gentry, as if they were living on an estate in Somewhereshire.

"To have a Tudor house was like saying you'd come over on the Mayflower," says Robert Timme, dean of the USC school of architecture. "The homes had a sense of elegance and harked back to a tradition L.A. didn't have."

Architectural historian Merry Ovnick's parents came to Los Angeles during the Depression, refugees from the Dust Bowl. Her mother had been a teacher in Kansas, but in L.A., the only work she could find was waitressing and cleaning houses. One of the homes she worked in was a Tudor in north Glendale.

"My mother was overwhelmed by the desire to live in a Tudor house," Ovnick says. "To her, they were the epitome of grandeur. They represented having arrived." At first, the couple lived in a bungalow court in the Atwater district. A few years later they bought a tiny house in Pacoima, then moved into a World War II worker-era cracker box in Mar Vista. In 1952, when Ovnick's father was employed by Douglas Aircraft, her parents bought a quaint Tudoresque home in south Santa Monica that was built in 1937, one of several in the neighborhood.

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