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Courtyard housing: Mythology come to life

L.A. CENTRIC / MARY McNAMARA

November 25, 2003|MARY McNAMARA

When my mother decided to move to Los Angeles, my family began looking for an apartment in Los Feliz. We chose the area for a variety of reasons, but availability of affordable housing was not one of them. In fact, after weeks of stoically surveying depressing brown carpet and windowless living rooms, Mom had decided that if "this last place" didn't work out, she was going to give New Mexico another try.

Fortunately, "this last place" was Ambrose Gardens, an apartment building that is also one of those portals that connect real-life Los Angeles and postcard Los Angeles. Impossibly tall palms surround a pool the color of Paul Newman's eyes, while roses and geraniums, pansies and ferns gather in front of doorways and walls, there is a shaded patio, there is sunshine on green grass, and beneath the cries of ex-pat parrots overhead, there is, unbelievably, silence. All within spitting distance of an Albertson's parking lot.

This is not accidental. Ambrose Gardens is a classic post-World War II courtyard apartment building -- a two-story building shaped like a squared-off "U" holds this bit of paradise in a careful embrace. There are 42 units, most of them single bedrooms, and in them dwell a wide variety of people. There is a sense of collective upward mobility -- several doctors and lots of Industry types -- which reflects the neighborhood and the real estate market, but also quite a few retired folk, people who have been living here for 20, 30, or in one case, 50 years.

"I've got seven people who've lived here more than 25 years," says Elsie Columbia, who has managed the building for just about a decade. "People come and they like it so well, they never leave."

Like the architecture that surrounds them, many of these people also embody mythic Los Angeles. Doris Eller, who just celebrated her 50th year of residency, came with a friend to Los Angeles in 1953 from Portland, Ore., two gals looking for adventure. After a month or so, they ran out of money, so they figured they'd better just get jobs and stay awhile.

They saw a "for-rent" sign at 4440 Ambrose Ave. and moved in. Eller still has a photo of herself, in a smart suit and matching hat, standing beside one of the now-towering palm trees; it comes to her hip.

There was no pool back then, Eller says. Instead, the courtyard was dominated by a huge oak tree under which residents would gather and kibitz. But the tree became worm-infested and the owner took it down, eventually putting in the pool.

Appeared in early 1900s

Forty years later, the neighbors gather, around the water, or on the patio behind it, to eat and smoke and chat under iconic palms.

But unlike those trees, courtyard apartment buildings are native to Los Angeles. They appeared in the early 1900s, built to create instant communities for recently arrived laborers and their families. In the 1920s, they became a bit more posh, taking on Spanish and Mexican details.

According to Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues at the Los Angeles Conservancy, a lot of the courtyard apartments build during this time, especially in Hollywood and West Hollywood, was part of the Spanish Colonial Revival. "It was part of a search for indigenous architecture," he says, as much as an attempt to create neighborliness.

Some of these early complexes were made up of bungalows, some of which are still standing in Santa Monica and Pasadena; others, like those in Echo Park, are multi-level. The early courtyards didn't usually have a pool; they were places, Bernstein says, for communal gathering or contemplation.

World War II created the demand for more housing, and the courtyard apartment building went through a phase of mass production. These newer models often included pools, and they were more modern.

In the 1970s and '80s, courtyards, most of which are two-stories and small, fell out of favor as developers and architects sought to maximize real estate. Apartment buildings became bigger and more vertical, says Bernstein. Common space was reduced to balconies.

But places like Ambrose Gardens have remained popular -- manager Columbia says she had only three vacancies in the last year, and two were filled instantly by friends of other tenants. They are also experiencing a bit of a revival, part of the "new urbanism," which seeks to create more organic and livable city neighborhoods. Moule and Polyzoides, a Pasadena firm of "architects and urbanists," have recently completed several new courtyard housing projects.

Elizabeth Moule says the courtyard is only one aspect of a successful design. "The point is to create privacy and community," she explains. "So you have to make them idiosyncratic -- you don't want front windows that stare right into other front windows, or doors that open right beside staircases."

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