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Courts with a new spark

The courtyard apartment is an idea whose time has come back. Amid today's high-rise building trend, the need for such urban oases -- infused with a communal spirit -- is greater than ever.

September 15, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

ANYBODY who has moved from city to city over the years -- and that describes a significant portion of America's urban population these days -- knows there are two kinds of apartments you tend to remember: the ones you couldn't wait to get out of, and the ones whose charms stick with you, as a kind of regret, years after you've left.

Before I moved from Northern to Southern California last year, my wife, baby daughter and I lived in a place that belongs to the second category: a one-bedroom apartment with a fireplace, a window seat and a secluded patio in a garden court complex in Piedmont, in the hills just south of Berkeley. The single-story complex, which includes nine rental apartments arranged, in a pair of U-shaped arms, around a shared garden, was probably designed by the architect Irving Gill.

"Probably" because the origins of the complex, finished in 1914 and known as Ronada Court, aren't entirely clear. Gill's archive is scattered; many of Piedmont's records from the period are lost. The units certainly include several of Gill's trademarks, such as arched doors and windows and a crisply economical, superbly proportioned flat-roofed style, which is largely Modernist with some nods to Mission and Craftsman styles.

Still, it was less the connection to a famous name that impressed me than the thoughtful and unusually livable quality of its design, and the way quick access to the garden always made it feel bigger and more luxurious than it actually was. The largest closet in each unit was placed back-to-back to its counterpart next door, which meant that almost no noise leaked into our place from the neighboring one. The architect (who, if it wasn't Gill, certainly knew his work) placed bathrooms and kitchens on the street side, with bedrooms and living rooms away from the noise.

Indeed, our apartment, despite some leaks and an unreliable, undersized dishwasher, was so agreeable that we stayed after our daughter arrived and it became clear that we needed more space. The apartment included a long, narrow extra room that originally may have been an open-air loggia and that we were using as a dining room; we moved our bed to the far end of that space and turned the lone bedroom into a nursery.

The courtyard apartment, of course, is an architectural type perfected in, and intimately associated with, Southern California. (Even the idea of naming an apartment building seems out of place in Northern California; nobody except architectural historians refers to ours as Ronada Court.) Nearly all of the best examples of the style are found here: Gill's own Horatio West Court in Santa Monica; Neutra's Strathmore Apartments in Westwood; the row of unabashedly romantic Mediterranean-style buildings along and near Fountain Street in West Hollywood; bungalow courts in Pasadena; and countless others.

Built mostly in the 1920s and '30s, the Los Angeles courts, whose most direct historical precedents are the California Missions and the courtyard apartments of Seville, Cordoba and other Spanish cities, come in a remarkable variety of architectural styles. What they have in common is a remarkable combination of symbolizing Southern California living while at the same time suggesting a remove from its urban bustle. To wander through Robert Stacy-Judd's neo-adobe Atwater Bungalows near Elysian Park, for instance, is to be convinced that you are, first, completely isolated from city life and, second, that you are in a place that could only be Los Angeles. The courtyard type also strikes an unusually effective balance between privacy and sense of community.

In their 1982 book "Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles," Stefanos Polyzoides, Roger Sherwood and James Tice note a quirk of history that helped inspire at least a handful of California architects in their adaptation of European courtyard buildings: World War I kept young architects from taking the traditional Grand Tour through Frances, Italy and other countries. Many wound up in southern Spain, where safe travel was still possible, admiring the richly detailed courts in the Andalusian region, where the climate and quality of light reminded some of Southern California.

For a while, the garden and bungalow courts seemed poised to help bring about a denser, more urban and more connected Los Angeles. But as the 20th century wore on, developers, public officials and other L.A. boosters began marketing Southern California, with increasing fervor and effectiveness, as a place where even a middle-class family could afford its own private house on a detached lot. And as the market for single-family housing boomed, apartment living began to be seen as more down-market and less urbane than it had before.

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