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A cinematic awakening transforms L.A. architecture

April 27, 2006|Robert Winter | Special to The Times

Robert Winter's new book, "The Architecture of Entertainment: L.A. in the Twenties," details how advertising and movies introduced eclecticism and exoticism to Southern California architecture. Passages from the work:

BY 1929 an estimated 20 million to 30 million Americans were watching movies every week, and the film industry was claiming the largest portion of the average American's recreation budget. As Lary May noted in his book "Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry," the movies' depictions of glamorous surroundings and foreign cultures encouraged "a quest for a more exotic life." They were a means of escape, as were the period revivals in architecture that they often displayed.

Merry Ovnick, a historian at Cal State Northridge, suggests that because most films made in the 1920s were silent, directors and designers created dramatic atmosphere by featuring precipitous rooflines and deep architectural indentations; this was the architectural equivalent of silent-screen actors using exaggerated facial expressions to convey emotion. The use of styles in movies caused their audiences to expect more drama in their architecture.

It may be argued, then, that movies prompted a great many Americans to realize for the first time that architecture was, like other arts, a vehicle of expression. As the architectural historian Dietrich Neumann wrote in an article titled "Before and After 'Metropolis,' " "Architecture had begun to act in movies; skyscrapers had risen to the status of movie stars."

D.W. Griffith's Babylonian set for "Intolerance" and Cecil B. DeMille's sets for "The King of Kings" nicely illustrate Neumann's point. These and other filmed extravaganzas introduced Americans to grandiose interpretations of ancient architecture -- and they loved it.

Although the styles that emerged in California in the 1920s were based on historic precedent, they were not necessarily historically authentic. Instead, they represented an attempt to find something in history's grab bag to delight the eye. A talented architect could create Spanish, Islamic and AngloColonial buildings according to a client's whim. This disregard for strict ideology meant that most domestic architecture in the 1920s was pure entertainment.

A Tudor country house with a display of black-and-white work in its gables might stand next to a neoclassical villa. A French Provincial farmhouse would contrast with a nearby cottage that resembled a forest dwelling in Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Lining a street such as Lombardy, which connects Pasadena with the town of San Marino, was a bewildering array of architectural images, many of which resembled stage sets more than private homes.

Surely one of the strangest of these period revivals was the Mayan, which Frank Lloyd Wright introduced to the Los Angeles area. Wright claimed in his autobiography that his Barnsdall House (1917-1920, also called Hollyhock House) in Hollywood was a real "California Romanza" compared with the "pseudo-romantic in terms of neo-Spanish, lingering along as quasi-Italian, stale with Renaissance, dying or dead of English half-timber and Colonial" so prevalent in the area.

Wright did not mention his debt to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Palenque in Mexico, but it is obvious. His slightly later houses in Pasadena and Hollywood were constructed of decorated concrete blocks and reflect an Islamic influence, but they bear traces of the Mayan style as well.

Walter P. Temple Sr. was a member of one of the first Yankee families to settle in the Los Angeles area. He made his money in oil and real estate and decided to celebrate by building this house on the grounds of his grandfather's ranch in what is now the city of Industry. He fired the first firm he hired to build the house, then brought onboard the flamboyant Roy Seldon Price, who had just finished a house in Beverly Hills for movie director Thomas Ince.

Price had recently moved to Los Angeles from St. Louis, but he quickly noticed Angelenos' affinity for the Spanish look. In fact, in the front door of Temple's La Casa Nueva, he extended the Iberian Mediterranean style by designing it in a version of the Portuguese Manueline style. Today, it is rather surprising to find this elaborately decorated house and its lovely surroundings in an area covered with warehouses.

Like people with greater means, the masses of Americans also desired stylish single-family homes, preferably with gardens. Thus was born the ubiquitous bungalow, the one- or one-and-a-half-story cottage that by the 1920s was being built singly or in tracts, particularly in urban areas such as Los Angeles.

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