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A history of paradise

April 30, 2006|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

We are obsessed with real estate and always have been. For more than 125 years, Southern Californians have bought it, sold it, graded it, changed it, planted it, built on it, dreamed on it, torn it down and started all over again. We have pushed ourselves beyond our city centers. We have filled every space in between.

At first such devotion seemed natural. We knew paradise when we saw it, and we knew how to make it our own. Drawn to this flood plain by the climate and open space, we came, tens of thousands of us, decade after decade, transforming the region and making us accomplices for better and worse in our own fate.

Paradise is still here, but the terms have changed significantly. Today we see Los Angeles and this region as if we were on an endless approach to LAX. It may be easy to say that, amid the sprawl, we have lost the past -- and the reasons for our abiding connection to this land -- but scattered throughout this sea of rooftops, this tangle of freeways, are places that ignite the same thrill that new arrivals must have felt 100 years ago or that contain a more contemporary charge.

To identify these touchstones, we approached historians, urban planners, friends and users of this metropolis. We looked for the most singular locales that would put a human face on this sweep of development and, when isolated, would capture the speed, the exhilaration, the hope and heartbreak of our undaunted passion. Together these places form a picture of our belief in the possibilities of this land.


Pacific Electric Building

Downtown Los Angeles

As if someone had flipped a switch, the Pacific Electric Building, once famous for moving Angelenos out of downtown, is pulling them back.

When it was incorporated in 1901, the Pacific Electric Railway Co.'s Red Cars of California did everything it could to encourage downtown residents to "Go see what a beautiful country is opened up." And go they did, catching the Red Car at this terminus and riding it out to Monrovia or Newport Beach, expanding the city's limits.

Now the Pacific Electric Building is riding a rush of newfound enthusiasm for urban living. At the corner of 6th and Main streets, the building, renamed Pacific Electric Lofts, is something of a postmodern fortress in a postmodern part of town. The last train ran in 1961, and the station was partially gutted and transformed into a parking structure. Today it offers apartment living, high-speed Internet, a rooftop pool -- and residents who blog about carpooling to the Coachella Valley Music Festival.


Bungalow Heaven


"One of the most hard-worked words in California of recent years is bungalow," wrote lovestruck enthusiast Charles Francis Saunders in 1913, and nowhere was that word worked harder than in Pasadena, where more than 1,000 of these low-pitched homes were built nearly a century ago on some 13 streets between Washington and Orange Grove boulevards and Lake and Hill avenues.

At the time, this accidental proliferation was about as radical a statement as you could make with redwood, pine and cedar.

More than a house, the California bungalow was a template for a new kind of life. Extolled for its indoor-outdoor arrangements, bungalows were cheap to build, cheap to heat and dispensed with the need for servants.

"The properly appointed bungalow inside stands for comfort, leisureliness and cheerfulness, comporting with a climate which makes for the same qualities," Saunders continued. "Bungalow life is informal but not necessarily bohemian, and at its best is simple, without being sloppy."

Tell that to the relatives back East.


The Lummis Home

Highland Park

When it was nearly completed in 1910, the Lummis Home attempted with its bohemian irreverence to connect Southern California to its Southwestern roots. Meanwhile, just across town, Henry Huntington was putting the finishing touches on his mansion and would have nothing of it. Between Lummis and Huntington, a sparing match was waged in Los Angeles over its future as a Western or a metropolitan city.

Charles Lummis celebrated a Mission-style aesthetic with river rock, vigas and corbels set beneath the sycamores of the Arroyo Seco; Huntington, a Beaux Art neoclassicism with columns, pilasters and balustrades on a ranch that would become San Marino. One vision was born from the experience of walking from Cincinnati to L.A. in 1884; the other from taking the train. One was cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat, the other starched and laundered. A hundred years later, they're still duking it out.


The fence


Some are made of pickets. Others of chicken wire or cement, wood or cactus, and for Mexicans who came to this city in the wake of the 1910 revolution -- families who could own no land back home -- nothing was more meaningful than the fence.

"My father had a thing about fences," writes Mary Helen Ponce in "Hoyt Street," her memoir about growing up in Pacoima in the 1940s. "I often thought that ... it was important for him to fence, to secure the right of ownership."

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