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Modernism's mass producers

L.A. Conservancy opens up homes by designers who brought the aesthetic to a low-cost market.

October 26, 2006|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

EVEN nonarchitecture buffs know the iconic Modernists -- the Neutras and Schindlers of the world. Few, however, are familiar with William Krisel or D. Wallace Benton or Donald G. Park -- men who designed Modernist homes for the masses in the 1950s and '60s.

Krisel designed more than 40,000 low-cost tract homes in Southern California from 1953 to '60, about 6,000 in the San Fernando Valley. With beamed ceilings, open floor plans and walls of glass, many are being considered for historic landmark status, said Trudi Sandmeier, education director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. Members of her organization have been identifying pockets of 50-year-old tract homes that might qualify for the designation.

"Fifty is sort of the magic number in preservation circles," she said. The Conservancy wants to ensure that the best examples of mass Modernism aren't altered by insensitive renovation. On Sunday, the organization will host a tour of important tract homes north of Ventura Boulevard, on the Tarzana-Woodland Hills border.

Krisel, 82, designed two of the featured homes and will be on hand to talk about his work. "Until the 1950s, most tract houses were just dark boxes with holes in the wall for doors and windows," he said by phone this week. Then a young USC architecture school graduate and a landscape architect, Krisel and his partner, Dan Palmer, wanted to bring the Modernist aesthetic to budget-stressed postwar families. Their houses were to offer the same indoor-outdoor living as the more upscale versions rising on the other side of the hill.

"My houses had large expanses of glass, window walls," Krisel said. "When you walked in, there was a feeling of spaciousness because the beamed ceilings sloped from a great height, which combined with the windows to give a sense that the place was bigger than it was."

His tract homes were 1,100 to 1,700 square feet. The cost ranged from about $12,000 to $14,500, Krisel said, with a $500 down payment.

Robyn Van Dewark, 29, and her boyfriend, Joe Moshier, 34, have lived in a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath Krisel-Palmer house in Tarzana for two years. The couple paid $600,000 for the house, which will be on tour.

Ken Yerke and Bill Yaryan live around the corner in a Krisel-designed home with clerestory windows, beamed ceilings and original floors of oak parquet. They have reproduced the pattern of the original kitchen counters and the original wood facade.

"Our biggest hope," said Yaryan, 50, "is that others who live around us will understand what architectural treasures we all have."

For tour information, go to

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