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HISTORY

Chronicler of L.A.'s lost houses

In his two-volume book, Sam Watters conjures the ghosts of great early estates.

October 04, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

SAM WATTERS owns a nice chunk of land in Venice, where he recently built a modern house. But he lives most of his mental life in homes of another era -- those built from 1885 to 1935, L.A.'s first golden age.

For the last six years, Watters has scoured public and private archives, assembled photos and floor plans, unearthed sagas of love and betrayal, bigotry and greed. What's emerged is a riveting picture of this city's wealthy early inhabitants -- merchants, industrialists, movie stars -- whose great homes and gardens have been underappreciated by the rest of the world, and by Angelenos themselves, Watters says.

He documents them all in "Houses of Los Angeles," a dazzling two-volume pictorial history released this week by Acanthus Press. The author chafes at the notion that Modernism began out here with Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler and that everything else was just a copy of what had been built before somewhere else.

"Untrue," says Watters, adding that early L.A. was an Eden of eclectic, inspired California design that predated and then coexisted with the work of those Modernist superstars. In fact, Watters says, the luster of Neutra and Schindler has dimmed a legacy left by less heralded masters -- the likes of Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey, Irving Gill, Gordon Kaufmann, Roland Coate and Reginald D. Johnson -- whose works were contemporary and unique.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Historic L.A.: In an Oct. 4 article in the Home section about Los Angeles residences built from 1885 to 1935, the name of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was incorrectly spelled as Olmstead.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 18, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Architect's name: In an article in the Oct. 4 Home section, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.'s name was incorrectly spelled as Olmstead.

"When an inspired architect built a Mediterranean villa out here in 1915, it was just as modern as what Neutra and Schindler did," Watters says. "It was designed for our climate, our indoor-outdoor life. Nobody had ever seen it in America before."

Some of the greatest so-called "traditional" houses in early Los Angeles are really tradition turned upside-down, he adds.

"American Colonial, for example. People think they're California copies of all those houses in Connecticut. Not at all," Watters says. "The 1910 E.M. Taylor house in Altadena designed by Hunt and Grey was no copy. It's an abstraction, an interpretation, specifically designed for California life. The house has no center hall; they eliminated it. You walk right into a room that is the precursor of what we today would call a great room, with big windows so you can see the gardens from everywhere. It's very much like how we live now."

In some cases, Watters spent months finding the names of architects who had designed homes he wanted to write about.

"That's the thing about L.A., compared to the East Coast: We don't just tear down our treasures. We toss out all written records about them as well," he says. "In the East, they kept bills for every seed, awning or doorknob ever purchased."

Watters had to sleuth out buried fragments and piece them together like a puzzle to learn who built what and why -- and what has happened to it all. He was not amused.

"Houses are the biography of a city. They tell what life was like, how it was lived at the moment they were built. They offer a visual cultural history," he says. "Not all old houses are important. Some are enormously significant. Their designs were based on real thinking about this city, its climate, its functionality. So when we take that out, we take out something that illuminates the past and can inform decisions for the future. Houses are culture."

More than half of the houses in his new books have disappeared. And more are going.

"Right now, on the Westside, a Wallace Neff is about to be torn down," he says. "I'm getting phone calls about it."

In Pasadena, the newest trend is to gut the homes and leave only the historic exteriors intact, he says.

"I know people want to live comfortable lives. Progress must be made. I'm just saying we don't destroy great paintings. We don't burn down sculpture. We preserve drawings. Why should architecture be subjected to such treatment?"

--

WATTERS is expounding in his Frederick Fisher-designed home, flipping quickly back and forth through his new books, passionately extolling the virtues of Mediterranean villas, Colonial Revivals, Japanese palaces and crenelated castles along with long-gone lavish gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. and Edward Huntsman-Trout. His lanky frame is draped on an antique Chinese child's chair suitable for a 4-year-old. No explanation why, except that it pleases him. His writing style is muted, but his personality is not. Eyes flash, arms wave, his voice dips and soars as if he's practicing scales.

Watters is a cultural historian, a kind of forensic societal snoop. His area of expertise is homes and gardens of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the lives of those who created them. Since his student days at Yale, he has lived in Europe and traveled six continents, exploring excellence in residential architecture and landscape of the period. When he settled in L.A. 15 years ago, he expected to find nothing much extraordinary aside from the already well- known modernists.

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