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L.A. Then & Now

Village Green in Baldwin Hills: A utopia for laughter and living

Built in 1941, the community was based on ideals of security and happiness.

September 20, 2009|Veronique de Turenne

The ideals of Aristotle are alive and thriving in a gritty corner of Baldwin Hills. Bordered by the concrete expanse where La Brea Avenue meets Rodeo Road lies a 64-acre oasis. Its vast lawns and towering trees are rimmed by modest apartments, which, by their very nature, create community.

This is Village Green, built in 1941, a celebrated example of a utopian movement in multi-family development. Based on the Radburn plan, a community idea that drew inspiration from the Garden City movement of the late 19th century, it was a revolution in urban planning.

Instead of endless, undifferentiated sprawl, these new communities would sit in companionable clusters, separated by greenbelts.

There would be shared parks, centrally located schools and shopping. As each garden city reached capacity, the thinking went, a new one would spring up next door.

This philosophy found fertile ground in the U.S. in the late 1930s. The nation was recovering from the Great Depression and reeling from the housing shortage and social change brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The creators of Village Green -- originally called Baldwin Hills Village -- believed that by changing how people lived, they could transform their lives.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 23, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Village Green: The L.A. Then and Now column in Sunday's California section about the Village Green community in Baldwin Hills said 250,000 gallons of water coursed through the streets after the earthen dam of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir developed a crack in 1963. It was 250 million gallons of water.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 27, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Village Green: The L.A. Then and Now column in the Sept. 20 California section about the Village Green community in Baldwin Hills said 250,000 gallons of water coursed through the streets after the earthen dam of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir developed a crack in 1963. It was 250 million gallons of water.

Clarence Stein, author of the Radburn plan, helped shepherd the project from philosophy to fruition. It was he who invoked Aristotle's belief that a city should offer its residents both security and happiness. Stein worked as a consultant for four architects, including Reginald Johnson, Stein, and they used funds made available through President Roosevelt's New Deal to build their idea of a better world.

The original plan was for a 224-acre property, according to the landmark application for the National Register of Historic Places. This was reduced to 100 acres, then scaled back again to the final size of 629 residences on 64 acres. Despite the change in scope, the idea remained the same.

All roads, garages and utility buildings sit at the farthest edge of the rectangular site. Small, low-slung buildings form the next layer. On the inside, the bulk of the property is given over to abundant open space, rolling vistas shaded by more than 1,600 trees.

Village Green was designed to address what the architects saw as the problems of the era, said Sara Loe, a homeowner there since 1992. They wanted to give people a safe, affordable place to live that was also beautiful.

A walk in any direction shows how well the planners succeeded. Front doors face grassy courtyards planted with shrubs and flowers. These, in turn, yield to the central green: The rolling lawn, laced with paths and filled with pedestrians, is dotted with mature trees.

Some, like towering oaks and sycamores, stand in solitary splendor. Others, such as a circle of gnarled olives, are planted in groves. The variety is dizzying -- camphor, elder and elm; cedars, crape myrtle and bottlebrush, pines and ash and carob.

The apartments, which range from one-room studios to three-bedroom units, are a streamlined interpretation of old California style.

The scale of the buildings allows people to occupy all of the common spaces, said Greg Goldin, architecture critic for Los Angeles Magazine.

You don't feel as though the buildings loom, he said. Nature is the larger part of the experience.

A man-made crisis hit Village Green on Dec. 14, 1963, when the earthen dam of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir developed a crack. Within hours, 250,000 gallons of water coursed through the streets. A wave of water reported to be 3 feet high killed five people and destroyed more than 250 homes in the neighborhood. In Village Green, numerous homes were damaged and several were lost.

Though Village Green is home to residents of diverse races, ethnicities and income levels, when the complex opened to renters in 1942, only white residents were granted leases. That all changed in 1972 when the property owners applied to turn the units into condos and modern fair housing laws were in place.

As Village Green nears its 70th year, property managers are developing a plan to care for and replace the trees.

Many of the trees are nearing the end of their life span, said Robert Bonfiglio, general manager of the property. He and members of the community's board of directors are working with an arborist to draft a plan to prune and replant the trees to ensure that the property retains its character.

A series of historical designations also ensures that the open space of Village Green, so tempting to land-starved developers, will remain untouched.

The community was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument by Los Angeles in 1977. In 1993 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

And in 2001, Village Green received National Historic Landmark status.

That's the highest level the federal government grants a historical property, said Steven Keylon, a homeowner and a member of the board. Since buying his condo in 2005, Keylon has remodeled it to its original 1941 condition. And a 1941 Caddy sits in his garage.

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Veronique de Turenne can be reached through metrodesk@latimes.com

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