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Ben Margolis and Gregory Ain: A meeting of radical minds

The late civil rights lawyer made the logical choice in picking an architect to build his Los Feliz home.

August 18, 2011|By Greg Goldin

If walls could speak. That's what came to mind when I noticed a short newspaper item announcing that the former home of Ben Margolis, an attorney who advocated on behalf of downtrodden workers, besieged Reds and persecuted labor activists, was for sale. The hillside Los Feliz house, designed by Gregory Ain in the early 1950s, with a 21st century addition by Pierre Koenig, is being offered for just under $2 million.

The house Ain built Margolis is likely to sell even in the current slow market: Midcentury modern architecture is in demand at the moment. But it's unlikely the buyer will understand the meeting of minds that went into its creation.

Margolis is perhaps best known for his defense of the Hollywood 10, a group of mostly screenwriters called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of their ties to leftist groups. The "unfriendly" witnesses refused to answer questions about their political beliefs and associations, and were convicted of contempt of Congress. But they were gambling that the Supreme Court would overturn their convictions on grounds that the committee had violated their 1st Amendment rights. They bet wrong. Margolis lost when the Supreme Court, which got the case shortly after two of its most liberal members had died, refused to hear the appeal.

Margolis was successful, though, in the appeal he handled on behalf of 22 Mexican American defendants in the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder case. The judge had refused to let the men talk to their lawyers during trial, which Margolis used to get their convictions reversed, thereby establishing the right to unimpaired access to counsel for defendants during a criminal trial.

A decade later, Margolis convinced a conservative Supreme Court that bail set for the self-avowed communists he was then defending was unreasonably high. He kept the great 1930s longshoreman Harry Bridges from being deported to his native Australia, and he prevented modern architect David Hyun from being sent back to South Korea. Later in his career, he guided litigation that forced banks to assume some financial responsibility for the slumlords to whom they'd lent millions.

Margolis was, in short, a trenchant advocate for the underdog. Before his own appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he inveighed that he would "fry in hell before they get any information out of me about my clients." He meant it.

All of which brings us to why Ain was the natural architect for Margolis to turn to when he decided to build a house.

As much a radical as Margolis, Ain believed that modern architecture could and should deliver affordable housing (a dire need in postwar years) that amplified, rather than confined, its residents. Throughout the 1940s, he sketched plans to "refine and dignify the low-cost house." Most of the housing he planned was never built because banks were uncomfortable with the kind of collective ownership he was proposing.

Fortunately, some of the homes he planned were built, including the Avenel Cooperative Housing Project, a group of 10 nearly identical three-bedroom units stagger-stepped along a slope in Silver Lake. Commissioned by 10 leftists — at least four were blacklisted or questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities — the design for the project, which was built in 1947, has been hailed as "a model for effective use of limited space for low-cost urban housing." Using movable walls and sliding patio doors, he coaxed fluid, flexible and shared space out of tiny footprints.

In his best work, Ain was able to liberate even the smallest room with a suffusion of light and easy access to the outdoors. He made public spaces the axis on which the whole house turned, stripping away the pretenses and formality of a conventional lifestyle. Ain, like his fellow Modernists, naively believed that his designs could transform homo rapacious — acquisitive, selfish, disengaged — into an active steward of the commonweal.

As with many of the people Margolis represented, Ain's radical views cost him professionally. Margolis hired the architect during the height of the national witch hunt for communists and other undesirables as an act of loyalty and friendship at a time when not everyone was willing to hire an architect with radical ideas.

But without radical ideas — and without patrons like Margolis — there would be no Modernist houses to collect as status symbols today, even as reliquary objects from a forgotten crusade.

Greg Goldin is architecture writer at Los Angeles Magazine.

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