Populating Van Nuys with Fine Architecture


 

VNB: 1952, photo by Alan Weeks.
DWP Collection

Van Nuys (b. 1911) began as a town, centered around a main street, connected to Los Angeles by streetcar and rail.

It built its fire station, library, city hall,  police station, and its churches, schools, shops and post office steps apart. On foot, a person could buy a suit, take out a library book, mail a letter, and walk to school.

Come to think of it they still can. But it was all there in downtown Van Nuys.

Today you might stand outside the LAPD Van Nuys Station and smoke a joint, drink a can of beer,  pee against a wall and nobody would raise an eyebrow.

The librarian, the cop, the priest, the attorney, they would walk past you and shrug their shoulders and mutter, “What can I do?”

We are so tolerant these days. Everything degrading is welcomed, while everything worthwhile is rare, expensive  or extinct.

Posture Contest, Van Nuys, 1958. Impossible to imagine these days with all the cell phone spines.

Surrounded by orange and walnut groves, the growing town nonetheless managed to provide safe, civilized and opportune situations for its newly arrived residents with affordable housing, subsidized by low interest government backed loans after WWII.

And plentiful, well-paying jobs. Imagine that!

Van Nuys, circa 1938.

Widening of Victory Boulevard: 1954.
Van Nuys Blvd. at Friar (circa 1950). Notice diagonal parking and streetcar wiring.
Van Nuys Bl. 2013

Somehow it was lost after 1945. The enormous shopping centers robbed Van Nuys of its clientele. The street widenings turned boulevards into raceways and the village feel was destroyed. Factories closed, banks shrunk, stores fled, and crime settled here to afflict, rob, disable and kill.

Why does Van Nuys flounder, while all around it other cities like Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and sections of Los Angeles, like North Hollywood, Studio City, Mid-City and Highland Park flourish?

Delano St. July 2017
Delano St. July 2017

 

Raymer St. March 2017

A journalist from Curbed LA called me yesterday. He is writing an article about Van Nuys and wanted to talk.

I mentioned many things that I wish were changed here, from road diets to better housing, from cleaner streets to more law enforcement for illegal dumping.

But I also told him that so much of our political leadership is devoted to working on problems like prostitution, rather than building a coalition of architects, designers, investors, and planners who could build up Van Nuys and make it, once again, a coherent, safe, stimulating, and pleasant place to live and work.

I know what’s bad here. But what about making it good? Where are our dreams? Why can’t we be as artistic as our studios, as wild in our imaginations as our writers, directors, cinematographers, animators, and designers?

Why isn’t the whole energy of creative Los Angeles devoted to overcoming our civic afflictions?


Near Cedros and Delano.

Van Nuys Bl. Nov. 2016

 


The deadest and more depressing areas of Van Nuys are closest to the Orange Line, which is also a good thing. Because this is where Van Nuys should work to build new, experimental, and innovative housing and commercial buildings.

Van Nuys Bl. Oct 2016 A dead place for street life.
The Empty Post Office/ Van Nuys Bl. Oct. 2016
Dystopian Van Nuys Oct. 2016. No people, no chairs, no trees. Just concrete.
Homeless on Aetna St. Feb. 2016

 

From Kester to Hazeltine, north of Oxnard, the “Civic Center” district contains an empty post office, vacated stores, underutilized buildings, and dystopian spaces of concrete, homelessness, garbage, and withering neglect.

The pedestrian mall on Erwin, south of the Valley Municipal Building and surrounded by the Superior Court, the library and police station, is a civic disgrace.

Ironically, all the law enforcement, all the government agencies, all the power that resides in Van Nuys….. presides over the ruins of it.


Meanwhile up in Portland, OR.

Holst Architecture, Portland, OR (Dezeen)
Works Progress Architecture, Portland, OR (Dezeen)
Works Architecture, Portland, OR (Dezeen)
Fujiwaramuro Architects, Kobe, Japan (Dezeen)
Van Nuys Alley near Delano and VNB

On Dezeen, there are posts about new, infill buildings in Portland, OR and Japan where the general level of architecture and design far outpaces Van Nuys. These are sophisticated, modern, but humble structures with ideas for living.

Look at these and imagine how, perhaps 25 new ones, could transform Van Nuys.

In the midst of our wasteland, we need to go back to working to demanding the best for Van Nuys, rather than accepting squalor and mediocrity.

 

 

Dormant Beauty


 

On a Sunday evening in July, on foot, after a few beers, the old town of Van Nuys, carried a note of Tribeca 1985, in its summoning of potential, laid out, for dreamers and developers.

There were empty storefronts and shabby alleys, but there were also women in chairs, attending children on bicycles, who played near clothes for sale, hung on a fence. Here Andreas bought a shirt for $3.

There were menacing BVN insignias on garbage bins and apartment walls, but there was also the eternal light of California soaking the decay in cinematic color. If I were sober, if I were alone, I probably wouldn’t have walked here.

Intoxication, used wisely, is a gift. When nerves are soothed, adventures commence.

What glories the cessation of fear brings to the eye. Every corner revealed something: teal and brown homeless tarps seemingly sculpted, the wood pallets in the alley placed with artful intention, a wood gate in the back of a parking lot like the entrance to an old western town.

The best buildings were the forgotten ones: The steel walled packing house on Vesper St., the pink stucco cottages on Cedros, and 14225 Delano St. a mid-century structure with a dark green cornice and an inverted glass wall, respectable, laconic and businesslike.

It was Sunday night but some people worked.

On Bessemer St. a worker at Technology Auto Body buffed a gleaming pick-up truck, squeezing the last minutes of light to finish his job.

Last night, these fearsome streets, Calvert, Bessemer, Vesper, Delano and Cedros, were peaceful and passive. Sometime soon, this walkable, neighborly and nostalgic area will revive, and these ramshackle adventures through denigration will take their place in the history book of Los Angeles.

 

 

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Pride of Place


Langham Apartments, 1936
Talmage Apartments, 1925
Wilhelm Apartments, 1905

 

In the first third of the 20th Century, Los Angeles developers built many tall apartments in the midst of single-family homes.

One sees, in the older sections of the city, in West Hollywood, Koreatown, and West Adams, the presence of five, six, even ten story apartment houses that pop up, sometimes mid-block, in-between single family properties.

These photographs of buildings, from the USC Digital Archives, are historically valuable, but also aesthetically heartbreaking, for it shows a city where architecture mattered, and humans were housed in civil, respectable, affordable places. Isn’t that the bare minimum expected in a “First World” nation?

Lido Apartments
Asbury Apartments, 1940

There may have been poor people in 1925, but they didn’t live in the tens of thousands under bridges, on park benches, or wander the streets as zombies, covered in dirt, screaming obscenities. Nor would the society back then have allowed mass vagrancy as public policy.

The old buildings were strong and subtle. They wore their classic proportions without irony. They commanded respect quietly. They stood confidently, wore facades in single colors, and were built of solid materials like brick, solid concrete or smooth stucco.

La Wanda Arms, 1936

Today, market style makers demand new apartments broken up nervously in clashing colors, painted in clownish and garish hues, most likely to reduce their bulk, preventing probable offense to neighbors prickly over density. They scream fun, but omit horror on the first of each month when rent is due.

But, in fairness to these attention grabbers, at least they have a dialogue with the street, and introduce shops and ground floor activity to the area. They just do it in the Instagram way, by shouting, “look at me man!”


The old buildings always marched right up to the sidewalk. You entered by walking up to an entrance. And this zoning reinforced the urbanity of the neighborhood, because it created chances for pedestrians to interact. Compare that to six lanes of Sepulveda, and parking garage apartments where the only people walking outside are selling something illegal.

Dover Apartments, 1940

Imagine if Van Nuys Boulevard near the Busway had a Langham or Talmage Apartments with hundreds of residents who walked to the bus, or rode their bikes, or ate in restaurants in the neighborhood?

1275 N. Hayworth Av. 1931

 

The old civility of courtyard housing, of interior spaces, shielded from the sun, planted with greenery, done with subtlety and grace, that is also how this city used to build.

What is preventing the State of California, the City of Los Angeles, the people of this region, from banding together to amend the harmful zoning laws that prohibit certain types of structures, once commonplace 100 years ago, from being built again?

Abundant Housing LA says it best:

“A whopping 87 percent of LA’s total housing supply was built prior to 1990, while only 13 percent was built in the last 25 years.

 More recently, between 2010 and 2015, we’ve only added approximately 25,000 new units. That number does not include all of 2015 and includes none of 2016, and it will grow by 30 to 50 thousand in the next several years as existing developments finish construction and planned projects get underway. But at best we’re roughly on pace for housing production similar to the ’90s and ’00s, both of which saw historically small amounts of new housing and historically large increases in housing prices. That’s not a boom, that’s the continuation of a decades-long slump.

 This slump is reflected in our city’s vacancy rates, which have a direct relationship to home prices and rents. Lower vacancy rates cause prices to go up faster. It’s exactly the same relationship we see with unemployment: When unemployment is low and fewer people are looking for work, labor is scarce and so workers can sell their labor for more money. As a result, job applicants and existing employees gain bargaining power and their average pay increases. Likewise, when housing is scarce, landlords gain bargaining power and rents increase.”

 

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Heaven in Hell.


On May 31, 2017 it was announced that homelessness in Los Angeles had increased by 23% in the past year, a figure true to anyone who drives down boulevards packed with old RVs, or passes many bus stop benches hosting overnight guests.

60,000 or more are sleeping outdoors, and many more are arriving daily from cold cities and small towns, around the world, to camp out here. Others fought and suffered in our long running theaters of international conflict, and still more lost their jobs, their health insurance, and their families.

But sixty-four human beings are no longer homeless because they now live at the Crest Apartments on Sherman Way, a glistening, five-story tall tower built by the Skid Row Housing Trust which provides permanent supportive housing for people afflicted with poverty, poor health, disabilities, mental illness or addiction.

Or all of the above.

Yesterday, there was a grand opening at Crest, attended by architect Michael Maltzan, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Congressman Tony Cardenas, and District #2 City Councilman Paul Krekorian, CEO Mike Alvidrez of SRHT, and other workers from agencies, private funding groups, banks and the blogosphere.

Little trays of pretty little food were laid out. Smart looking people with downtown clothing and uptown education mingled amongst the residents. The air smelled of refinement called into service for a national emergency.

Two sartorial standouts, a tall man and a tall woman, radiated chicness in oversized collars and skinny, pegged black pants. They said nothing but perused the on-site finishes. I walked up the stairs with them in silence. They must have come here on their way to LACMA.

As the dignitaries spoke, a cold, foggy wind blew across the seats, chilling dieting women and putting men like me into a stupor. Yet, perhaps because we live in chilling times, with an international ignoramus in the White House, the words emanating from the dais seemed charged with eloquence and urgency, rousing us from our jadedness.

“Get active not angry!” thundered Representative Tony Cardenas, the former City Councilman whose previous epoch in Van Nuys made everyone angry and inactive.

Sheila Kuehl told a metaphorical story about three women saving drowning babies in the river. One rescued the babies, one taught them how to swim, the other lady wanted to know who was throwing the babies into the water. Sadly for Sheila, the nearest river was the LA one, so it was hard to imagine it flowing.

A Vietnam Vet, disabled, now living here, spoke of his previously unraveling life that left him without a place to put his “NAM” cap. He had been chosen, like a lucky lottery winner, to move into Crest Apartments.

We were all gathered here to celebrate something that is uncommon in Los Angeles: An exquisite piece of architecture, run by a non-profit, financed by private and public funding, dedicated to the proposition that all humans deserve a chance to live in dignity, cleanliness and even artfulness, while rebuilding their broken lives into something moral, fulfilling and contributory.

The Architect

Michael Maltzan, the architect, has become the go-to guy for homeless housing perhaps because he quietly designs top-notch, low-budget, stripped-down minimalism.

Here, at the Crest, he contrasted a white facade with some bright colors and brought in light. The breezy, gentle, undulating landscaping includes organic gardens, and flowering trees softening his straight lined, laconic forms.

Maltzan is unlike many of his bedazzling contemporaries in Los Angeles. He is a shy reformer, like Irving Gill, or RM Schindler, an architect who builds without fancy materials, but plays with light, inserting windows and openings to create a rhythm.

Walking down the spare halls of Crest yesterday, there was a penitential severity in its white walls and concrete floors, but then you would turn a corner and stumble upon freedom: a bright, open-air lookout, painted in green or yellow or blue.

CEO Mike Alvidrez of SRHT and Architect Michael Maltzan

From the street, the Crest Apartments is like a sting of pearls left in a dumpster.

Smoky, chemical fumed Sherman Way is up there on the list of the ugliest and most inhuman streets in Los Angeles, a road where civilized life was extinguished long ago, hosting a violent deluge of speeding drivers, fuming trucks, asphalt parking lots, Thai restaurants, mini-malls, baklava outlets, tattoo shops, marijuana clinics, car washes, discount marble, gentleman’s clubs, unlicensed medical clinics and an air of impending menace and blazing desperation.

Yet, this degradation is also where you stumble upon one of the gentlest and best-intentioned small projects erected in contemporary Los Angeles.

Now we only need 100,000 more Crests.

A Sharp Discordance.


d732dfc940c1bf441606f771482ac23c ciros-entrance-sunset-blvd-1940 melody-room-1956 the-source-sunset-blvd-strip-then trocadero

In the past few years, group lead mourning on social media for a lost Sunset Strip has taken hold among some sad eyed nostalgists. In their online rooms they pine for 1997, 1977, 1957 or 1937 and wish it were just like that today.

Gone are Tower Records, Elton John’s Le Dome Restaurant, Spago, The Playboy Club; Gazzari’s, which introduced the world to The Doors and Van Halen; Villa Nova Restaurant where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had a first date; Ciro’s, a 1940s nightclub; and Café Trocadero. Passed on are the cars, the clothes, the songs, and the youth of those who frequented whatever was young and hot at the time.

We are so far in the future but our minds are so far in the past.

Perhaps the saddest thing to contemplate is the loss of the old Garden of Allah that stood on two acres at the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset and comprised a pool and landscaped cottages set amidst trees and flowers. It was constructed in 1913 and played host to a variety of notables, most famously F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was razed in 1960.

garden-of-allah-villas-011 ada92154fc584a2c5c28c3cdc3ecc04f

Standing in its place is a schlocky shopping mall and a bank with a folded zigzag roof. That structure, originally called Lytton Savings and Loan, and now housing a Chase Bank, is the center of a fight over preservation and architect Frank Gehry, who wants to demolish the building to erect one of his crushed-in-hand, aluminum foil wonders.

Lytton Savings and Loan (1960); now Chase Bank.
Lytton Savings and Loan (1960); now Chase Bank.
Proposed Frank Gehry design. (LA TIMES)
Proposed Frank Gehry design. (LA TIMES)

If Sunset Strip had no celebrities, if it were just a place, it would be one of the ugliest and least appealing urban sites in the world. Pockmarked by billboards, drenched in liquor and demeaned by fame, the Strip, from Crescent Heights to La Cienega looks like Las Vegas’s forgotten cousin.

New buildings are going up that channel the worst of Las Vegas anti-urbanism with blank sheets of walls, endless rows of dark windows, and morose hues of black and gray punctuated by large rectangles where future digital signs will obliterate the night and frazzle the eye.

img_3794 img_3793 img_3791 img_3789

There is no gayety (in the old sense of the word), no frivolity, no fantasy in any of the new, sharp-angled structures that so aggressively bulk up the street like steroid filled bouncers in a club. They have inhuman, robotic, cold-blooded designs, fueled by architecture that will impress teenage Shanghai, Moscow, and Seoul.

And, sadly, there is no presence of personality or character of Los Angeles in the new buildings. They are aliens dropped onto the street, and their presence is foreboding and corporate.

In daylight, photographed in black and white, their vapidity is most evident.

img_3788

Old Los Angeles was in love with alabaster white buildings that glistened in the sun and reflected purity, cleanliness and España. Before 1940, this metropolis built to provide sanctuary from the sun, to humanize the city, and to give guidance and signposts to the newly arrived seeking meaning in a vast and disorienting environment.

New Los Angeles has no markers of civic virtue. It is an entertainment chessboard devised on an app and sent out to to billions of people to make billions of dollars.

 

 

Tom Cluster’s Van Nuys (1955-1962).


map
Cluster Home: 6944 Columbus south of Marlin Pl.

A few weeks ago I received a lovely email, and some photos from Tom Cluster, a reader of this blog.

Here is one excerpt:

Dear Andy,

I just discovered your blog about Van Nuys.  I’m entranced by it.  I’m almost 70.  Our family moved to 6944 Columbus Avenue in the summer of 1955.  It was a small tract of new homes.  We moved from Westchester (near LAX).  A lot of people moved from Westchester to the Valley because the airport was expanding and streets were being eaten up.  Our new neighborhood was between Kester, Vose, Sepulveda, and Vanowen.

andy_devine

Andy Devine (1905-77)
Andy Devine (1905-77)

The local celebrity was Andy Devine, who still lived in his big house on 6947 Kester, down near Basset.  At Halloween he’d hand out small boxes of Sugar Pops.  There was an old swimming pool across the street that he had built years before – the Crystal Plunge – and we’d swim there in the summer. We had smog alerts in those days and if there was a big rain we wouldn’t go to school because Kester St. would flood.

There was a family on Vose who sold eggs from their chickens – the mother and father had survived the Holocaust and had the tattooed numbers on their forearms.

[Then as now] It would get hot and there was no air conditioning, not at Valerio School (which in 1955-1956 was at the corner of Kester and Valerio, consisting entirely of temporary buildings with a dirt playground) and not in our homes.  Still, I have fond memories of Van Nuys.

Valerio St. School June 1956
Valerio St. School June 1956

The area where the Presbyterian Hospital is now was a big empty field full of tumbleweeds – we’d make forts and paths there.  When the hospital was built it was small compared to what it is today.  It was just two circular wings designed by William Leonard Pereira. (1909-1985) of  Pereira and Luckman.

March 18, 1957 reads "Discussing modern innovations of Valley Presbyterian Hospital, nearing completion at 15107 Vanowen St., are Mrs. Barbara Holt, member of hospital's board of directors, and from left, J. H. Wray, Jim Cross and Walter Rueff, members of San Fernando Automobile Dealers Association committee for hospital's fund drive."  (LAPL)
March 18, 1957 reads “Discussing modern innovations of Valley Presbyterian Hospital, nearing completion at 15107 Vanowen St., are Mrs. Barbara Holt, member of hospital’s board of directors, and from left, J. H. Wray, Jim Cross and Walter Rueff, members of San Fernando Automobile Dealers Association committee for hospital’s fund drive.” (LAPL)
Valley Presbyterian Hospital, 15107 Vanowen Street, Van Nuys, designed by Pereira & Luckman. Photograph dated January 15, 1964 Ph: Geo. Brich
Valley Presbyterian Hospital, 15107 Vanowen Street, Van Nuys, designed by Pereira & Luckman. Photograph dated January 15, 1964 Ph: Geo. Brich
Photograph caption dated February 20, 1961 reads "Larry Peskin, 17, left, 10038 Noble St., Sepulveda, completes hospital course. Fellow graduate examining syringe is Warren Wilkinson, 17, 9439 Louise Ave., Northridge." The young men completed a 20-hour training course to become volunteers at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys. Ph: Jon Woods
Photograph caption dated February 20, 1961 reads “Larry Peskin, 17, left, 10038 Noble St., Sepulveda, completes hospital course. Fellow graduate examining syringe is Warren Wilkinson, 17, 9439 Louise Ave., Northridge.” The young men completed a 20-hour training course to become volunteers at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys. Ph: Jon Woods
January 5, 1959 reads "Janet Kellenberger, 15, and Jackie Suess, 17, members of Candy Stripers, from left, aid Sea Scouts Bob Wheeler, 17; Steve Bidwell, 16, and Mike Strange, 15, in volunteer cleanup program of Valley Presbyterian Hospital. Sea Scouts, auxiliary of Explorer Scouts of America, and other organizations volunteer work hours for Van Nuys medical center."
January 5, 1959 reads “Janet Kellenberger, 15, and Jackie Suess, 17, members of Candy Stripers, from left, aid Sea Scouts Bob Wheeler, 17; Steve Bidwell, 16, and Mike Strange, 15, in volunteer cleanup program of Valley Presbyterian Hospital. Sea Scouts, auxiliary of Explorer Scouts of America, and other organizations volunteer work hours for Van Nuys medical center.”

(Valley Presbyterian Hospital images courtesy of LAPL)

If you look at a map, you’ll see that Noble, Burnett, and Columbus extend from Basset to Marlin Place – the 6900 block.  The houses from 6900 up to 6932 were built in 1951, the houses beginning at 6932 were built in 1955.  Our houses (6932 and up) were in an old walnut grove, so there was plenty of shade.

I’ve attached a picture out front of our house.  The older end of the street didn’t have walnut trees and it always seemed hot.  What we didn’t understand was that the walnut trees would all soon die because sidewalks and asphalt and lawns aren’t good for them.  At that point our end of the street got hot and the trees that had been planted at the other end of the street grew up and gave it shade.  We moved out in 1962.  The people who bought our house are still there – probably the longest residing family in that block of Columbus.

1955-dec-burningleaves dec55sarahrakingleaves

My beautiful picture
My beautiful picture

If you look at Street View for 6944 Columbus you’ll see that it’s perfectly manicured.  The builder of our little tract was named Arthur Guyer – he built tracts throughout the Valley.  He built 15153 Marlin Place for himself in about 1957.

There was another local celebrity on that street, although he wasn’t famous then.  The Cerf family lived at 6932 Columbus, and Vinton Cerf, the oldest son, was attending Robert Fulton Jr. High.  Vinton is famous as the “father of the Internet”.  He and a buddy invented TCP/IP while at UCLA. The Cerfs left Van Nuys about the same time we did.

I won’t bore you with my memories of all the commercial establishments, but I will mention that Kenny’s Automotive at 14852 Vanowen, near Kester, was there in the 1950’s, just as it is today.  Another hold out from the old days is Lloyd’s Market, at 7219 Kester.  It was called Lloyd’s even back then, and we’d stop there every day when we walked home from Valerio.

More to come…..