Letter from an Old, Practicing Architect in Los Angeles

12602 Moorpark St. Studio City, CA. 91604
12602 Moorpark St. Studio City, CA. 91604

Driving down Moorpark St. in Studio City last week, I passed a notably austere and well-designed apartment under construction. I stopped and walked around and shot some photos of the building which had precise lines, solid forms and possessed an architectural sensibility of the 1930s.

I later looked up the architect online and wrote him an email. To my surprise, he responded in detail. Even more surprisingly, he is a man who has been practicing architecture for over 50 years.

Here is what he had to say about the state of planning and architecture in Los Angeles, especially as it relates to the San Fernando Valley.

I have not disclosed his name to protect his privacy.

Dear Andrew:

Thank you for the complimentary words regarding my apartment project. They are truly appreciated. I looked at your excellent blog.

Your involvement in trying to better the quality of life in Los Angeles is noble. I suspect, however that you are constantly faced with the frustration and anger of dealing with a Los Angeles bureaucracy that has become stifling and counterproductive.

The planning department has been a dismal failure as long as I can remember and has continually failed to address the real and important problems that have faced our city.

Old Montgomery Ward. Panorama City, CA.
Old Montgomery Ward. Panorama City, CA.

I am sure you know the recent history of the Valley better than I do. I came to Los Angeles as a child in 1948, just after WW2 ended and lived in West LA.

A trip to the Valley was a bit of an adventure. Mostly open space. And it was hard to find a restaurant or much of anything. I did not realize then what we were soon going to lose. Tough-minded, enthusiastic, returning soldiers were coming to LA during this period wanting only to work and raise families in peace.

I was fortunate to have a few of these men as instructors at the U.S.C. School of Architecture. The Valley provided an abundance of cheap land on which to develop housing. And with the coming of these returning soldiers, a major Valley building boom began. Housing tracts and apartments were built as quickly and cheaply as possible. It was an exciting event to see a searchlight in the sky and drive towards it to find what new business opening it heralded.

Macy's, North Hollywood, CA.
Macy’s, North Hollywood, CA.

All of this was happening with virtually no master planning. One bland community rolled into another. As I drive the Valley today, I find it kind of fun to try to identify the architectural styles, if you can call them that, of each of the building booms in the 60 plus years since the end of the War. Thank God for the mature landscaping that is making the Valley environment somewhat more pleasant. I find myself, grudgingly, seeing a kind of quirky nostalgic beauty in whole thing. But enough rambling. No easy answers.

15300 Valerio St. Van Nuys, CA 91405
15300 Valerio St. Van Nuys, CA 91405

The specific problem you face in trying to elevate the quality of Architecture in LA is a tough one. It entails getting greedy bottom line developers to take an interest in the environments that they are building. They only ‘design’ that these developers relate to is that which they feel is necessary to rent or sale their product. This design is too often provided by their spouses or a friend with “good taste.”

A developer buddy of mine once exclaimed with the excitement of discovery that he had figured out how to build a modern building. It is simple he said – no details, white paint and a flat roof. He unfortunately built a number of large apartments in the Valley with his newly discovered understanding of modern architecture.

The developers must be taught that they have a moral responsibility to the community to provide good environment. Good luck on this one. Developers must also be taught that over time a well-designed building will make them more money.

Archwood St. near Van Nuys Blvd. Van Nuys, CA 91405
Archwood St. near Van Nuys Blvd. Van Nuys, CA 91405

The bureaucracy must be scaled down and restricted on the number of code provisions and roles that they can enact without public input and approval.

I have acted as an Architect, owner builder, and small time residential developer in LA for over a half a century. In the early 1960s, both the California State Board of Architectural Examiners and the A.I.A. for being an “Architect-Developer” chastised me.

There was a conflict of interest they said, not understanding the value of having the Architect as the developer as to opposed to a bottom line businessman. I chuckled when some years latter I ran across an ad for a course called the ‘Architect as a Developer’ sponsored by the A.I.A.

Studio City, CA.
Studio City, CA.

Yours is not an easy road to travel, but please keep it up.

If things are ever going to get better, and I am a pessimistic about this happening, it will take a rising up of the community, under leadership like yourself, to demand the changes you that you are seeking. Thank you for your efforts and good luck.

Van Nuys Bl. 2016
Van Nuys Bl. 2016

Fox Market, Van Nuys Bl. Circa 1960

It is always fun to come across yet another old photograph of Van Nuys.  (Courtesy of USC Digital Archives)

This time it’s the Fox Market, a chain, which once had an outpost at 7425 Van Nuys Bl. at the corner of Van Nuys and Valerio, north of Sherman Way .

Fox_Market_Van_Nuys_California_ca1960sLegendary photographer Julius Schulman shot the Carl Maston designed structure sometime in the early 1960s. Maston was a noted Mid- 20th Century architect whose work is described as “stark and no frills” in his USC research repository.

A flat roof, floor to ceiling glass, and acres of asphalt mixed convenience and modernism.

The neat, spare, boxy building is gone, and in its place is a riot of ugliness typical of that stretch of Van Nuys where architecture has gone to die. And all who pass through here glimpse a hot Hell built by indifference, corruption and “The Free Market”.

The May 5, 1960 Los Angeles Times carried a display ad from the Fox Market, which also had many other locations throughout the Southland.

There was a pound of peanut butter for 39 cents, lamb roast for 39 cents a pound, cans of Libby Peaches for 29 cents, along with a 59 cent cream pie and 4 buttered steaks for 69 cents.

Nobody seems to drink grapefruit juice these days, but in 1960 you could have had a 46 ounce can for 29 cents to wash down your 4 pounds of red potatoes for 25 cents.

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Drunk Driver Arrested: September 23, 1963

Foolish Robert Norris, 25, of 4809 Sepulveda Blvd, Van Nuys, was celebrating his last day on probation and decided to celebrate. He got drunk and went for a drive. After he was pulled over, near Balboa and Vanowen, he told the police, “You’ll have to shoot me to take me back.” Then he ran away but was subdued by four cops and taken into custody.

This is a glimpse into the good old days of Van Nuys when criminals were thin and white and had Anglo-Saxon names.

Photos: Jeff Robbins
Courtesy LAPL/Valley Times






Liquor Store Robbery Suspects in Custody: October 31, 1963

Photos courtesy of LAPL. Credit: Jeff Robbins

A few weeks before Artist Josef Silhavy presented his distinguished oil portrait of Thomas Jefferson to the President and Executive Vice President of the Jefferson Savings Bank in Van Nuys, the Red Valentine Liquor Store at 6735 Sepulveda Blvd. was held up and robbed of $25 on Halloween Night 1963.

Raymond Carpenter
Raymond Carpenter
Ronald Lee Ellmers
Ronald Lee Ellmers

Goateed and white-shirted Raymond Carpenter was arrested, along with his accomplice Ronald Lee Ellmers. Both men were AWOL from Fort Ord, a US Army post on Monterey Bay, CA, which closed in 1994.

The Red Valentine Liquor Store was also the scene of a shooting on June 11, 1951.

To our modern eyes, accustomed to seeing oversized vaca negras in black, XXL shirts emerge from every televised car chase, these criminals of a half-century ago are lithe, fit and neatly groomed.

If they were young, alive and looked like that today, they might be sitting at Starbucks working on their blog. Or perhaps mixing mash at MacLeod Ale.

Van Nuys: September 21, 1960


Among the stranger aspects of modern American life is that we have gotten over old 1950s fears (Communists, homosexuals, fluoridated water, rock and roll) but have now supplanted new, sometimes exaggerated terrors to replace the old ones.

The above photograph by George Brich (LAPL) was published in the Valley Times on September 21, 1960 and read, “Jeanne Avery, 15, 14155 Cohasset St., Van Nuys, adds to the view along palm-lined Van Nuys boulevard, community’s main business street. The community is the largest in the Valley.” Van Nuys is nearing its 50-year anniversary and is being celebrated as one of the most beautiful and productive cities in the Valley.”

Can you imagine the outcry in 2016 if an adult male photographed a 15-year-old girl on the street and published her name and address in the LA Times?

“Thank you George Brich for violating my daughter’s privacy! Now every crazy pervert in the world will know where she lives!”

“This is completely wrong. No young woman, no matter how attractive should be photographed by a stranger and have her address published in the paper!”

In 1960, America had a benevolent and innocent view of itself. It was considered an honor for a teenage student to be photographed in the local paper. And nobody meant anything ironic in describing Van Nuys as “one of the most beautiful and productive cities in the Valley.”

In 2016, the average American, the average person living in Van Nuys is probably photographed hundreds of times a day, in security camera videos, in mobile phone images, waiting in a car at a red light, filling up for gas, withdrawing money at the ATM, driving through McDonalds, or stopping to shop at Target.

But the intentional photograph by camera on a public street has now become a provocative act. Its artfulness, its quirkiness, its freedom has been put on probation. Public photography itself is now under suspicion.An art form and a means of communication has volunteered to restrain and censor itself. Even when no law has been broken, and no privacy invaded. And this in itself is irrational and a denial of our American way of life.

There is nothing against the law in taking a photo of a person on a public street. You don’t need their permission.

They understood that in 1960.


Obliterating the Past.

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Mr. John Hendry, resident of Van Nuys and board member of the VNCC, sent me an email alerting me to the impending demolition of two old houses on Victory east of Kester.

14827—33, one a stucco house with pillars, the other a Spanish style (1936) with an arched entrance, stand on the windswept wasteland of six-lane wide Victory Boulevard. Few who speed past here, munching frosted donuts in black spandex, bother to look at the two architecturally historic properties that soon will be bulldozed for a 9-unit apartment.

It turns out I had photographed the Spanish house a few years back. But more strangely, I realized that Mr. Hendry’s homes were not the soon-to-be-demolished ones on Victory I drove past a few days earlier.

I had seen two others with ropes and signs up the street.


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At 14242, east of Tyrone, on the south side of Victory, was built in 1923, and is a unique looking structure with an arched center door entrance flanked by two symmetrically placed windows framed with decorative metal hoods and lattice work.

Sentimental, pinkish, feminine, lovely: it is also on Death Row. Next to the frilly lady is a plain blue and white  frame house that looks like Dorothy Gale’s Kansas cottage. It shares the same fate as its neighbor.

92 years ago, Victory was a semi-rural street, narrow and flanked by pepper trees. It was a verdant and new settlement convenient to nearby government, post office, library, school and church. Streetcars made it possible to get to Hollywood or downtown.

In 2015, Van Nuys, willfully ignorant and wantonly wasteful, pursuant of profit and devoid of imagination, will sweep away even more of its history so that ugliness and plasticity can triumph.

We know what ISIS did to the ruins of Palmyra, Syria. And we rightly condemn it as the work of ignorant savages.

But what are we doing to our own history by our own actions or inactions?

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