If the Dwell on Design Home Tour served to whet my appetite for some of the unique and wonderful homes in Los Angeles, then today’s MAK Architecture Tour certainly served up the main course. Headquartered in R.M. Schindler’s famous Kings Road House, the MAK Center for Art + Architecture organized a great tour of 7 modern homes in Los Feliz and Silver Lake.
I was accompanied on the tour by friends J, J, M & L, all of whom share a similar interest in art, architecture and these great neighborhoods. The set-up was similar to the Dwell tour, as a self-drive tour, with docents at each home. Unlike the Dwell tour, this one prescribed a set route with designated arrival times, to prevent any build-up of crowds. It created a bit of itinerary adjustment in the days before the tour, since we all got different itineraries. But overall, it worked well, and the event organizers did a phenomenal job in providing detailed driving instructions and marked routes.
As the event literature notes, “The private homes included on this tour offer a singular and rarely available view into seven modernist properties dating from the mid-1920s through the mid-1960s, a period when Los Angeles was growing out its bucolic beginnings to establish itself as an American cultural and financial center . . . Notable, all are within a three-mile radius of the Hollyhock House, where the modernist style that continues to define Silverlake, and neighboring Los Feliz, first took root.” We visited the homes in the order they are described below.
McAlmon House (R.M. Schindler, 1935). This was a great house to start the tour with, as it provided noticeable tie-ins to the Kings Road House. In particular, the indoor/outdoor fireplace of the living room, and the home’s focus around an outdoor breakfast area reminded me of that other house. We also had a chance to see some custom furniture, such as the McAlmon Chair, that complimented the house.
This residence actually has two sections, the main house at the top of the hill that we toured, and a smaller rental unit down by the street. Interestingly, the rental property was an existing small bungalow that was reformed into the style of the newer main house.
As with most of the homes on this tour, the McAlmon House was not large; it had 2 bedrooms, I believe. But because these homes open so much to the outdoors, they seem much larger. The owner is clearly excited to have this property, and I can understand why.
Alexander House (Harwell Hamilton Harris, 1940-41). From the street, this residence doesn’t impress much. But inside, I found it to be entirely different. In this home, Harris merged elements of Neutra’s international style with Schindler’s use of wood, Wright’s Prairie Style naturalism, and the local Arts and Crafts bungalow style. The entryway clearly takes cues from places like the Kings Road House, with its low ceiling that pushes you up the stairs or into the living room. Throughout this home, your eyes are continually drawn out of the simple rooms and toward the incredible views of the neighboring hillsides. Another thing that reminded me of the Kings Road House were the wonderful covered porches that opened off of every room upstairs. I imagined how fantastic it would be to wake up each morning to the view from the master bedroom.
Hansen House (Harwell Hamilton Harris, 1950-51). This house was in walking distance of the Alexander House, and it was nice to see two homes by the same architect in a row. To me, the remarkable feature of this home was the landscaping, immediately apparent as we snaked up the ramp walkway to the front entrance. To me, the building itself offered no stand-out features, but like the other Harris home, it does an admirable job of taking full advantage of its setting and amazing views. The owner of this home also preserved some of Harris’ original cutting-edge countertops and linoleum and kept true to the original color palette, which made this home one of the nicest ones from an interior design perspective.
How House (R.M. Schindler, 1925). This home was billed as the star of the show, and as even as soon as we viewed it from the street, it was apparent why. The exterior is at once impressive without being ostentatious. Throughout its design, the cube serves as its key design element – from the layout of the rooms, to the design of furniture, to the motif that appears in the kitchen linoleum.
Unfortunately, this was the one home in which we could not take interior photos. But having seen a few of them online prior to the tour, I can attest that pictures cannot convey a realistic sense of the wonderful space inside. The upstairs of the home consists of Dr. How’s psychotherapy office, a living room with mezzanine, dining room, and kitchen. The construction is of redwood and slab-cast concrete, which was horizontally scored. The windows are of horizontal panes of glass, which bring lots of light into the home, and open it up to the green landscaping outside.
All of the sleeping areas are downstairs, and this provides nice privacy for the accommodations. The bedrooms are not huge, but practically sized. Of all the homes we visited, this one seemed the most “castle-like”. Perhaps it was the design; perhaps it was the use of concrete, or maybe a little of both. But regardless, it’s hard to believe this house is more than 80 years old. It has a timeless quality, and I can see it being built today as easily as I can see it being built in the 20s.
Moore House (Craig Ellwood & Associates, 1964). The nice thing about this tour is that it was hard to pick a favorite – each building had something special to offer. The How House took the prize for sheer “wow” factor. But the Moore House really appealed to me in many ways. I loved its secluded location in a leafy green setting. And the privacy of the landscaping is definitely a necessity, for the home itself is a wall of glass. There is nothing complicated about the floorplan – it is a long rectangle that features an astonishing symmetry along its long center axis. But the architect situated the rooms and hallways almost perfectly to create two separate sleeping areas and a large central living space. Another thing I liked about this property was that the home didn’t take up the whole lot. In fact, there were seating areas and living spaces scattered throughout the front and back of the home, so the distinction between inside and outside living was definitely blurred.
All of the homes we’d visited to this point opened up to the outdoors, but this home was the epitome of the concept. Air, light and green scenery seemed to pour into the house from all directions to create a wonderful sense of connection with nature, even as the nearby skyscrapers of Downtown LA were visible through some of the gaps in the trees. As the How House celebrated the cube, this one celebrated the idea of symmetry, from mirror-image sofas in front of the fireplace to the dual displays of butterflies on either side of the kitchen pass-through (get it? – butterflies are also exhibit beautiful symmetry!)
Schrage House (Raphael Soriano, 1950-52). Ironically, the house that spoke to me the least was one that we spent the most time in. For though Soriano’s House offered me the least aesthetically, you couldn’t help but appreciate its use of steel in the construction to open up the floor plan and give flexibility in placing the walls. There were some novel features, including an enclosed patio that had a retractable roof, allowing it to be used throughout the year, and use of materials like maritime-grade plywood that gave it a distinct period feel. A really great feature of this home was the presence of its owner, who took great pride in talking about it, and explaining how he worked with Soriano prior to his death to understand the architect’s intentions and restore it to his specifications.
Avenel Homes Cooperative (Gregory Ain, 1946-48). Living in a condo myself, I have a special appreciation for architects who can design a space that takes advantage of community living while also affording privacy to residents. It’s hard for me to believe that these places are over 60 years old, for the simple and practical design of these 10 units is far better than many of the ones that have succeeded them. They are barely over 900 square feet each, but the use of flexible divider walls, a large outdoor patio, and a well-designed floorplan make them seem much larger.
It was also cool that we were allowed to view 4 of the 10 homes. And because each has a virtually identical floorplan (not even mirrored), we were able to see how different owners adapted them over the years, while still working to respect the original design. Most all had opened the kitchen up to the living area; surprisingly, this was something that Ain couldn’t do himself, because kitchens were required to be enclosed in the 40s. Some created additional doors to the outside; others took advantage of a small patio off a bedroom to create a laundry area. I wish I would have had the foresight to take pictures of rooms in each house from the same vantage point to highlight the differences; you can get a small feel for it by looking at the bedroom pictures in the collage here.
I was very impressed by the way the architect took full advantage of the site in creating these residences. One row of homes overlooks the other row below it, but you barely know there are homes below, because of their simple flat roofs, and they way the patios are situated to focus instead on the hillsides beyond.
For anyone thinking of doing this tour in the future, I can’t recommend it enough. Many of these homes rarely are open to the public, so it could literally be the chance of a lifetime (in fact, that’s how I discovered these tours, when I learned that I could have seen the Lovell Houses in 2003 if only I had known about them earlier). To the staff at the MAK Center – and especially to the owners of these unique homes who were kind enough to open them up – I am grateful for providing the opportunity for the public to get a glimpse into them. If you are reading this, many thanks for sharing a bit of LA’s great architectural heritage with us.