Calabasas Colony, Once a Mecca for Artists, Now a Cause for Historians

Times Staff Writer

Katharine Diemert knew she had stumbled across a jewel the first time she spied the tiny cottage nestled in an oak grove next to a bubbling Calabasas stream.

Diemert didn’t learn just how precious her find was, however, until she bought the picturesque house last year and moved in.

When she peeked into its small attic to look for storage space, she found a cardboard box hidden beneath the eaves. The box contained a family of carefully detailed wooden puppets.


Quite by accident, Diemert had stumbled upon the last of the original inhabitants of Park Moderne--an unusual artists colony formed in 1927 at the edge of the San Fernando Valley.

The 140-acre colony was Calabasas’ first subdivision. It was dotted with small, cleanly styled Art Deco houses and artists’ studios that contrasted with the ruggedness of the surrounding Santa Monica Mountain foothills.

For three decades, Park Moderne was a mecca for artisans, painters, writers and musicians looking for a convenient escape from Hollywood and Los Angeles.

Remodeling Plans Dropped

“I knew the house had been built by wood-carver Robert Ames,” Diemert said, referring to the man who left behind the puppets he crafted. “But I didn’t realize its historic value.

“I had planned some drastic remodeling for the house. But I changed my mind after I found out about its past.”

Such an attitude is rare in Park Moderne, according to history buffs.

They say they have watched in dismay as the area has been swallowed up by development that is more modern than moderne --huge stucco houses that smother the 174 small lots laid out 60 years ago by businessmen William Lingenbrink and Henry Taylor.


Most of the original cottages have been bulldozed. Many of the survivors have been remodeled and enlarged so many times that their original crisp lines are virtually unrecognizable.

Steve Fields owns a house near the main entrance to Park Moderne. These days, its living room window in the front is the one giveaway that it was built more than 50 years ago.

“My house had gone through a dozen remodels by the time I bought it 14 years ago,” said Fields, a contractor. “The front window glass is the only thing I saved. It is ripply--an antique glass. So I kept it.”

Fields’ window--and a handful of cottages that have survived in a recognizable form--are closely watched by members of the Calabasas Historical Society.

“When somebody new moves into one of those houses, we go over with cookies and brownies,” said group member Joan Kolostian, who lives in one of Park Moderne’s new houses.

“We try to educate them pretty fast. People are generally intrigued when they hear about this area. They get hooked, and we’ve got ‘em.”

The story of the creation of Park Moderne is just as offbeat as the cottages that were designed for it.

An area rancher traded the 140 acres to Lingenbrink and Taylor in the mid-1920s in exchange for a bathtub and plumbing for his ranch house.

Lingenbrink, who had opened a trendy gift shop on the Sunset Strip, decided to turn the subdivision into an art colony as a way of cultivating a steady supply of artwork for his new store.

He offered to trade lots, which started at $525, to artists in exchange for their paintings and sculpture. If artists were particularly strapped for cash, Lingenbrink agreed to take other artwork in trade for building supplies.

As an added lure, he commissioned noted modernistic architect Rudolph M. Schindler, who had designed Lingenbrink’s Hollywood store, to design inexpensive cottages for Park Moderne.

Schindler’s finished cabins were typically boxy, flat-roofed structures that were distinguished by zigzaggy windows and bold lines around doorways and eaves.

Lingenbrink built a clubhouse and a swimming pool for subdivision residents and carefully laid out Park Moderne’s streets around trees and hillsides.

Streets Named for Birds

He oiled the narrow lanes to keep down the dust, and named them for the birds that inhabited the mountains in the area: Bluebird Drive, Blackbird Way, Hummingbird Way, Meadowlark Drive, Wren Crest Drive and Sparrow Dell.

He drilled wells, although they were often dry or contained brackish water. The community’s pump house and a series of decorative concrete fountains and ponds were stylishly built in Art Deco motif to complement the houses.

Park Moderne quickly caught on as a weekend retreat and as a quiet place for artists to work.

The first to move in was sculptor Jan de Swart. Now a 78-year-old Los Angeles resident, he remembers sleeping outdoors on his lot before he built his own modernistic house next to a deep canyon.

He was visited more than once in his sleeping bag by bobcats and rattlesnakes, he said.

Eventually, the Park Moderne colony included, in addition to Ames, sculptor Andy Anderson, portrait painter Paul von Kleiben, songwriter Dick Coburn, authors Margaret Larson and Laura B. Gaye, designers Walter Dorrer and Charles Gretz.

Among the frequent visitors were many celebrities, among them novelist John Steinbeck and comedian Jimmy Durante.

Durante’s wife would often stay on with friends at Park Moderne when Durante returned to town. Legend has it that her overnight visits prompted Durante’s famous show-closing line: “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”

While it proved to be an artistic success, Park Moderne was never a financial success for Lingenbrink, who went on to develop the Silver Strand and Hollywood Beach areas in Ventura County.

When a brush fire swept through Park Moderne and blackened the overgrown hillsides he had carefully preserved, Lingenbrink disappointedly sold one denuded 30-acre parcel for $100. He was surprised later when the fire area resprouted and “greened up,” as residents put it.

In the 1930s, Park Moderne lots were being offered for as little as $175. After the Depression, the subdivision was briefly renamed “Hollywood Ranchitos” to attract buyers.

But the area remained largely undeveloped until the 1960s, when construction in the nearby master-planned community of Calabasas Park focused new attention on the Valley’s southwestern edge.

Housing tracts popped up on the east and north sides of Park Moderne. In the early 1970s, the Las Virgenes Unified School District built Calabasas High School on the south side. In the 1980s, an expensive gate-guarded subdivision was opened on the west side.

These days, leftover Park Moderne lots fetch from $55,000 to $85,000, according to Dave Carlson, a Calabasas Realty Co. broker who is marketing several of them.

Park Moderne old-timers say development has ruined the area.

“It’s very painful to us to see what has happened there,” said Ursula de Swart, wife of artist Jan de Swart. “We sold our property in 1965. We never go out there now.”

Sharp Pang

De Swart said she was particularly upset when a developer filled in the rustic Park Moderne canyon that she and her husband enjoyed so much.

“It had a 30-foot waterfall and caves where foxes lived. Beautiful pink owls lived there, and it was full of maidenhair ferns. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.”

Ruth Loring, who moved to Park Moderne in 1976, helped found the Calabasas Historical Society three years later after she learned of the neighborhood’s past.

Since then, society members have begun collecting an oral history of the area by interviewing Park Moderne old-timers and have refurbished the “Bird Walk”--a pathway that connects Meadowlark Drive and Blackbird Way.

The group’s next goal is to repair the last remaining concrete fountain in Park Moderne, Loring said.

“I didn’t know what we were moving into until we got here,” she said.

“I felt bad when I heard that my house replaced a herd of goats being raised here.”