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HEARTS of the CITY / Exploring attitudes and issues behind the news

Ellis Ring died this month. A case of bad kidneys at 82. In his lifetime, Ellis Ring changed the way Los Angeles looked and changed the way we live in the city. But when he died, he got one paragraph in the paper. Outside his family and friends, nobody much noticed.

You could say the same about Phil Anthony, Fritz Burns or Jerry Fairbanks. They all helped create the Los Angeles of the post-World War II years, which is to say Los Angeles as we know it today. Then they died--and nobody much noticed.

This shunning of the city’s creators stands as one example of the way Los Angeles discounts itself. If Los Angeles were a teenager, we’d say it had a self-esteem problem. In Philadelphia or Boston, schoolchildren get taught all about the city’s forefathers. Here, we pretend our city was found at the bottom of a Crackerjack box.

Even the grown-ups don’t know much. After Ellis Ring died, I called his business office to get some old news clippings. One of the managers had to dig them up.

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“Glad I found them,” the manager said. “I didn’t know he did all that stuff.” And the manager worked for him. That’s how opaque our history has become, how thoroughly we have forgotten the people who invented the city.

What Ellis Ring did--along with his brother, Selden--was create the garden apartment. These days, driving past the Casa Granadas and Mediterranean Villas, it is easy to believe that the garden apartment sprang from the landscape more or less spontaneously, like the mini-mall or the cul-de-sac street.

It didn’t. Before the Ring brothers, modern apartments were built almost exclusively as boxes, some more expensive than others. You walked into a lobby and up the stairs to your domicile. In the cheaper versions, the lobby was eliminated and the stairway was glued to the outside. Either way, the building itself remained a box.

Then the Ring brothers came along with their great epiphany. What if, they asked, someone built an apartment complex in the shape of a square doughnut. In the hole of the doughnut you could put jungle landscaping, swimming pools, streams, lounging decks. The apartments, rather than facing outward, would turn inward toward this lush interior.

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Clearly, such a design would cost more to build. Why do it? Because the Ring brothers realized that people yearned for something more than life in a box. They wanted friends and neighbors, they wanted to find the right man or the right woman. By turning the focus of the apartment inward toward a space where people could mix together, the Ring brothers might transform the apartment into something that resembled a village.

The first experiment with the new concept took place in 1959 on Rochester Avenue in West Los Angeles. They called the project West Park Village, and it remains today. As far as I know, no one has nominated West Park Village for a place on the National Register of Historic Places. They should. It’s the mother of thousands of garden apartments all across the land, from Los Angeles to Roanoke.

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In the beginning, no one even had a name for the new creation. The Ring brothers first tried the phrase “total living” apartments, then trotted out the remarkable moniker “active adult apartment-recreation communities.” Nothing stuck until someone--unknown--employed the simple name “garden apartment.”

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Doug Ring, Selden’s son and now a City Hall lobbyist, says his father and uncle risked everything to build West Park Village. “If it hadn’t worked, they would have gone bankrupt,” he says. “But it did work. The complex filled up quickly and stayed full.”

You could argue that the garden apartment has some obvious precursors. In Los Angeles the grand Spanish apartments of the 1920s often contained interior courtyards. Ellis Ring himself said that his inspiration came from European villages where quirky walkways and unexpected parks kept you in a state of pleasant expectancy.

Still, until the Ring brothers, no one had used these features commercially to create the promise of romance and social excitement. As the concept grew at projects such as the Meadows in Culver City or Mariner’s Village in Marina del Rey, the Ring brothers offered elaborate variations on the theme. Within the “garden” a stroller could encounter anything from a 10-foot waterfall in a miniature forest to an aviary to a game room with a fireplace.

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The concept made millionaires of the Ring brothers. The same is true of most creators of modern Los Angeles. Among those we named above, Phil Anthony invented the simple, inexpensive method for putting swimming pools in suburban backyards. Fritz Burns, a developer, sketched out the first ranch-style house. Jerry Fairbanks built the first practical system for filming television dramas and, thereby, allowed Los Angeles to monopolize prime-time television production.

To a man, they died wealthy. They had friends, they had their memories and all the comfort money can provide. No one would argue that they suffered immoderately. Yet, at their death, their place in the city’s history was largely forgotten.

Do we forget them because we regard them as mere businessmen? So were the creators of most cities. Or do we believe that their garden apartments and cul-de-sacs and sitcoms, in the end, amount to a tawdry legacy? That Los Angeles could have done better?

Perhaps. Los Angeles would not be Los Angeles without its peculiar strain of self-loathing. But that loathing is not always shared outside of L.A. A few months ago I remember reading about an experiment in residential living outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The sheik who was bankrolling the project expressed pride in the daring design. The complex would offer a central courtyard with landscaping and give residents a chance to mix together socially, something never before tried in Saudi Arabia.

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The sheik, asked to put a name on the design, described it as a “garden apartment.”


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