Owners of Stilt Houses Live Above It All
From the veranda of his house, Bruce Gleason looks down, down, down onto a swath of the San Fernando Valley floor. Daylight is departing, and a rainy mist has furred the vista. A river of car headlamps on Van Nuys Boulevard glows more brilliantly by the moment.
“The view. Each night when I come home, I’m re-charmed by it,” he says. “Life is in session down there--150,000 people going about their life.”
To be in Gleason’s house, one of more than a dozen stilt houses that curve along Oakfield Drive, is to feel suspended in midair at high altitude, aloof and above it all.
From ground level, travelers on lower Beverly Glen Canyon Road can scarcely ignore the Oakfield houses, perched in whimsical precariousness on the steep slope to the east like wide, weird birds that might at any moment take flight.
Looking at them, it’s hard not to think that what ultimately keeps them up, in a place of earthquakes, mudslides and wildfires, is airy confidence itself, a kind of trust.
In that respect, stilt houses embody a different era in the psychological history of the city. Perhaps 1,500 of them accumulated on the hillsides of Los Angeles from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. City building regulations and other social and economic forces make it highly unlikely that any more of them will be built.
Over the years, stilt houses have been depicted on television and in film as tidy symbols of the thrill-loving, rule-breaking mentality. Yet the city’s architectural historians have paid them scant attention. Mary Ovnick, author of “Los Angeles: The End of the Rainbow,” a history of the city’s social trends and how they were reflected in its residences, calls them “a small housing type; one of our minor trends.”
For one thing, the classic stilt house is hardly a feast for the eyes--a modest, boxy, one-story thing, of between 1,200 and 1,600 square feet, usually built by a developer with a buyer of ordinary means in mind.
Stilt houses were a simple, inexpensive engineering solution to the problem of building on spectacular hillsides. Their typical original buyers, says Ovnick, a professor of history at Cal State Northridge, “were still the GI generation, the people who had their little cracker-box tract house, and they were getting to be middle-aged, and they were going to move up to something.”
The houses being built in the hills today tend to be multistory mansions constructed behind huge retaining walls, or cascading in complicated steps down a slope, or simply gouged into the steep landscape.
Whatever its aesthetic shortcomings, the classic stilt house curtsied to nature rather than deformed it. The landscape flowed unimpeded beneath the dwelling. It looked like something a hillside could shrug off any time it chose.
During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a number of hillsides did just that.
The typical stilt house’s support system consists of two or more stilts diagonally braced by rods or cables in an X-pattern, holding the floor of the house aloft. In some cases its floor beams were attached to its street-level foundation; in some cases not.
A total of 13 hillside houses in the city collapsed in the quake. Nicolino Delli Quadri, a senior structural engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, says the great majority of those were stilt houses of the rod-braced variety. Three people died as a result of stilt houses coming down.
In the earthquake’s aftermath, department engineers formed a study group that identified stilt houses as the hillside homes “most vulnerable to earthquake damage.” Delli Quadri says the floor beams of the stilt houses that collapsed were not attached to foundations; when the stilts and cross-bracing systems faltered, the floors simply slid forward and down the slopes.
As a result of the survey, the 1996 Los Angeles Building Code requires the floor beams of any new stilt houses to be attached to street-level foundations, which involves minimal expense.
The requirement also applies to existing stilt houses undergoing reconstruction worth 50% or more of their value. In such cases, meeting the requirement costs about $20,000 to $60,000, Delli Quadri says.
Yet it is concern over L.A.'s other principal source of disaster--fire--that effectively has blocked construction of new stilt houses for more than a generation.
A 1966 building code regulation governing construction in mountain fire districts, which include virtually all of the city’s dramatic hillsides, requires the supports and undersides of buildings to be enclosed or made resistant to fire for at least one hour.
Such fireproofing--coating support structures with stucco, or fashioning them out of heavy timbers or concrete--is prohibitively costly, unrealistic or both.
“To wrap all the stilts and underfloor in stucco would be very cumbersome,” says Delli Quadri. “I have not heard of it being done. The bracing rods are very flexible; they tend to vibrate and the stucco would tend to shake off.”
Architect Dion Neutra, who worked with his renowned father, the late Richard Neutra, on the design of almost 30 stilt houses, says such dwellings could be built on concrete support structures, “but it would be extremely expensive.”
The solution has been to build hillside houses with long exterior walls dropping to the slope. That complies with the building code, and creates considerably more living space in a house. It also makes a house visually much more intrusive on the hillside.
“It creates an area under the house where fire can’t get to, but it also creates an enormously unattractive long, blank wall of stucco,” says architecture historian Jeffrey Chusid. “Building regulations are often not sympathetic to building naturally in the hills.”
Not all stilt houses are created equal, and an earthquake can sort out the differences in no uncertain terms.
Bruce Gleason bought his Oakfield Drive home brand-new for $42,500 in 1967, late in the stilt-house era. Since then, he says, it’s been “100% solid” through two major earthquakes, and has grown in value to about $335,000.
Living in stilt houses is not for everyone.
“It takes a certain type to be able to handle it, because even from wind there is a certain amount of movement,” Neutra says. “Some people who bought those were sort of pioneering types, but everybody I’ve ever talked to who’s lived in one has been thrilled with it, loved it.”