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A Guide to the Kingdom of Oz

Sometimes, in romance movies of years gone by, the heroine would dewily describe a certain transformative awakening in her life by saying that the hero had “made a woman of me.”

Now, in an entirely, entirely different sense, I can say unblushingly that professor Robert Winter made a Southern Californian of me.

(If he is reading this, he is liable to go into one of the Bernhardt-quality fake fainting spells he employs in lectures about “L.A. the Magnificent,” when the rapture of, say, flawless Streamline Moderne overwhelms him.)

There are several fine books of architectural history with Robert Winter’s name on the cover, but when I speak of his book, I mean the one I have seen, dogeared and underlined, in the hands of tourists craning their necks and pointing their fingers on downtown streets. “A Guide to Architecture in Southern California” was written 32 years and manifold editions ago by Winter and the late David Gebhard. It began as a smeary-purple mimeographed list from Winter’s student days at Dartmouth, a few interesting things to look at in a city most Ivy types wouldn’t waste a sneer on.

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At first people called the book the Baedeker of L.A., after the little red travel books that would be outnumbered only by Mao’s little red books. Then it was an architectural bible, and that is nearer the mark, for Winter grew up in the Midwest, one state and several decades away from me, and like me, he is a California convert, and there is no zeal to equal the convert’s.

(I can’t say he writes with malice toward none and charity for all, but his critiques never lack for wit. When I asked him to assess Orange County’s orderly suburbs, he said they look “like dentures.”)

His books engage us because they are not just about redwood and tile and brick and glass and--heaven forbid--stucco but a show-and-tell story of how Californians live and think, and how different this place has made us, and how we have returned the favor.

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For 32 years, Robert Winter taught among the dissonances of Occidental College’s Spanish-tile roofs and Ionic columns. His mother baked lemon cookies for his students, of whom I was one. We met Frank Lloyd Wright’s son in his house and Richard Neutra’s wife in hers. We learned the fine spare lines of Greene & Greene and the extruded plaster curlicues of Churrigueresque. We saw it was as acceptable to smile as it was to admire.

We came to know the brashness and whimsy, the tolerance and, yes, the diversity of L.A. And what do you know: It turns out that our architecture presaged by decades the multiculturalism we all holler about now. The New World was rebuilt here, and the Old; the sublime and the ridiculous; a Mayan house and an Assyrian tire factory; adobes and Hansel-and-Gretel gingerbread; and that echt-est of all L.A. designs, the California bungalow.

Unless you hate L.A. on sight--some people do and hide away in cottage cheese-ceilinged suburbs, vertical or horizontal--to come here is to feel like Dorothy stepping out of the whirl-away house into Oz, emancipated from chiaroscuro by color, delivered from the solemnities of repro-colonial Williamsburg into . . . Los Angeles.

In 1956, Winter came west “as a kind of missionary to the heathen, to a terribly vulgar place--and UCLA, really.” He was not unlike his New England friend who still calls the state “Caliphonia,” and mocks the Watts Towers: “How significant that the most important monument in Los Angeles should be made out of junk.” He put up at the Don Lowell motel near UCLA, where he would teach for a time. It was over 100 degrees then, and the Don Lowell had no air conditioning. (Surely he was remembering it when he wrote of an Eagle Rock motel that it “defies all canons of taste and must be mentioned for its sheer horror, impossible to experience in black and white.”)

Ah, but across the street was an antique store named “The Den of Antiquity,” and Winter soon became what an old history professor had told him he would: a California cultural chauvinist.

“Now I’d never leave L.A. It’s kind of romantic and flummery, but the freedom--free of conventions. You don’t have to live up to any particular standards, even in Pasadena.” It is there that he lives, in a lapidary 1909 Craftsman house that belonged to Ernest Batchelder, whose tile designs are copied even today.

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To page through the book and read “razed . . . razed . . . razed” under so many pictures is like seeing photo after photo of eager, unique faces and finding after each the word “murdered.”

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Winter can still get up a good head of steam about it--"Idiots! Idiots!"--but more in sorrow, perhaps, than anger. He served on the Cultural Heritage Commission that declared the Hollywood sign a monument, collaborated on the law that created such a commission for Pasadena and knows there is a bottom-line worth to these things we build, not just as an “architectural petting zoo,” in another critic’s phrase, but to lighten the eye and enrich the soul, to remedy the not-peculiarly L.A. folly of wiping away the evidence of the better angels who make our species distinct: What we have the wit to create, we should have the sense to save.


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