Evolution of a '50s Dream

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The heart of Crestwood Hills, a woodsy enclave in the hills above Sunset Boulevard on Los Angeles' Westside, is a cooperative nursery school where parents are required to volunteer twice a month to help their children learn about silkworms, build sandcastles and touch the sky on a swing.

The nursery school links the neighborhood with its past as a unique 1950s housing project founded by 282 families that embraced cooperative living and bold new architecture at the apex of Los Angeles' influence on American residential design.

Today, the school and 33 of 150 first-phase homes are about all that's left of the neighborhood that started out along the ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains far from the city. Developments, including Brentwood to the south and the Getty Center to the east, have closed in on the neighborhood that now encompasses 360 lots.

After the 1961 Brentwood-Bel-Air fire that demolished 49 of the homes, decades of construction and reconstruction erased much of the original modern design. Now a new generation of Crestwood homeowners is trying to steer the community back toward the twin goals of its founders by preserving its architectural heritage and renewing its cooperative and social spirit.

Welcoming committees greet new residents, a tradition started by the founding homeowners, and Crestwood Hills Park regularly features community concerts.

"I can't go to my mailbox in the morning without running into someone. Some days it takes me a long time to get my mail," said architect Cory Buckner, who has lived in Crestwood Hills for six years.

Many residents are involved in both the nursery school and nearby Kenter Canyon Elementary School, a Los Angeles Unified School District campus. Recently, drives by parents contributed $75,000 toward a new playground at the elementary school and $60,000 toward a remodel of the nursery school.

"We realize that when we work in a cooperative way, we can do so much more," said Deborah Kattler Kupetiz, a Crestwood mom who is helping organize an annual "Rhythm in the Park" music series and community activities, such as ballroom and swing dancing lessons, T-ball games, art classes and toddler groups.

"The community is turning around because of young families moving into the area. We've had more Crestwood homeowners enroll their children in the school," said Cathy Wagner, director of the Crestwood Hills Cooperative Nursery School.

Scholars are rediscovering the early utopian dreams of Crestwood Hills. Harold Zellman, a Santa Monica architect, and Roger Friedland, a UC Santa Barbara sociology professor, are writing the first book about Crestwood Hills.

The modern architecture and history of Crestwood also will be the subject of an exhibition at the Getty Center, tentatively scheduled for January 2003.

While Brentwood, Bel-Air and Santa Monica have better name recognition, Crestwood residents are happy to live in a secluded, little-known place. Many people discover Crestwood by accident and are hooked by the modern style of homes, many of which sell today for between $700,000 and $1 million.

Community Emphasized the Architecture

The original houses, which came in higher than budget at $10,000 to $30,000 each, were designed by A. Quincy Jones (who would later become dean of USC's School of Architecture), Whitney R. Smith and engineer Egardo Continti when they were beginning their careers. The homes were small, averaging 1,200 square feet, but architecturally distinct.

The community was established as an "architecturally controlled neighborhood," with the Crestwood Hills Architectural Committee overseeing the design of proposed structures and modifications according to a set of guidelines created in 1947 by the founders, who wanted to maintain architectural standards within the community.

"I love the scale of these homes," said Buckner, pointing out classic modern features in her house, such as exposed masonry block, plywood and steel, and wall-sized windows connecting the interior to the outdoors and exploiting the many city and ocean views. "It's so wonderfully designed down to each little detail. I feel like I am living inside a great mind."

Buckner helps edit the Crestwood Hills Views, a monthly newsletter of the Crestwood Hills Assn., a homeowners organization, and holds the key to the archives, a repository for original blueprints, drawings, pamphlets and legal documents.

Buckner's two-bedroom, two-bathroom home, which she owns with her husband, architect Nick Roberts, was the first built by the cooperative and was used as project headquarters during housing construction. Buckner recently purchased the house, her second she has owned in the neighborhood, and is beginning restoration. Much of Buckner's architecture business has focused on remodeling original Crestwood homes, and she also has been deeply involved in preservation efforts. Many of the original homes were torn down to make way for larger homes.

"After I moved in the area, I saw many of the original homes demolished, which just broke my heart," she said. "I think people didn't realize what they were doing at the time."

Buckner, working with other Crestwood residents, won cultural historic monument designation for four of the original homes from the city of Los Angeles' Cultural Heritage Commission four years ago. Last week, three more, including Buckner's home, received the designation, which makes demolition all but impossible and requires additional reviews for remodeling.

The houses were designed to experiment with techniques and building materials that were developed after World War II, including butterfly roofs, steel doors and plate-glass windows, Buckner said.

"The designs were all very avant-garde [and remain] an example of the post-and-beam architecture of Southern California that has spread throughout the country."

Part of the mission of the preservation movement, she said, "is to educate people about the history and meaning of this place--especially newcomers."

Original Crestwood residents say they are happy that their experiment in cooperative living in the once barren hills continues to attract people who appreciate modern architecture, great views and involved neighbors.

"For a while, the area was starting to feel like a retirement village," said original resident Nora Weckler. "I'm glad people are discovering the area. I think it's very healthy to have young people and children around us. It makes you think Crestwood will go on."

Weckler is one of the founding families who shared a dream to create a utopian neighborhood. The community once planned to have a cooperative grocery store, nursery, fish hatchery and a commercial center. A credit union recently folded.

"The original members wanted to live side by side with people of color. They wanted to include people from all economic backgrounds. They wanted a lot," said architect Zellman, who has been researching and immersing himself in Crestwood for 12 years. Many Crestwood members, Zellman said, were Jewish and aligned themselves with socialistic and progressive politics, so cooperative living made sense to them.

"They wanted a big new world where race was irrelevant," he said. In the mid-1940s, when Crestwood was being developed, about 2.5 million people belonged to cooperatives in the United States, Zellman said. Federal grants funded cooperative projects, where people would pool money and resources to build houses, credit unions, grocery stores and factories. California alone received half of all the grant money.

Crestwood began when three discharged servicemen--Jules Salkin, Leonard Krupnick and Ray Siegel--decided to take action to address the housing shortage in Los Angeles after World War II. All three were musicians and wanted a creative living situation for them and their growing families.

Because their initial plan was to buy an acre of land and build homes at the four corners with a communal pool and playground in the center, they needed a fourth member. But word of their endeavor spread, and, in the end, more than 500 enthusiastic people became involved with the project, which was to be known as the Mutual Housing Assn.

Each family deposited $1,000 as a down payment for participating in the project.

"The members of the [association] were committed to planning, designing and building a community without a private developer," Zellman said.

"They bought 800 acres of land in Kenter Canyon since it was so cheap. At the time, the area was considered undesirable," he said.

A Dream Dogged by Problems

The idealistic leaders encountered many frustrating stumbling blocks and slowly their utopian dreams dissolved. Some of the democratic ideals they stood for ultimately became the very things that worked against them.

For instance, the founding fathers solicited the housing association members for input into house designs that yielded 27 plans, which made it impossible for building contractors to maximize production efficiencies. That made the homes more expensive than planned, putting them out of reach of some of the lower-income families the community founders had sought to include.

According to Zellman, a federal housing agency didn't want the project built and dragged its feet on approving the mortgages for what he called "far-out" house designs. The houses posed too big of a risk, federal officials complained. Also, a little-known federal regulation forbade underwriting insurance for racially integrated housing projects. Housing association representatives went to Washington, D.C., to challenge the restrictions, but many disgruntled and disheartened members, whites and minorities, dropped out of the project before the U.S. Supreme Court eventually declared the regulation unconstitutional.

In addition, construction companies skipped town and others went bankrupt, leaving some homeowners to finish their homes themselves. Perhaps the biggest roadblock was McCarthyism. Anything that remotely smelled liked communism, which included all cooperative housing and factory projects, attracted suspicion, and suddenly federal funding and encouragement stopped.

By 1952, the housing association was broke and voted itself out of existence, installing instead another group, called the Crestwood Hills homeowners association, that exists today. Each family was forced to go its own way with the houses. Even though some families left the project, despondent that they couldn't create a true utopian cooperative, many stayed and made the best of the situation.

Despite all the compromises, early Crestwood residents can point to many successes, chief among them home designs in the Modernism vanguard.

And through the hardships, the spirit of creative cooperation thrived in the early years of Crestwood with theatrical productions in the park, music jams in neighbors' living rooms and Tuesday evening walks to the park for doughnuts. Neighbors would help each other to complete their half-finished homes.

Original residents say there was an optimistic feeling in the community. People came here to build a place for their children, and they were determined to make it happen.

When trouble struck, the community rallied. Original resident Lydia Gelb said her house was nearly buried in a landslide after a rainstorm.

"Everyone descended on us, helping us dig out," she said. "The mud came into the house and bedroom. People came with shovels, and one fellow had on his skiing outfit to dig away the mud."

When Gelb and her husband, Mac, moved into their house 50 years ago, the community threw a party and women came to sew drapes for the big windows.

"The community just brought out the best in people, you know?" she said. "My friends all thought we were crazy to move out here in the sticks, but now, they envy what we have had."

Gelb is pleased that the new residents of Crestwood are taking up the cooperative spirit, but she doubts they will ever be able to truly capture the feeling of building something from scratch.

"We just did what needed to be done," she said.

She said one of the best things about Crestwood Hills that remains is the lack of street lights.

"That was part of the original plan. We had these little homes with big picture windows, and well, we just didn't want to lose the stars. It was important for us to have the stars."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday April 27, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction Wrong spelling--The name of architect Edgardo Contini was misspelled in an April 24 story on the Crestwood Hills neighborhood.
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