The first subdivision in Calabasas wasn’t a swank gated community or collection of mini-mansions of the kind the city is famous for today. It was a rakish art colony full of eccentric little cottages and studios, some designed by modern architectural master Rudolph Schindler.
Arlene Bernholtz and George French recently drove through the city’s winding streets pointing out remnants of Park Moderne, the artists colony that once flourished among the oaks and manzanita.
“This is one of three footpaths that were in the area--they were originally Indian trails,” said Bernholtz, pointing to a sign with the Park Moderne logo. Erected by the Calabasas Historical Society in 1993, it marks the so-called Bird Path, the lone remaining trail.
Climb it and you come to a ziggurat-shaped fountain of multicolored concrete, the only one left from the original development, which featured a clubhouse and pool but no sewers.
Established in 1931, Park Moderne was modest, with 174 small lots that sold for $525 each. Many owners built their own homes, some tiny cottages with no amenities but the sound of flowing creeks and the nightly hooting of owls.
Tucked behind Calabasas High School, off Old Topanga Road south of Mulholland Highway, the neighborhood is still known as the Bird Area because of streets named Towhee Way and Pheobe Lane. And the spirit of the place is closer to that of Topanga Canyon than upscale Calabasas.
With guides French and Bernholtz, the current and former presidents of the Calabasas Historical Society, you can still catch a glimpse of the bohemian life once lived under the towering eucalyptus trees.
The 400-square-foot cottages Schindler designed for the project are now so altered as to be unrecognizable. The tiny houses reflected his view that a building was defined as much by its setting as its interior, according to Schindler biographer Judith Sheine.
Dutch-born Jan de Swart was the first artist at Park Moderne; he carved telephone poles he found on his property into a ring of puckish totem poles.
He was followed by Andy Anderson and Archipenko and Olinka Hrdy, writer Laura Gaye and musician Dick Coburn.
Visitors included novelist John Steinbeck and comedian Jimmy Durante and his wife, whose penchant for staying at the Calabasas colony while her husband was away was reflected in Durante’s famous sign-off, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”
The modest colony was doomed by the building boom that transformed Calabasas starting in the 1960s. But its memory was preserved largely because of resident Ruth Loring, who died Oct. 12 at age 86.
“She started going house to house, and she interviewed some of the original residents,” Bernholtz said.
For the 1993 rededication of the fountain, Loring put together a self-guided tour of the area with a map and historical notes. At 4057 Blackbird Way, Loring wrote, stood the “hand-built home of Robert Witt Ames, woodcarver. . . . Across the street from Ames was a wildwood canyon where Ames used to walk his goats.”
Ames was taught to carve by Anderson, the Durantes’ artist friend who built the handsome Santa Fe-style home at 22912 Bluebird Drive. De Swart and his wife, Ursula, lived at 3910 Blackbird. De Swart, who later turned his hilltop home in Eagle Rock into a rambling sculpture, relished life in Park Moderne, where he and Ursula battled the occasional rattlesnake and mountain lion and lived simply in an unheated cabin surrounded by giant cactuses.
An enthusiastic modern, De Swart loved man-made materials as much as natural ones. The fertile inventor, who held more than 100 patents, devised one of the first plastic baby bottles. Ursula’s father, architect Jock Peters, designed the clubhouse, as well as the famed Moderne-style interior of Bullock’s Wilshire.
The story of Park Moderne is part of the larger saga of Calabasas contained in the historical society’s Kathleen Beachy Memorial Library, housed at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. According to photos, oral histories and other documents, the colony was founded by Los Angeles entrepreneur William Lingenbrink and partner C. Henry Taylor.
Lingenbrink had shops in Los Angeles that sold art to wealthy clients, including many in the film industry. He reasoned that a rural getaway would make his artists more productive. The plan was for residents to live in Los Angeles and to use the cottages as retreats, said Rosemary Hulle, who oversees the collection at Pierce.
“The idea was come out on the weekend and do your own thing,” she said.
Sheine, an associate professor of architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, said Schindler never lived in the colony but owned a lot there. The cabins he designed for Park Moderne were classic Schindler in miniature--flat-roofed with lots of windows that featured horizontal mullions, or bands. Roughly rectangular, they opened onto porches, which opened onto patios.
She pointed out that Schindler did not design the cottages that look like the home of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, complete with triangular windows in the corner. Jock Peters did those.
“The goofy windows are not Schindler’s,” Sheine said. “He was a modern architect, not a funky architect.”