Modern Romance

Emily Young last wrote for the magazine about movie greensman Dan Needham

From outside, the house seems plain, even forgettable--a siding-clad, gable-roofed box hugging a corner of busy Santa Monica Boulevard just blocks from the Century City shopping center. Walk inside, though, and the bland facade gives way to a lovingly preserved example of the airy mid-century modernist sensibility of one of Los Angeles’ most influential yet underappreciated architects.

Like Richard Neutra and other postwar visionaries, A. Quincy Jones built bold new buildings of steel, glass and concrete. But he is probably best remembered for creating comfortable, livable spaces that combined innovation with craftsman-like warmth. Thanks to his wife, Elaine, the home he remodeled for the two of them remains much as it was before his death in 1979. “Quincy’s architecture was of the times, but whatever Quincy did was just pure Quincy,” she says.

During the ‘50s and ‘60s, Jones and his then-partner, Frederick Emmons, helped define the California look with roughly 60 residential projects ranging from the groundbreaking suburban tract developments of Joseph Eichler to the posh Beverly Hills estates of Gary Cooper and other celebrities. As Sylvia Lavin, chair of the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design, notes: “Jones was particularly distinguished by his attention to natural materials and a Japanese influence manifested in extremely refined and fluid relations between inside and outside.”


For his own home, however, Jones chose not to build but to renovate. In 1965, he and Elaine--who ran her own public relations firm--bought a photographer’s studio that resembled, of all things, a barn. “Not one single person who knew Quincy thought he’d ever buy a New England barn,” Elaine recalls, “but he made it his own.”

Jones had envisioned a place to live, work, entertain and teach, so he was drawn to a partitioned area beneath the nearly 33-foot-high ceiling. “Quincy was always thinking of the user, and he had a wonderful way of imagining a space,” Elaine says. By eliminating nonstructural elements, he opened up a vast 30-by-40-foot central living room. Side walls of diagonal wood planking were painted white along with the ceiling. Other walls were lined with redwood, and brick pavers were laid over concrete. Topping off the transformation of “the Barn,” Jones installed skylights to bathe everything in sunlight.

With potted palms and wool rugs delineating conversation areas, leather chairs and laminate tables by Charles and Ray Eames were the furnishings of choice. “[Manufacturer] Herman Miller was one of my clients, so I had a lot of this furniture before we were married. It’s what I liked best and what Quincy liked best,” Elaine explains. “Charles Eames used to like coming here. He always said it felt like a little Eames showroom.”

When Jones hosted clients or classes from USC, where he later served as dean of the architecture school, the furniture allowed him to reconfigure the atrium into a conference room or lecture hall. “Quincy wanted a place for students to come and be stimulated. Sometimes the whole back wall was used to display drawings or plans,” Elaine says. “After a few presentations, we’d spackle the plaster and have it repainted.”

Heavy traffic prompted Jones to move the entrance from Santa Monica Boulevard to a side street, but he left the rest of the layout intact. A loft-like balcony, which he furnished with Judith Wachsmann chairs and a daybed, connects second-story rooms at both ends of the building. To the north, he arranged his home office and studio above Elaine’s home office and a small library. To the south, he put their bedroom over the kitchen and dining room.

Jones’ style and ingenuity permeate every inch of the revamped rooms: A bookcase wall shrinks the bedroom to human scale while also accentuating the ceiling height. Utilitarian filing cabinets, customized with George Nelson knobs, store socks, tools and other odds and ends. In the dining room and kitchen, minimalist birch built-ins complement Jones’ sleek oak table. And a removable bookshelf in the library holds a slide projector so the space can double as a viewing room.

Floor-to-ceiling glass links the house to the courtyard, framing a coral tree and a Japanese maple Jones planted as focal points. “He wanted to make it seem as if the trees were always here,” Elaine says. More than 50 other transplants, mostly eucalyptus, now provide shade, privacy and the illusion of a wooded retreat far from the urban bustle.

Over the past 12 years, Elaine has been organizing an archive of her husband’s drawings, models and papers for the UCLA library’s Department of Special Collections. If all goes as planned, she expects to complete a lasting record of his legacy in 2002. “Architecture has completely changed since Quincy died. This will be a resource for students. His work will speak for itself.”

The fate of the Barn is less clear. Since Jones designed only the interiors, not the structure, preservation is no guarantee. But neither is demolition. Six years ago, Jones’ former office building was rescued from the wrecking ball when architect Frederick Fisher bought it and moved in. “This house is a real treasure for the city. There’s a freshness and a simplicity to it,” Fisher says. “I’d like to think that someone will feel the same way about Jones’ house as I did when I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign at his office.”