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A living legacy endures

Times Staff Writer

As he sinks into a comfortable couch in his small but expansive living room, Serril Gerber, 89, looks out through a wall of windows at the view of the Hollywood Hills and acknowledges that he helped make a little bit of architectural history.

A retired schoolteacher, today he is one of just three remaining original residents of an experiment combining low-cost housing with high-style design. In 1946, Gerber and his late wife joined with nine other couples who sought out Gregory Ain, a young Modernist architect with utopian ideals.

“We’d seen these modern houses in magazines, and we liked the idea of having a living space that is both indoors and outdoors,” Gerber recalls. “We liked the idea of doing something really modern, and we liked Greg. He was a radical person in his thinking, because he wanted to put his ideas in the service of regular people. That was his mission in life, really.”

The group knew that the homes being built in the area by Ain’s mentors, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, were out of their reach. But in a surge of post-war optimism, they figured that by pooling their resources and with the help of Ain’s innovative design, they could build something efficient and new.

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They found a hillside property just off Rowena Avenue in Silver Lake, and each couple contributed about $11,000 -- enough for Ain to build what is now known as the Avenel Terrace housing project, named for the street on which it’s located. Completed in 1948, Ain’s complex remains a model for effective use of limited space for low-cost urban housing. But today it is more than just an example of idealism. Interest in the mid-century style that Ain helped develop has surged in recent years, and the units, which now sell for well over $300,000, have become magnets for architecture buffs.

Today, longtime residents who’ve filled their houses with tchotchkes live side by side with new arrivals who prefer uncluttered, open space. Last Sunday afternoon, six of the current owners opened their homes for a tour for about 65 members of the Society of Architectural Historians. Among the organizers was Richard Corsini, an architect who has lived in the complex since 1993. The afternoon began with lectures on Ain’s work by Corsini and Anthony Denzer, who is completing his dissertation at UCLA on the architect.

While Ain developed many projects in Los Angeles, taught at USC and in the mid-1960s was dean of the architecture school at Penn State, during the last decade of his life a variety of illnesses left him unable to work. He died in 1987 at the age of 79.

Recognized as one of the second generation of Los Angeles’ Modernist architects, he was known more for his progressive ideas than for his stylistic innovation. His projects span from 1928, when he began by working with Neutra, to 1971. He may be best known locally for a four-unit complex called Dunsmuir Flats, built in 1937 south of Wilshire Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue, and for an innovative tract of 52 small homes he developed in Mar Vista in 1948. The latter have attracted much notice among architecture lovers for their distinctive siting and low-cost, efficient design.

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To those who’ve lived at Avenel for a long time, this new appreciation for their homes is often a surprise. “I’m learning about architectural people,” said Betty Markoff, who has lived in one of the units with her husband, Morrie, for the past 30 years. She laughed as she described differences between her home and those of her new neighbors. “They’re making museums, opening everything up for space,” she said. “We’re using every corner.” Adds Morrie, “I just wanted a small house that would be easy to maintain. For our way of life, this was a good answer.”

The Avenel complex’s 10 units originally were identical, each filling only slightly more than 900 square feet. Over the years, all but one have been extended onto the space allocated for patios, in the process expanding the living room and master bedroom, the latter of which now usually functions as a den. Built for families of four, the units were meant to promote communal living, and the owners still meet regularly to administer shared areas. (The property changed from a cooperative to a condominium in recent years.)

But there are changes: Children once played on the walkways in front of the units and in a communal play yard at the back. Today, there are no kids, the yard is a place to hide the garbage cans and most of the new residents agree that these homes accommodate two people, at best.

Katherine Lambert, a young architect, lives in one of the lower-level units with Christiane Robbins, a USC assistant professor who is making a film on Ain’s work.

“When I moved here two years ago, I didn’t know much about Ain, but when I found this place I bought it immediately,” Lambert says. “There are magical things about the space. It has no redundant circulation and is zoned for privacy brilliantly. To see a new generation of people come together and embrace the cooperative aspect of living together is really special.”

All of the homes once had stand-alone kitchens, although that was not Ain’s original plan. He wanted built-in dining tables with seating in the kitchen on one side and in the living room on the other. They also were supposed to have an additional half-bath, which everyone today agrees would be nice. However, the Federal Housing Authority, which provided financing for the project, insisted that the homes needed a broom closet more than an extra toilet or built-in dining area, and despite a year’s battle by the families, the FHA won. Ironically, that closet has been the first thing to go in today’s redos, and in many cases, residents have installed tables that are a close approximation of Ain’s plan.

The whole complex occupies just two 60-foot lots, each 140-feet deep, and it appears to have retained much of its original flavor, although the pink exterior paint Ain chose has been replaced with a more modest white and gray palette. Yet the complex still stands out for its modern facade on the tree-shaded street, which is lined with a mix of Spanish-style houses and other traditional architecture.

Ain’s design consists of two rows of units, all with separate garages -- and short driveways to accommodate second cars -- facing onto the street. The residents also share two walkways that lead to their front entrances, yet because each unit is staggered at a slight angle, there is a sense of privacy that defies the tight weave of the plan. Inside, the homes seem quite spacious -- with three bedrooms, kitchen, living room and bath -- in part because Ain made use of every inch of space. In addition to sliding glass doors that separate the living room from the patios, a sliding wooden panel provides the option of closing off the living room from the master bedroom. Similarly, a sliding wall separates two adjacent smaller bedrooms in the back of each unit.

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Gordon Olschlager, a preservation architect, has lived at Avenel since 1992. When he moved in, he says, “the project was on the verge of being lost through incremental changes.” Some of the changes had been done economically, and not always with the best materials. For example, he had to re-create the sliding doors the way Ain designed them. But after toying with restoring other changes, such as the enlarged living room, he left them as they were. “When you talk to people who know Gregory Ain,” Olschlager said, “they say that he would have been comfortable with people personalizing their space.”

Corsini, too, has deliberated about how to be true to Ain while still accommodating contemporary taste. He not only has completely redone his own space in a stark but comfortable modern style, but also served as architect for another unit that now has raw concrete flooring and a ceiling stripped to expose the beams.

However, what Corsini finds most exciting about Ain’s vision is its potential to influence future design. At a time when Los Angeles is experiencing a severe housing shortage, Corsini points out, “these projects are extraordinary prototypes. They are very livable spaces that are built on a model of 14 units per acre. That’s three times the density of an average single family home.”


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