Forever Modern

Special to The Times

Rachel Rosenbach was among the first people in 1948 to buy in a neighborhood of unconventional houses in Mar Vista known today as the Gregory Ain tract.

“I saw it in the planning stages, and I knew that it was the house for me,” Rosenbach said. She and her first husband paid $11,800 for the 1,050-square-foot Westside house, designed by Ain, an uncompromising Modernist architect who died in 1988.

Fifty-five years later, the retired school secretary is among neighborhood activists who helped win city approval this month to preserve the three-block area of 52 single-story houses -- most of them still as square-edged, austere and elegant as they were half a century ago. The tract is the first post-World War II housing tract, as well as the first group of Modernist buildings, to become a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone in Los Angeles.

The historic designation restricts what buyers can do to the homes: no insensitive alterations that would destroy the character of the homes, or worse, tear-downs to be replaced with “mansionized” dwellings.

While a number of homes have been altered slightly, in many cases by converting garages into bedrooms, all but three of the original homes are recognizably by Ain. “This is the most intact and the most vulnerable neighborhood,” said Dwayne Howard, a former homeowner in the area who promoted the preservation zone.

Not all homeowners in the preservation zone are thrilled with the new designation, yet preserving the architectural quality of houses arguably makes them more valuable than otherwise. Houses designed by well-known architects like Ain often command a premium of 15% to 20% above comparable properties, according to real estate sales agent Judy Sheller, who recently listed an Ain property for $699,000 with fellow sales agent Rae Wayne.

One homeowner who paid a premium is Todd Jerry, who bought his Ain home a year ago with his wife, Ing Lee. He was one of eight buyers who were obliged to make blind bids above the asking price.

At $542,000, the couple beat out the next nearest competitor by $500.

At first, Jerry second-guessed his own judgment in paying so much for a two-bedroom, one-bath house that was barely 1,000 square feet. “It was kind of harrowing because the houses are not that large, and I started to question spending a lot of money for something the size of an apartment.”

“In retrospect,” he added, after living in the house for a year, “I think it was a phenomenal bargain.”

The house, he explained, has “an extremely efficient layout so that it feels like 2,000 square feet.” When the couple has guests, they can create an extra bedroom by closing a pair of bi-fold doors in the living room. “That’s a feature that makes the house feel larger than it is,” Jerry added.

The image of buyers now competing to purchase the Mar Vista homes provides an ironic contrast to the poor market reception when the homes first opened. The home builder, the Advance Development Co., advertised the homes as “Modernique,” an amalgam of modern and unique.

Yet the homes were very slow to sell. The lender, the Federal Housing Administration, told the home builder to vary the style by interspersing more traditional homes with pitched roofs among the Modernist boxes. The builder refused, and a second phase of 50 homes remained unbuilt. Both the home builder and the architect lost money on the project, according to Anthony Denzer, an architect who is writing his doctoral dissertation on Ain.

The Ain neighborhood represents an optimistic period in Los Angeles history when architects and builders believed that design could improve the lives of ordinary people without extraordinary expense.

Ain, who grew up in working-class Boyle Heights, was largely self-taught and worked briefly for Richard Neutra, the Austrian-born Modernist. With far-left political leanings, Ain was an idealist who balanced a commitment to the high-brow aesthetics of Modernism with a practical commitment to the well-being of ordinary people.

“Ain worked his whole career to establish architecture as a social practice, not as a service reserved for the elite of society,” Denzer said.

The Mar Vista neighborhood, he added, was “intended to serve the community of working people and to show that modern design could serve everyday people.”

Compared with the extroverted sculptural work of Rudolf Schindler or Neutra, in fact, the work of Ain might seem unexciting at first. The exteriors are minimally detailed, and the interiors are spartan.

Ain focused on quality of life rather than on display, particularly providing plentiful sunlight from all directions and making home life feel close to nature and the landscape. The side of the living room that leads to the backyard is virtually floor-to-ceiling glass.

“Every room is a garden room,” said Anni Michaelsen, a 35-year resident who raised two children in one of the small houses.

Echoing the sentiment of new Ain owners, longtime residents, like Rosenbach, also praise the versatility of the floor plan. A sliding wall allows residents to divide a bedroom into two smaller rooms and to eke out yet another bedroom by closing off a portion of the living room. Raising a Venetian blind opens the kitchen to the living room.

“I admire the floor plan now as much as when I first saw it” in the late 1940s, said Rosenbach, agreeing with other homeowners who have come to appreciate a feeling of comfort and accommodation that is not dependent on luxury.

Landscape was a major concern of the architect, who collaborated with another design pioneer, landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, to provide a rich palette of plantings, including trees originating from six continents.

The frontyards may have been the boldest gesture in the landscape design, with Eckbo visualizing almost unbroken belts of green lawn and exotic trees running the length of each block, interrupted only by driveways. The original covenant on the property forbade fences, so the continuous lawn looks more like a park than a row of private enclaves.

Although designed for working people in ordinary circumstances, the comparatively tiny Ain homes have commanded some lofty prices lately. The latest home to open escrow sold for about $650,000, according to real estate agents Wayne and Sheller, proprietors of the Bizzy Blondes, who listed the property.

Real estate agents are now obliged to disclose to prospective buyers that the neighborhood is a historic-preservation zone and that buyers will not have a free hand to demolish and “mansionize” the houses, as they have done on surrounding blocks.

In a city that is often accused of neglecting its history and bulldozing its architectural landmarks, the neighborhood-preservation movement is surging forward.

“There has been a big explosion” of 15 newly proposed historic-preservation zones, according to Catherine Barrier, preservation advocate for the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group that has taken an active role in the Ain tract zone.

Not every homeowner in the Mar Vista tract supports the preservation idea. In anticipation of the protective designation, Susan and David Watkins started an extensive remodel of their house last year, including changing the front facade, shortly before an interim ordinance took effect that banned such work.

“Do I have the right to dictate what your house is going to look like, or what it’s going to sell for, or your lifestyle in that house?” asked Susan Watkins, whose family has owned the house on Meier Street since 1958.

The preservation zone protects the “exterior envelope of the house and grounds,” in short, everything visible from outside, according to Barrier. Enforcing the zone is a five-member neighborhood board, made up of appointees by the mayor, the local City Council representative and the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission.

The boards consult with neighbors on proposed changes. People who do not follow the rules can be referred to the Enforcement Department of the city’s Building and Safety Department, which in turn can turn the case over to the city attorney for prosecution.

Most disputes, however, get settled out of court, according to Barrier. “After all, they are neighbors,” she said.

Howard, an architectural enthusiast who seems to know the details of every house in the neighborhood, said Ain’s design philosophy runs counter to the current taste for enormous houses and architectural display. “It’s the housing equivalent of fast food. Maximum calories and minimal nutrition.”

Rosenbach said she became aware of Ain when John Entenza, a friend of her first husband, recommended buying in the new Mar Vista tract. The editor of the Arts and Architecture magazine, Entenza became famous for sponsoring the Case Study Houses, a series of prototype houses commissioned from different architects.

Rosenbach remembers meeting the architect. “When he was talking about his work, [Ain] was very serious. Other than that, he had a wonderful sense of humor.”

Michaelsen, however, said she never heard of Ain when she bought her home in the 1960s and came to admire it before she learned of the architect.

“You can’t improve on the design,” she said. “There is nothing to get tired of, it’s so simple and clean.”

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Morris Newman can be reached at Morris_Newman@sbcglobal.net.

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Self-driving tour of Ain’s houses

Gregory Ain’s Mar Vista Tract will be one of five Historic Preservation Overlay Zones featured in the 2nd annual “At Home With History” self-driving tour on April 6, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Advance tickets required: $30. For information, call the L.A. Conservancy, (213) 623-2489, or visit www.laconservancy.org.