Edward Killingsworth, one of the last Case Study House architects, whose elegant, precise designs for small residences and luxury hotels made him one of the leading Southern California modernists of his era, died of natural causes July 6 at his Long Beach home. He was 86.
Killingsworth was one of a handful of architects chosen to participate in the Case Study Houses, a post-World War II experiment in domestic architecture conceived by Arts and Architecture magazine editor John Entenza to promote the redefinition of the American home through modernist design and cost-effective materials and construction.
Entenza personally selected the architects, who included such luminaries as Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen. Their efforts resulted in 36 prototype homes that could be easily and inexpensively constructed during the postwar housing boom. About two dozen of the designs were carried through to completion, of which the majority were built in Southern California.
Killingsworth attracted Entenza's attention in 1950 when the editor drove past a 743-square-foot residence-office in Los Alamitos that the young architect had built for his in-laws as his first solo project. It cost $5,500 and was one of the earliest post-and-beam structures in Southern California.
Killingsworth wound up designing six Case Study projects. Of the four that were completed, three are in La Jolla and one in the Naples area of Long Beach.
The latter design, Case Study House No. 25, also known as the Eddie Frank house, built in 1962, "was the most successful of all the Case Study houses," Julius Shulman, the iconic architectural photographer who documented the Case Study project, said Tuesday. "He got a lot of houses from that one."
Yet Killingsworth "never promoted himself," Shulman noted. "He very seldom had his work published as much as it could have been. He was not a pusher. He knew his work was good, that it was successful with his clients and their public. To him, that was a good demonstration of what we call success."
Elizabeth Smith, who curated the 1989 Case Study show, "Blueprints for Modern Living," at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, said Killingsworth created "simple and rigorous" houses in a style characterized by "an extreme gracefulness and elegance."
"That gracefulness and elegance was a constant throughout his career and characterized his demeanor as a person," Smith added. "He was a real gentleman, a wonderful, generous individual."
Killingsworth's work on the Case Study Houses eventually brought him to the attention of Hilton Hotels, which hired him to design what became Honolulu's Kahala Hilton (now the Kahala Mandarin Oriental). Set on a private lagoon, the main building is a 10-story structure in the shape of two rectangles that Peggy Cochrane, writing in the book "Contemporary Architects," called a work of art distinguished by its overall "elegant informality."
Soon after its 1964 opening, the Kahala Hilton became a favorite hangout of royalty and the Hollywood elite and boasted occupancy rates well over 90%.
Its success led Killingsworth and his firm to design several other resort hotels in Hawaii, including the Halekulani Hotel, the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and the Kapalua Bay Hotel, as well as the Jakarta Hilton in Indonesia and Hiltons in Seoul and Bali.
In Bali, he employed Balinese sculptors and other local craftsmen to "create a great piece of Balinese architecture that will incidentally be a hotel," he once said, explaining the respect for indigenous architecture that was at the center of his philosophy of hotel design.
That effort to reflect local culture was a hallmark of his achievements as a hotel designer, said Sam Hurst, emeritus dean of the USC School of Architecture and Fine Art, who worked with Killingsworth to design the school.
"His work was more sensitive to individual cultural conditions, client conditions and environmental conditions," Hurst said. "His Kahala Hilton exemplified that. Anyone who went there had a strong sense of being in Hawaii but being in a very distinctive, modern building."
Killingsworth, who was born in Taft, Calif., originally aspired to be a painter or sculptor. "I would rather paint than eat," he once told an interviewer of the passion that drove him as a young man.
He painted as an undergraduate at USC but wound up studying architecture, earning his bachelor's degree in 1940. During World War II, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was awarded the Bronze Star.
After the war, he returned to California and joined the Long Beach architectural firm of Kenneth S. Wing. In 1953 he started his own partnership, Killingsworth, Brady & Smith. Soon he "was doing very sensational, low-cost houses built on small properties," Shulman recalled. "He just took off."
One of those early works was the award-winning Opdahl House in Long Beach, built in 1958.
Killingsworth's Case Study work gave him an opportunity to explore what he called "the importance of space."
His six designs for that project had tall entrance doors--as high as 17 feet--that led into a two-story atrium surrounded by plate glass. They were airy and light-filled structures that invited the outdoors in--an outdoors that was as carefully plotted and landscaped as was the house itself.
He planted 100 trees and shrubs, including huge olive, sycamore and eucalyptus trees, on the acre of land surrounding his own house in Long Beach. Its innovative approach to space includes the use of sliding panels to form two separate sleeping areas in the bedroom he designed for his two sons. The bathrooms were also unusual, featuring glass walls that provided unobstructed views of the outdoors.
Though relatively small considering the amount of land -- the house is just 3,200 square feet -- it feels spacious with its 12-foot-high ceilings and doors.
"It is so good to be in a space where the spirit can soar, and, with all of this, it must soar with the sense of balance and proportion set up by the spaces we create," Killingsworth said in an essay for Contemporary Architects. "What better goals in life can there be? To create a condition where you can really see the spirit soar?"
Killingsworth also designed several civic buildings in Long Beach, including its City Hall, main library, the Long Beach Convention Center and the Performing Arts Center. He was the master planning architect for Cal State Long Beach Long Beach, where he planted 4,000 flowering peach trees.
At USC, in addition to the College of Architecture, known as Watt Hall, his firm designed the campus Religious Center.
Killingsworth also was responsible for the design of the Cal State Long Beach Student Union, where his memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday.
He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Laura; sons Greg and Kim; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.