L.A.'s great unknown

Special to The Times

THOUGH he designed about 60,000 houses by one estimate -- 10,000 in the San Fernando Valley alone -- Modernist architect Edward H. Fickett never achieved the public prestige of such midcentury contemporaries as Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood, Gregory Ain, Clifford May, A. Quincy Jones and even his former colleague Pierre Koenig. Which is not to say he was unappreciated.

When Fickett died in 1999 at the age of 76, President Clinton sent an American flag and a letter of condolence to Fickett's widow. The American Institute of Architects called him "an American hero" in noting his passing. By that time, Fickett had designed homes for, among others, Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne, Groucho Marx, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny and Dick Clark.

That his reputation is not larger remains a matter for speculation among architectural historians and local preservationists. Two leading reasons appear to be that Fickett shunned publicity and that he designed tract homes for developers, or "merchant builders," as they were once known. One of the developers he worked with was Joseph Eichler, whose wider reputation includes the common misconception that he was an architect, which he was not.

"As we look back, it's who was considered important by the press," says John English, an architectural historian and board member at the Los Angeles Conservancy, explaining why, after building custom and tract homes in Los Angeles and environs for five decades beginning in the 1940s, Fickett's name has resonance largely within architecture circles.

"Somewhere in between Eichler and the worst saltbox developers, there were a lot of tract houses in Southern California being designed by good Modern architects who did not get much recognition in their time. This is something we're only now learning. It's a myth that tract housing was just tract housing. Fickett was terribly important to the built history of Southern California, but people don't know about him."

THE son of a building contractor, Fickett was a fourth generation Angeleno who graduated from USC in 1937 and then earned three graduate degrees from MIT in city planning, architecture and engineering. After serving in World War II with the Navy Seabees, he returned to Los Angeles with the desire to "create a home for every serviceman," says his widow, Joyce Fickett. "After the war he felt they wanted open spaces to live in," which contributed to his interpretation of the California ranch style, marked by open floor plans, raised ceilings, partial walls and lots of glass -- "bringing the outside in," as the late architect liked to say.

His houses, admirers say, had flow.

It was a style connected to the larger Modernist movement that had traveled from Europe with assistance from Frank Lloyd Wright and his followers. But Fickett eschewed the high-art aesthetics of the steel-and-glass house, preferring designs that were more accessible to the average home buyer and that fit seamlessly into their natural environments.

We take such houses for granted today, but after the war what Fickett and his contemporaries were doing to open up the cloistered and warren-like traditional American home was considered experimental and risky. He was asking prospective buyers to invest in a new way of living, and skeptics doubted that the style would catch on. History shows that he not only predicted the future but helped to shape it.

"He's remembered for not one house but for defining housing as we know it," says Chris Hetzel, editor of Preserve LA.com.

Though it might be hard to prove, Joyce Fickett insists that her husband was the first to open up the kitchen to the rest of the house. The idea came to him, she says, in response to his own experience of growing up with three brothers in a home where his mother was always trying to cook while keeping watch on four boys.

"People give Schindler credit for that," she says, but "Eddie did that in 1942, in a house he designed for his parents."

Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, says early examples of open-plan kitchen/living/dining spaces include a 1934 house by Wright, but Fickett's influence is hard to deny.

Joyce Fickett says her husband's homes number 60,000 -- a figure that couldn't be confirmed but that the archivist for the American Institute of Architects said was quite plausible, given Fickett's prodigious work with developers.

Although he designed large homes in the 1950s and '60s for wealthy clients such as Georgia Frontiere, the former Los Angeles Rams owner, Fickett was also interested in building for the middle-class family. He designed single-story tract homes that included many of the features of more expensive custom homes.

He favored rustic materials such as redwood, slump stone, exposed brick and vertical wood siding, and he used them to create houses with modern lines, low-pitched roofs, asymmetrical walls and post-and-beam ceilings. It was, in a sense, Modernism for the masses, leaving critics to decide if that was a good or a bad thing.

"People forget that Modernism was supposed to appeal to the masses," says Los Angeles architect Chris Rudin, whose firm, Rudin-Donner Design, was hired a few years ago to restore a 1959 Fickett house in Nichols Canyon that had been marred by a problematic two-story addition.

Rudin, 42, says Fickett wasn't even studied when he was in architecture school, but he learned as much as he could while working on the Nichols Canyon house, one of 30 Fickett designed for a subdivision there near Mulholland Drive.

"It's hard to say exactly what separates his houses from Modernism in general," Rudin says, "but it might be how accessible they are, how livable."

RUDIN'S clients, Rich Strulson and Mike Vollman, weren't specifically looking for a Fickett when they were home shopping in 1999. "Our Realtor didn't even know it was a Fickett," Strulson says. "Our architect said, 'I think this is an Edward Fickett,' and we said, 'Who?' "

What attracted the couple was the smart floor plan and an abundance of openness and light. "There was so much glass it felt like you were outside," Strulson says. The only problem was a clunky 1985 second-floor addition. With Rudin's help, they raised the roof, replaced windows and created a master bedroom, bathroom and sitting area that mirrors the look and feel of Fickett's original design.

The house's L-shape footprint creates a natural cove of privacy for the backyard pool, and Fickett's floor plan allows party guests to circulate easily -- a good combination, Strulson says, "especially in summer."

Working within the constraints of the Federal Housing Administration guidelines, Fickett would design 25 or 30 floor plans for a tract, in contrast to the three or four that developers commonly offer today.

He was nothing if not prolific, and Fickett's houses can be found all over Los Angeles, with concentrations in the Hollywood Hills, Encino, Reseda and Malibu's Broad Beach. He designed 38 homes for developer Paul Trousdale's Trousdale Estates in the upper reaches of Beverly Hills. A house he designed in 1966 on Dundee Drive in Los Feliz has been designated a city monument.

Claude Letessier, a French immigrant and producer of television commercials, recently bought one of the Nichols Canyon homes. "To me, this is the image of the American Dream, to live in a house with this much history," says Letessier, who moved from a Paris loft into a 2,500-square-foot Fickett built in 1959.

"Modernism is the Eiffel Tower of Southern California, is it not? I think Fickett had the efficiency of Henry Ford, but with an elegance the way it blends into the environment of the neighborhood. It's respectful of nature. There is a harmony in this house. It's like music -- it has rhythm, melody, harmony and style, in a minimalist way."

Indeed, along with other ranch modernists, Fickett believed that a house was not isolated from its surroundings -- especially with large plate glass windows and sliding glass doors revealing so much that lay immediately outside. For this reason he tried to persuade developers to add landscaping as part of construction, favoring the subtropical plants native to Southern California's Mediterranean climate.

Fickett didn't confine himself to single-family homes. Throughout his long career he designed naval, Army and Air Force bases, passenger and cargo terminals for the Port of Los Angeles, the Tower Records store on Sunset Boulevard, the Los Angeles Police Academy, hundreds of apartment buildings, the original Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and the Mammoth Mountain Inn. Working with the hillsides of Southern California, he also pioneered the cantilevering of tennis courts.

At the height of his practice, he had 46 people working for him in his Beverly Hills office.

It is hard to believe that a man of such output and accomplishment could have slipped into relative obscurity in Southern California so quickly. Joyce Fickett offers a succinct explanation: "He shied away from all interviews," she says, "because he was extremely modest."

Sean Mitchell can be reached at home@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction Fickett owner: An article Thursday in Home about architect Edward H. Fickett identified Claude Letessier as the owner of a 1959 Fickett home. Letessier is a tenant; the owners are Andrew Hewitt and Tony Wright. For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday July 06, 2006 Home Edition Home Part F Page 8 Features Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction Fickett owner -- In a story about architect Edward H. Fickett in last week's Home section, Claude Letessier said he was the owner of a 1959 Fickett home. Letessier is a tenant; the owners are Andrew Hewitt and Tony Wright.
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