Much more than steel and wood
PLENTY OF PEOPLE will tell you that Dutton’s Brentwood Books is more than a simple bookshop. It’s a landmark, they’ll say, a literary oasis, a secular church. But it also represents the perfect union of a building and a business.
Milton H. Caughey, my father, was the architect who designed that building on San Vicente Boulevard, the one that may be demolished in the near future to make way for a retail-office-condo development. He had a master’s degree in architecture from Yale, moved to Los Angeles in 1940 and started his practice after returning from the war. He won a number of awards for the homes and schools he designed, but his budding career was cut short. In 1958, when he was 46, my father died of a heart attack, and the name Milton H. Caughey is little known today.
My family lived in Brentwood -- in a house designed by my father -- and as a child, I would walk to the simple, two-story courtyard building that Dutton’s now occupies. Built in 1950, it’s a classic example of midcentury California contemporary architecture. It’s solar shades foreshadowed today’s green design. The simple facade floats above the sidewalk, held up by small steel columns, typical of the modern movement. The openness created below invites you in off the street to enjoy the intimate heart of the building, the courtyard.
Here, offices with walls of windows surround a space of sunlight, fresh air and nature -- a rarity in today’s office buildings. The courtyard is a meeting space of interior and exterior, public and private, the perfect gathering spot. My mother, Janet Caughey, now 94, still visits Dutton’s weekly.
But authentic landmarks are not built; they grow over time. The first bookstore, Brentwood Book Shop, moved into the building in 1960, and Dutton’s bought that business in 1984. Over 22 years, Dutton’s expanded into nearly all the other ground-floor spaces, filling them with overflowing bookshelves.
The courtyard became an extension of the store, where authors signed their books and children listened to stories while their parents sipped coffee from the cafe in the corner.
Like a good marriage, building and bookstore have brought out the best in each other. The wonderful experience of browsing Dutton’s shelves is bodily linked to the character of the physical space. The emotional descriptions of the store as “funky” or “sacred” reflect our deep longing for spaces where the world can feel intimate again. History, memory and love have been absorbed into the very steel and wood of the walls. That’s what brings a building to life.
Unfortunately, most of our new mega-buildings, built for maximum space and profit, are dead. Their souls have crept out through the door, seeped out through the cracks. Is this the fate of this property on San Vicente Boulevard? As a city, are we destined to lose yet another genuine landmark? I hope not. I’m working with the Los Angeles Conservancy and historic preservationists in the city’s Planning Department to nominate the building as a historic cultural monument.
If that fails, Charles T. Munger, who owns the building and a large swath of land around it, has said that any new development would include a ground-floor space for Dutton’s or another independent bookstore. But without that building, in my mind, Dutton’s would always be a widow.