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Casa Adobe’s importance

Los Angeles, a city of self-inflicted amnesia, is about to suffer another memory loss. Casa Adobe (also called the Johnson house) was denied city landmark status in July, despite the energetic advocacy of conservancies in Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

Preservationists see Casa Adobe, located in Brentwood Park, as an early example of the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style. One of the three Los Angeles Cultural Heritage commissioners present at the hearing saw the house as a potential teardown. (It takes three affirmative votes by the five commissioners to establish historic status. The designation does not prevent demolition; it only makes it more difficult.)

Casa Adobe failed a political test of remembrance, and it may face a bulldozer soon. But this house deserves to linger, if only in our imagination, for what it says about who we are and from what we came. Casa Adobe is a memory made of mud, of adobe clay dug from the grounds of the house and formed into bricks by itinerant Mexican laborers in 1919 and 1920.

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Harry and Olivia Johnson built their house of adobe because it connected them to something they longed for in Los Angeles: a sense of place. Decades later in an oral history, Olivia Johnson said: “We were going to have a house; it was going to be built of adobe; it was going to be in the old Spanish style; it was going to have flat, rich land around it so that I could have a big garden; it was going to have a beautiful view of the mountains and the sea.”

Harry Johnson sketched the plans for this dream house himself. He sought construction advice from John Byers, a family member with no formal training but some knowledge of adobe construction. He commissioned decorations from Knud Merrild and Kai Gotzsche, two Danish house painters and student artists. The Mexican workers, forever unnamed, needed no special instruction. They mortared the flat rectangles of adobe as they always had. They returned when the walls were dry a year later to trowel stucco over the broad courses of brick they had laid. The finished house was characteristically hybrid: a hacienda with single-story wings embracing an inner courtyard and a Monterey-style upper room and balcony. In the upper room, the walls are frescoed in a whimsical pattern of scrolls, figures, animals and a Spanish galleon under full sail.

The Johnsons never pretended their home was “authentic.” The Spanish Colonial Revival style was always a reimagining.

Although not as well known as George Washington Smith or Wallace Neff, Byers went on to a distinguished career as an architect in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. He was noted for his mastery of the Spanish Colonial Revival style and his love of adobe as a building material. The house he helped the Johnsons build has endured with significant alterations and some losses, none of them essential. The current owners paid $6.3 million for the house and its nearly 20,000-square-foot lot. They know what they have: a big lot and a 90-year-old house made for a different time.

Building a house in Los Angeles, or demolishing one, raises the same question the Johnsons sought to answer: How do we make our home here? The Johnsons replied, as did many of their contemporaries, with an uncomplicated house of light and shadow, plain stucco walls and rooms that opened outward into gardens and patios that are like rooms themselves. Could anything be more indigenous, more native, than a house constructed of the local soil and built for owners yearning to materialize their dreams in Los Angeles? The hope of many Angelenos, then and now, was to possess a place where light and air and landscape merged, a place in which all of nature and all of home might be bounded by a garden wall.

Between 1916 (the date of Smith’s iconic self-designed home) and the mid-1930s, the architects who worked in the Spanish Colonial Revival style created houses of astonishing sympathy and presence. They designed for a knowing clientele of successful businessmen and their wives who wanted modern conveniences, accommodation for their automobiles, access to outdoor amenities and rooms that flattered their taste (but with an appealing modesty).

Critics later dismissed their homes as nostalgic, but they were as much of the future as they seemed to be of the past. They are romantic, but they offered a way for Angelenos to live as if they belonged here as much as the oak trees and the sun-browned hills. Their owners sought a confluence of place and dwelling that would, they thought, redeem 20th century life from its addictions to speed and anxiety. Human-scaled, in touch with the landscape and narratively coherent, this house still remembers, even if we do not, why that utopian aspiration was important.

Between its rise and devolution into mediocrity, the Spanish Colonial Revival gave Los Angeles a distinct architectural tradition, a habit of indoor and outdoor living, and a playfulness that signaled something new about domestic life. Like Casa Adobe, these houses promised delight. They were made for a Los Angeles imagination.

In the whiteness of its stucco walls, in the peach and vermillion of its roof tiles and in the simple geometry of its elements, Casa Adobe embodies a purpose larger than shelter. “A house is one of the greatest powers for the integration of the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind,” philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote. Every house, he said, is the template for a life. And some houses are time machines.

This house has another purpose, specifically our own. Casa Adobe is mestizo at its heart: an integration of distant Spain, present Mexico, something of Los Angeles sham and something indigenous to the workers who built it. The obvious touch of their calloused hands in the stucco around doorways and windows is a mark they made in time.

I imagine that Casa Adobe reaches through time to touch us, not because I want you to believe that everything old is worth saving but because what we manage to save from the bonfire of discarded memories may make us more whole. If this house is pushed back into the mud from which the Johnsons brought it, we will lack another part of what we were and what Los Angeles hoped to be.

D.J. Waldie, in collaboration with Diane Keaton, contributed to “California Romantica,” a survey of Spanish Colonial Revival homes in Southern California.


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