How I Made It: When Bret Parsons isn’t selling homes, he’s preserving L.A.'s architectural legacy

Bret Parsons, author and director of the architectural division at Coldwell Banker Beverly Hills North, stands in front of a Gerard Colcord-designed home.
(Marco Franchina)

Bret Parsons is a real estate agent and director of the architectural division at Coldwell Banker Beverly Hills North. The office is the highest-grossing residential real estate office in the country.

A decade earlier, as a residential loan agent, Parsons wrote millions of dollars’ worth of residential mortgages.

In addition to selling homes, the 54-year-old is taking on a new challenge: documenting the architectural legacy of Los Angeles in a series of books. Two have already been published, with 11 more volumes on the way.

Hooked at an early age

Born in Monterey County to a father who owned a John Deere tractor dealership and a mother who was a county planning commissioner, Parsons had a love of homes at an early age.

In kindergarten, when his classmates were coloring stick figures, he was drawing homes in three dimensions, much to the amazement of his teacher, he said. An appreciation for architecture was also a family affair.

“I had very indulgent parents and grandparents who took me on every single house tour when I was younger,” Parsons said. “I just couldn’t get enough.”

One of those trips was to a publicized Eichler-designed residence that was owned by family friends. Parsons was mesmerized by the home’s handsome features such as its redwood doors and walls of glass.

Extra credit

A self-confessed “terrible student,” Parsons began staying after class to help his English teacher design her new house when he was a high school sophomore. He had hoped the after-school work would result in a better grade, but he barely managed a C.

“I didn’t learn any English from her, but I helped her design a great house,” he said.

Get a job, son

After graduating from San Jose State University, Parsons moved to Los Angeles in 1986 to do postgraduate work on architecture and accounting at UCLA.

Amazed at the wealth of architecture in the city, he spent his time exploring neighborhoods and looking at every home he could — until his dad called one day yelling at him to find gainful employement.

“It was quite funny because my dad never swore,” he said. “But desperate times called for desperate measures.”

Parsons got a job as the marketing director for the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. There he worked with top designers, architects, contractors, landscapers and vendors.

“I didn’t know what next step to take at the time,” he said. “But looking backward now, everything connected together.”

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I had very indulgent parents and grandparents who took me on every single house tour when I was younger. I just couldn’t get enough.

— Bret Parsons

A new chapter

The first book Parsons wrote was a happy accident. “I had lunch with architect Ward Jewell and he asked me who my favorite architect was, and I told him Gerard Colcord,” said Parsons, who was working as a mortgage broker at the time.

As fate would have it, Jewell had just renovated two Colcords and offered to put him in touch with the owners, who then referred him to Colcord’s longtime assistant, German architect Lisa Kent.

The two met at Kent’s San Diego home, where she allowed Parsons to look around in her garage.

There he uncovered a treasure trove: every drawing and blueprint of Colcord’s filed away in steel drawers with “German precision,” he said. “I was like a kid in a candy store.”

After lunch with Kent, Parsons made the two-hour drive back to Los Angeles. He never intended to write a book on Colcord, but by the time he arrived home, he had it outlined in his head. “Then I drove into my garage and sat there thinking, ‘How do I write a book?’”

Two years later, “Colcord: Home” was published. What followed was a revelation: It was time to get out of the mortgage industry and become a real estate agent.

“I did 300 interviews for my book, and after it was published, people began calling me to sell their homes thinking I was a Realtor,” he said. “So I thought I might as well make it official.”

The next chapter

After publishing the Colcord book, Parsons wanted to continue preserving the architectural legacy of Southern California. He teamed up with Marc Appleton and Steve Vaught, who will be his coauthors on the remaining books.

“We realized the bulldozer is probably going to win, but we wanted to memorialize all the great architecture that was here,” Parsons said. “At the rate properties are being bulldozed, real estate agents will someday become dirt salesmen.”

Between the three of them, they had every edition of Architectural Digest from the late 1910s through World War II.

“We took all the old issues and knew there was a series highlighting the greatest residential architects in Southern California,” he said.

Parsons is the author of "Colcord: Home" and coauthor of "Gordon B. Kaufmann."
Parsons is the author of "Colcord: Home" and coauthor of "Gordon B. Kaufmann." (Mark Vieria)

A star on every corner

Managing a listing and a client, particularly in L.A., isn’t so different from packaging a movie, Parsons says. It’s a job that often involves wearing many hats.

“I have to be a Realtor, a lawyer, a cinematographer, a photographer, a referee,” he said. “When the fight develops, I’m a negotiator and more importantly a psychologist.”

The next big thing

Parsons, who lives in Hancock Park, considers Los Angeles to be the greatest home-building region in the world because of its weather, economic climate and topography.

Despite reaching new sales heights in the last year, the area is still undervalued compared with other major cities around the world, he said.

“Los Angeles is the only place where you can have a beach house, a mountain house, a hill house, a canyon house, a valley house, a desert house and a ski house all within two hours’ driving distance of one another,” he said. “Custom, architect-designed homes that are also fully equipped by leading design practitioners — that’s what’s next.”

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