In praise of stucco

MARK KENDALL is a freelance writer based in Ontario.

THE 1980S WERE an age of Romanesque glory on the fast-growing edges of Los Angeles, as the onward march of minimalist Mediterranean tract homes restored a sense of order and purpose to suburbia.

It was the time of the red-tile sky, when the rows of Spanish-roofed homes seemed to stretch on forever, or at least to Phoenix. All those heavy tiles kept a tight lid on SoCal, symbolically closing out the swinging, incendiary, wood-shake ‘60s and ‘70s.

From Palmdale to Temecula, builders kept spraying on the stucco like a high-school guy desperately dousing his pits with Right Guard after gym class. If the state’s helicopter fleet hadn’t been tied up raining malathion on Medflies, I’m sure Gov. George Deukmejian would have ordered massive aerial stucco drops to hasten the pace of housing construction.

Even if they didn’t quite match the earlier styles of Spanish architecture in the region, these unsexy, low-maintenance homes served Southern California well. Their uniformity brought a paradoxical freedom: Suburbanites didn’t have to depend on their house to provide a sense of personhood, prowess and worth. That’s what the 280ZX in the driveway was for.

Then came the early ‘90s recession, Bill Clinton and the Northridge quake. Suburbanites once again were ready to loosen up. A wider variety of housing styles filled the subdivisions, most notable among them the faux bungalow, with river rock-style posts and folksy front porches.

Though it was the tougher economy that led builders to offer more architectural choices to entice buyers, Orange County-based developer Bill Lo points to other factors in the red-tile decline. Among them: the Steve Martin “Father of the Bride” flicks, which prominently featured a very traditional, wood shutters and white picket fence house. “A lot of people said, ‘I want a home exactly like that,’ ” Lo said.

The anti-red-tile revolt raged in newspaper accounts from the time. In 1992, the Seattle Times described how a group of planners from the Pacific Northwest touring Orange County “were taken aback … by the monotony of row after row of beige stucco and red-tile ‘product’ obediently conforming to rigid rules of design.”

Over the next decade, phrases such as “sea of red-tile roofs” and “sea of stucco” became journalistic shorthand for tragic suburban blandness. I turned out a doozy or two during my time as a scribe for the Riverside Press-Enterprise, once referring to “soccer moms and office-park dads who fill the tile-roof tract homes in places like Corona and Temecula….”

Now I wonder what we’ve wrought. How much longer can these stucco stalwarts soldier on with no love, no appreciation? There’s always the possibility that SoCal’s red-tile belts will descend into Mad Max-style dystopia (remember mid-'90s Palmdale?). Rogue redevelopment agencies may someday attempt to scrape away these embarrassing 1980s abodes like so much “Miami Vice” stubble.

But I find hope in the recent return to hipness of another long-out-of-style SoCal housing form: the ‘50s and ‘60s ranch house. Just as inevitably as the red-tile-and-stucco house fell out of fashion, so must it come back. Once enough of us are squeezed into towers full of funky little shoebox lofts — clustered around transit hubs, of course — those humble tile-roof tract homes will seem as grand and enviable as Tuscan villas.

The ‘80s tract home will be celebrated with coffee-table books, home tours and preservation campaigns — Save the Stucco Sea! L.A.'s literati will eat up my poignant, yet-to-be-written suburban memoir, “Faded Stucco.” Hipsters will scour aging neighborhoods of Rancho Cucamonga and Moreno Valley in search of terra cotta-topped treasure.

Buck up, suburbia, and grab your stucco guns. Hold your ground. A huge red-tile retro craze is only, like, five decades away.