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    Monday, July 13, 2020
    Architectural History: The Apartment House

    Around the corner from my house is a large north-south boulevard that begins a couple of blocks south of me and runs north into the San Fernando Valley; it's often used by commuters as an alternative to the dreaded 405 freeway. The south end of this road is lined by apartment buildings and terminates at the local public golf course. As the road runs north into the hills, the apartment buildings disappear and are replaced by individual homes. I walk in the mornings for exercise and my route often takes me up this street. Therefore I have had plenty of opportunity to ponder the differences among the buildings as I wander. 

    As with all of Los Angeles, the buildings here are constantly being renovated or torn down and rebuilt. An architectural historian would probably have a field day identifying the styles and dates of the various apartment complexes lining this street. The appearance of the buildings gives most of the clues you need. First, the size:  are they two stories, or three or four? Do they extend for half a block, or are they only one or two units wide? The design of parking spaces alone would be enough, in most cases, to tell you when the place was built. The newest buildings have underground parking accessed by an automatic gate; the older ones have parking slots on the ground floor of the buildings, which may have garage doors or be open to the street. Most tenants of this type of building park their cars on the driveway apron extending onto the sidewalk, because everybody knows that if you park in the garage your car will be blocked by another car and you'll never be able to move it.

    The detailing of older buildings often gives information about the decade in which they were built; buildings from the Fifties and Sixties will have fancy detailing known as "dingbats" - in fact, the nickname has transferred to the buildings themselves. More information, and a nice photo, are here. (Love those garage doors.) In older buildings, more time and effort was spent on windows; you may see French windows, bay windows or windows curved to fit the corner of a building rather than those  Bauhaus-inspired flat atrocities. Scattered around town, a few complexes dating from the 1940s still survive which can be identified by their auto-court design (garages in the back) and curved corners echoing Art Deco streamlining.

    Light fixtures and paint color are also good indications of when a building was constructed. Seventies buildings are noted for their dark wood detailing, overall blocky and squarish design, and globed light fixtures. Sometimes you'll see some wrought iron detailing as well. Everything built after 2000 has that awful Tuscan-inspired pinkish ocher stucco and white trim. Eighties buildings tend to be a little more froufrou - the architectural equivalent of big hair and shoulder pads. There is one building I pass on my walks which is painted blue with fancy metal detailing on the balconies; for whatever reason, it reminds me of a French chateau.

    The buildings I truly love are the garden apartments, which are slowly dying off. They are being torn down and huge, efficient hivelike buildings are appearing in their stead. One such building directly behind me was torn down over the past few weeks; nothing is left of it but dirt and the concrete stairs at either side leading up to the back of the property.  In a garden apartment the living space lines the edges of the lot, with a narrow path leading into a central garden space shared by the tenants. Granted, it isn't the most efficient use of real estate but there is a peace and graciousness to these spaces that will be sorely missed when all of them are gone. Our local architecture conservation group is fighting to save some of them, but it is an uphill battle as developers have no compunction about rewarding our City Council with cash, cash, cash for getting their plans approved. 

    I will try to post soon about one of my other favorite neighborhood landmarks that I visit on my walks.

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