Suburbia” wasn’t always a bad word. While today it evokes assembly lines of vinyl-sided homes, fast-proliferating big-box strip malls, and land stripped of all vegetation, after World War II, suburbia was the latest incarnation of the American dream. Returning GIs were faced with a drastic housing shortage, and across the country, land was purchased and plans were hatched to develop affordable and convenient communities—sprawl was born.
Los Angeles, with its proximity to the Pacific theater, had more than its share of discharged soldiers and, eventually, more than its share of suburban enclaves. In the following decades, many of these nascent suburbs were masticated, swallowed, and digested by Southern California’s ever-expanding municipalities—what was once the edge of town is now closer to downtown. L.A.’s boundaries continue to expand, and the city’s innards undergo perpetual mutation and regeneration. Meanwhile, nestled in the hills above Santa Monica, one of the country’s most unique, and unforgivably modernist, postwar communities quietly holds its ground.
The community in question is Crestwood Hills, known in its infancy as the Mutual Housing Association. The neighborhood’s survival is due in large part to the efforts of architect Cory Buckner, who relocated to the area with her architect husband, Nick Roberts, after a 1993 brush fire engulfed their Malibu home. In the last decade, Buckner’s custodial crusade has spurred the restoration of about half of the 30 extant original houses, 15 of which have subsequently been declared Historic-Cultural Monuments by the City of Los Angeles. Fittingly, her present home and office, 990 Hanley Avenue—one of the first structures erected by the Mutual Housing Association in 1947—perches at Crestwood Hill’s epicenter like an architectural Centcom.
It is here that I meet Buckner on a perfect early summer afternoon. A warm breeze sways lofty eucalyptus trees and diffuses the sound of children playing at the adjacent nursery school. Rolled-up architectural plans are tossed into the backseat of her BMW and we embark on a tour of the neighborhood.
We drive through the neighborhood the way I came in, eventually taking a left turn into uncharted territory. Buckner pulls over and reaches into the backseat for a book. She produces A. Quincy Jones, an architectural monograph she assembled in direct correlation to her work restoring Crestwood Hills. She flips to a black-and-white Julius Shulman photograph of barren hills and small, slightly angular, newly completed houses. Almost instantly the photo transmogrifies into the view through the windshield. The plants and trees have grown, and infill encroaches on the photo’s fledgling homes (some still visible through the camouflage of modernity). Off the top of her head, Buckner expertly weaves the story of the neighborhood, and a tangible history takes shape.
In 1946, four musicians return from the war and pool their resources into the Cooperative Housing Group, with the intention of buying land and building four houses with a shared pool and playground at the center. Soon the group balloons to around 500 members, each submitting a $25 entrance fee and making quarterly deposits of $500, in the hopes of collectively establishing a cooperative community. By 1947, a board of directors and credit union are in place, and the Mutual Housing Association is formed. Eight hundred acres of undeveloped land are purchased in the Santa Monica Mountains and divided into 350 lots. A year later, after interviewing the likes of Richard Neutra, among others, a design team is settled on: two architects, Whitney R. Smith and A. Quincy Jones, and an engineer, Edgardo Contini.
With construction under way on the architect’s site office and a communal nursery school (it was called the baby boom for a reason), the team submits 15 home designs to the board, all of which are rejected for being too modern. The architects go back to their drawing boards and come up with 27 new proposals (“essentially variants on nine designs,” Buckner explains as she selectively points out houses along our route), which are eventually approved. The houses, which are still very much contemporary in style (so much so that the Federal Housing Administration won’t approve mortgages in the area until a delegation goes to Washington, D.C., to plead their case), are designed to utilize abundant and inexpensive new materials such as concrete block, plywood, and large panes of float glass. Their large, gently gabled roofs, accented by composite-plywood I beams, float atop low-slung, window-pierced walls.
Garrett Eckbo, the project’s original landscape designer, is highly influential in situating the somewhat small houses at angles that maximize views (by stepping down the ungraded hillsides from the street), privacy, and the diminutive lots. A park with a swimming pool and nursery school is situated on the flat grassy land at the community’s center, and plans are hatched for a gas station, medical center, and grocery—none of which ever materialize as the cooperative spirit slowly dies down. Eventually, 150 houses are completed, and in 1956, the site office—which the architects worked out of for nearly a decade—is converted into a home.
As we drive up a winding street called Tigertail, smoggy views stretching to downtown unfold. Buckner indicates which houses she has restored or remodeled (currently four more are on the boards), which have fallen prey to maddening alterations, and which are simply no longer there. Only 30 of the original 150 houses remain. “The 1961 Bel Air fire took out 45 MHA houses, mostly up here on Tigertail,” she explains. Many others were later torn down to accommodate changing tastes and, undoubtedly, larger closets. “We tried to get people interested in creating a historic preservation overlay zone, but we couldn’t get enough support—I think you need half of the neighborhood,” Buckner says of her campaign to keep the community intact. “So then I just decided to pursue getting individual houses declared historic monuments.” In 1996 she appeared before the “very conservative” City of Los Angeles’s Cultural Heritage Commission to seek preservation status for five houses; one commission member, while touring Crestwood Hills, told Buckner she would be lucky to get one passed. After three or four hearings—where, she says, she “brought out the big guns,” including Julius Shulman and Elaine K. Sewell Jones, A. Quincy’s widow—four of the five houses were approved. It was a major victory for Buckner, who has gone on to have 11 more houses approved, and was awarded a Los Angeles Conservancy Preservation Award for her efforts.
It is entirely fitting that Buckner’s own residence (and office) is the aforementioned Mutual Housing Association site office. What was once the neighborhood’s nerve center is, in a way, fulfilling that role once more. Buckner pulls her station wagon up the driveway shared with the bustling nursery school, and parks under the house’s cantilevered wing—its most distinctive and graceful design attribute. Roberts, an architecture professor at Woodbury University, comments, “The building section is a metaphor for America’s boundless self-confidence after World War II: The building literally takes flight across the canyon.” In comparison to the other houses in Crestwood Hills, the structure looks like the nephew of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Freeman or Millard houses. Exposed concrete blocks are set erratically, creating an alluring texture to the home’s base (and reminiscent again of Wright’s earlier work in L.A.—due in no small part to two former Wright apprentices who had been involved in the venture early on, John Lautner and Jim Charlton). Also captivating are the outward sloping glass walls, with asymmetrically corresponding structural supports on the interior. Buckner restored three of the wood supports, which had been removed to accommodate a previous tenant’s extra-large dining room table.
Sitting at Buckner’s modestly proportioned dining table, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass, one feels this is the quintessential architecture of Southern California. For the residents, this way of melding the indoors with nature has its drawbacks, too. “It’s virtually impossible to heat this house,” she admits. “If this were done today, it would be double glazed with heavy insulation.” But for Buckner, whose travails in Crestwood Hills and whose book, A. Quincy Jones, have preserved a distinct portion of California modernism, it’s a small price to pay for what she describes as “living inside the mind of a great man.”