1940-1950: The Modern Commercial City in War and Peace

By 1940, the grip of the Great Depression was loosening. Rumors of the European and Asian wars engulfing the United States grew, fueling a build-up of aircraft plants and military bases. 

The coming war would propel Los Angeles into the future, but the City of Angels already had a head start in that direction.

Los Angeles was both looking like and acting like the city of tomorrow. Few, however, could imagine the profound changes to come. Conventional expectations for the future would be overturned as the world shifted into overdrive for the war.

Industry, plodding through the Depression, would be jolted into inventing ways to build hundreds of ships, and thousands of planes, tanks, and jeeps quickly. The stalled housing industry had a similar wake up call to create mass produced housing, first for defense workers, then for returning veterans.

Few would have guessed how wartime industries like plastics and aluminum would move from the laboratories to real life so rapidly -- or their possibilities for architecture.

As Esther McCoy, the noted historian and critic who worked as a draughtsman at Douglas Aircraft during the war, said, the new design attitude "was all stripped down and essential." Young architects in the war or the defense industries would grasp the possibilities and have the creativity to apply them to Modernism after the war.

General Petroleum Building
General Petroleum Building (Wurdeman and Becket, 1949). Photo by Art Streib, from Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

The war also returned prosperity to America, generating an expanding population immediately after the war. The demand from the new population spurred new architectural types. L.A.'s downtown grew highrises like the General Petroleum building (Wurdeman and Becket, 1949) boasting flexible partitions to respond to changing needs.

Other innovations followed in the wake of a growing regional infrastructure of boulevards and then freeways. Wilshire's Miracle Mile, begun in the 1930s, helped extend development westward, encouraging developers to build in Crenshaw and Westchester. This growth was marked by new department stores like Millirons (Victor Gruen Associates, 1949, Westchester) and shopping centers like Crenshaw Shopping Center (Albert Gardner, 1949, Crenshaw District).

The region's first freeway, the Arroyo Seco, helped to speed new residents and new customers to Bullocks Pasadena (Wurdeman and Becket, 1947). Factories were built or expanded in the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay; farms could be turned into housing tracts for arriving employees. New forms of entertainment opened up new architectural opportunities: the television studio, represented by Don Lee Mutual Studios (Claud Beelman, 1948, Hollywood), created another new architectural type.

Alongside official planning guiding these growing areas, informal commercial vernacular planning processes guided the planning and design of commercial strips connecting the new suburban areas. Car dealerships, coffee shops, markets, and service stations designed for the car-mobile public blossomed everywhere.

Everywhere, a new architecture built for daily life brought the advantages and the look of modernity to the general public.

To house the growing population, Southern California architects stretched themselves in many directions. Large-scale planned developments such as Wyvernwood in Boyle Heights (David Witmer, Loyall Watson, and Hammond Sadler, 1938-41) and Village Green at Baldwin Hills Village (Reginald Johnson, Wilson, Merrill & Alexander, Fred Barlow Jr., 1941-42) incorporated the latest ideas about multiple housing, integrating landscaping, recreation and community in a model with lasting impact.

Baldwin Hills Village

Baldwin Hills Village, 1944. Photo by Margaret Lowe, from Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Highrise towers at Park La Brea (Leonard Schultze & Assoc., Earl Heitschmidt, 1944, Miracle Mile) blended with lowrise garden apartments to create high density neighborhoods near major thoroughfares. Smaller experimental designs like Gregory Ain's Avenal Cooperative Housing project (1948, Silverlake) reflected his long concern for social issues by defining high density living with creative design.

The greatest impact came from the development and expression of mass production for single-family homes, seen before the war at Toluca Woods (Marlow-Burns, builders, 1941, Toluca Lake), and expanded after the war in the large master planned communities of Panorama City (Kaiser Community Homes, 1948) and Lakewood (Weingart, Taper and Boyar, builders, 1950.)

Turning the pre-war custom-designed Ranch Houses of Cliff May and others into a mass-produced product, these methods brought home ownership, backyard greenery, open plans, and neighborhood schools and shops within the reach of the average person's pocket book -- a startling accomplishment on such a widespread basis.

Carling House
Carling House (John Lautner, 1944). Photo by Frank Cooper

The region's talented commercial and residential architects who had been established before the war included Richard Neutra, Harwell Hamilton Harris, John Lautner, Wurdeman and Becket, George Vernon Russell, Stiles O. Clements, Douglas Honnold, Wayne McAllister, John Woolf and others.

They were joined by many talented young architects, many of whom returned to Southern California after wartime visits because of its climate and open opportunity to explore the possibilities of Modern design.

With all the opportunities to build after the war, these architects quickly evolved a wide range of concepts and styles. The Streamline Moderne popular in the 1930s evolved into the Late Moderne seen in Bullocks Pasadena (Wurdeman and Becket, 1947), the first major L.A. department store to follow its customers into the new suburbs as the shape of the city changed.

Bullocks Pasadena updated the continuous lines and curving planes of the Streamline Moderne of the 1930s, updating them with the clean forms of the International Style, and adding decorative accents of egg crate grills and bezeled display windows. Meanwhile, Milliron's department store (Victor Gruen Associates, 1948, Westchester) was integrated into the new Sepulveda Blvd. shopping district serving the mass produced Ranch Houses being built nearby; parking was provided on the roof. It was one step on Gruen's evolution of the suburban shopping mall.

Bob's Big Boy, Burbank
Bob's Big Boy, Burbank (Wayne McAllister, 1949). Photo from Conservancy archives

Wayne McAllister's Bob's Big Boy (1949) in Burbank reflected the same Late Moderne aesthetic, also designed for the automobile. In addition, the enormous scale of Bob's neon-lined sign board, and its curving window wall looking out on the boulevard showed the evolution of sophisticated architecture designed for the auto.

Diversity continued to be a theme of Southern California design as architects explored the best way to express the new era. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright's Organic architecture continued to be seen in the commercial and residential work of John Lautner, Lloyd Wright and others. Other young architects such as A. Quincy Jones and Douglas Honnold followed Wright in using warm natural materials like wood and brick expressed in clean horizontal lines in a distinctive California Modern style. This approach used complex compositions of jutting balconies, distinctive rooflines, and glass walls to blend the home with nature.

At the same time, an older generation, known for their masterful pre-war use of historicist styles, followed the trend toward Modernism. Paul R. Williams, Wallace Neff, and Allen Siple are among those who made successful transitions to Modernism. Still other residential architects, like John Woolf, evolved the Hollywood Regency with abstracted historicist elements, though in designs that incorporated the open plans and clean shapes of Modernism.

The Late Moderne and Organic Modern styles contrasted with another style, most often identified with the Case Study House program of Los Angeles-based Arts+Architecture magazine, that emerged after World War II. Exposing their spare structural frames of wood post and beam or steel, the lightness and openness of these designs emphasized with large walls of glass opening the house to nature gained popularity and became a hallmark style of the new era.