1950-1960: Suburban Metropolis

The decade of the 1950s established Southern California's reputation for creativity in architecture. The city's residential architecture gained international fame, largely due to the Case Study program sponsored by Arts+Architecture magazine. Through Sunset magazine, however, California design spread even more widely and popularly.

The region's growth was also gaining attention nationally; its burgeoning population led to enormous mass-produced housing tracts, new shopping centers, recreational facilities, and an eye-catching car culture of drive-ins, car washes, and car dealerships that spotlighted a new youth culture.

All these new buildings with new designs gained attention (both positive and negative) for a new kind of city, the suburban metropolis.

Home Savings and Loan, Beverly Hills
Home Savings and Loan, Beverly Hills (Millard Sheets, 1956). Photo by Anne Laskey, courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

The changes spread across the entire culture and all classes, as varied expressions of Modernism blossomed. Among the new architectural types was the McDonald brothers' golden-arched fast food stand (Stanley Meston, 1953, Downey), which became one of the most famous designs of the decade nationally. Home Savings and Loan introduced the first in a series of notable buildings (Millard Sheets, 1956, Beverly Hills) with the solidity of a vault and adorned with mosaic murals, sculpture, and stained glass, bringing fine art to the commercial strip.

Highrise offices also showed diversity. The circular Capitol Records Tower (Welton Becket Associates, 1956, Hollywood) became an instant landmark, while Glendale Fidelity tower (W. A. Sarmiento, 1959, Glendale) was an Organic blend of articulated service towers of brick with metal sunshades; the lozenge-shaped Union Oil building (Pereira and Luckman, 1958, Downtown) and the Getty-Tidewater Offices (Claud Beelman, 1956, Koreatown) added to the variety.

Wayfarers Chapel

Wayfarers Chapel (Lloyd Wright,1951). Photo © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

Church architecture likewise expressed the same wide range of Modern ideas, from Wayfarers Chapel (Lloyd Wright, 1951, Palos Verdes), famous for its striking use of glass and natural materials on the edge of the ocean, to 28th Church of Christ, Scientist (Maynard Lyndon, 1955, Westwood), a restful composition of solid abstract Late Moderne shapes.

Custom houses expressed a breathtaking range of ideas, from Silvertop (John Lautner, 1963, Silver Lake) to Case Study House #21 (Pierre Koenig, 1959, Hollywood Hills); though very different in concept, each became internationally famous by pushing the design potential of prestressed concrete and steel frames, respectively.

Experiments in housing construction as well as planning and organization flourished. A team of talented architects joined in a unique communal organization, the Mutual Housing Association, to build Crestwood Hills (1950, Brentwood), a planned community by like-minded professionals in the hills of Brentwood, with shared amenities and a high standard of architectural design in the individual homes clinging to the hillside. In his own house, Dawnridge (Tony Duquette, 1949, Beverly Hills) designer Tony Duquette, from the quintessential L.A. industries of movies and fashion, showed that history and ornament had a place in the Modern world.

Southern California's most influential housing experiments were the mass-produced tracts that spread over former agricultural land.

The nation gasped in amazement at the factory-like production of Lakewood, an instant planned city of Ranch Houses, schools, libraries and shopping centers. "Ranch House" typically referred to a one-story single-family house with a gable roof and an unpretentious and welcoming appearance; a garage was usually attached.

Ranch House architecture came in many varieties and sizes, from the simple Minimal Traditional Ranch Houses of entry-level tracts such as Lakewood, to the more elaborate Traditional Ranch Houses (often custom designed) that featured shake roofs, board and batten siding, and diamond-pane windows, to the contemporary Ranch House.

Ranch House tracts also came in different varieties, including the prefabricated versions designed by Cliff May and architect Chris Choate, seen at Rancho Estates (1954) in Long Beach. While the majority of tract housing was built by developers without architects, several notable architecture firms (Palmer and Krisel, Smith and Williams, Jones and Emmons, and Edward H. Fickett) brought their respected Modernist ideas to the design and construction of tens of thousands of tract homes.

Higher-density multiple housing was manifested in many ways, including the Dingbat apartment house; the Dingbat gained its name from the ornamental flourishes, signs, or light fixtures in the shape of the star burst (the "dingbat" symbol of typesetting) on its street facade. The Southern California tradition of courtyard apartments was modernized by architects like Richard Dorman at the Rose Apartments (Richard Dorman, 1959, Mar Vista) and Edward H. Fickett in the Sunset Lanai (1952, West Hollywood), providing apartments around a communal swimming pool/sunbathing/socializing terrace.

Every aspect of life was touched by Modernism.

The expanding economy created jobs in auto and aerospace industries, creating a demand for modern high rise offices in the traditional center city, but also for low rise suburban office and manufacturing campuses; the Stuart Pharmaceutical Factory (Edward Durell Stone, 1958, Pasadena; altered) set a standard by combining office and manufacturing space with recreational facilities for employees designed by landscape architect Thomas Church -- the model of the modern workplace.

The new television industry produced CBS Television City (Pereira and Luckman, 1952, Miracle Mile), an International Style box with flexibly functional studio spaces. The shape of the city itself changed as architects responded to car mobility that created new patterns of shopping, eating, and entertainment. The Miracle Mile had been an urban planning response to the auto in the 1930s, and continued to be successful as a fashionable urban district with new high rise buildings, department stores, and banks through the 1950s and 1960s.

Tying the entire city together was the new freeway system,

whose sleek, curving four-level interchange between the Harbor and Hollywood freeways (1949, Downtown) became an instant attraction for tourists and locals. Along such boulevards and freeways,

Pann's Restaurant
Pann's (Armet and Davis, 1958). Photo courtesy you-are-here.com

Southern Californians went about their lives. They drove to bowling alleys like Covina Bowl (Powers, Daly, DeRosa 1956, West Covina) that were de facto social centers, and to amusement parks like Marineland of the Pacific (Pereira and Luckman, 1958, Palos Verdes; demolished 2006).

Along the way they would stop at popular Googie style coffee shops; examples such as Romeo's Times Square, later known as Johnie’s (Armet and Davis, 1956, Miracle Mile) and Pann's (Armet and Davis, 1958, Westchester) combined the bold scale required for visibility from the car, and the human scale to create an inviting, garden-like dining space.

Such buildings summed up an approach to lifestyle, architecture, and city planning that was reinvented for California.