Gregory Ain’s Mar Vista Housing Tract
An Alternative to the Conventional Housing Tract
JOHN McKINLEY MIMMS
Master of Planning Candidate, 2011
University of Southern California
Price School of Public Policy
Gregory Ain tried to create a response to the typical post-war housing tract in his Mar Vista Housing development. Ain followed convention in trying to keep costs as low as possible to make his homes affordable to more people; however his emphasis on community, and his vision of the development as a single unit composed of many individual parts, eschews the traditional perspective and intention of post-war housing designers and developers who created homogeneous neighborhoods composed of identical units.
Source: (McCoy 1984)
Too many modern architects, in their zeal to promulgate new and frequently valid ideas, withdraw from the common architectural problems of common people. But it ought to be clear that the more common, that is, the more prevalent, a problem is, just so much more important does the solution of that problem become. (Ain 1945)
A DIFFERENT KIND OF HOME
Gregory Ain’s Mar Vista Housing tract represents an effective alternative to the typical post-war housing tract. At Mar Vista Housing Ain followed convention in attempting to lower the cost of housing through the standardization of materials and streamlined construction techniques. This allowed Ain to design unique spaces that could be individually reconfigured by the resident as their needs required. More than simply trying to lower costs, Ain differed from many of his contemporaries by attempting to design a community where urban form is used to help improve the lives of the community’s residents. High home values today, in addition to residents dedicated to civic activism and preserving their community, bear witness to the success of Ain’s development in achieving his goals.
Located in the western portion of the Palms – Mar Vista – Del Rey community plan area, this housing tract consists of 52 parcels located on the eastern side of Beethoven Street (11 parcels), both sides of Moore Street (21 parcels) and both sides of Meier Street (20 parcels). The tract received a Los Angeles Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) designation in March 14, 2003 after overwhelming support was expressed for the distinction by residents.1 The homes, which were completed in 1948, are built in the Mid-Century Modern style and are situated within a comprehensive landscape plan by landscape architect Garrett Eckbo. The homes share a similar floor plan; however, Ain created eight distinct orientations to add diversity and vitality to the layout of the tract. All the homes include a garage; although, some garages are detached while others remain connected to the house itself, adding to the variety of possible orientations. (Adamson n.d.) The result was the creation of 52 small, Modern, homes situated in a lush, landscaped atmosphere. All the homes share an internal consistency, while each home retains its own individuality and flexibility.
Gregory Ain belongs to what famed architect and critic Esther McCoy calls “The Second Generation” of Modernist architects. These individuals, especially prominent in California, were familiar with and in Ain’s case, worked with some of the ‘First Generation’ of Modernist architects like R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra. Ain studied architecture at USC receiving training in the Ecole de Beaux Arts style which emphasized using precedents and classical organization. Ain, considerably more enamored with Modernism, with its focus on problem solving and meeting practical needs of clients, was drawn to Neutra whom he worked under for a number of years. Ain was formally introduced to Modernism through his work with Neutra and Schindler, however his philosophy on egalitarianism and community was inspired by his upbringing. His father, Baer Ain, was a Menshevik socialist who had spent time in prison in Siberia for his beliefs. Arriving in America in 1906 Baer remained political throughout his life and always directed Gregory towards productive pursuits and advocating for those most in need of help. This perspective promoting the common man and downplaying frivolous, non-productive pursuits would inform Ain’s work throughout his career. (McCoy 1984) Specifically, in the Mar Vista Housing development this early emphasis on community, efficiency, and practicality can be seen in his product; the master-planned residential community.
HOW WERE COMMUNITIES BUILT THEN?
Conventional housing of the period was similarly mass produced; however, it was under the auspices of developer builders who looked to construct as much housing as possible, as quickly as possible, for as little as possible. With pent up demand for housing from more than fifteen years of depression and wartime rationing, and millions of soldiers returning from active duty after World War II, America was desperate to construct more housing to ease the burden on central city housing from the influx of population. The United States authorized billions of dollars to insure home mortgages and thereby allow the construction of new housing in the decade following the war, both through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA). The combined effect of this government funding was a boom in residential construction of subdivisions of detached single- family dwellings. Some of these subdivisions were built by ‘enlightened developers,’ those who sought to create a livable community atmosphere for their residents. However, the majority of these developments created hermetically sealed neighborhoods that promoted private space for the family while ignoring most of the communal aspects of a neighborhood. These developments tried to promote one type of neighborhood, that of uniformity and homogeneity. In these developments, all the houses looked alike and every family looked alike as well. Races were segregated, in reality; these new suburban housing tracts were only accessible to white working and middle class families. Classes were segregated, as each house in the development was almost identical in price and therefore the class of person who could afford each house was identical. This segregation was officially promoted by FHA and VA policies which often denied mortgage insurance for developments without racial covenants or that attempted to mix different types and sizes of housing together. (Jackson 1985) As social critic Lewis Mumford describes in his seminal The City in History:
- In the mass movement into suburban areas a new kind of community was produced,… a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group,… conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold, manufactured in the central metropolis. (Mumford 1961)
Gregory Ain is responding to this environment in his development. Mar Vista Housing is an alternative to the monotony created by the typical suburban housing tract.
Gregory Ain tried to create a response to the typical post-war housing tract in his Mar Vista Housing development. Ain followed convention in trying to keep costs as low as possible to make his homes affordable to more people; however his emphasis on community, and his vision of the development as a single unit composed of many individual parts, eschews the traditional perspective and intention of post-war housing designers and developers who created homogeneous neighborhoods composed of identical units. Mar Vista Housing is successful in almost all aspects. The final cost of each house, approximately $11,000-$12,950, was reasonable given the amenities and the quality of the homes. He was able to create a community atmosphere in the development where the residents work together to preserve and improve the neighborhood. Finally, the community is very attractive today, evidenced by high home values and the consistent preservation of Ain’s original homes. These two elements show that residents of the area like and appreciate their homes and the intent of Ain’s development.
To contextualize the innovation of Mar Vista Housing it helps to look at the epitome of the conventional suburban housing tract, Levittown.2 Levittown and Mar Vista Housing were borne of similar experiences building temporary housing for the Defense Department during the war. These methods emphasized the use of mass production, both in construction and materials, and streamlining construction to reduce costs. (McCoy 1984) (Jackson 1985) In Levittown this streamlining was taken to its Fordist extreme, all aspects of home building were segregated and crews, specializing in one task, went to each site sequentially, performed their specialized task, and moved on to the next site. The cumulative effect of these crews was to construct a house, but in such a pre-determined, automated way that each house had to be virtually, if not effectively identical. This uniformity of construction necessarily created uniform structures thereby reducing the diversity of housing types in the development. Similarly, both Levittown and Mar Vista Housing intended to create a community where people felt comfortable and enjoyed living. Levittown however, took a different approach to the type of community they felt people wanted. Levittown was on the outskirts of town differentiated from the city. In these developments, homogeneity was valued more than diversity; the goal was not a lively mixing of people but a community composed of white people of the same means living away from the corrupting influences of the diverse city. (Jackson 1985)
AIN’S VISION OF COMMUNITY
By contrast, Ain looked to create diverse communities that were open to people of all races and classes. His socialist upbringing fostered an egalitarian approach to planning. What he saw as the solution to the housing problem in America was not exclusion but attention to the needs of the common man. (Denzer 2008) Addressing these issues required seeing all his potential clients in the same light, regardless of race. However, Ain found that being colorblind had its disadvantages as the FHA cited a policy “Regulation X” which prevented the mixing of races. In his first housing development (he had built individual houses and multifamily housing previously, however never an entire housing tract) Community Homes he was hired to design a cooperative housing scheme in Reseda. The project however had predetermined clients, some of whom were minorities. When the FHA learned that the coop included “blacks, Orientals, Latins. They said it was bad business practice.” (Ain quoted in (McCoy 1984)) The project had to be disbanded as the coop was unable to secure funding to realize their plan. (McCoy 1984) Ain, in attempting to create a development accessible to a diversity of individuals received an early lesson in the difficulty of creating experimental housing with FHA funding. The FHA promoted conventional developments created for white middle class citizens that mandated segregation, while confounding and requiring conditions on development aimed at a diverse, integrated population. Ain’s communitarian zeal would be a hindrance to his successful development of housing. Nonetheless, Ain remained committed to developing diverse communities that provided quality dwellings for all people by envisioning the needs of the common man.
QUALITY HOMES FOR EVERYDAY PEOPLE
Mar Vista Housing was a difficult project to realize despite federal programs promoting the creation of new housing. The FHA largely only supported conventional developments (see Levittown) and were wary to offer mortgage insurance to anything that tried something different. Mar Vista Housing was definitely something different. It looked to create 102 Modern homes in a park-like community. The homes were meant to be similar enough to give the tract as a whole a sense of consistency and coherence. One who lived there would be able to identify with the tract. Further, Ain’s designs attempted to be flexible to the individual, sliding partitions and shifting orientations added diversity and choice for the residents of the tract. The tract used one basic floor plan which could be mirrored and then oriented either north, south, east or west; in addition, Ain designed four different garage orientations giving thirty two different ways of orienting the house. Ultimately, Ain only pursued eight of these orientations as some layouts (e.g. where the garage was at the opposite end of the house as the kitchen) went against his goal of efficiency and were not good designs for the tract. (Denzer 2008) All of these design considerations strayed from the ‘cookie-cutter’ conventional housing developments which often had one plan, sometimes alternated parallel-perpendicular-parallel to the street and no other options. (Jackson 1985) Ain’s development and design philosophy was definitely unconventional.
Source: (Siegel 2008)
The FHA was apprehensive to give funding to the project, it suggested that Ain intersperse some more traditional Cape Cod, Colonial, Spanish, etc. styles in the tract. (Denzer 2008) (McCoy 1984) Ain rebuffed these suggestions insisting that his Modernist designs were intentional; their aesthetics convey a sense of efficiency, contrasting with the waste and opulence he felt he traditional styles exuded. (Denzer 2008) The FHA finally agreed to fund the development on the condition that it proceed in two phases; ultimately, only the first phase of 52 homes was realized. The fears of the FHA appeared valid after the first phase initially sold slowly. Despite the FHA’s assumptions, the lack of interest was not due to the design, there were people who even in the late 1940s saw the value in this neighborhood and wanted to live there. Rachel Rosenbach and her husband were enamored with the house and design as soon as she saw it. “I saw it in the planning stages, and I knew that it was the house for me,” says Rosenbach, one of the original homeowners, buying one of the 1,050 square foot homes for $11,800 in 1948. (Newman 2003) The problem was that the Mar Vista area in the late 1940s was not the seat of professional wealth and prosperity it is today, instead it was seen as a lower-working class neighborhood; not exactly desirable. Then the homes were worth much less, homes in the area averaged approximately $5000 (1948).3 As critic Esther McCoy asked, “Who wanted a $11,000 house in a $5,000 neighborhood?” (Denzer 2008) Nonetheless, this price was not egregious, relatively speaking, the homes were still affordable to working and middle class people.4
Source: (Myra L. Frank & Associates, Inc. 2002)
Ain tried to apply the lessons learned developing housing for the Defense Department during the war and his previous unsuccessful attempts at developing housing tracts (Community Homes, unrealized, and Park Planned Homes, half realized in Altadena) towards productive ends in the Mar Vista Housing development. He had previously experimented with prefabricated materials and found that he may run into extra expense using these preformed materials unless he could find a contractor amenable to his goals and vision. He was able to find one for Mar Vista Housing which allowed him to utilize shortcuts such as “precutting to reduce labor time, design of jigs for pre-drilling holes in the studs for… [ducting] to pass through,… [studs cut to the same size and preassembled plumbing units for each house].” (McCoy 1984) In addition to streamlining construction, he designed his houses small, approximately 1,050 square feet; nonetheless, his innovative designs made the homes feel larger. He designed sliding partitions that could open up spaces to create large rooms or close to envelop smaller spaces into individual rooms. Resident Todd Jerry who bought his house in 2002 for a seemingly steep $542,000 was originally concerned with the lack of space he was getting for his money. “It was kind of harrowing because the houses are not that large, and I started to question spending a lot of money for something the size of an apartment. … In retrospect, I think it was a phenomenal bargain. … [the house has] an extremely efficient layout so that it feel like 2,000 square feet. [the bi-fold living room partitions are] a feature that makes the house feel larger than it is.” (Newman 2003) Ain’s creative organization of space allowed people of moderate means have the type of home previously only available to the wealthy who could afford a famous Modernist architect to custom design a home (a la Ain’s teachers Schindler and Neutra). A 2003 newspaper article describes Ain as “an idealist who balanced a commitment to the high-brow aesthetics of Modernism with a practical commitment to the well-being of ordinary people.” (Newman 2003) Anthony Denzer, an architect and author of a comprehensive study of Ain’s work seconds that sentiment. “Ain worked his whole career to establish architecture as a social practice, not as a service reserved for the elite of society… [the Mar Vista Neighborhood was] intended to serve the community of working people and to show that modern design could serve everyday people.” (Newman 2003)
This site plan shows how Ain used a variety of orientations to create variety and diversity of form within the community.
Source: (Siegel 2008)
DESIGNING A NEIGHBORHOOD
Implicit in this working-class perspective was a socialist view that community and social interaction were the most valuable parts of a neighborhood. Concerned less with the individual building and home, Ain was motivated by a desire to create a community. Ain accomplishes this communitarian intent through a variety of mechanisms. First, the design and layout of the homes themselves attempt to promote an egalitarian community. Second, restrictions on the future use of the land, specifically an original covenant restricting fences, were instrumental in preserving the community, park-like atmosphere. Finally, Garrett Eckbo’s comprehensive landscape plan helped define the community internally (by creating a physical barrier to the arterial street to the north), as well as differentiate each home as an individual unit of the community through individualized planting schemes. The combined effect of these design decisions was to create an urban form that helped direct social interaction and values. Relying heavily on a theory of ecological determinism (popular in Modernist theory), Ain and Eckbo attempted to design, and thereby create the egalitarian, yet diverse community they were unable to realize previously.
Source: (Author’s photo)
The first design consideration that creates an egalitarian community is the layout and orientation of the houses. Each house follows a similar rectangular floor plan with one kitchen, a bathroom and three other rooms that can be combined to make larger rooms or separated to create smaller bedrooms. There is one additional large room, which is the master bedroom. Ain instilled a sense of diversity in the tract by varying the orientation of the floor plan, sometimes parallel to the street, sometimes perpendicular. Further, he located the garages in different areas relative to the house (e.g. detached, attached diagonally in front on either side) so that the resulting house+garage combinations could be alternated or mirrored to create interesting facades with uneven setbacks. Ain felt that uniform setbacks were one element that bred monotony in conventional housing tracts and made asymmetrical setbacks a priority in his design. (Denzer 2008) These contrasting orientations allowed him to organize the houses in a provocative way that sometimes placed entrances mere feet from some neighbors, while leaving yards between others. The adjacent entrances create points of social interaction where neighbors can chat or simply say hello after a day at work or watching the children. The orientation, in addition to promoting social interaction also has egalitarian undertones. None of the homes in the tract are considerably larger than any other. People could feel part of a community of equals; despite different orientations all the houses are the same size and were originally the same price, giving solace to the residents that they were living among peers. No house can claim it has more room than another, nor can any house claim its orientation was remarkably unique relative to others.5 Nonetheless, this equality of space and design does not produce a sense of monotony felt in typical housing tracts; instead, it helps bring a group of residents together identifying their home as a constituent of a community.
The orientation, which promotes social interaction, was originally bolstered by land use restrictions which created design guidelines to preserve the community feel of the development. Among the restrictions was an element of the original covenant which forbade fences between the properties. (Newman 2003) The result was a continuous lawn down the street broken only by driveways (the lawns were entirely unbroken on Beethoven or the west side of Moore street, as there were no driveways because the garages for these homes are accessed via an alley behind the properties). In addition, bushes were originally used to differentiate the property backyards, creating a more natural, organic separation. (Ouroussoff 1998) These open landscaping elements encouraged cooperation and social interaction. People felt closer to one another, because there were not physical, constructed barriers (i.e. fences) between the residents and their neighbors. Nonetheless, private spaces were created in the backyard, abet with more ‘natural’ separation which created a healthy balance between shared public space in the front (unbroken lawns, lack of fences) and more private space behind the house (with large windows providing ample views of the backyard from the house with hedges to define the perimeter). The orientation design created some small, shared, private spaces between two residences with entrances oriented next to each other, which similarly encouraged social interaction. The effect of all these little design decisions was a reinforcement of the community ethos underpinning Ain and Eckbo’s design philosophies.
Finally, Eckbo’s comprehensive landscaping plan added another facet to the development which encouraged community and resident’s appreciation of their neighborhood. Eckbo’s plan called for creating a physical barrier, by way of landscaping, between the tract and the arterial thoroughfare to the north (originally Ocean Park Avenue, today Palms Boulevard). This planting was established along the entire length of the original project (102 homes) and creates an effective barrier between the motorists moving east-west from the residential neighborhood just south of the thoroughfare. This helped define the tract inwardly creating a boundary confining this Modern development from the surrounding environment. Similarly, the comprehensive landscape plan for each street (and façade of each house) allowed the residents to define their community inwardly. Specific trees were planted in the easement along each street, thereby giving each street an individual character, while relating it back to the other homes on the street, and contrasting the street to the other blocks of the development.6 In addition, each house had slightly different planting schemes; variation based on an established theme. This choice helped each resident to identify his home as unique, while at the same time relating as a system to the community as a whole. These choices, along with color palates developed to market the unsold homes,7 added diversity and variety to the development while keeping a constant theme. Ultimately, these choices helped residents see their home as a unique element of a coherent community. All the homes had individuality, but they also shared many elements giving the development an identifiable community character. These choices, promoting both individuality and community, are elements lacking in the conventional housing tract. The choices represent how Ain sought to provide an alternative to the conventional tract, while still making it typical enough to market.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
Today, Mar Vista Housing is largely a success. Despite land use restrictions from the HPOZ, home values are extremely high today. Home values are often used as a proxy for desirability of a neighborhood and the high values seen today in this small tract for working and middle class people shows how esteem for the community has increased over time. Often, restrictions on the use of land are thought to be a hindrance and a source for diminishing land value; that is not the case at the Mar Vista Housing tract. Perhaps, a premium is paid for the HPOZ design guidelines that ensure the character of the neighborhood is not capriciously changed by incompatible redevelopment. Home values range from $620,000 to over $1.5 million, higher than the surrounding community (which was largely rebuilt since Mar Vista Housing was constructed) despite smaller home sizes. (Zillow.com 2008) There is also a high level of community activism in the tract. First evidenced by the HPOZ adoption in 2003, which was initiated through neighborhood solicitation of the L.A. Conservancy (a preservation organization), residents remain vigilant to protect and promote their homes. (Los Angeles City Planning Department 2002) Two extensive websites about the development exist, one chronicling an addition/renovation of a home, the other giving history and information on the tract itself. (Adamson n.d.) (Brin 2005)
More recently, the community has organized itself and conducted research to expand the HPOZ to include the entire length of Eckbo’s planting median, adding the portion that exists next to the unrealized (later developed independently) Phase 2 of the development. Residents have done in-depth research, going back to Eckbo’s original landscaping plans from his collection at UC Berkeley to document the extent of Eckbo’s landscaping. Augmenting the research done by the city’s Office of Historic Resources (OHR), the community has shown that the planting was designed by Eckbo and is largely intact today. The community attempted to have the entire length included in the original HPOZ but logistical reasons prevented its inclusion; however, the community was advised it could later petition for an HPOZ expansion. When a telecommunications tower threatened the integrity of the landscaped median, the community brought the HPOZ expansion back to the attention of the OHR who have initiated the proceedings required to expand the HPOZ.
Mar Vista Housing, Then and Now
Source: (Gebhard, Breton and Weiss 1980), Author’s photo
Ain’s project was successful originally, providing affordable, individual homes in a design that would encourage social interaction and community. Over the years his project has retained that success through the preservation of the tract as constructed. More recently, that preservation has extended to official designation as a historic district and the expansion of that district when sensitive resources were threatened. In addition to the community activism, the other success of the project was the opportunity it provided to those who bought and held onto the property. While originally affordable, the homes today are on the high end of values for the county, especially for their size. Home prices, as a proxy for desirability, show that contrary to FHA worries, the cohesiveness of Ain’s tract, designed in the Modern style, would preserve home values and was a smart investment for any young family looking for an alternative to the traditional housing tract.
1 43 of the 52 properties had representative signatures on a petition supporting the HPOZ. In addition, 29 residents attended the public hearing for the HPOZ with eight speaking in favor of designation; no comments received were in opposition to designation. (Los Angeles City Planning Department 2002)
2 While there are many Levittowns across the country (PA, NY, NJ, etc.) they were all developed by the same developer using the same design theories and conventions.
3 Using the GDP per capita from (Williamson 2009) $5,000 in 1948 is worth approximately $122,150 in 2008
4 Using the GDP per capita from (Williamson 2009) $11,000 in 1948 is worth approximately $268,750 in 2008. While still high relative to the nation as a whole it is well below the $505,000 estimated LA county median home value, and even further below the $775,000 estimated Mar Vista median home value (Given Place Media 2008)
5 One house, 3500 Meier did have a markedly unique orientation with the garage placed below the home. This lot is on an incline and the location of the garage is likely a practical solution to a natural problem (topography) rather than an intentional design element privileging one house over another. (Adamson n.d.)
6 Ficus can be found on Beethoven Street, magnolias on Meier Street, and melaleuca on Moore Street; (Denzer 2008) (Adamson n.d.) (Ouroussoff 1998)
7 Originally twenty-three of the homes remained unsold and the developer designed marketing strategies to help sell the remaining homes. He further developed the landscaping the backyard, which was originally sparse, and implemented a color scheme using the Plochere color system which added to the variety of the development.
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