by Anne Sawyier
There should be a specific word designated solely for feeling out-of-place in California—one word that describes that unique jostling of a transplant’s spirit when she finally arrives in the land of skateboarders and surfers, surrounded by two-story flat-roofed buildings and those iconic palm trees. While many people tout LA’s hikes and parks as some of their favorite aspects to this strange city, I’m more one to appreciate The Great Indoors. When I do pry myself from air-conditioned interiors, I need the claustrophobia of towering buildings to hold and shape me. Tall buildings themselves are friends and hold a wisdom in their grandeur; walking down a block of skyscrapers makes me feel like a little kid dwarfed, in a comforting way, by adults at a cocktail party. So, I feel a sort of chronic discomfort here in the City That Is A Suburb. Even Downtown LA’s buildings are fewer and shorter than I expected, as if they’re afraid to interrupt the endless, cloudless blue sky. I’m sure it’s problematic to worship the monuments to ruthless capitalism that sunk our country into the worst of lockdowns, but the built environment feels cozier to me than mountain ranges or parks. There are traces of the people who live and work there, so I feel less alone.
I have felt more alone this year than ever, even before the virus-that-shall-not-be-named exploded in March of 2020, because my dad died of cancer in 2019. The onset of Corona and “social distancing” almost made me feel less lonely; my entire world had already shifted with my dad’s death, and it was selfishly comforting that everyone else was now grieving a lost reality too. I’ve been fortunate enough to keep my physical health, and I have found myself reverting to childhood rituals in order to cling to my mental health. As a kid, I spent many weekends going on walks with my dad and brother throughout areas of Chicago, where I grew up. (Go Bears!) Far from having any specific destination, these walks were daydreamy wanderings throughout the city. Many have written about the meditative aspect of walking, and my “quarantine strolls,” as I affectionately call them, helped me access deeply comforting memories of being a little girl on my dad’s shoulders in the midst of an unrecognizable world.
My quarantine strolls these past few months led me to Fountain Avenue, an east-west thoroughfare in LA. “Take Fountain” is a phrase attributed to Bette Davis who, in an interview with Johnny Carson, offered it as advice for young actresses trying to get into Hollywood. Fountain Avenue historically had less traffic than the throngs of Santa Monica Boulevard; Bette’s cheeky response gave aspiring starlets driving directions, instead of spiritual ones. Like Bette herself, the phrase is legendary, inspiring a tattoo on the arm of our beloved Hilary Duff, and the name of the fantastic America Ferrera’s production company.
I have perhaps the most unlikely relationship with Fountain Avenue in LA: when I take Fountain, I walk.
Fountain is part of the approximately eight blocks in West Hollywood where I live and, occasionally, flourish. My fabulous little neck of the woods started out with the distinctly unglamorous name, “Sherman,” after its founder, the late nineteenth-century railroad tycoon Moses Hazeltine Sherman; how could you NOT found a city with that name? I get a sense of the man when I learn that, after beginning as a teacher in Arizona, he eventually received the title of “General” when he was appointed “Adjutant General of the Territory of Arizona”—and he used the title “general” for the rest of his life.
There are different terms describing West Hollywood as it is today: “walkable,” “iconic,” “trendy.” What I love most is how it’s eclectic. There are Russian delis to the east, iconic gay bars and restaurants to the west, and clothing shops to the south. The neighborhood becomes a sort of broken mirror, reflecting back to me different parts of myself: there’s the nascent chef, the bar hopper, the fashionista, and the parts I’m still discovering.
One of these selves constantly hears the siren call of academia. I love architectural history, and West Hollywood lets me indulge in that too. Nestled away in the north of West Hollywood lies the Harper Avenue Historic District, which I discovered in the past few months. It’s a residential block that features a series of houses built in the 1920s in “courtyard style”—a cluster of apartments built around a central courtyard. This design became especially popular in West Hollywood in the 1920s, since it allowed for multi-family living on smaller plots of land, accommodating LA’s booming population while still offering tenants space and greenery.
In their book, Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles, Stefanos Polyzoides, Roger Sherwood, and James Tice discuss how courtyard housing, with its irregular dimensions and incorporation of nature, became a sort of antithesis to the “modern” tide of mass urban housing. Ironically, though these authors write about how this model of housing allowed for multi-unit living in less cramped spaces, the buildings feel more like a crowded city to me than many places in LA. Even though Midwestern Art Deco architecture is decidedly different from the wilds of the West Coast’s, and I still miss skyscrapers, the Harper Avenue buildings and their vintage charm feel like a bit of home in the midst of dingbat houses, earnest requests to “go for a hike,” and other peculiarly LA occurrences.
The first building I pass on my walks almost did become my home: Patio del Moro, which you can see hand-painted in charming lettering above the Moorish arched entryway, at 8225 Fountain Avenue. Built by the architect couple Nina and Arthur Zwebell in 1925, it’s painted a washed-out lilac color that reminds me of a friend who said that everything in LA needed a douse of lotion. I looked at an apartment in this complex to rent which had a very sensible indoor “Romeo and Juliet” balcony. Then a chronically single twenty-seven-year-old, how could I not fantasize about being Olivia Hussey from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, calling down from the balcony to my beau? The place has a charming kind of magic only LA offers; you can’t help but see the mimicking of a Moroccan/Andalusian building in the context of Southern California as another re-creation of a movie set. Angelinos live in a constant loop; our reality is defined by the movie business, and we manipulate our reality to resemble the movies. In the KCET production, “Lost LA,” talking-head historians—with their calming voices that sound like NPR announcers—discussed how artifice and history are deeply intertwined in the city. LA imitated the architecture of Chicago and New York City (albeit with more stringent height restrictions) and movie sets literally became parts of the city. For example, the extravagant Hollywood and Highland shopping center’s entrance was based on the set for D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance—and was recently dismantled because of D.W. Griffith’s infamous racist legacy.
The Zwebells—an architect duo who worked on both movie sets and domestic architecture—were a Midwestern couple (my Chicagoan heart titters with glee) who moved to Los Angeles in 1921. They are credited with creating the luxury courtyard apartment in LA—despite (or maybe because of) not having any formal architectural training. Nina, a Northwestern graduate, designed the interiors, and Arthur was the contractor. Even though the courtyard is a model of serenity, the narrow driveways of the garage (directly abutting Fountain) prove less calming. The Zwebells were trailblazers, being among the first to separate an apartment’s parking structure from the units, which protects the building’s architecture from clunky parking spaces. I have residual anxiety about my passenger-side mirrors thinking about backing out of one of these narrow spaces.
Walking west on Fountain from Patio del Moro, you see the West Hollywood Historic Site sign announcing the Harper Avenue Historic District. The sign is an oh-so-fashionable beige and, with that California ease that I can never quite adopt, sits lopsided on its lamppost. Turning right on Harper, the jacarandas shade the street that runs on a slight incline, hiding Sunset Boulevard to the north. Sometimes, I encounter other pandemic-weary strollers in an assortment of masks walking their dogs. The other day, one such person yelled into his phone, “Siri, play Lady Gaga!” I’m sure my smile was bright enough to shine through my face covering. Even with this company, the street’s slight incline and shady trees give Harper Avenue the feeling of an isolated space. In the times before Corona, this separation, I’m sure, helped residents breathe a sigh of relief when they returned home. When travel was limited, and the travel we were allowed was warned against, this separation held another significance: it was a way to have a journey.
So, the other day, when I turned right onto Harper from Fountain—the trees’ shade and the smell of wet grass from freshly manicured lawns immediately cooling me off as I settled into my quarter-mile of historic architecture—I felt startled by a garish bright yellow “For Lease” sign hanging on The Romanesque Villas (1301-1309 Harper Avenue), a lovely tan-and-white multistory building constructed in 1926. There’s always something disorienting about the inconveniences of the present crashing in on the romance of the past. Visiting the Harper Avenue Historic District allows a walker to float above the reality we are in, and during the worst of the Coronavirus it felt downright impolite to have a reminder of our lonely and struggling present intruding on our fairytale imaginations of the past.
I turned my attention away from the distracting lease sign to the first building on the east side of Harper, which is my favorite: The Villa Primavera at 1300 North Harper, a Hacienda-style building also designed by the Zwebells. The prevalence of the hacienda style, in addition to the harkening to California’s Spanish roots, resulted from Spain’s neutrality in World War I. Spain was one of the few countries open to Americans (but not open in the summer of 2020), allowing architects to go visit.
What I first see when I look at Villa Primavera, however, is not the red shingled roof or the white stucco building, but rather the bordering wall of hedges that surrounds it. According to art historical theories, hiding something is actually a way of pointing to it; hiding your gorgeous architecture behind bushes just serves to make people all the more curious, and this weaponizing of nature feels obtrusively preemptive and passive aggressive. The role of shrubbery as fence was first brought to my attention by one of my favorite college professors, John Stilgoe. In his book, Borderland, Stilgoe discussed how, in the development of the American suburbs, a poorly kept lawn was evidence of “moral decay.” These plants as border walls seem to take that one step further, announcing not only the moral uprightness of the apartments’ inhabitants, but forbidding the outside world a piece of that. (I also say this as someone who lives in a building that has one side shielded from view by thirty-foot-tall bushes). A search online for “shrubbery as fence” yields the delicate term, “landscape boundary.” I guess “well-trimmed peasant blocker” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
There’s one hollowed out doorway in these hedges. If it’s a walker’s lucky day as she passes the Villa Primavera’s shrubbery wall that door will be open, and she can steal a furtive look and see that the address is hand-painted on the building’s white exterior (as with Patio del Moro: the Zwebells maintained consistency). There’s also a lone swing on a tree in the middle of the front yard which, depending on the walker’s mood, is reminiscent of either Fragonard or a horror movie. Behind one more grated door, she can see a tiled fountain surrounded by lush greenery.
Even though Villa Primavera famously influenced Nicholas Ray’s film noir In A Lonely Place (Ray lived there) my mind always goes to Jack Nicholson when I walk by this building. The promise of the fountain’s bubbling water makes me think of the water wars in the film Chinatown. Each time I pass Villa Primavera, I imagine e-mailing my dad—another lover of movies and iconic actors—to tell him how I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson’s smirk under his bandaged nose.
North of Villa Primavera stands Isola Bella. This also boasts a fountain, but with a decidedly different presentation. Instead of being hidden behind guarding hedges, the bronze statue of a winged woman stands proudly on a balcony between two grand staircases leading up to the building. The feeling of glamorous ascension to an awe-inspiring fountain is dampened when you realize that the fountain is actually from 1994; like the garishness of the “For Lease” sign on the Romanesque Villas, the betrayal of a 1990s bronze statue cuts deep. I felt even more hoodwinked by Isola Bella when I learned that the building itself was built in 1993, a far cry from when the area would have been the Zwebells’ stomping ground. Perhaps it lays bare and makes me confront the artifice of history in LA, reminding me that no, I’m not a child on a walk with my dad again amongst 1920s buildings in Chicago, but in a different part of the world with its own history.
The building north of Isola Bella also holds a tale of modern refurbishment, though it’s not immediately visible from the sign in old-timey western typography announcing its name, “El Pasadero.” Like Isola Bella, it has two grand staircases leading to a top patio, sometimes speckled with plant leaves from the trees overhead. Though it was initially constructed in 1931 (not harboring the betrayal of 21st century construction like Isola Bella) a massive renovation was undertaken in 2013 by real estate businessman, Jerome Nash. From the pictures a cursory Google search shows, Nash looks like a quintessential frat star. Maybe it’s that frat-y bullishness and entitlement that fuels his almost obsessive restoration of the building. In 2013 he began a five-year remodeling, after he invoked the controversial “Ellis Act,” which allows landlords to evict tenants if the landlord no longer wants to be in the rental business. (Opponents to the law cite the possibility for landlords to evict tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods, remodeling the building and selling it for a higher price.) During this restoration, Nash meticulously recreated the building’s original details. He said, “They are mahogany windows from Ireland…so they are solid mahogany, what was there originally. You know how we know? Because we took the windowsills that were there originally and we scraped them.” Nash is a pretty polarizing figure, also in the midst of a controversy involving the renovation of another historic building in WeHo. Yet as far from being a frat boy as I may be, I wonder if Nash and I share a same type of mad adhering to the past —his wanting to get the same type of mahogany windows, my not wanting any intrusion of the present on the past.
The other day, I scurried past El Pasadero because a relatable-but-irritatingly fit woman with her perfect Labrador came out of the arched garage of the building, and I was worried that my traipsing up the stairs to her apartment complex might be, well, creepy. So, I happened upon Villa Sevilla, the building north of El Pasadero, sooner than I usually do. Designed by Julia Morgan, the same architect as Hearst Castle, Villa Sevilla has staircases similar to Isola Bella (also complete with colored tiles on the risers) yet the first thing I always register is the desert-themed garden of succulents out front. No matter how long I live here, the California foliage remains disconcerting. Instead of the elms that decorated the park where my dad and I would play soccer, I see the spiky, fleshy leaves of “Foxtail Agave” and “Giant Chalk Dudleya.” Sometimes, like with this succulent garden, the southwest landscape feels closer to that of Mars than Chicago.
Walking up the stairs past the agave and dudleya, you arrive at a gated door, but one that uniquely brings the courtyard theme to the fore: on the door, there are designs that appear to be flowering plants coming out of pots. The result is a double imagery of greenery; you’re looking through an industrial representation of plants to the live plants in the garden. A Barthes scholar would have a field day with this, I’m sure, the existence of the signified and signifier both separated and collapsing in the viewer’s eyes, but I like the symmetry.
Just north of Villa Sevilla is Casa Real at 1354 Harper, where my walks generally end. The door to this building looks like a New York apartment door, as if someone had inserted part of the set of FAME into an LA building. There are stairs that lead up to the door, but no charming tiles in sight. There are somewhat dingy gold mailboxes on the left side of the entryway, and this feels like the utilitarian building of Harper Avenue. Then, however, I notice two decorative, wrought-iron historic lampposts next to the entrance, lest anyone accuse anything in LA of being utilitarian. I also developed a sweet spot for Casa Real when, one day, I walked by and saw a pile of furniture and oddities left on the sidewalk, making a quirky and charming still life—two yellow wardrobes, an old wicker rocking chair, a black box TV, and a case of umbrellas. There were about twenty umbrellas, so it seemed to me their original owner had a similar relationship as I do with umbrellas. I always think of them like tampons: you never have one when you need one, so you buy more and end up with dozens at home that you will, inevitably, not have with you when you need one again.
Heading south down Harper back toward Fountain, I see the cars rushing east to west and west to east, taking advantage of the emptiness Bette Davis glibly referred to in her instructions to starlets. I feel yanked out of a certain meditation the minute I get back onto Fountain from Harper, even though I’m literally feet away from the buildings I’ve just swanned on about. For a peaceful twelve minutes or so, I was transported back to being a five-year-old girl on my dad’s shoulders, walking amongst historic buildings. Even if I bemoan that some buildings were built after the 1920s, or my inability to see through walls of hedges, or finding succulents unfamiliar, the Harper Avenue Historic District gives me a powerful sense of home. They make my dad feel close.
When I emerge onto Fountain, however, I’m again a thirty-something whose father has died. I can deal with this reality for a certain amount of time, but when that feels too lonely again—and it inevitably does—I can go visit Harper Avenue and think of the conversations my dad and I would have had amongst those buildings, and the comparisons we would have made between LA and our hometown.
Whenever he visited me in LA, my dad often said some version of, “How the hell can you tell where you are? It all looks the same.” One of the great ironies of LA is it is one of the most prominent places in the global imagination, yet it refuses any innate sense of location. The Harper Avenue Historic District serves as a locational anchor in the midst of LA’s vastness. It’s a part of LA that’s human in scale; you can easily walk from one end to the other, instead of being swallowed up in an enormous system of freeways. It reminds us that there is a history that we are a part of (even if that history is intertwined with artifice), and the built traces remind us that we are not the first people to live in this desert, as foolhardy as the attempt may be.
During Corona when the communities that were already so fleeting in LA were dismantled and prohibited from seeing one another, the past remained. In Bette’s cheeky line “Take Fountain” lies an inadvertent and poignant wisdom for us as we are assailed by the onslaught of 2020; the buildings have become a portal to communicating with a society that still feels intact, even as ours is so unfamiliar. The buildings are my Linus blanket, a comforting touchstone of times when we could perhaps understand things, or at least pretend to ourselves more convincingly that we did. Here they still stand in the midst of a whirling, seemingly never-ending chaos—a parental death, a global pandemic, a changed world. Our friends, the buildings on Harper Avenue had made it.
Maybe we would, too.
A Chicago native, Anne is currently a TV Literary Agent at Verve in Los Angeles. Before transitioning to representation, she worked at various production companies, including Annapurna. She earned an AB in Art History with a Language Citation in Arabic from Harvard, a Master of Studies in the History of Art and Visual Culture from the University of Oxford, and an MFA in producing at the American Film Institute. She is a devoted cat mom to Walter and Temmy and, in her free time, takes cello lessons (Walter and Temmy are still skeptical of the cello).
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · May 2022
Header image by Kansas Sebastian.