Case Study Architecture #1

Los Angeles is full of fantastic residential architecture in styles running all over from Spanish Colonial Revival to Streamline Moderne. But the modernist Case Study Houses, sponsored by Arts & Architecture and designed between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s, are both native to SoCal and particularly emblematic of the region (thanks in huge part to photographer Julius Shulman). The houses were intended to be relatively affordable, replicable houses for post-World War II family living, with an emphasis on "new materials and new techniques in house construction," as the magazine's program intro put it. Architects involved included the still-widely-remembered (Charles Eames, Richard Neutra) and the known-only-to-archinerds (JR Davidson, Thornton Abell).

A&A ended up commissioning 36 houses and apartment buildings; a couple dozen were built, and about 20 still stand in the greater Los Angeles area (there's also one in Northern California, a set near San Diego, and one in Phoenix), although some have been remodeled. Eleven were added to the National Register in 2013. Here's a guide to all the houses left to see (but keep in mind that, true to LA form, most are still private residences; the Eames and Stahl Houses—the two most famous Case Study Houses—are occasionally open to visitors).

As for the wonky house numbering, post-1962 A&A publisher David Travers writes that the explanation is "inexplicable, locked in the past."

The story of modernism in Los Angeles is told through the smallest building increment: the house. No other city is home to so many influential modern residences, and the heightened importance of the domestic sphere is one of the defining characteristics of Mid­-Century modernism in Southern California.

 

“Case Study House No. 1 view from street”​b​y​Junkyandsparkle,​licensed under​CC0 1.0

When Arts & Architecture magazine introduced the Case Study House program in 1945, editor John Entenza envisioned it as a showcase of modern prototypes for the postwar American house. By its end in 1966, the program oversaw the design for 36 houses and one apartment building, and introduced avant­garde aesthetics to the single ­family home. Some of architecture’s biggest names such as Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen contributed to the project, and their creations redefined the relationship between design and modern living.

In this upcoming series, we’ll be taking a look at each of the Case Study Houses included in the program. Although not all 36 designs were built, those that were constructed were primarily built in Southern California, with the exception of one in Phoenix, Arizona. Let’s start with #1.

Case Study House #1, designed by European émigré Julius Ralph Davidson, sits atop a gently sloped lot at 10152 Toluca Lake Avenue in the prestigious Toluca Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Although officially designated as the first Case Study House of the program, the Toluca Lake residence completed in 1948 was not Davidson’s first submission; his first design was published by Arts & Architecture in 1945, but was never built.

According to the L​A Conservancy,​Case Study House #1 “introduced architectural elements that came to characterize the Case Study House program, including floor to ceiling glass, a flat roof, and an open floor plan.” With sliding glass walls open to the outside and immediate access to gardens from all major rooms, the layout and placement of the house encouraged a casual lifestyle based on indoor ­outdoor living.

Davidson maximized the 2,000­ square feet of space in the house with plenty of built ­in storage. And, he enhanced the open space with bedroom and bathroom cabinets resembling those found in ship staterooms, which were included as a nod to Davidson’s background in designing ship interiors.

Today, the house is essentially unchanged from Davidson’s original design, with the exception of a small music studio behind the garage that is not visible from the street. In the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form,​the LA Conservancy reports: “The residence is in its original location and its setting has been retained. Integrity of association is high because of its continued use as a single­ family residence. Because of these factors, integrity of feeling remains strong.”

On July 24, 2013, the National Park Service formally listed Case Study House #1 in the National Register of Historic Places along with nine other residences from the Case Study House Program. In spite of international acclaim, few Case Study Houses are guaranteed protection against demolition or extreme alteration.

“With so few Case Study Houses in existence, and a few owners who do not appreciate the homes’ cultural and architectural significance, we need to stay vigilant,” said Regina O’Brien, chair of the LA Conservancy Modern Committee, in an announcement ​of the inclusion of Case Study Houses in the National Register. “We are so delighted to have had a part in ensuring these homes’ future, and we thank all of the owners who were integral to the process.”

Jane Patton

Jane Patton received a B.A. in journalism from Columbia College, and studied graphic design in the continuing studies program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She grew up in Southern California, and is a passionate enthusiast and collector of Mid-Century art and furniture.

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