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Saving One of LA's Vanishing 1920s Storybook Bungalow Courts

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Gower Street runs north-south through Hollywood, past the boxy stages of Paramount Pictures, up through the Sunset-Gower intersection—dubbed "Gower Gulch" around the 1930s, after the Western extras who congregated there in cowboy and Indian garb searching for film work—and continues into the hills. There, it begins to snake through a residential neighborhood, where the houses are anything from a stucco ranch to an industrial cement fortress to a Spanish revival to a funky hippie hideaway.

Just before it ends at Beachwood Drive, Gower meanders past 2494, a bungalow court containing four cottages done in Storybook style, which was somewhat the local rage back in 1921 when owner-architect Charles B. Bell designed and built the first bungalow and when contractors Burrell & Hamrick constructed the other three in 1923. Although Storybook-style bungalow courts sprang up across Hollywood during that period and in the years after—along with bungalow courts done in other styles—many have met unhappy endings caused by neglect, alterations, or outright destruction.

When local resident Judy Marks saw a notice from the city tacked onto 2494 early last year declaring it uninhabitable, she was worried this would be another of those endings. A lover of architecture who had walked her dogs past the property for years, she often admired the two-part Dutch doors with strap hinges, the Juliette balconies, and the quaint shared courtyard layout, all design touches drawn from the Arts & Crafts and Tudor Revival movements.

This area in Hollywood was ground zero for fanciful thought when it came to home construction in the 1920s. The film business, and particularly the creative minds entrusted with bringing fantasy to the screen, was influential in the architecture of Hollywood. The Hollywoodland real estate development, begun by SH Woodruff and Tracy Shoults in 1923, set the tone for the entire neighborhood. It offered potential buyers a taste of movie magic with each home. Rolled eaves that extended below window heads, for instance, served as a stand-in for thatch on cottages seen in an early European adventure like Ivanhoe (1913).

Several houses still standing from the Hollywoodland project dot the hills below the sign today, offering whimsical Storybook elements like turrets, a crenellated square tower, jerkinhead gables, and even a menacing medieval face whose mouth is an entryway carved into an outside wall. The Hollywoodland Realty office was done in fairytale cottage style by John DeLario, the lead architect for the development. Stars, screenwriters, directors and producers have populated many of the residences over the years. Actor Humphrey Bogart once owned a Hollywoodland cottage complete with a drawbridge at the front door.

The bungalow court at 2494 wasn't part of the Hollywoodland development; it stands a few blocks south of the two large granite gateposts that were designed to provide a guarded entrance to Hollywoodland. But it was built around the same time and in the Storybook spirit. That feeling of Hollywood architectural nostalgia inspired Marks to campaign for the home's preservation, so she set out to have it designated a cultural landmark.

"I had been walking past those bungalows for the past 25 years," Marks said of the four small units—three are one-story, one is two-story—and two garage structures. "The notice said the tenants had to be out by the end of the month. This caused me grave concern because I thought those bungalows added so much to the local landscape. My greatest fear was that they'd be torn down and replaced with apartments."

Marks isn't a complete neophyte in this department. She happens to be an architectural preservationist with a master's degree from USC. She also has done work for Historic Resources Group, a Pasadena-based company that provides preservation-related services, and she had recently been hired to work on local landmark designations for a nearby college campus. So she had a rough idea of what needed to be done, but she had never done it on her own for a privately-owned property. And she had to consider the possibility of coming face-to-face with the bungalow court's owner, Mark Howell, who might not embrace her efforts.

Marks explained that she wanted to save this particular bungalow court not because it was the creation of one of that era's more prominent architects like Rudolph Schindler or (Charles) Greene and (Henry) Greene, but because it wasn't. She cited it as an example of vernacular architecture, done by builders with little to no training in design who adopt local aesthetics and use local materials.

"We are so lucky to live in a place where amazing architects did extraordinary work," she said. "But it is the one-offs, the handcrafted fulfillment of someone's architectural fantasy, that really intrigues me. The work of famous architects stands a chance against developers and Home Depot nightmare remodels. But the underdog—the no-name fairytale cottage groupings that comfortably grace a generous lot—those are the buildings that get lost with greed and short-sightedness." The Gower bungalows retain their original features and site plan.

The bungalow court in general is preservation-worthy because of its place in Hollywood history: it was a common type of multi-family building in Hollywood in the mid- to late 1920s and '30s, according to Kari Michele Fowler, a senior preservation planner at HRG. Because so many people were coming from other parts of the country to work in the entertainment industry, there was increased demand for affordable places to live.

"It is the one-offs, the hand-crafted fulfillment of someone's architectural fantasy, that really intrigues me. The work of famous architects stands a chance against developers and Home Depot nightmare remodels. But the underdog—the no-name fairy tale cottage groupings that comfortably grace a generous lot—those are the buildings that get lost with greed and short-sightedness."—Judy Marks

"It was a population in transition a lot of the time," Fowler said. "They didn't know how long they'd be here to work. So there was a need for temporary rentals." The bungalow courts were more like single-family than multi-family houses, offering private entrances, yards, and built-ins.

Bungalow courts may not be in danger of extinction, but there just aren't as many as there used to be. In 1955, there were 100 bungalow courts in the area of Hollywood bounded by Franklin Avenue to the north, Normandy to the east, La Brea to the west, and Sunset to the south. By 2008, according to a study conducted as part of a campaign to rehab four Hollywood bungalow courts, there were only 42. And, of those, only 26 were fully intact. Most of those bungalows were Craftsman or Spanish Colonial Revival in style. Storybook was far less common.

So Marks had all that in mind when she embarked on her own bungalow mission. She took photos and drew a site map, then used a national nomination Fowler had written for a bungalow court on North Serrano Boulevard as a model for her own historic-cultural monument application. (No preservation background is required to submit applications—in fact, the online application process is currently being revised to make it easier, said Lambert Giessinger, the historic preservation architect for the city's Office of Historic Resources.)

About three months after submitting the application, she was notified that the city's Cultural Heritage Commission—which is part of the Los Angeles Department of City Planning—would hear a presentation on the property to determine whether it would be suitable for historic-cultural monument status. Marks came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation about the bungalows' "character-defining features."

Some members of the commission did a site visit, accompanied by Mary Mallory of Hollywood Heritage, who deemed the bungalow court in question "pretty authentic to its period. It was basically unchanged from its original status." At its next meeting, the Commission voted, 3-0, to approve Marks' application. That meeting was noteworthy for another reason: it was when Marks finally met the owner of the property.

"I was nervous about meeting Mark, because I thought he was going to give me a hard time and start yelling at me," Marks explained. "He was actually very, very nice and was just curious what my motivation was. I told him that I've always loved those bungalows and didn't want to see them get torn down."

Howell is a partner and creative director at Industrial Creative, a boutique advertising agency specializing in entertainment. He said he fell in love with the "magical little property" and purchased it around 1998 from a woman who had owned it for decades. At the time Marks first spotted the "uninhabitable" notice from the city, Howell wasn't sure what he was going to do with the property. But he said he wasn't planning on razing it. "Knocking it down was never an option that was ever discussed," he said. "I think people saw the tenants relocating and assumed that because of the condition of the property a developer would buy the property and knock it down."

When Howell met Marks at that meeting in a room inside LA City Hall, he was skeptical. "I went to that meeting fully anticipating meeting an adversary in Judy," he explained. "I walked in thinking, 'Who is this Judy Marks? What's her agenda here?' But it turns out she's honorable and her goals were compatible with my own."

After approval by the Cultural Heritage Commission, the matter went to the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee, where the recommendation for historic-cultural monument status passed on December 3. Now that the bungalow court has LA City historical status, Marks is helping Howell pursue state and national landmark status in order to qualify for tax breaks.

So the effort to preserve a storybook property has something of a storybook ending. "I never thought of myself as a community activist," Marks said. "But it was a great thrill."
· Preservation Watch archive [Curbed LA]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed LA]