clock menu more-arrow no yes
Photo by Hadley Meares

Filed under:

LA’s lost Oz

The first subdivision in Calabasas was Park Moderne, an avant-garde modernist country retreat for artists

In 1980, journalist Hal Straus relocated from the East Coast to Southern California. Like many wary transplants, he assumed his family’s options for housing were limited—a cookie-cutter McMansion, or a vaguely Spanish stucco bungalow. But off Old Topanga Canyon Road, on a cluster of shaded lanes known as "the bird streets," the Straus family found a home that far exceeded their wildest dreams, he wrote in the LA Times in 1980:


Set on top of a dry hill in Calabasas, the small wood structure was obviously old, designed in an art-deco style that was popular for about two months during the 1920s. The house was, well, weird. It had diamond-shaped, stained-glass windows, torchlike wall fixtures one sees only in churches, a fireplace shaped like a macabre pyramid that flashed red-and-yellow lights; and an interior painted completely in silver. We weren’t sure whether we had walked into some sort of spooky, Southern California religious cult or a Hollywood stage set for the great palace of Oz.

The Strauses had indeed stumbled upon the remnants of a kind of Oz. The cabin was one of the last extant structures of Park Moderne, a planned community for "lovers of modernistic art" that served as a country retreat for midcentury Angeleno artists for over three decades.

Calabasas-Las Virgenes Historical Society
Schindler's house for Larson.

Park Moderne was the brainchild of William Lingenbrink, gallery owner, developer, modern art promoter, and patron of the visionary architect Rudolph Schindler. Originally from the Netherlands, Lingenbrink immigrated to Los Angeles, where he became an important fixture in LA’s avant-garde art scene. In the early 1920s, he developed the successful Silver Strand beach community in Ventura County.

For his next project, Lingenbrink teamed with businessman C. Henry Taylor to create a new community in the dusty, sparsely populated ranching community of Calabasas. A popular legend suggests that, in 1927, Calabasas rancher Samuel Cooper Jr. traded 140 acres with Lingenbrink and Taylor in exchange for a bathtub and plumbing in his rural home. In fact, it seems the three men were partners.

The manzanita- and oak-covered land, which featured charming streams, cacti, owls, and the occasional mountain lion, was subdivided into 174 small lots. Lingenbrink, always a visionary, devised a novel way to populate the new community, which he named Park Moderne. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Lingenbrink, who had opened a trendy gift shop on the Sunset Strip, decided to turn the subdivision into an art colony as a way of cultivating a steady supply of artwork for his new store. He offered to trade lots, which started at $525, to artists in exchange for their paintings and sculptures. If artists were particularly strapped for cash, Lingenbrink agreed to take other artwork in trade for building supplies.

"The idea was come out on the weekend and do your own thing," historian Rosemary Hulle explained to the Los Angeles Times.

We weren’t sure whether we had walked into some sort of spooky, Southern California religious cult or a Hollywood stage set for the great palace of Oz.

To facilitate the feeling of a secluded hideaway, small dirt streets were laid out (and frequently oiled to keep down the dust); they were named after local birds that populated the area. Several footpaths, originally trails of the local Chumash and Tataviam people, were also laid out, to encourage nature walks and contemplation. Although a sewer was not installed, wells were drilled so that the isolated community could have its own water, though it was often salty and undrinkable. Many water features, including pools and striking, handmade fountains, were planned to enhance the property.

Then Lingenbrink turned to his friends in the artistic community to help transform the Wild West foothills of Calabasas into a pointedly modern fairy-book retreat.

In 1929, Schindler designed a modernist cabin for Lingenbrink in Park Moderne. Although together the men would collaborate on several stores and properties, including the Modern Creators Building in West Hollywood, Schindler’s involvement in Park Moderne has been overstated. He did own an empty lot there, and he would design one or two more cabins for the neighborhood over the next decade. "These were small houses," Schindler expert Judith Sheine explains, "but with Schindler’s usual spatial features involving complex interior spaces, allowing light in from several directions."

Calabasas-Las Virgenes Historical Society
Left: Andy Anderson's home; right: the pump house.

It was German architect Jock Peters who would have the biggest impact on Park Moderne. He is most famous today for his interior design work on the first three floors of the Bullocks Wilshire Building in Koreatown. Working in both the International and Art Deco styles, he also designed stately homes in Los Feliz and San Marino. In 1931, Lingenbrink tasked Peters with designing all the land improvements and community structures at Park Moderne. Peters designed the Streamline Moderne pump house, the "zigzag" Art Deco fountain (which still stands today), and the neighborhood clubhouse. He also designed homes for the subdivision.

From the beginning, Park Moderne had a clubby, familial feeling. Some of its first residents were the inventive sculptor and artist Jan de Swart and his wife Ursula, who also happened to be Jock Peters’s daughter. De Swart, who like Lingenbrink was from the Netherlands, had lived a vagabond existence, including a stint as a gold prospector in the Southwest desert, so he was not averse to sleeping on a cot outdoors until he was able to build a cabin for his family among the cacti and rattlesnakes. Ursula fell completely in love with Park Moderne and its natural wonders. "It had a 30-foot waterfall and caves where foxes lived," she remembered in 1986. "Beautiful pink owls lived there, and it was full of maidenhair ferns. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen."

It turned out that the house was used almost exclusively for weekend parties by a group of 1930s "lost angels" who made the trek from the city to the Calabasas frontier whenever possible … a player-piano once accompanied flappers hoofing to a new dance called, ironically, "The Big Apple."

Other artists soon followed. Writer Margaret Larson lived in a Schindler-designed cabin with her family. Artist Robert Witt Ames (whose remarkable wood carving "Hollywood" can be seen today at LACMA) kept goats and would walk them in the canyon across the street from his home, which he built himself. He had been taught to carve by his neighbor, the beloved Western artist and wood carver Andy Anderson, who lived in a rambling, hand-built, Santa Fe-style home on Bluebird Way. Other residents included Laura Gaye—chronicler of old Calabasas, cowgirl Jane Reed, designers Charles Gretz and Walter Dorrer, musician Dick Coburn, portrait painter Paul Van Kleiben, and artists Alexander Archipenko and Olinka Hrdy.

Soon, Park Moderne was attracting many visitors eager to be inspired by the creative community in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. People like John Steinbeck and Jimmy Durante came to enjoy the joyful eccentricities of the isolated community, where De Swart created a ring of hand-carved totem poles from old telephone poles. After a hard day’s work in their individual studios, the artists and their guests often congregated at the gregarious Anderson’s house. Legend has it that Durante’s first wife Jeanne so loved Park Moderne that she often chose to stay when Durante had to go back into LA, leading to his trademark sign-off, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."

Photo by Hadley Meares
The Bird Path today.

Some homes, like the one Hal Straus would eventually own, were little more than avant-garde clubhouses. In the 1980s, a woman who had once owned his house described to Straus the features that made it such a delightful escape:

The flashing lights in the fireplace … were designed to stimulate the glow of fire during the summer months. And the sliding cabinet, lo and behold, was a cache for liquor during the prohibition years. Indeed, it turned out that the house was used almost exclusively for weekend parties by a group of 1930s "lost angels" who made the trek from the city to the Calabasas frontier whenever possible … a player-piano once accompanied flappers hoofing to a new dance called, ironically, "The Big Apple."

For all its magic, Park Moderne was never a financial success. The Depression devastated the real estate market and soon lots at Park Moderne were selling for as low as $175. A brief attempt at remarketing the development as "Hollywood Ranchitos" was unsuccessful, much to the developers’ chagrin. Not surprisingly, the artists who cherished Park Moderne as a retreat from the crass modern metropolis didn’t much mind the area’s undeveloped feel—in fact, they cherished it.

Park Moderne went on its quiet, live-and-let-live way until the 1960s, when the first big post-war development came to Old Topanga Canyon Road. Within two decades, Park Moderne was obliterated as Calabasas became the hot new bedroom community for well-heeled, upper middle class families. Almost all of the modernist cabins were remodeled, expanded, or torn down, the fountains ripped out, the streets enlarged and paved. "It’s very painful to us to see what has happened here," Ursula de Swart told a reporter in the 1980s. "We sold our property in 1965. We never go out there now."

Today, the neighborhood formerly known as Park Moderne is still beautiful—a mix of large ranch homes and modern Spanish mini-mansions, shaded by stately oaks. And there are remnants of the old colony. Andy Anderson’s Revival Pueblo home is remarkably well-preserved. And there are still the charming street names—Black Bird Way, Hummingbird Way, Meadowlark Drive. (These are not to be confused with the Bird Streets section of the Hollywood Hills.) In 1993, the Calabasas Historical Society dedicated the last remaining Park Moderne footpath and rechristened it "the Bird Path." This short walk between well-appointed, fenced-in yards leads to the Jock Peters-designed zigzag fountain, starkly Art Deco, its colors faded by the sun. It stands out sharply from its genteel, country club-like surroundings, a poignant reminder of the inventive, modernist colony that briefly flourished in this most unlikely of locales.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

Longform | From Curbed

How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis

Longform | From Curbed

The Neighbors Issue

Longform | From Curbed

Bungalow Courts Make the Best Neighbors

View all stories in Longform