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Why LA’s bungalow courts might go extinct

And the case for saving them

On May 14, 1909, architect Sylvanus Marston submitted plans to the city of Pasadena for an inventive housing development geared toward the kind of wealthy midwestern vacationers that had spurred the construction of countless seasonal rental properties across Southern California.

As architectural historian Robert Winter explains in The California Bungalow, Marston planned to build his project on a roomy lot on Colorado Street (later to become Colorado Boulevard and a key stretch of Route 66).

Like so many other architects of the time, he wanted to build bungalows.

Introduced to Southern California only in the last decade or so, this style of home had already quickly emerged as one of the most popular forms of housing in the area, thanks to glowing press coverage in local publications, and even national periodicals.

But Marston’s plan was unusual—he wanted to build 11 individual houses on the same piece of land.

To fit so many homes on the lot, Marston planned to build them in two neat rows, facing one another. A central walkway would run between the houses, and each dwelling would be fronted with a small patch of lawn, helping to set apart each home as its own distinct unit.

It wasn’t an entirely popular idea. As Winter notes, Charles Sumner Greene, who, along with his brother Henry, built some of California’s finest homes (including the Gamble House), wrote that a bungalow court “would seem to have no other reason for being than that of making money for the investor.” He even called Marston’s innovative housing concept “a good example of what not to do.”

In spite of Greene’s disapproval, the idea caught on, and bungalow courts soon dotted the LA landscape, spreading from Pasadena to Long Beach.

“They’re a distinctive type of multifamily housing that is really kind of the backbone of Los Angeles’s history,” says Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Adored by Hollywood location scouts, bungalow courts are even familiar to many outside of LA, owing to appearances in countless films. Goldie Hawn fools around with Kurt Russell in one in the 1940s-set comedy Swing Shift; Naomi Watts and Laura Harring snoop around one in Mulholland Drive; and, of course, a bungalow court is where Jeff Bridges' stoner-turned-amateur-sleuth gets his rug peed on in The Big Lebowski.

So why are they being torn down?

Bungalow courts are harder to come by today. Only about 350 remain standing citywide, based on a review of SurveyLA findings.

Bungalow courts “are increasingly at risk,” says Fine. In recent years, he has supported campaigns to save several threatened complexes, including Beverly Grove’s Edinurgh Court and Echo Park’s Wurfl Court.

Other preservation efforts haven’t been as successful. In July, over protests from neighbors and the intervention of a Los Angeles city councilmember, developer Wiseman Residential reduced the 93-year-old Norton Court complex in Larchmont to rubble.

Fine says rising property values are putting pressure on bungalow court owners to sell the complexes or raze them in order to construct new housing with higher profit potential.

Most bungalow courts were built from 1910 to the early 1930s. With many of them now approaching—or already having surpassed—the century mark, years of wear and tear are beginning to take their toll. Expensive repair bills give owners further incentive to sell, or simply start building anew.

The majority of Los Angeles bungalow courts are also protected from stiff rent hikes under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, keeping them affordable for renters but limiting revenue for owners.

Developer Mott Smith, and his firm, Civic Enterprise, chose to preserve and rehabilitate a Silver Lake bungalow court on Maltman Avenue. In 2008, the company won an LA Conservancy Preservation Award for its efforts.

Smith says he was encouraged to invest in the Maltman bungalows because of a fairly recent innovation in LA land use, the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance. Established in 2005, it allows for development of single-family homes packed closely together on unusually small lots.

The ordinance also allowed Civic Enterprise to sell the Maltman bungalows as 17 (very compact) single-family homes. What was once a singular court is now a cluster of individual properties, each with a separate owner.

Smith speculates that if the firm hadn’t purchased the property, the bungalows would have been torn down and replaced with “pink stucco condominiums.”

A decade on, however, few developers have imitated the Maltman example. Smith suspects that’s because retrofitting aging bungalows to meet city rules, as he did, can be time-consuming and expensive.

“They make you bring everything up to current standards,” he says. “That often makes it more feasible just to demolish it—and that’s very sad.”

In the heyday of bungalow court construction, the complexes were often built to house the legions of writers, directors, camera operators, and aspiring movie stars suddenly pouring into the greater Hollywood area.

Some of Walt Disney’s animators are said to have lived in the court at 2908 Griffith Park Boulevard (the one seen in Mulholland Drive), and the whimsical storybook style of the residences is the likely inspiration for the dwarves’ cottage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Hollywood professionals sometimes got into the development game themselves. The Wurfl Court, for instance, was built by prop master Louis Wurfl, who constructed sets for The Wizard of Oz.

No less a screen icon than Charlie Chaplin himself dabbled in the bungalow court business. In 1923, he commissioned dynamic husband and wife duo Arthur and Nina Zwebell to construct bungalows for employees of his studio on La Brea Avenue. Hollywood stars from Rudolph Valentino to Judy Garland purportedly spent time in the complex over the years.

The units were affordable to struggling Hollywood professionals, in part, because they could be built cheaply on very small parcels of land. But updates to local and federal policies, says Mark Vallianatos, director of planning nonprofit LAplus, had by the outbreak of World War II, effectively banned traditionally constructed bungalow courts in Los Angeles.

In the case of the bungalow court, parking minimums and open space requirements added in the 1930s severely limited the number of bungalows that could feasibly fit onto an individual lot. Developers began favoring taller fourplexes that left room for yard space and parking in the back. Later, other forms of housing like the dingbat, went in—and out—of style.

Beyond their association with the film industry, bungalow courts were, and are still, appealing to Los Angeles residents because they offer a condensed—and generally cheaper—version of a single-family home.

“Everyone wants a nice place to live that has dignity,” says Fine. “And that’s really what bungalow courts were all about. You weren’t just put in a nameless apartment building; you had your own front door, you had your own back door.”

That’s the experience Marietta Torriente had when she moved into a small Los Feliz bungalow court in the early 1990s.

“It was perfect for one person, or a couple,” she recalls. “Super cozy, and there were so many windows. It was standalone, so it just felt like your own little house.”

With just a few feet between the bungalows—and windows that looked into one another’s apartments—it was easy to get to know her neighbors. They had conversations in the common courtyard space and piled into each other’s homes to watch television together.

“It was about the friendship and the extended family for me,” she says. “It was about knowing that if anything happened to me, if I didn't come home for whatever reason ... someone would notice.”

Architect and urbanist Stefanos Polyzoides argues in The Bungalow, the Street, and the Court that the courtyard design of bungalow courts symbolically blends public and private spaces, fostering “mutual dependence” and friendly interaction between residents.

“That configuration, there’s something about it that encourages community building and socializing in a special way,” says Jess Ritz, a journalist who has written historic landmark applications for two Los Angeles bungalow courts.

Torriente lived in the court for a decade and a half, but in 2004 she had to move out after a new owner told her his mother would be moving into her unit. She’s not sure if that ever happened; today the bungalows are offered as short-term rentals to out-of-towners.

It’s not an entirely inappropriate use of the complex. In 1925, brothers Arthur and Alfred Heineman, early pioneers of the bungalow court, built a collection of bungalows in San Luis Obispo now recognized as the world’s first motel.

But the sense of community that Torriente and her neighbors built is gone.

That’s not a unique problem, and it’s certainly not one that only residents of bungalow courts can relate with.

A shortage of affordable housing combined with rising rents and increasing numbers of tenants being evicted from rent-controlled apartments has dramatically transformed many apartment complexes, blocks, and entire Los Angeles neighborhoods in recent years.

The same economic forces driving the destruction of bungalow courts are also splintering many of LA’s majority-renter communities.

Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, who represents much of Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Hollywood—areas where both bungalow courts and small lot homes are common—says changes to the 2005 Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance are needed to “discourage” developers from displacing residents of bungalow courts and other rent-controlled properties.

The rules in place today have contributed to the rise of “small lot homes,” tall, boxy structures that often rise up to three stories. They’re built that way because developers have to adhere to parking requirements, and they often do so by building the homes atop two-car garages.

In many ways, small lot homes are the bungalow courts of present-day LA, providing a bit of residential density in lower-slung neighborhoods. But they’re also a real threat to older bungalow courts; with more square footage and the allure of new construction, they can sell for significantly more than a snug bungalow—even one that has been updated.

Small lot homes have also proven unpopular with neighbors, who complain about their height and contemporary design style. Developers apply to build between 30 and 50 small lot developments in a given year. In the past three years, the city’s planning department has received more than 50 appeals to such projects.

In email to constituents earlier this year, O’Farrell said the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance has achieved “mixed results” since its adoption in 2004.

The councilmember said that, while the ordinance has spurred new development, it has also made older housing—especially bungalow courts—more vulnerable to demolition.

Last year, when a developer proposed to demolish the Wurfl Court and replace the complex with 12 small lot homes, O’Farrell released a statement saying the “proposal to demolish this piece of Echo Park history flies in the face of our preservation efforts, as well as my work to revise the city’s Small Lot Subdivision ordinance.”

O’Farrell is trying to revise that ordinance to remove much of the red tape preventing more developers from taking on projects like the one Civic Enterprise undertook when converting the Maltman bungalows. His changes were approved by the Planning and Land Use Management Committee earlier this month, and now await final approval from the City Council.

Will it be enough to preserve the courts we have left?

It’s possible. The revisions would allow bungalows in bungalow courts to be sold individually without making developers bring them up to current parking codes. It would also allow them to keep their unique yards and passageways. If approved, the changes could offer new opportunities to preserve existing courts and encourage developers to take on more projects like the Maltman Bungalows.

It would also make building new small lot homes more difficult, preventing their construction in certain low-slung areas and giving developers a stricter set of design principles to adhere to.

Vallianatos says that’s the wrong approach if the city wants to address a housing shortage that’s contributing to rising rents and keeping homeownership out of reach for many residents. He says a better fix might simply be allowing developers to build new bungalow courts just as they were constructed 100 years ago.

“If we value that form, then why can’t you do brand new ones with less parking?” he asks. “It’s kind of a missed opportunity.”

Fine says developers today could learn a lot from the architecture of bungalow courts.

“The bungalow court was really based on the idea that you were sharing green space with your neighbors,” he says. “It was about communal behavior... and that was reinforced in the design.”

Courts were also cheap to build—and to occupy. “What we’re seeing today,” Fine says, “is not accessible affordable housing for the masses.”

Sylvanus Marston’s first bungalow court was neither affordable nor accessible; it was rented out to seasonal visitors complete with Persian rugs and servants’ quarters.

But design kits and easily reproducible court configurations eventually allowed developers to mass-produce complexes at a very low cost. Bungalow courts became the residences of an upwardly mobile working class.

In fiction, they’re now the dwelling places of lovable slackers and struggling actresses; in reality, they’re home to thousands of Angelenos—most of whom are not here on vacation and don’t own the units they live in.

To really save bungalow courts, Los Angeles leaders may have to do more than protect the buildings themselves. They’ll also have to preserve what the complexes have come to represent: pleasant places to live, with “dignity,” as Fine says, and a space to build community—one that doesn’t take a six-figure salary to afford.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name Marietta Torriente.

Editor: Jenna Chandler

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