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Crestwood Hills is a jewel box of single-family homes designed by master midcentury architects.

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The modernist enclave that tested a utopian vision of LA

Part of the Crestwood Hills dream lives on in a canyon above Sunset Boulevard

In 1946, four friends had a dream. Ray Siegel, Jules Salkin, Gene Komer, and Leonard Krupnick were all veterans, making decent livings as session musicians at Paramount Studios. Postwar Los Angeles was facing an acute housing shortage, and unappealing stucco boxes were rising all across the county. The men envisioned something better. They could all pool their resources, maybe buy an acre of land, and build four stylish homes for their young families, with a shared pool in the middle.

From this kernel of an idea sprang Brentwood’s Crestwood Hills, an “architecturally controlled community” on the scenic ridges above Kenter Canyon. Today, the neighborhood is a jewel box of single-family homes designed by midcentury masters, including A. Quincy Jones, Whitney R. Smith, Richard Neutra, and Craig Ellwood.

As architect and longtime resident Cory Buckner writes in Crestwood Hills: The Chronicle of a Modern Utopia, the creation of the neighborhood was one of the “few fulfillments of the Bauhaus dream” in America, which brought “good design and economical construction to moderate income housing on a large scale.” It was also a bold experiment that tested the limits of cooperative development, highlighting the pluses and pitfalls of such an endeavor.

After an initial brainstorming session, the four musicians found that many other young, progressive professionals were captivated by their idea. “We went away that evening and mentioned our plan to a few friends. Before we knew it, there were 25,” Siegel told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “Then there were 100 people, including other musicians, artists and members of the faculty at UCLA, who said, ‘Sounds like a good idea, count us in.’”

Architect and author Cory Buckner has preserved the legacy of Crestwood Hills.

In August of 1946, the growing group incorporated as the Mutual Housing Association. Their aim was to build a sustainable modern community with shared principles and amenities at a reasonable price. “It is estimated that approximately 50% can be saved on the development of the lots by purchasing raw land and installing utilities,” one early MHA pamphlet explained. “The save in mass building and repetition of certain designs will also be considerable.”

Members, who paid (in installments) around $2,000 for a plot, would have a say in every aspect of community planning. “The entire project will be designed for living instead of speculation,” an MHA brochure explained. “This is not an emergency housing project but is to be carefully designed and built in accordance with a long-range plan. Planning, purchasing, building, and details of the houses will be discussed by the membership.”

The co-op neighborhood would also have shared tennis courts, markets, pools, parks, and schools. “Cost was their main concern,” MHA engineer and planner Edgardo Contini told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “But they wanted good housing, too, and they wanted a community. There was a lot of talk about building a place that would overcome the anonymity of Los Angeles.”

With a target goal of 500 members, the MHA leaders opened an office at Melrose and Robertson, where they screened potential shareholders. According to Buckner, they were looking for people who shared similar beliefs in progressive ideals like open membership, promotion of education, political, religious tolerance, and racial equality. “One of the first questions we asked was whether they had any objection to an integrated neighborhood,” Siegel later recalled. “If they squirmed the least bit, we turned them down.”

The MHA began to search for a large parcel of land suitable for their community. After looking at real estate in East LA and the San Fernando Valley, it settled on 835 rural acres north of Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood, owned by the oil magnate Alfonzo Bell. According to Buckner, since so many members of the MHA were Jewish, they had a respected, well-known developer act as a front man (Salkin’s uncle by marriage) and purchase the land for $400,000.

Their worries about prejudice were not unfounded. Some racist Brentwood residents, when they discovered that the MHA welcomed all races and religions, were not happy. They convinced the realtors to add in a clause stating that lots would only be sold to Caucasians.

Confident that the Supreme Court would soon strike down racially restrictive covenantswhich it did in 1948—the MHA accepted the realtors’ terms. The covenants for the first Crestwood Hills tract included the following rule:

That no part of any lot in said Tract shall ever be, at any time, used or occupied by any person not of the White or Caucasian race, excepting such as are actually employed as servants or employees upon such lot by the owners or tenants thereof actually residing thereon.

Albert Nasaki, an art director at Paramount, was asked to withdraw his membership so that the new development would be in compliance with the new racist restrictions placed by the sellers. Other members resigned in protest, according to Buckner.

The MHA purchased 835 rural acres (once owned by the oil magnate Alfonzo Bell) for $400,000.

The MHA now had land, a new credit union, and a name—Crestwood Hills, which a member came up with as part of a “name the project” contest (the winner got to pick the first residential plot). It now turned to design and construction in earnest. After interviewing numerous architects, the MHA hired modernists Whitney R. Smith, A. Quincy Jones, landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, and Contini, the engineer. A plan for an idyllic 500-home community was drawn up, which included everything from a wading pool to an outdoor theater.

Members were involved in the design process every step of the way. They were encouraged to read modernist books like Tomorrow’s House by George Nelson and Henry Wright. Surveys were done to ascertain what members wanted in a dream home. Eventually, a brochure featuring 28 custom-designed “functional modern” homes was given to each MHA member. “Each of twenty-eight plans was represented on a two-page spread containing a description, floor plan, elevations,” Buckner writes. “The smallest house plan was 775 square feet and was estimated to cost $8,500 to $9,100. The largest house built was 1,850 square feet for an approximate cost of $19,560.”

The MHA reached full membership in the first months of 1948, and buzz about this new co-op began to fill the local papers. “Logrollings and building bees are out of date now, but not the spirit that inspired them,” the Los Angeles Times gushed in May of 1948. “Five hundred families in the Los Angeles area have banded together in a Mutual Housing Association based on those pioneer principles of co-operation and community effort.”

The land was parceled into small lots, positioned at odd angles to ensure each house had spectacular views. Members began to pick lots and designs from the 28 custom homes. Landscaping was to be done with native plants, and homes constructed with plywood and concrete. The Los Angeles Times reported:

In designs, emphasis has been placed on privacy, built-in furniture, large glass areas, planned storage and easy maintenance. Each house is planned to fit the terrain and to allow for a maximum of outdoor living. The basic landscaping, including fences, hedges, and lawns, will be provided at the time of construction… The houses will be built on concrete block foundations with special patterns of concrete blocks used in construction of the fireplaces. Floors and framing will be of wood. Crushed green slate on the sloping roofs will be an interesting feature… Movable partition walls in some instances make it possible to make one large area out of two or more small ones, an arrangement most helpful for entertaining.

The MHA soon faced another hurdle when the Federal Housing Administration declared it would not give loans for modern designs. According to Buckner, a delegation of MHA members who flew to Washington were able to change the FHA’s decision, and construction began in 1949 on the first phase of housing.

However, the MHA soon discovered that building in the high hills was not a cheap endeavor. According to Buckner, the moving of earth for Crestwood Hills was the largest ever undertaken in the West at the time. “The cost of developing was the big thing,” Buckner says. “If you’re going to do a development, it should be on flat land and not hillside, because developing the land just costs so much money.”

The smallest floor plan was 775 square feet and was estimated to cost $8,500 to $9,100.

Building the deceptively simple modernist homes was also much more complicated than members had imagined, and rising costs bankrupted two contractors working on the project.

One big money pit was the simple gable roof, a popular design feature in MHA plans. “The simple gable roof, they’re actually built up post, so it’s hollow inside the post and hollow in the beams so you can run electrical conduit through it,” Buckner explains. “But that means they have to fit just right. The contractors just way underestimated how time-consuming that kind of thing is. So, after the second one went bankrupt people were pretty much left on their own to either have their own contractors or get other architects.”

Some disappointed MHA members, led by the actor Robert Graves, withdrew from the project feeling they had been sold a false bill of goods, especially in relation to cost. Known as the “withdrawees,” they sued the MHA to get their initial investment back. The withdrawees won, and the MHA was forced to disband.

Besides a park, clubhouse, and nursery, the shared amenities the MHA members dreamed of never came to fruition. However, due to strict architecture committee guidelines, the subsequent three phases of single-family housing developed in Crestwood Hills followed its basic principles, even if owners used designs not developed by the MHA. These principles, according to Buckner, included efforts to assure that the homes, in a modern style, were in harmony with both each other and the natural terrain that surrounded them.

Known as the “infill houses,” these homes were designed by modernist masters including Neutra, Welton Becket, Ellwood, and Ray Kappe. According to Buckner, about 85 homes were built with MHA designs, while more than 200 adhered to strict neighborhood guidelines, including the stipulation that all homes be one-story to prevent “canyonization.”

Although the MHA had fallen short of its goals, the neighborhood of Crestwood Hills would in many ways live up to the ideals of the founders. “The number of obstetricians and psychiatrists among the members inspired the remark that Crestwood Hills is the ideal place to start a family or have a nervous breakdown,” Buckner writes.

Residents started a neighborhood nursery; there was a day camp for children where kids sang Woody Guthrie songs; there were performances in an outdoor theater directed by actors Fritz Feld and Virginia Christine. Adults would celebrate holidays and birthdays together at the neighborhood clubhouse deigned by Jones and Frederick E. Emmons.

“The community just brought out the best in people, you know?” original resident Lydia Gelb told the Los Angeles Times. “My friends all thought we were crazy to move out here in the sticks, but now, they envy what we have had.”

Today, Crestwood Hills is a green, peaceful oasis, and homes sell for millions of dollars.

Sadly, in 1961, 49 Crestwood Hills homes were destroyed by the massive Brentwood Bel-Air Fire. That same year, the neighborhood gave the clubhouse and park to the city, thus losing control of its main social center. Homes were not rebuilt using MHA designs, and the neighborhood lost some of its cohesiveness.

By the time Buckner moved into the neighborhood in the mid-1990s, the neighborhood was aging, and developers were swarming. “We were pretty much the youngest people in the neighborhood,” she says. “A lot of the old timers were still here, but the developers were clued in to the fact that the houses were cheap and were buying it just for a lot value.”

Buckner had long loved the modernist architecture of Crestwood Hills and the history of its cooperative founding. “My husband [the late architect Nick Roberts] was a Marxist for a start,” she laughs. “A Marxist who married somebody who collects properties. I don’t know how that works, really. And I was just always attracted to that. I mean they were all really left-wing commie pinkos. Just very politically liberal.”

Realizing that Crestwood Hills’s modernist history could soon be lost to developers, Buckner tried to rally the neighborhood. “We had a meeting of all the original owners or people who had the original houses to see if we could get an HPOZ, an historical overlay zone,” she remembers. “And we couldn’t get any interest. It was amazing to me, even one of the four founding members—he would not do it—he was afraid that he would lose property value.”

Buckner decided to tackle the problem from another angle. She began to methodically take handfuls of homes to the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, obtaining landmark designations for them, making demolition much more difficult. “It was a struggle, because nobody wanted to grant [protection to] a house that was 50 years old at that point,” she says. “Modernism hadn’t really caught on with the sort of general public. It certainly had among architects but not the general public.”

Luckily, modernism soon became popular. “Two years later it was like a different world,” she says. In the late 1990s, young families started moving into Crestwood Hills, drawn to its quiet, natural beauty and community feeling. “There was a resurgence,” Buckner says. “It was sort of like the same enthusiasm that was at the beginning sort of happened again.”

Nineteen of the 30 remaining MHA houses are now protected. “We lost one last year,” Buckner says. “The developer tore it down and built this horrible stucco box. It’s really sad. I tried to stop it. I was successful in just two days getting an application into the Cultural Heritage Committee, but in the end, they voted against saving it.”

Today, Crestwood Hills is a green, peaceful oasis. Almost all of the original MHA residents have now died (save one whom Buckner has lost track of), but their dream lives on in a modified form. The voices of children in the neighborhood preschool waft up the canyon, and birds chirp and sing. Homes now sell for millions of dollars, but the community retains some of its original progressive character. “It’s still a very liberal community,” Buckner says. “I think there’s only one Republican.”

In the Los Angeles of today, with many residents priced out of ever owning a home or even renting a one-bedroom, the story of the MHA and Crestwood Hills is as relevant as ever.

“The lesson is that you can successfully create a community of like-minded individuals. It was successful in that regard. They did buy the land, hire the architects, and create these houses,” Buckner says. “I have to hand it to them, trying to create this sort of socialist system. It didn’t work in the end—but at least they tried.”

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