All images from Crestwood Hills: The Chronicle of a Modern Utopia by Cory Buckner, published by Angel City Press. All rights reserved.

 

THE ORIGIN of Crestwood Hills begins in the cadence of a fairytale. Four musicians, returning from war, dreamt of combining their resources to build four neighborly homes around a swimming pool. It was 1946, in the midst of a severe housing shortage in southern California, and the musicians’ dream proved attractive to many. After placing an ad in a local newspaper, 500 families eventually signed on to join them, and the planned housing development grew to require 800 acres on a hillside overlooking Santa Monica. Building and furnishing in bulk would cut costs, and the prospective residents shared the founders’ desire to invest in a nonprofit, cooperatively run neighborhood embodying progressive ideals including — most notably for its time — racial integration.

Cory Buckner’s Crestwood Hills: The Chronicle of a Modern Utopia offers a succinct, elegant history and present-day survey of the only successful, large-scale, modern cooperative housing development in the western United States. Its creation was both epic — requiring the movement of more earth than the construction of the 405 freeway — and prosaic, embodying a simple idea: it was to be a community where, as Buckner puts it, “very real people can live in extraordinary homes on their very real incomes.”

The residents’ idealism was matched, astonishingly, by that of civic representatives. As Buckner relays, on a sunny October afternoon in 1947, over 300 people gathered on a razed hillside in what is now Brentwood for the groundbreaking ceremony of their future housing development. Robert Alexander, the vice president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, gave a speech to the excited future homeowners in which he stressed the city’s ambition to “bring good architecture to the people through the cooperative movement, as a practical solution to the high cost of housing.”

Of course, Alexander’s belief that good design or cooperative endeavors were practical solutions has become hopelessly out of style. In today’s profiteering, developer-led environment, good architecture is seen as a luxury for the few, while cooperative endeavors are viewed as anachronistic pipe dreams. Yet, in the nearly 70 years since his speech, the problem of high housing costs in Los Angeles has persisted — fluctuating, but resolutely unsolved.

Buckner chronicles the unique convergence of social and artistic forces that led to Crestwood Hills. There was Frank Lloyd Wright’s looming influence — upon both local architects and one of Crestwood’s founding musicians, a violinist who had performed at Wright’s Taliesin salon. The cooperative movement, and its history in North America, was central, as was a political environment that allowed for the final hold of socialist-seeming ideas before the rise of McCarthyism. Add Crestwood’s resistance to racist housing laws, and you have a vivid portrait of postwar America, as seen through a leftist LA lens.

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Mutual Housing Association Site Office (MHA 101 modified) /
photo: Crestwood Hills Archive

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Roy and Patricia Hamma in their living room (MHA 111) /
photo: Crestwood Hills Archive

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Patricia Hamma in her kitchen (MHA 111) /
photo: Crestwood Hills Archive

An allegiance to modern architecture was an essential concern of Crestwood Hills’ founders. Steeped in the modernist legacy that sought to create a better world through design, their vision of an improved lifestyle hinged on clean geometries, walls of glass, and open floor plans. Crestwood’s board interviewed lauded architects such as Richard Neutra (a first choice but too expensive), John Lautner, and Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright’s son). The final team consisted of Whitney R. Smith and A. Quincy Jones, with engineer Edgardo Contini, who was interested in the challenges of hillside properties. Smith and Jones were known for an experimental approach to building materials and construction methods, such as prefabrication and modular techniques, and both were concerned with providing middle-class clients with affordable good design.

Besides producing over 20 innovative house plans the residents could select from, the architectural team also planned to build many shared amenities, including a credit union, co-op nursery school, clubhouse, restaurant, gas station, tennis courts, co-op market, beauty parlor, amphitheater, and those shared cerulean swimming pools that launched the original vision.

Unfortunately, a series of obstacles — some based in human folly, others more systemic and insidious — cut the dream short. Banks were reluctant to approve loans for modern architectural projects, which they saw as a passing fad. Real estate brokers wanted nothing to do with a cooperative project of middle-income residents. And the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) upheld restrictions against racial integration until 1948. As Buckner notes, Ladera, a similar housing project attempted in 1944 near Palo Alto (which included writer Wallace Stegner among its early members) had fallen into financial ruin due to its members’ refusal to comply with the FHA’s racial policies. Cautioned by this outcome, the governing board of Crestwood Hills reluctantly asked the one minority couple who had signed up to withdraw. (During World War II, this couple, Academy Award–nominated art director Albert Nozaki and his wife Lorna, had been relocated to Manzanar internment camp and then forced to leave the West Coast.) Several Crestwood members left in protest of their expulsion. Before the houses were even built, this “modern utopia” was showing signs of discord.

The biggest setback, however, was unforeseen costs. The price of each house had been calculated to be approximately equal to between 100 percent and 150 percent of the annual salary of a sole breadwinner (a fair equation, if unthinkable today). But the materials and construction on the specialized and unusual designs had been underestimated, causing the bankruptcy of the contractor, and a subsequent landslide of member withdrawals.

Nevertheless, beginning in 1948, nearly 85 homes were built, creating a congenial community that enjoyed potlucks, performances in the amphitheater, and other neighborly pursuits. A fire in 1961 destroyed 49 of the original homes. Today, 47 houses survive, and a dedicated community of preservation-minded residents maintains the neighborhood’s historic significance. Remarkably, the original Crestwood co-op nursery school is still in operation.

Despite the severe reduction of the original 500-household vision, Buckner positions the surviving homes as an alternative measure of success. She was instrumental in getting Historic-Cultural Monument designation for many of them, receiving a prize for her efforts from the Los Angeles Conservancy. In a sense, this book is a facet of her impressive personal activism to ensure that this historical moment will not be forgotten.

In the book’s second half, Buckner, an architect and preservationist who lives in a home she restored in Crestwood Hills, offers a look at the restoration and lived-in condition of some of the remaining houses via a survey of recent photographs. The book’s first half is primarily illustrated with black-and-white construction photographs, casual shots of the pioneering residents, and earnest hand-drawn magazine advertisements for Crestwood, some beckoning with promises of Recreation and Fellowship. In contrast, the present-day depictions of beautifully kept-up interiors, often furnished with valuable midcentury objects, are reminiscent of images in a glossy design magazine. (This is especially true of the book’s cover, with its golden-hour-glazed shot of a satisfied couple drinking in the view from their hillside home.)

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Schneidman House front elevation (MHA 301) /
photo: John Dooley Photography

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Schneidman House and owner, Kristin MacDowell (MHA 301) /
photo: John Dooley Photography

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Schneidman House dining room (MHA 301) /
photo: John Dooley Photography

This visual shift hints at the enhanced allure of the surviving houses, photographed at a moment when the words “midcentury modern” instantly inflate prices. Today these homes are worth, on average, about $2 million each. In addition to the steep prices of the neighborhood as a whole, the original Crestwood houses have undergone a kind of transmutation, becoming “historic” and gaining the patina that term entails. Committing to preserve a house like these is akin to buying a work of blue-chip art — it’s not feasible for “very real” incomes.

The hard work and halcyon vision of Crestwood’s founders is invigorating, while their failure was perhaps foreseeable. Yet, to read about it today, as Los Angeles experiences a construction boom and simultaneous crisis in affordable housing, and with income inequality at record levels nationwide, it takes on uncomfortable relevance. In spite of the recent mortgage crisis, the trend in housing today is not affordable cooperatives but their opposite: private luxury units, with some developments boasting 24-hour concierge service, day spas, exclusionary rooftop parks, and room service. And just five miles away from Crestwood, in Bel Air, construction has begun on what will be the world’s most expensive mansion, including a 30-car garage and four swimming pools — all for a single family.

It’s a bleak reversal of how Buckner summarized Crestwood’s vision: a lot of what is being built today is for very privileged people with very unreal incomes. Yet the answer to predatory lending, volatile home prices, and the high cost of child and senior care may indeed lie in a resurgence of cooperative endeavors. Cohousing, for example, is now well established in Denmark, which has honed its system since the 1960s, and is becoming more common in several other European countries too, from urban high-rises in Germany to suburbs in Spain. Cohousing communities in the United States, estimated at between 130 and 220, have been isolated, typically requiring many years of planning and commitment and demanding a level of sociability that’s not for everyone. But they too are gaining more attention. Recent New York Times articles have covered millennial, single-women, and elder cohousing projects, and CityLab suggested that the Baby Boomer generation could double the number of cooperatives in the United States in the next decade as they seek less isolating forms of housing.

Despite the vast ideological differences between our time and the postwar period, Crestwood reminds us that there was a moment when its laudable, and rather humble, aims were fervently pursued by hundreds, and even backed by the city. From our vantage, hinged between mansionization and a potential step toward communality, the fate of Crestwood can either discourage or, by borrowing a little of that postwar optimism, galvanize.

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Lyra Kilston is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in IconTimeWiredNext City, and KCET’s Artbound, among other publications.​