Thursday, May 11, 2006

The House We All Grew Up In ...

From: Los Angeles Daily News

The archetype of San Fernando Valley architecture is a small house with a peach wooden-panel exterior, tall windows and that classic ranch look.

Like much of the Valley, Violet McCallister's Studio City home was built in the 1950s. It looks nondescript, even plain, but it still draws an international audience.

"There isn't a day goes by that there isn't a looky-loo or someone taking pictures," said McCallister, who with her husband bought the home in 1972, during the fourth season of "The Brady Bunch."

"Last week, 7 o'clock at night, some girl knocked on the door. Is this the Brady Bunch house?'"

"Yes," McCallister answered.

"Oh good. I'm from Arkansas. I've been looking all day for this house," the girl responded. "Do you mind if I take a picture?"

Few, if any, San Fernando Valley homes can claim such fame. But just as Gutenberg is known for the Bible and Edison for the lightbulb, the Valley is known for its collection of tract homes.

"The incentive to create mass suburbs," said urban historian Joel Kotkin, "was greater here and happened faster than elsewhere. When other suburbs began to grow at the same rate, they followed the model that the Valley did."

That can be seen in Long Island, N.Y., which bloomed with new communities a decade behind the Valley; outside Atlanta, which is now one of the fastest growing areas in the country; and in Sun Belt cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix.

In the Valley's first town, there were Craftsmans and Queen Annes, Spanish Colonials and Mission Revivals. Built along the Southern Pacific Railroad in the late 1800s, the city of San Fernando has homes more common to urban L.A. than the suburbs.

Valley development followed in patches, with communities like Van Nuys and Tujunga and Woodland Hills separated by vast farmlands and citrus groves. Those gaps were filled in the late 1940s and '50s as thousands of World War II GIs looked for pleasant neighborhoods to start their families, and Valley construction took off.

"Because of the federal-housing guarantee and the loans available to veterans, the dream of owning your own home became a reality," said Kenneth Breisch, director of the University of Southern California's Architectural Preservation Program.

The 1,000-acre Panorama Ranch was the site of the Valley's first master-planned community. Made to order with schools, a hospital and industry, Panorama City was a forbearer of the low-slung, tract homes that would epitomize new developments across the semiarid floor. A $500 down payment could secure a two-bedroom home on a tree-lined street.

The community's success would earn one of its creators, Fritz B. Burns, the designation of "Mr. Housing, U.S.A.," according to James Thomas Keane's biography of the L.A. developer.

For others involved in the home-building process, the Valley was a canvas with plenty of room for them to leave their mark.

Edward H. Fickett, an architect whose signature is on thousands of homes like those in Meadowlark Park and Sherman Park in Van Nuys, is remembered for drafting blueprints with the passion of an artist and the pragmatism of Henry Ford.

"He isn't remembered as an architect for designing one particular house," said Chris Hetzel, editor of "He is remembered for defining housing as we know it."

Fickett convinced developers that people would spend more for a house that looked less cookie-cut.

"I call it Modernism for the Masses," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation for the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Fickett plans were a riff on ranch houses. They had grown popular in the run-up to war thanks to cowboy-actors like Roy Rogers, who lived on a Chatsworth ranch. That style would go mainstream with the housing boom, when land seemed more limitless than air.

"The ranch house was quintessentially anti-urban," Breisch said.

Many houses were built with floor-to-ceiling glass. Floor plans were open and utilized the Southern California climate. They had a backyard and, for the fortunate, the iconic swimming pool.

"That, is traditionally suburbia," said Sherwood Schwartz, who in 1969 chose the Valley for the setting of his television show, "The Brady Bunch."

The irony is that the Brady house was not quite as it appeared. It was difficult enough for six kids to share one bathroom; imagine that in a one-story, two-bedroom house. So Schwartz had a faux window added to the wall above the garage to give the curb-appearance of a second floor. The show was filmed on a Burbank set.

The house — myths aside — came to embody the ideal of a quaint suburban life, of a place where a lovely lady and a man named Brady could raise a happy, if utopic, blended family.

Added Schwartz: "That was the Valley in those years."