The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1976, Volume 22, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

L.A. in the Thirties: 1931-1941. By David Gebhard and Harriette Von Breton. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1975. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Notes. $8.50.

Reviewed by Robert Redding, Associate Professor, School of Literature, San Diego State University, and author of Starring Robert Benchley: “Those Magnificent Movie Shorts” (1973). Dr. Redding, who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, has had a long interest in American popular culture and its architectural manifestations.

L. A. in the Thirties is primarily an architectural photo exhibit between paper covers, in an unusual 5 1/2″ x 11″ format that nicely accommodates the hundred and sixty-four plates and forty-two pages of text; the book originated, in fact, as an exhibition at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It is fascinating both as architectural and as social history, and for many readers it will also hold a certain nostalgic appeal.

Los Angeles’ architecture, like its populace, has sometimes been the object of glib and sniffish commentary, especially but not exclusively from non-Angelenos. People who envision “L.A.” as the place which has all those funny buildings shaped like hats or pianos will find few reflections here of that flamboyant genre, but many examples of graceful and even distinguished structures, public and private, created by such masters as Neutra, Schindler, Harris, Ain and Clements, during the fruitful eleven-year period surveyed by Gebhard and Von Breton. In the city’s architectural history, it was, as the authors make clear, a period of continuing growth and exuberance only partially attenuated by the economic depression, and of often inventive responses to such historical challenges as government-sponsored housing and the sudden boom, at the decade’s close, in the aircraft industry. It was a period of Art Moderne and Art Deco, of glass brick, “streamlining,” and innovations in the use of concrete and of wood, of the emergence of automobile-oriented designs of many sorts and of the “California ranch house.” Instances of these phenomena abound among the handsome photographs assembled here, including department stores, offices, schools, film and radio studios, drive-in restaurants, show places for movie celebrities and apartment complexes for defense workers.

The designs — typically low-lying and free-spirited with a marked tendency toward the curvaceous — were expressive of a felicitous combination of forces working upon Los Angeles in the thirties (and succinctly analyzed in the authors’ commentary): the casual yet restless life style; the hospitable topography that encouraged decentralization and consequent reliance upon, and accommodation of, the automobile; the provocative and occasionally giddy influence of the film industry; and the very callowness of the culture, the absence of inhibiting tradition. Most of the illustrations, fortunately, are contemporaneous, affording a sense of the original look of the buildings and of the settings for which they were intended. The cumulative effect, given Southern California’s headlong development, is somewhat ghostly: these forty-year-old buildings are often obscured in the present-day Los Angeles skyline, their character compromised by the aggressively vertical and undifferentiated structures which have sprung up all about them, blocking in the once dramatic spaces. A typical case is the 1940 May Company Wilshire store, praised by architectural critic H. R. Hitchcock for “its isolation” and “the skill of its adaptation to an open site”: today the predominantly horizontal sense of that building (and others like it) seems lost within the corridor of glassy high-rise boxes ranging along Wilshire Boulevard. Many fine works of the same vintage have indeed vanished entirely, as land values and population surges rendered them prematurely obsolete.

The story goes that a famous critic visited Los Angeles and reported back to an eastern colleague, “I have seen the future, and it doesn’t work.” Gebhard and Von Breton have presented here an exciting record of Los Angeles during the last moments when perhaps, it still “worked.”