When people talk about Los Angeles neighborhoods known for high modern design, they talk Silver Lake, the Hollywood Hills, Malibu—not the sprawling, suburban San Fernando Valley. But that's starting to change—and the change is starting in the quiet enclave of Corbin Palms in Woodland Hills.
Two years ago, William Krisel, who designed the neighborhood with his partner Dan Palmer from 1953 to 1955, warned a visitor not to expect too much from the houses. "Be prepared for some to be terrible and some to be pristine," he said. The good news is the tide is slowly turning towards the pristine—or at the least towards the sensitively restored.
"What's really building the community is our shared love of the architecture," says Tracy Bartley, who moved into the neighborhood in 2001 with her husband David Glickman. The increasing number of neighbors who love the modern architecture—many of them younger newcomers, but some old-timers as well—have formed something of a neighborhood within a neighborhood.
One of their dreams is to convince enough of their neighbors to restore their homes to their original look so Corbin Palms again becomes the modern mecca it once was.
"Unfortunately," says Ken Yerke, "this neighborhood has had a rough time of it. There have been a lot of people who turned their homes into Tuscan villas, or what they thought a Tuscan villa would look like." "I don't have to have everyone living in modern houses," says Robyn Van Dewark, whose recently restored home has become a neighborhood landmark. "But it would be nice for the neighborhood."
It might, in fact, be nice for the entire Valley. For several years, members of the Los Angeles Conservancy's modern committee have been touring the Valley's modern tracts, which were designed by such architects as Edward Fickett and Gilbert Leong, as well as Palmer & Krisel. Many of the neighborhoods have lost much of their architectural integrity due to insensitive remodels. Modernism fans were afraid that the Valley, one of the nation's trendsetting, post-World War II suburbs, was losing its modernist legacy.
The committee focused on Corbin Palms, which was among the most intact of the endangered modern neighborhoods. Success there, it was hoped, would spur success elsewhere in the San Fernando Valley, which is part of Los Angeles and separated from the heart of the city by the Santa Monica Mountains.
If, indeed, Corbin Palms does regain its modern looks, it will be the second time the neighborhood has pioneered modernism. Although Palmer & Krisel had designed a small eight- or ten-home subdivision a few months earlier as a trial run, Corbin Palms, which originally had 287 homes, according to Krisel, was their first modern tract anywhere. Palmer & Krisel ended up designing about 4,000 homes in the Valley.
Palmer & Krisel also took what they had learned in Corbin Palms to Palm Springs, when the Corbin Palms developer, Alexander Construction, relocated there in 1955. Together, the developer and architects would go on to build more than 2,500 homes in Palm Springs, which were rediscovered by mid-century modern fans in the 1990s.
When Corbin Palms was new, its glass-walled houses in a park-like setting were so distinctive—startling, even—that Walt Disney filmed the neighborhood for a segment of the 'America the Beautiful' movie that was shown at Disneyland's Cyclorama. The goal was to suggest the sunny suburbia of tomorrow.
Tomorrow still looks sunny—at least in Eastwood Estates, the southern portion of the neighborhood where most of the architecture-loving newcomers have settled. (According to Krisel, originally, only a small group of homes that face Corbin Avenue were dubbed Eastwood Estates.)
Neighbors credit Yerke, a Hollywood studio violinist, and Bill Yaryan, with spurring the renaissance. When the couple arrived in 1997, they found a neighborhood that had largely forgotten its history. In fact, all Yerke and Yaryan knew about the houses was that they were beautiful. "Everybody kept telling me we had a Fickett," Yerke remembers.
Yaryan began researching the neighborhood history and visiting city offices to peruse building permits. They also met Krisel, who has been happily lionized for years by fans in Palm Springs and was gratified to find new fans in the San Fernando Valley.