Forgotten Giant - Page 4

Once the ‘miracle man’ behind more than 40,000 tract homes, Southern California architect Edward H. Fickett and his modern hybrids slip back into the limelight

"There's not like a Fickett community as far as I know," Iovenko says, referring to the fan base that both Eichler and William Krisel have attracted. "If somebody knocks down a Fickett," he adds, "it's not going to make the 'L.A. Times.'" Why is this so?

Fickett fuses traditional Mexican with California modern for the 1956 home of Mexican architect Fernando Parra.

Iovenko, who's on the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a historic preservation group, has one suggestion. "There are quite a number of Ficketts, so people don't regard them as precious commodities."

But consider this, too. Perhaps, in trying to spread modernism to the masses, Fickett did his job too well.

Unlike Eichler, who refused to soften his homes' modern styling to attract more buyers, Fickett was willing to blend modern with traditional and to design homes that suggested Spanish or Western ranches.

"He wanted to inject good design," architect William Krisel, who designed modern tract homes at the same time, says of Fickett, "but (developer) Ray Hommes said, 'You could do a few that are modern, but I want the rest to be traditional.'"

Many Fickett neighborhoods look far more ranch than modern. But inside, many if not most of Fickett's tract homes from the mid-1950s on are modern all the way, with open floor plans, walls of glass, and such modern touches as latticework over interior entries, block walls that continue from inside to out, and skylights over planted interior courtyards.

By providing buyers with modern homes in traditional guises, Fickett may have succeeded in reaching a broader audience. The results today, however, are neighborhoods that do not shout, "We are modern!" So many people didn't notice how modern his homes were when they were new, and many people don't notice today.

Fickett's predilection was always for post-and-beam modernism, Danielian says. "His personal bent was that way but he was capable of designing in any style."

So what does a Fickett home look like?

Renowned modernist architect Richard Neutra (left) and Fickett came together in 1960 for a design clinic at Stanford University.

Visits to several neighborhoods and custom homes reveal much continuity from his earliest, generally small tract homes, to his later, often much larger ones. Similar features are seen in his even later clustered homes and senior communities, and in some of his custom homes.

It's surprising how early Fickett's signatures began to appear—in 1946, four years before he opened his own office, and shortly after he returned from World War II service with the Seabees, the Navy's construction battalion. 

The Sunset Patios from that year, small but remarkably open-plan apartments, modern in design but with touches of Spain, each with its own outdoor patio, are a West Hollywood landmark and retain a strong draw. "I waited nine years to get in," resident Trent Hobbs says.

Already, details that Fickett would use for decades have appeared, including his louvered windows and slumpstone walls, which resemble adobe.

A typical Fickett tract home is shaped like an 'L,' with the home one wing, the garage the other. A breezeway separates the two, often topped with openwork lattice or slats. The resulting courtyard, often deeply recessed, sometimes functions like an atrium.

Fickett homes are generally open planned, with walls of glass, tall ceilings, interior walls that divide rooms without reaching the ceiling, sliding closet doors, skylights, and plenty of storage.

Fickett's roofs are generally low-gabled, or single-sloped, often dramatically so. A few, with opposing rooflines on garage and main house, have a slight suggestion of a butterfly. He often used competing roof angles—the main home's angling one way, the garage's another—to create interesting compositions.

Fickett could be humorous, too. Several homes in the Meadowlark Park neighborhood in Northridge have windows whose shapes, rather than being rectangular, follow the slopes of their gabled or single-sloped roof settings.