MUTUAL HOUSING ASSOCIATION, 1947-1950
Cory Buckner, Architect
Hamma House construction
After the war, in 1946, four musicians formed the Cooperative Housing Group. The housing shortage for returning servicemen and the excitement of creating a model community through cooperative methods was forefront in the minds of the original founders. After being discharged from the Army, Ray Siegel was reunited with two musicians formerly with the Indianapolis Symphony, Leonard Krupnick and Jules Sulkan. With a fourth person, Gene Komer, a meeting was held in May of 1946 to discuss the possibilities of purchasing land together.
By pooling their resources, the four families could afford such luxuries as a swimming pool. They mentioned this idea to a few friends and soon found they had 25 people interested in their idea. Articles ran in the Hollywood Citizen-News and other newspapers creating an interest that boosted the membership of the group to 400 members. Eight hundred acres were purchased in the Santa Monica Mountains in an area in Brentwood now known as Crestwood Hills. The tract was called Mutual Housing Tract and in keeping with the communal spirit, land was to be designated as private and public with acreage set aside for a park, nursery school, gas station, and grocery store.
Shortly after purchasing the land, architects, including Richard Neutra, were interviewed. The original contract was a joint venture between Jones, Whitney R. Smith, and Jones’ former employer, Doug Honnold. Also participating were John Lautner, an associate of Honnold’s, architect Francis Lockwood, engineer Edgardo Contini, and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo. Lautner, a former apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright, had come west to supervise the construction of Wright’s Sturges house, just down the street from the MHA development. In Los Angeles he designed and built his own home in 1940 with a sweeping roof, clerestory windows and a raised kitchen and dining area which was a percursor for the MHA model 702.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Sturges House
Honnold turned over the project to A.Quincy Jones when personal problems made it impossible for him to continue. The team finally credited with the project was Jones, Smith, and Contini. Architects Jim Charlton and Wayne Williams worked as a draftsmen. Charleton had also been a Taliesan apprentice and is assumed to have contributed to several designs for MHA. Jones, Contini, and Williams became members of the Association.
A. Quincy Jones, Whitney R. Smith, Edgardo Contini
The team drew up 10 sets of plans, but was sent back to the drawing board after the Association determined the plans were too modern. They returned with 15 more plans for modestly priced houses designed with simplicity of exposed structure and materials. The Association began a series of meeting to determine which homes they would select as models for the development.
Jones and Smith purchased an inexpensive lot in Hollywood and built a pilot house for the project out of their own funds. The house, model 102, made out of concrete block masonry and wood, was built on a hillside as a rectangular floor plan for a cost of $16,700. in 1950. A set of structural ribs and posts extended across the entire structure with panels of glass as infill across the view wall. The main roof echoes the slope of the hillside with a secondary roof creating a clerestory of operable plywood panels. The house gave the members of the association an opportunity to experience first hand the architect’s sweeping design for a hillside home.
Pilot House Model 102
The individual site selection for MHA was based on the order with which each member joined the cooperative. Most lots were hillside lots with spectacular views of the Westside stretching from Malibu to Palos Verdes. Regardless of the site, there was a house plan designed specifically to meet the site challenges. Once a site was selected and a house design had been chosen, small neighborhood meetings were formed to discuss design issues for specific models. An interactive design process kept the community involved and interested.
There originally were twenty-three house designs to choose from with modifications available to upgrade five of the designs with additions of bedrooms and fireplaces. Eventually nineteen house plans were presented and out of those eight were used for 150 MHA houses eventually built. Today, only 33 houses from the original tract remain intact. Sixty houses, some infill as well as the MHA houses were lost in the 1965 Bel Air Fire and others have been lost to the wrecking ball or to insensitive remodels destroying the integrity of the design.
The site planning of the Mutual Housing Tract was unique for its time. Often the houses were placed at 45 degrees to the street Instead of lined up in a row, as was typical of so many post-war tract developments. Each house site was oriented to respect the privacy of the neighboring houses and encouraged to use six-foot high hedges at each side yard which would provide the necessary privacy from house to house.
Despite the apparent module and standard sliding door sizes, the building of each house proved to be a challenge in itself. Composite beams had to fit composite posts with precision. Odd-shaped clerestory window glass could only be ordered once framing had been completed delaying the projects. Two different contractors went bankrupt during construction of the houses. The model 111 which is the predominate model throughout the community, was constructed for just under $11,000 in 1950 not including the land costs of $2,000.
Model 111 The Gross House
The Mutual Housing Tract houses were finished with unadorned materials in their natural state; concrete block, redwood siding, exposed Douglas fir plywood and tongue and groove ceiling planks, with no applied plaster or paint. The walls of glass gave a sensation of free flowing space, making a 1200 sq. ft. house seem twice the size by extending the sight line to the property line. Eight-foot wide sliding glass doors dissolved the boundary of house and garden. The post and built-up beams became the rhythmic ornament throughout the house. Beams marched across the structure like a series of ribs, which combined with a low-pitched roof, emphasized the horizontality of the structures
Troubles arose when the FHA was contacted for financing the houses. They made it clear that modern design was not a good investment. They considered the designs for Mutual Housing Association “experimental” with carports instead of garages, open plans, and great expanses of glass. The MHA members formed a committee that flew to Washington D.C. to meet with the FHA. A landmark decision was made when the FHA finally approved the MHA homes for construction.
In addition to the 150 MHA house sites there were infill lots which created a community of 350 houses now known as Crestwood Hills. The founding members and the architects established an architecture committee to review proposed house designs for the infill lots and changes to the original MHA houses. Jones and Smith were originally on the committee with a third member from the community. The Architectural Guidelines stated that all houses were to be a maximum of one story from the street level. This measure assured the proper scale for a neighborhood dependent on maintaining views over the rooftops of houses situated on lots below. Style, colors, and landscaping were also strictly controlled in an effort to create a homogenous community.
Jones’ interest in greenbelt planning is evident throughout the community. Reducing the lot sizes allowed ample area to be preserved for the communal areas for the a park and a nursery school which still function today and are a draw for an increasing number of young families moving into the neighborhood. Reducing the sizes of lots to a bare minimum and still maintaining views and a sense of privacy was only possible by a great deal of imagination. Stepping lots and positioning houses at odd angles to neighboring houses created generous side yards where landscape over the years has masked out any evidence of closely placed houses.
The landscape architect, Garret Ekbo, was part of the original MHA design team but was dismissed from the project after the members claimed his planting scheme was too exotic. A handful of individuals hired Eckbo to implement his plans at their respective homes since one of the requirements established by the MHA was that landscape design be performed by a landscape architect. As a forerunner of contemporary landscape architecture Ekbo’s input for these individual designs is quite apparent; the kidney shaped lawns, the circular patios, and a plant palette that included loquat trees, New Zealand flax, and Yuccas.
Set aside by the site office was land that was intended for a gas station, grocery store, nursery school and park. Once the houses began to rise from the earth, each individual homeowner spent all available time in the finishing of their house and landscaping. The cooperative – communal spirit ebbed with the construction of the individual house but it did prove to be become the only successful housing cooperative effort controlled by its members through construction in the state of California. The nursery school still functions as a cooperative and the now City-owned park is still a delight for community members.