In the acting profession there’s an old axiom that goes something like “no small parts only small actors.” The same is just as true for architects. In the hands of a talented architect even the most innocuous little building, be it a storefront, a utilitarian factory, even a gas station can become a minor masterpiece. Lately, I have been really enjoying digging into the lesser known works of some of the great architects who practiced in Southern California in days gone by and I’ve been delighted to find little gems hidden amongst the big jewels of their famous works. As such, I am hoping to start with this first post a new semi-regular series I’m calling Big Architects, Small Commissions.
And who better to inaugurate this series than one of the best of the best, the legendary Gordon Bernie Kaufmann F.A.I.A. In his decades of practice, Kaufmann left an indelible impression on the built environment not only of Southern California, but throughout the entire West as well. His body of work is as impressive as it is diverse with an oeuvre that ranged from classic mansions to sleek Art Deco office blocks, factories, hotels, university halls to gigantic dams.
Kaufmann may have been renowned for his deft handling of such enormous projects as Greystone, the 46,000+ square foot mansion for oil magnate E.L. Doheny (1925-28) and for the mammoth Hoover Dam (1931-36) among many others, but he also took on a number of smaller projects, both residential and commercial, during his long career. These more modest commissions have been largely passed over in reviews of the great architect’s works, but I think they are well worth exploring. Two that caught my attention were a set of small commercial structures Kaufmann designed in the late 1920’s for San Francisco capitalists Selah Chamberlain and J.W. Procter. Sadly, one of them, an A & P Grocery Store branch in Hollywood @ 1638 North Cherokee Street, has been so stripped of its original elements it is presently impossible to ascertain what Kaufmann’s vision had been, a real shame because I’d love to see how he handled something as simple as a local grocery store.
Fortunately, the second structure, known as the Chamberlain & Procter Building @ 301 North Brand Boulevard in Glendale, is in somewhat better shape. Yes, it too has been deeply muddled by “modernizations,” but enough of the original remains to show the brilliance of Gordon B. Kaufmann. Here the architect was presented with the outwardly blase task of designing what would now be called a “mini mall,” a complex of ten storefronts with adjacent parking. Today, such a building would be pushed back to the end corners of the lot with the parking lot taking center stage in front. Nothing special and not intended to be. Functional and forgettable. We’ve seen this a million times and we’ll no doubt see it a million more. Gordon Kaufmann, however, approached the situation in exactly the opposite way and by doing so proved himself to be a genius yet again, raising a common little shopping complex into something that contributed to the beauty of the community rather than being a blight upon it.
What Kaufmann did was to place the L shaped structure at the very front of the corner lot, which not only hid the utilitarian parking lot out of sight in the back it also allowed the stores to be readily accessible to pedestrian traffic. Kaufmann had very strong feelings about the lack of privacy people were forced to endure in the city and he liked his buildings, both residential and commercial, to turn their backs on the hustle and bustle of the outside world and wrap themselves around a sheltering private interior court. The Chamberlain & Procter Building was no exception and originally there was a small but delightful garden space complete with babbling fountain nestled between the building and parking lot, a wonderful feature sacrificed today for a few extra parking spaces.
In his design of the Chamberlain & Procter Building, Kaufmann managed to transplant a little bit of the sun dappled Mediterranean right onto the corner of Brand and California in downtown Glendale. Whitewashed stucco walls juxtaposed against the ruddy mellow tones of the variegated tile roof were broken on the second floor by a band of deep inset casement windows capped by stone window crowns and framed by louvered shutters. These were alternated with stone grilled windows, which provided light yet privacy to the second floor bathrooms. At the end of the California Avenue portion of the facade, an arched entryway led to the interior court and parking lot. What a great surprise it must have been for visitors to have walked in from the busy street to suddenly find themselves in an Italian courtyard. Unlike the street side facade, Kaufmann kept the interior court walls unstuccoed, covering the natural brick surface with only a coat of whitewash. Everywhere one looked, there was some charming feature taken from Kaufmann’s favorite classical Mediterranean elements including more grilled windows, both stone and wrought iron; a graceful second story loggia and a greatly charming rustic chimney which served as the connector between the two wings. Of particular note was Kaufmann’s interesting use of brick and tile running in bands along the edges of the roof lines, different for each wing. The overall effect from without and within was pure enchantment.
The beauty of the Chamberlain & Procter Building was of course no accident. Kaufmann’s skill as an architect and frankly, as an artist, are apparent from every angle. Kaufmann was an exceptional translator of classic Mediterranean style with a deep knowledge of its signature elements. Born in London in 1888, Kaufmann grew up exploring the capitals of Europe, surrounded by some of the world’s greatest architecture designed by such geniuses as Inigo Jones, Charles Garnier and Andrea Palladio. Kaufmann did not just read about classic architecture, he studied it up close and personal and that is perhaps why there is a palpable “authenticity” to his designs that set them apart from many of their contemporaries. As Jan Furey Muntz wrote, “Throughout his career he was to use these details with consummate skill and an obvious understanding of the vocabulary rather than a superficial application of the style.”
Completed in June of 1929, Kaufmann’s Chamberlain & Procter Building was an important and well received addition to the Glendale cityscape. Among the original tenants were an interesting variety of businesses including the Crofton Shoe Store; The McMullen Studio of Interior Decorating; Woman’s Specialty Shop and Servel Electric Refrigerators. The anchor tenant was the Platt Music Company. Founded in 1905, Platt was a major music concern for decades before finally going under in the 1980’s. The Glendale store was to be Platt’s tenth Southland branch store. There was an attempt by Platt to make each store unique and in Glendale they managed to score a fantastic artistic triumph that still delights today. Across the band of small windows running along the first floor of the California Avenue side of the building were added wrought iron grilles featuring whimsical music-themed silhouettes that have been credited to famed 1920’s artist John Held Jr. As great as Gordon B. Kaufmann’s design of the Chamberlain & Procter Building may have been, I have to confess that these figures steal the show. Not only are they fun and amusing, but it is truly a miracle they managed to survive 84 years and counting considering the Platt Music Co. folded its tent at that location in the 1930’s. It is unknown if it was Gordon B. Kaufmann or Benjamin Platt who was behind adding the John Held Jr. figures. Kaufmann certainly knew in advance that Platt was to be the tenant. Either way, the figures were and are a tour de force of 1920’s commercial art and an absolute treasure that continues to surprise unsuspecting strollers along Brand and California.
If you get the chance, drop by 301 North Brand and see for yourself this wonderful, but little known commission by the great Gordon B. Kaufmann. It remains not only as a testament to the talent of its designer, but it also serves as an object lesson of how, in the right hands, even the mundane can become magnificent.