For most people, the words “Los Angeles” do not connote “great architecture.” Notions of preservation came late to the city. I learned that Beverly Hills, for example, had no preservation guidelines, let alone laws, until 2012! Yet the region famous for ugly urban sprawl is full of architectural jewels, if you know where to look.
In order to learn more about the architecture and history of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, we booked a tour of those cities (they’re municipalities separate from Los Angeles) with Laura Massino Smith, who runs Architecture Tours L.A.. Since her groups are limited in size by the number of seats in her minivan, we didn’t book a private tour, though it’s possible to do so. Nevertheless, we ended up having Smith all to ourselves, since the other couple who booked the tour canceled at the last minute.
An architectural historian, Smith has extensive knowledge of architecture in general as well as the history of the Los Angeles region. Beverly Hills used to be studded with oil wells, she told us — the Beverly Center mall curves around an operating derrick — and the neighborhood’s designers decided that they needed to pull out all the stops to make it attractive. Hence the appealing gentle curves of the streets lined with orderly rows of palm trees. She pointed out its Spanish baroque city hall, but also fascinating lesser-known buildings, including the “Witch’s House,” an example of storybook architecture used as a set in a silent-film version of “Hansel and Gretel,” and a striking art nouveau residence that looked just as incongruous.
On Rodeo Drive, she led us through one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s few retail structures, and nearby, we stopped to admire a building by Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright Jr.). Now a PR firm, the former home reflected its local environment with “textile block” walls exhibiting a cactus-like motif. Lloyd Wright lionized his father, Smith told us, but unfortunately the elder Wright did not reciprocate and could be quite critical of his son’s designs.
Smith also showed us an important early Frank Gehry commission (an ostensibly simple addition to an artist’s studio with exposed wooden studs that were unorthodox at the time), a Rudolph Schindler-designed bungalow and what was the last roadhouse on Route 66.
As our tour came to an end, I tried, in vain, to think of a way to fit one of Smith’s other itineraries into our plans. She leads tours in several neighborhoods, including Hollywood, downtown and Pasadena, and she is a fount of knowledge, both about architecture and Los Angeles history. It was an absolute delight to spend the better part of three hours with her, exploring her adopted hometown.