Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Garden Cities at Risk: Introduction


At the end of the Great Depression, and just prior to the United States’ entry into World War II, a respected and talented team of designers collaborated on a Utopian community, which, it was hoped, would be a new paradigm for middle-class housing in Los Angeles. Built on a roughly 70-acre “superblock,” the carefully and intelligently planned site was created to discourage through traffic (keeping pedestrian and automobile traffic separate), provide ample access to fresh air, light, and recreational facilities, using urban planner Clarence Stein’s Garden City principles. Most importantly, buildings and landscape were designed at the same time, ensuring an organic and cohesive plan, meant to foster community with very livable, high-quality apartments, set amidst expansive landscaped grounds, at low density and at relatively low cost.

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But I’m not talking about Baldwin Hills Village. The first large scale, privately funded (though insured by the FHA) Garden City in Los Angeles was Wyvernwood, which opened in August, 1939 – a little more than two years before Baldwin Hills Village. Designed by architects David J. Witmer and Loyall F. Watson, in collaboration with landscape architect Hammond Sadler, Wyvernwood is a sister city to Baldwin Hills Village/Village Green, and is currently threatened with demolition.

The announcement of the opening of Wyvernwood,
describing a "more luxurious way
of living."
At Baldwin Hills Village, the brochure introducing
the community advertised "a new and
finer style of living."

Though developed by an expert design team, utilizing the same Radburn Plan principles used at Baldwin Hills Village, Wyvernwood (which is still a privately owned rental community) has no real protection as an historic site. While Village Green has multiple layers of protection (Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, National Register of Historic Places, and most importantly – National Historic Landmark), Wyvernwood has been deemed eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, but so far that has not happened. It is registered on the California Register of Historical Resources, however.

There were three privately owned large-scale Garden Cities created in Los Angeles prior to World War II, the other being Parklabrea. Parklabrea was developed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company of New York, and opened in 1943. Parklabrea has a sister city in San Francisco – Parkmerced – which was just narrowly approved for demolition in the last few weeks. Will Parklabrea be next?

Wyvernwood soon after completion, 1939. Like Baldwin Hills Village, all
fronts of apartments faced open green spaces, while automobiles
were stored behind buildings in garage courts.

Village Green Board member John Keho and I were recently invited to visit Wyvernwood, touring the grounds with Leonardo López, a Wyvernwood resident and President of El Comité de la Esperanza, a group of residents and activists committed to saving their homes from destruction.  Several members of El Comité joined us, as did Adrian Fine and Karina Muniz from the Los Angeles Conservancy.

There are some differences between Village Green and Wyvernwood, but after seeing the property and hearing stories from the residents, the similarities far exceed any differences. The most obvious and important quality we both share is the sense of pride we feel about where we live. Even in somewhat diminished current states, with the removal of some of the features planned by the designers to help foster community, these Garden Cities are so well-designed that they still manage to bring people together like no other place I’ve ever experienced.

Over the course of the next week or so, I’m going to do several posts about Wyvernwood, attempting to show just how very much alike our two communities are. I’ve been doing research on the history of the community, including the architects and landscape architect, and will post brief biographies and descriptions of their work. I’ll describe how Wyvernwood came to be developed, what made it so successful, innovative, and well-received when it opened in 1939, and how it actually may have influenced the design team then working on Baldwin Hills Village. I’ll also show you what the current owners plan to replace Wyvernwood with once they destroy it, and how I believe that the rationale behind their claim that the new community will “transform the outdated Wyvernwood complex into a beautiful, modern and sustainable neighborhood” isn’t entirely rational.

The complete series of posts about Wyvernwood can be found here


  1. This is amazing! Thanks so much for helping to spread the word about Wyvernwood and providing such great context about the great Garden City apartment complexes of Los Angeles.

  2. This is really eye-opening. We all know and love Baldwin Hills Village/The Village Green, but so little is known about Wyvernwood outside of its neighborhood. Raising awareness of this great community is so important and you are sharing such good insights.

  3. Looking forward to reading more about Wyvernwood. My curiosity is piqued!

  4. Across the L.A. River on 12th street the Crown Coach Corporation made school buses and fire engines. When completed, every fire engine was driven over and parked in front of Wyvernwood where it was photographed (the "delivery" photo, a tradition in fire apparatus manufacturing). I believe the photographer chose a particular location near around a traffic triangle with trees in the middle due to the picturesque setting, greenbelts in the background, etc. Our organization has saved the records from Crown and we have many photos of brand new fire engines from the 50s -70s with Wyvernwood in the background. About a decade ago I became so curious I had to track down where the photos were taken. Thanks for providing even more history than I already had known.

  5. Thank you Mike, that's so interesting! I'd love to see some of those photos... Your website is fascinating too, a lot of good material.