Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dramatic Kodacolor Snapshots From the Height of the Baldwin Hills Flood

Taken from the second floor of an apartment in Building 70 (Court 14), this dramatic photograph shows
the flood waters ripping through the Village, just after the water had begun to subside. Note the water line
on the brick bungalow at the right.

Steve Brink, who grew up in Baldwin Hills Village, has been kind enough to share his story and some very rare and dramatic photographs in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Baldwin Hills Flood and Dam Break. Taken by his uncle who was trapped in the upper floor of his apartment in the Village, it shows the flood-waters roaring through the Village Green at the height of the devastation. One particularly thrilling image shows a helicopter as it tries to land on the roof of a building across the Green, attempting to rescue some Villagers who had been trapped in Court 8. This event was documented in a previous post here by long-time Baldwin Hills Village resident Helen Spears:

Steve Brink, right, with his father and brother, Baldwin Hills Village, ca. 1965.

Here is Steve Brink's story:

"We lived in the Village from just before I was born, possibly 1959, I was born in June 1960. We first lived at 5207 ½, I remember falling down the hardwood stairs once. When I was 3 and prior to the flood, we moved to the studio apartment at 5431 in Court 13. My brother was born October 1963. The Village was a great place for kids in those days. There were three playgrounds and the parents didn't have to worry since we could just go into the greens and plenty of sidewalks to roller skate and bicycle. I went to Baldwin Hills Elementary for Kindergarten, B1, and A1 before moving to Arcadia. We moved away in September, 1967, and had our last dinner at Hody's, which was formerly at the northwest corner of La Brea and Rodeo.

Floating cars in Garage Court 14

On the day of the flood, my dad was coming home and mentioned to my mom that there was a lot of water at La Brea and Rodeo. My mom said either police or fire said there was a crack in the reservoir but they don't expect it to break. My mom told my dad that since it was an earthen dam, they better evacuate. They packed up a few things and took both cars to my grandparents' house in Westwood. My mom said that she put our pet canary upstairs ‘to give him a better chance.’ My uncle (who also lived in VG, in Court 14) must have been the one who took the photos, probably using an old Kodak 126 instamatic.

Building 68 in Court 13 engulfed by flood waters.

My parents had to prove that they were residents to see the damage later that day or the next day. I am not sure when we were able to come back home, but when we did my tricycle was still in our back porch. I clearly remember the aftermath and the rebuilding, especially on the Coliseum Street side.

My mom, dad and aunt are no longer alive, but it was an event they all talked about from time to time. My aunt's old dining room table had water stains about three inches up the legs from the flood water. It was a conversation piece for years."

Fences destroyed by the strong currents and floating debris.

Garage Court 14 inundated, the garage structures nearly destroyed.

A helicopter maneuvers to land on the roof of a building in Court 8, attempting to rescue
some Villagers who didn't evacuate.

Garage Court 14, looking at Building 73.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Surfing the Floodwaters - The Baldwin Hills Flood: December 14, 1963

Steve Close, right and his friend Jim Otto on their surfboards at the Otto's house on Bowesfield, just north of Baldwin Hills Village. Photo taken around the time of the flood.

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary this week of the Baldwin Hills Flood and Dam Break of December 14, 1963, Steve Close has been kind enough to share his recollections of the Flood. Steve grew up in Baldwin Hills Village, living here from 1943 until 1960. In recent years, he has helped with research and has shared his wonderful photographs of his family living in the Village. Here is his story...

Steve Close at right with his family in Court One, 1956.

In December of 1963, I had recently gotten a job as a janitor at the Rodeo Bowl on Rodeo Road. The Saturday the dam broke, a radio could be heard over the PA system.  Announcements were coming through before noon, indicating the Baldwin Hills reservoir dam was cracked and they were trying to pump out the water and evacuate the neighborhoods below the dam.

I didn't think that much of it. I'd seen the reservoir and dam and didn't think it really contained all that much water. Plus, it seemed as though they were working on getting it under control. Who'd think the thing would actually give way?

Architectural rendering of the Rodeo Bowl at 5755 Rodeo Road. Designed by architects Armet & Davis, the plush 32 lane bowling alley opened in April, 1957. Stripped of the mid-century detail, it is now the Baha'i Center. 

Sometime before 4pm I heard the desk manager ask for all patrons to come to the desk. His voice was calm, but his face had turned pale. Folks began to gather and he presently announced that the dam had broken and there was water in the street outside. He said there was no reason to panic and that it would be best to stay in the building.

I was the first one to look out the front door to see what was going on. I was stunned to see several feet of muddy, roiling brown water and debris flowing west on Rodeo Road. And about that time the water began to come in under the door of the bowling alley. Damn, and I had just cleaned the floor! I was skeptical about remaining in the building as I had visions of water filling the building up to the ceiling and eventually drowning.

I hurried over to the west side exit of the building that opened on La Cienega, where I saw that the water was rising and making its way north on La Cienega. There was a traffic jam as vehicles tried to move north on La Cienega away from the flood. But the cars were stuck. I remember being glad to be on foot!

Some people began to desperately (and futilely) honk their horns to get the cars ahead to move, but of course they couldn't move either. As the water rose to door level, one driver panicked and gunned his car into the car ahead, out of desperation and terror.

Cars stacked by floodwaters after the water had subsided.
Taken at the corner of La Cienega and Rodeo Road near the Rodeo Bowl.

I was living a couple of blocks north with my friend Jim Otto and his family at 5627 Bowesfield, which was on higher ground. I was concerned though that the water would eventually make its way there and drown the Otto’s dog Candice, a Basenji. I ran there about as fast as the water was moving. When I got there about five minutes later the street had perhaps 3 feet of water in it, and was already almost up to the porch, but the house was still dry. I checked the back yard for Candice, but she was gone. Someone had already rescued the dog.  

At the time I was into surfing and had a Dewey Weber surfboard in the garage. I thought it would be a great to paddle it around the neighborhood to see what was going on, so I got it out and began paddling towards the dam.

The water level seemed to be stabilizing, so I began to believe the worst was over. I was heading south on Clyde Street towards Rodeo road when I saw an elderly man clinging to a light post in a current of muddy water about waist deep. I paddled over and hesitantly offered assistance.

He agreed to let me try to get him on the board and paddle him home, a block or so away. I had to get off the board, partly swimming and perhaps touching the ground, to get him loaded on the board. After some fumbling around, I managed to get him aboard, and then I climbed on the back and began to paddle him home.

I took just a few minutes to get there and I paddled him up his driveway where he could finally get off on dry ground or shallow water and walk into his home. His wife was so happy to see him.

As the water receded I paddled back to Otto’s to drop the board, put on some rubber boots and picked my way through deep mud towards Rodeo Road, turning east to survey the damage. It was unbelievable. For one thing, I didn't see anyone else out there. No rescue people, no sightseers, no one. I saw cars overturned and leaning at odd angles. I looked into a few, dreading to see drowning victims, but fortunately, I found no bodies.

Looking east on Rodeo Place

Debris caught by trees, Court 14

Damage in a Garage Court

I made my way to the Village Green to make a foot survey. I didn’t see anyone amid the widespread destruction there either. 

The days were short and it was beginning to get dark, so by 5pm I finally went home.

Later, Jim Otto and I got a job cleaning up one of the luxury apartments in the Village Green that had once been part of the old Clubhouse. Though we were two young guys in good shape, after the first twelve hour day of shoveling mud we were so sore we were all but useless the next day, only lasting a few more hours. We shoveled so much mud out of there.

A group of photographs showing the two apartments in the old Clubhouse Building.
Steve Close and Jim Otto spent a day and a half cleaning the mud
out of one of these units.

Some homes in the path of the flood were stripped off their foundations. I understand some of the two story buildings in the Village had water clear to the roof. Though there were ultimately 5 fatalities, it was miraculous that casualties were so low considering the devastation the flood wreaked. Because of a fortunate advanced warning, most people in harm’s way successfully evacuated. I don't think I ever went back to the bowling alley. I didn't even care about my last paycheck.

Walls blown out at Building 30.

The force of the current is indicated by the debris, Building 71 in the background.

Walls ripped away by floodwaters and debris.

The force of the water tears out kitchen and dining room wall, Building 31.

The dining room and kitchen sheared from the
 three bedroom unit at the end of Building 31.

Building 31 sustains heavy damage
Flood mud can still be found underneath some of the kitchen cabinets today.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Our Cultural Landscape Report Progresses

On Saturday, January 12th, the Village Green Clubhouse was standing room only as the Cultural Landscape Report (CLR) Committee held the first in a series of events to engage in a community dialogue about the CLR. We wanted to know what is important to residents about our landscape and how to develop landscape guidelines that will help shape future decisions, yet maintain The Village Green as a livable National Historic Landmark property. After ten years of hard work mostly by volunteer members, the CLR is scheduled to be completed later this year. Over the course of the next several months, the CLR Committee will host more educational events, tours, and lectures, as well as distribute information gathered over the course of a decade. At this initial meeting, Tina Bishop and Shelby Sharen from the Mundus Bishop Design firm in Denver came to The Village Green for a workshop, with the goal of listening to the community, hearing what we like about the landscape as it is, what we’d like to see changed or improved, and other ways we might like to use the many acres of open green space we share. Mundus Bishop, who will be collaborating on the creation of treatment recommendations for the CLR, came highly recommended to us by the National Park Service. After the meeting on January 12th, I asked several attendees what they thought of the event, and what we might do to improve future events. The following is what they said.

About the facilitator of the day’s events, Tina Bishop, I heard nothing but praise. In addition to her ability to listen while not imposing her own opinions, people were impressed by her command of the audience. One commenter said that they thought Tina “did one of the most amazing jobs I have ever seen keeping people disciplined and productive during the meeting.” Another remarked that “I really appreciate how she stayed in control of the question session, so that it never got out of hand. You know how folks can be here ;).”
Overall, people felt that Tina was “sharp and knowledgeable about her field and about our property. She seems like a good fit to produce this half of the CLR,” and she presented the information clearly.
I think most people love the landscape as it is, and it’s natural that some felt apprehensive or worried about the process, fearing that they wouldn’t be allowed to provide input, or that the CLR Committee was only going to try to push for a Restoration of The Village Green landscape. People were concerned that alternatives to Restoration wouldn’t be considered. After the meeting, however, everyone I spoke to felt like their concerns were heard, and felt more comfortable that the upcoming treatment plan wouldn’t be a Restoration-only recommendation; that landscape elements the community has grown to love will be retained, and that alternatives would be part of the final treatment plan.
One of the people I interviewed had initially been fearful that Tina would be pushing for a Restoration approach, “but came away with a feeling that this report was not going to be just another ‘historic preservationist dream’ document with little significance for the rest of us. It was important for me to hear from Tina that she thought input and buy-in from homeowners was necessary to produce a good report.” Someone else came to the meeting concerned that “the planning would not be open to alternative/non-historic shrubbery and ground cover planting suggestions. That concern was quickly allayed. I hope that the planning will continue to be open to planting California natives that would attract even more butterflies and birds to the area.” Another concern I heard was “that the main green turf was somehow in danger.  It turned out that they wanted to de-turf the courts, which is fine by me.”
Areas for recreation have long been a controversial topic. In the last several years, a group of homeowners have been exploring the idea reintroducing play areas for children. A homeowner with children told me that “going into the meeting I was dreading what I perceive as an intolerant attitude toward children and their parents and it seemed to me those attitudes were on display Saturday. I felt on edge and sad about our anti-children neighbors but excited by all the other ideas. I hope we can make them happen.”
Even though the session in the Clubhouse went very well overall, there were some suggestions on how we might improve future meetings. One Villager said that “it would have helped me had the power point presentation been printed for the attendees, but just listening I had a clear idea of what was and will be transpiring regarding the treatment plan for Village Green.” Another pointed out that “there was a lot of information, all important, and I became a bit frustrated because the treatment of each set of considerations was so cursory before we had to shift to another set and then another and then on so quickly to specific details and owners' concerns and suggestions.  Since, apparently, "Landscape Architecture 101" had to be the format used that day, I think it would have been helpful had we been offered copies of the background criteria and considerations so briefly introduced.  VG people are smart and perfectly capable of digesting concepts and ideas.”
One person I spoke to suggested that we post information online, because “I prefer to read documents on my own time - post details on-line and I will read it all.” All very good points, and all will be considered for future meetings.

After the work session in the Clubhouse, the majority of the group ventured out into the Green for an outdoor working session, to talk about issues and concerns, and to hear more about the historic landscape through all of its phases. People really seemed to enjoy this portion of the day, and would like to see more walkabouts like this, as evidenced by these comments from several sources:
“I think it is a very illustrative way of showing the design concepts. I think EVERYONE should be encouraged to attend the tours; it really gives a clearer understanding of what we have planned. Maybe we can end the tour with a small picnic on the green if it is another gorgeous day?! I was reluctant to leave at the end of the last tour.”
“This gave me the visual perspective about how the historic fits into the current. It provided me an opportunity to see that more restoration is possible than I was willing to previously acknowledge. I hope another will be scheduled.”
“The tour was really an eye-opener. The concept of horizontal blocks of color and texture, which I'm sure I'd read before, became real as I was able to imagine and see advantages to decomposed granite or some similar permeable but NOT dusty and pebbly!!!! For me, the jury is still out on various other changes apparently to be suggested in the not-yet-written "treatment plan," but it was enormously helpful to see and hear the possibilities.”
Another homeowner said simply “the best vibe was when we were walking around.  Please continue to conduct meetings in that way.” And of course we will!
Some of the people I spoke with had expectations, as well as some concerns, going forward. Primarily, people hope “that the communication flow continues.” And I believe it will.
Another homeowner expressed concern that “people will reject the proposals without understanding them. Some ideas are actually money savers.  These should be highlighted in some way. I'd like to know if there is federal or state money for this, such as with the Mills Act.” Along these same lines, another homeowner told me they believe that we have bigger issues to take care of before we begin worrying about rehabilitating the landscape, saying “I'm concerned about money.  There was not a word about it on Saturday.  Okay, that's coming. I love the idea of rationalizing the chaos of our landscape and increasing its sustainability, but I really think doing something about the air leaks and inefficient heating systems in so many of our units should come first.  If grants could be secured that would cover the costs of landscape improvements that would certainly make a difference to my way of thinking.“
Tina has developed a Trip Report, detailing the information they gathered when they were here. This will be made available shortly on the Village Green's website.
Going forward, there will be more opportunity to be involved in the process. Tina and Shelby will be coming back to the Village Green for another community meeting, where the initial draft version of their treatment plan will be presented for discussion. This will be immediately followed by another walking workshop out in the Green, and hopefully, as some have suggested, by a picnic lunch on the Center Green. This will happen on Saturday, March 23, so mark your calendars now. The meeting will begin at 11am with Tina presenting a draft of their recommendations and welcoming further community feedback, then continue with a walking tour around the green. More announcements will be made in advance of the meeting to encourage as many residents as possible to attend and have a say in “their” Village Green.

Another great event will take place on Thursday, April 25th, when Charles Birnbaum, from the Cultural Landscape Foundation, will speak at the Village Green. We had the opportunity to show him the property a few years ago, which I wrote about for this blog.
I really encourage you to attend; he is a very powerful speaker!  Details to follow later.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Garden Dialogues: Pamela Palmer, landscape architect

The Horizon Garden at night. Photo by Jack Coyier Photography.

One of the byproducts of the research I've done into the life and career of Baldwin Hills Village landscape architect Fred Barlow, Jr. is the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. One of these wonderful people is landscape architect Pamela Palmer. I met Pamela through one of her oldest friends - that friend just happens to be the daughter of Fred Barlow, Jr.

Another of these great people is Charles Birnbaum. I’ve posted here before about the good work Charles Birnbaum and the staff at the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) are doing as advocates for the education and preservation of the country's historic landscapes. That advocacy includes the National Historic Landmark landscape of the Village Green. We are fortunate to have Charles Birnbaum as one of the historic landscape experts collaborating on the creation of our Cultural Landscape Report:

The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s website ( explains that one of their missions is to educate, providing people “the ability to see, understand and value landscape architecture and its practitioners, in the way many people have learned to do with buildings and their designers.”

Pamela's ingenious design for the gate, which provides just a Cinemascope sliver of what lies beyond.

As part of that education, TCLF hosts many events throughout the year, all over the country. Something new for 2012 is a series of "Garden Dialogues," one of which took place last weekend in Malibu.

TCLF explains that the Garden Dialogue initiative “has received considerable praise from participants and the media, provides exclusive access to private gardens in the Hamptons, Chicago, Newport, Sonoma and elsewhere, and opportunities to hear directly from the landscape architects and their patrons about the design process.”

COR-TEN and Lucite fence, with espaliered citrus against wall.

“How do patrons and designers work together? What makes for a great, enduring collaboration? Garden Dialogues provides unique opportunities for small groups to experience some of today’s most beautiful gardens created by some of the most accomplished designers currently in practice.”

As one of several TCLF Garden Dialogue events in Southern California, on Sunday, June 10th I had the fortunate experience of seeing landscape architect Pamela Palmer’s glorious garden for the home of screenwriter Frank Pierson, his wife Helene, and their two charismatic standard poodles in Malibu.

I never wanted to leave!

Pamela Palmer and her husband, architect Howard Rosen, have an environmental design firm in Venice, Artecho. ( Pamela and Howard were joined by other members of their staff, Marisol Metcalfe and Catherine Burce, who were on hand to answer questions and share their experiences.

Pamela, who studied Art at UCLA and has a Master’s in Landscape Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, has been featured in countless magazine articles, was in the documentary “Women in the Dirt,” ( and several of her landscapes are showcased in the gorgeous book “Private Paradise: Contemporary American Gardens,” by Charlotte M. Frieze, with an introduction by Charles Birnbaum (

The view as you enter the garden. Wow!

The garden on the tour, known as the “Horizon Garden,” is situated on a triangular lot high above the Pacific Coast Highway. The modest existing mid-century ranch house came with a spectacular view, a mature coral tree, and an otherwise shabby landscape. Homeowner Helene Pierson said that after working on getting the house in order, she and her husband began thinking of doing the same for the landscape. After several landscape designs around town caught her eye, she inquired, and they turned out to be the work of Pamela Palmer, and soon their collaboration began.

The horizon line, the inspiration for this garden.

The beloved coral tree was retained, and pruned to emphasize its sculptural quality. Under the dappled shelter of the tree Pamela created the functional focus of the garden, a semi-circular patio platform, paved in a blue-gray stone that blends into the horizontal blues and blue-grays of the sea and sky on the horizon.  Provisions for varied seating and lounging, and a marvelous spun stainless steel fire pit, make this outdoor living space a generous extension of the indoor rooms. The sparkling broken pieces of tempered glass in the fire pit echo the sparkling blues of the glittering sea below.

Helene's Jewel Box.

Just below the sweeping arc of the patio is a border of succulents, many of them chosen and cared for by Helene. She considers the vibrant colors of this succulent bed her “jewel box.”

The innovative infinity lawn creates an impromptu seating area.

Frank’s favorite spot in the garden is at the edge of another curved, sweeping horizontal panel - this time a panel of turf - creating an infinity lawn. A gravel path below, with a rusty COR-TEN steel retaining wall, gradually rises at the lawn’s edge, creating a seating area, from which one can contemplate the calming view just beyond. It would probably be my favorite spot too, to sit and watch the passing boats and helicopters below.

The labyrinth, with a marvelous retaining wall, created with different shades and textures of concrete.

Wonderful vignettes of color and texture are hidden all over the garden. Off to one side and behind the house is another circular space, enclosed by shrubbery and edible plants. The semi-circular panel of turf is embedded with a spiraling labyrinth of pieces of concrete.  

The landscape plan
"Garden Dialogues"

We all had a wonderful afternoon exploring the garden and all of its wonderful detail. There were "before and after" photographs, which showed how ingenious Pamela’s plan was. She had also brought the landscape plans and copies of the plant palette, which I found fascinating. During the discussion, and later in talking with Frank and Helene, it became obvious that these were very creative, dynamic and involved clients. I wondered - from the perspective of the landscape architect - how the collaborative design process differed with clients such as this (vs. the process if the client isn’t as creative or involved). I asked Pamela this question, and she said that at Artecho they enjoy working with both types of clients, though the “opportunities are different with each relationship.”

Succulents provide color and texture.

Pamela finds that “it is especially wonderful when we have the opportunity to work with clients who have flexible minds and great imagination (like Frank and Helene). When clients trust their design sense and mine, we enjoy discussing ideas and the resulting design is a true collaboration. I find that dynamic extremely satisfying. I want the client to be involved so that their garden truly is a reflection of their taste and design sense and incorporates materials and plants they love and spaces they will use. I listen carefully and bring my expertise to the table and we work to incorporate the ideas that will work together to make a unique and useful landscape that will flow and feel like it extends beyond the property so that a truly satisfying experience is created.  I am choreographing the landscape and I incorporate the moves that work for the space and program, and present the total design for comments.”

The mature coral tree, pruned into a living sculpture.

“As I think you know, I have at times worked alone in my studio, creating sculpture, prints, photographs, etc. which at some point later are shown and sometimes sold and placed in a landscape or collection. I much prefer working directly with the user and the dynamic process of putting our brains and experience together and coming up with a landscape scenario that speaks directly to the client, with the architecture on the specific site and is regionally and resource appropriate. We are working within boundaries, but our work must help the eye to travel beyond the boundaries to give a feeling of spaciousness so the mind can transcend the boundaries-out to the sea, above the treetops to hills, trees on a neighboring property, the sky. We are working on a piece of the puzzle and our design must consider the surrounding landscape and built environment.”  

The sweeping arc of the patio, protected by an old coral tree, which frames the views beyond.

“I also prefer the constraints of working within an environment to solve problems (environmental, circulation, spatial, other programmatic needs) while creating a new way of seeing space, rather then creating an isolated work.”

“The first afternoon that Helene and Frank invited me to their home, they told of a recent trip to Japan where they had visited Naoshima, a place of great contemporary architecture and art, which also considers the history of the place. Their thirst for exquisite beauty was established by that trip and I felt that set the bar for us all to strive for such beauty with a shared language; informed by the elegance of the experience they had on this trip.” 

The driveway with a glimpse of the Pacific beyond.

Bottom line is, I love the collaborative experience, and when others are into it, to collaborate with creative, can-do people - clients, architects, other landscape architects, engineers, contractors, artists, community stakeholders, maintenance people, etc. to create a landscape that is elevated because of the depth of experience brought to it results in a successful, long-lived project.”

It was a magical afternoon. The Cultural Landscape Foundation has more Garden Dialogues next month in other parts of the country - Connecticut, Indianapolis, Maine, Newport, Portland and Seattle. Check their website for more details.
What could be better?