Part of a series on the Wyvernwood community, the sister city to Baldwin Hills Village/Village Green.
See the other Wyvernwood posts HERE
See the other Wyvernwood posts HERE
Wyvernwood begins construction, 1939. Dick Whittington Photo Archives, USC.
Wyvernwood, the unprecedented garden apartment community conceived by John S. Griffith, was a creative and groundbreaking success on many different levels. Influential magazine California Arts & Architecture praised its innovative site plan, remarking that “the general organization of the units and the careful separation of utilities, play yards, and gardens makes for a new conception of low rent community living on a large scale,” and that Wyvernwood offered a “high degree of livability and convenience with unobstructed light and air.”[i] The “city in itself” was described as “intelligently conceived” and “hailed a housing achievement.”[ii]
Griffith and his team succeeded in taking the seeds of several blossoming concepts, and reinterpreting them at Wyvernwood on a monumental scale. They spearheaded singular and imaginative new ideas in management, design, technology and mass-production techniques - not only for the buildings, but for the landscape as well.
Griffith also made it very clear that his new community was “related in no way to the so-called slum clearance projects under city or county authority. It is being financed under the largest single insured Federal Housing Act loan in the United States.” It was also the first major FHA-insured loan to be permanently financed by a commercial bank.”[iii]
Colonial Gardens, Alexandria, Virginia, 1935
THE RISE OF THE GARDEN APARTMENT
Though Wyvernwood was the largest FHA-insured multiple housing development in the United States in 1939, it wasn’t the first. That milestone was set four years earlier by a much smaller garden apartment development in Alexandria, Virginia, known as Colonial Gardens. Conceived by developer Gustave Ring, designed by architect Harvey H. Warwick, Sr., with a landscape attributed to James K. Wright, Colonial Gardens served as the prototype for the FHA-insured, large-scale rental housing projects that followed, and its exemplary site plan and low-density layout would be widely admired and used as a model for garden apartments around the United States.
An immediate success when it opened in 1935, the 276 apartments at Colonial Village were quickly and fully occupied, with a waiting list of 10,000 people.[iv]
Between 1935 and 1940, and using Clarence Stein’s Radburn Plan principles as their guiding inspiration, the FHA insured mortgages on 200 garden apartments, both large and small, in the United States.
Colonial Gardens, Alexandria, Virginia, 1935
Garden apartments, a distinctly mid-20th Century design concept, were defined as being “composed of individual buildings forming a group of at least three buildings designed and constructed specifically to function as a multiple dwelling. These small buildings were designed to contain at least four self-sufficient dwelling units. The group is designed and sited to relate to the surrounding landscape.”[v] The Architectural Forum observed that garden apartments “offered renters the nearest thing to “home” that can be found in apartment buildings – private entrances, front yards, few overhead neighbors.”[vi]
The success and proliferation of garden apartments proved that the FHA rental-housing program had provided ample evidence of the high-grade investment possibilities of rental projects where the qualities of good planning and good management were present, as evidenced by how quickly they were able to attain full occupancy.[vii]
Wyvernwood during construction, 1939. Dick Whittington Photo Archives, USC
FHA: LOW RENTALS MEAN HIGHER RETURNS
In the five years leading up to Wyvernwood’s construction, John S. Griffith had done an exhaustive study to determine just the right type of development to pursue on his wife’s Hostetter Tract. Deciding that he wanted to fulfill his father-in-law’s vision of incorporating modern housing into the light industrial tract, he began researching the new developments in FHA funding and modern housing in the US and abroad. He quickly ruled out an upper-class, high-rent development, as the business case against it as a long-term investment was too strong.
The Architectural Record had argued that “any high rent apartment project is a comparatively risky undertaking for the investor, and, in turn, for FHA. Tenants who can afford to spend $15 and more per room on rent are by nature transitory tenants. They will move down to lower rent quarters during economic depression, will move up into new buildings as they are completed, and eventually will probably move out to buy or build a house.”
Because FHA standards were set up to protect mortgage money, FHA housing was intended to accommodate the comparatively financially stable, middle-income group.[viii] Because this market hadn’t truly been exploited by builders and developers, who regularly “aim at the highest possible rents in hope of making a quick financial killing, overlooking the cold forbidding facts revealed by rental experience,” it left a very large and under-supplied - yet stable - market for private enterprise rental housing.[ix]
“The low rent housing market will be tapped as soon as Building realizes that the net profit – not the rent scale – is the yard stick for measuring a project’s success. Well planned low rent projects, economically constructed and operated, offer unlimited opportunities for investors seeking a steady, long term net income.” It was pointed out that the FHA’s Large Scale Rental Housing Division was “interested in seeing this low rent housing market cracked wide open.” [x]
During his analysis, John S. Griffith learned that the FHA requirements dictated that the existing social and economic background of the population in a given community would determine the most desirable type of housing needed there. The incomes of families within that community would need to be analyzed to determine what rents the majority could economically afford to pay, and the housing proposed should be designed for that specific market.
The community ultimately created under the direction of John S. Griffith would be located in an area which had been zoned and used for light industry, with the residential sections nearby housing skilled factory or office workers. [xii] Griffith envisioned a garden apartment community which would attract and cater to “younger professional people, junior executives and business people.”[xiii] He also said that Wyvernwood would be “designed to provide homes far more modern, comfortable and convenient, and more luxuriously equipped than are generally found throughout Los Angeles.” At the same time, he said, rents would be “as low or lower than those generally lacking modern conveniences.”[xiv]
ASSEMBLING HIS TEAM
Once he had decided on what he was going to build, John S. Griffith hired the firm of Witmer & Watson to serve as architects for the project. Besides the fact that Griffith lived in a large home designed by Witmer & Watson, he no doubt had become more intimately associated with David J. Witmer in his role as Supervisor of Architecture for the Southern California district of the FHA, as Griffith did his own analysis and research pursuing the Wyvernwood Project.
True to their longtime philosophies on successful site planning, Witmer & Watson more than likely encouraged John S. Griffith to engage the services of a landscape architect as early on in the process as possible. Witmer probably recommended Hammond Sadler as landscape architect, due to his personal and professional relationship with Sadler, as well as his respect for his artistry and past experience in planning large-scale communities such as Palos Verdes Estates.[xv] Griffith had a tight timeline, so the team immediately got to work on the layout and organization of the site plan, before collaborating on the architecture and landscape design of the community.
Writing later about the evolution of the design, architect David J. Witmer said that the primary concern at the outset was the “considerations of the fundamental physiological needs and the fundamental psychological needs of the occupants, together with essential protection against contagion and accidents.” To fulfill these objectives, they would need to provide “a high degree of livability and convenience of dwelling units, easy accessibility, unobstructed light and circulation of air, pleasing outlook, sufficient and modern sanitation, opportunities for privacy, provision for children’s safety and play, close proximity of the family automobile, freedom from the noise and hazard of through traffic, safe travel to grade schools, reasonable proximity of schools, playgrounds and shopping centers, and by no means least, the enduring appeal of attractive appearance and pleasant surroundings.”[xvi]
Their first order of business was to return the land from a sub-division of gridiron streets to the original undeveloped condition. The next step was to plot a minimum of streets generally following contours for ease of travel and winding through the property, on the one hand to discourage through traffic and on the other hand to provide easy accessibility to the majority of building sites.[xvii]
The property was approximately three-quarters of a mile long and one-quarter of a mile wide, though irregularly shaped. The overall site plan was developed collaboratively by the architects and landscape architect, with the goal to take every advantage of the site’s unique topography, creating a self-contained community, providing maximum privacy with ready accessibility.[xviii]
In collaboration with Hammond Sadler, Witmer & Watson utilized an existing natural ravine to serve as a surface drain in the rare event of flooding caused by heavy rains; the runoff would be directed to storm drains which passed underneath the site. The ravine, incorporated into the design of the site, created the main axis, and became a wide landscaped mall around which the majority of the rest of the site was arranged.
Witmer explained that “the system of interior walks and paths will lead children safely through attractive areas to the adjacent school without the hazard of crossing much travelled streets. At the same time these paths will offer pedestrian access to the shopping center at the southwest, which will complete the character of Wyvernwood as a self-contained and well served residential community.”[xix]
Garage courts with private enclosed garages were intelligently located with respect to the apartment units they would serve, consolidating auto storage and resulting in greater convenience, order and accessibility, while reducing the number of driveways opening onto the few streets onsite.[xx] This, with the limited number of streets, resulted in a greater concentration of open areas and spaces between buildings.
“The extent of open spaces offered excellent protection against the spread of fire and contagion, provided ample circulation of air and unobstructed sunlight, and gave the opportunity for pleasant surrounding and outlook,” Witmer explained.[xxi]
Each garage court had a walled-in garbage area with incinerator, adjoining an enclosed but ventilated room for refuse storage. “Wyvernwood should be a community unhampered by rows of unsightly refuse containers and thus not become a breeding place for carriers of disease,” Witmer said.
Wyvernwood during construction, 1939. Dick Whittington Photo Archives, USC
David J. Witmer had spearheaded the creation of uniform building codes in California in 1930, primarily as a means of providing earthquake protection. At Wyvernwood, he said that “the need of offering protection against damage from earthquake and the required basic economy of cost of construction, led to the selection of a type of dwelling structure with deep, heavy foundations and unusually strong and well braced timber frames. Such structures, with an inch of reinforced cement plaster exterior covering and 7/8” gypsum lath and plaster interior covering, provide more than usual protection against fire and the spread of fire in these dwellings. Further enhancement of the surroundings and added fire protection is given by the installation of underground electric service, as well as the usual underground water and gas services.”[xxii]
For the design of the structures themselves, Witmer & Watson made sure that the apartments would be comfortable and livable. To ensure effective cooling in summer weather, every dwelling had crossdraft ventilation with at least two exposures, while more than half had the added benefit of three exposures.
Additionally, each would be thoroughly insulated not only from the elements, but also between units, to prevent noises in one dwelling from being heard in another.[xxiii] This insulation was provided by Palco Wool, which was a light-weight fleecy material obtained by shredding into fibres the thick bark of the California Redwood trees, which were noted as protecting “against fire and the elements for countless centuries.” This insulation, a by-product of lumber used for construction, ensured nothing was wasted from the materials used.[xxiv]
The architects used other innovative new materials to save money. For example, in bathrooms a new and modern material called Plystone was utilized in place of tile. “Plystone is a colored wall veneer made through baking a plastic on asbestos- cement sheeting. It is almost mirror smooth and has a permanent gloss finish which is very hard.”[xxv]
Aesthetically, for the design of the buildings Witmer explained that “in a housing community of such extent it seemed essential to keep the exterior design of the buildings simple and straightforward for enduring appeal, and to rely upon proportion and silhouette and a moderate variety of simple detail to relieve monotony, with the clean lines of modern building coupled with the restrained suggestion of traditional design, light and cheerful colors.”[xxvi] The “restrained suggestion of traditional design” drew references from the Monterey Colonial Revival style, long favored by Witmer & Watson.
In order to avoid the potential monotony of such simple architecture on such an extensive site, an important design consideration was to group buildings in clusters of similar style, using color as a tool to break up the repetitiousness. Buildings were to be covered in stucco which had an integral light-colored pastel pigment, reducing the necessity of maintenance, while doors, windows and trim were painted in more vibrant and contrasting pastel shades. This design strategy gave each individual area in the community its own unique identity, while providing a means for residents to differentiate one court or section from another.
The landscape being installed at Wyvernwood, May, 1939. Note the Sears-Roebuck tower in the distance.
Dick Whittington Photo Archives, USC.
Hammond Sadler began work designing what was "declared to be the largest single landscaping job of its kind ever undertaken in the West. In all, more than 70 per cent of the entire 72 1/2 acres which the development occupies, is to be devoted to garden-type landscaping. Approximately 600,000 trees, shrubs and plants will be necessary to complete this huge task." Sadler's plan provided for a "landscaping scheme of integrated parks, lanes and courts offering a developing interest, with a wealth of color and variety in trees and planting material." Fourteen acres alone were to be devoted to lawns, while "all buildings throughout the entire community face on large landscaped areas. Some are more than 1000 feet long. Buildings are widely separated and so situated that there is a lovely garden view from every room.”[xxvii]
Though a full-time permanent staff of twenty-five gardeners was planned, Sadler used plant material from his trusted tool box of trees and plants developed in his years in California; plants which were mostly native or Mediterranean, in order to conserve water and reduce maintenance. Most apartments were given small, private garden areas to plant their own flowers, further reducing maintenance provided by the management. [xxviii]
Like the buildings, Sadler’s landscape plan also used color effectively to differentiate certain areas of the Wyvernwood community. “Thousands of varicolored flowers and shrubs” were later described as having “enhanced the picturesque appearance” of the community. [xxix]
One area in particular called the Olive Court was given a lot of attention in the press. “The garden area separating the two rows of buildings is known as Sussex Lane and is approximately 1100 feet long and 100 feet wide and entirely planted to grass, plants, shrubs and trees with walks running between the buildings. In the center of this particular area is Olive Court which is approximately 175 feet wide and 225 feet long.” The olive trees planted were mature specimens, 30-35 feet high. Over 100 trees were to be planted just in this area alone. [xxx]
An important element in the landscape, which Sadler designed in collaboration with the architects, was the many areas which were set aside for the recreational use of the community. “Residents of Wyvernwood are given full use of badminton courts and a number of these courts are located at close intervals though the community. Numerous play yards, completely equipped with slides, swings and sand boxes, are available for use of residents’ children.”[xxxi] These small play yards were situated to be visible from dwelling units.
A much larger, 5-acre playground for older children and adults, covering almost a full square block, was also planned, and would include a baseball diamond, handball and horseshoe courts and facilities for numerous other sports[xxxii]
The work crews collect their paychecks, Wyvernwood, 1939
MASS PRODUCTION CONCEPTS
With plans for the design of the community finalized, and funding secured, John S. Griffith and his design team created state-of-the-art mass-production construction techniques for efficient building. Mass production techniques had been perfected years earlier by Henry Ford for automobile production, and would soon be utilized extensively at defense factories all over the Southland. Griffith said that “for the first time the application of modern large scale construction methods has made it possible for people to really get their money’s worth.”[xxxiii]
“A great deal of study was given to prefabrication and rationalized building techniques, in order to take full advantage of the economies which the huge size of the project made possible. Low rents are attributed to the savings thus affected. Ready-mixed concrete for foundations; standard, demountable, steel and plywood forms which were used over and over again; exceptionally accurate installation of rough framing to receive mill work with a minimum of fitting; prefitted, premortised windows and doors; and site fabricated roof trusses were all employed for their small unit savings which add up to huge totals when applied to the project as a whole. Even the unusual character of the planting was dictated by the same desire for maximum economy.”[xxxiv]
Griffith explained that “such projects are made possible through careful planning plus large-scale construction and operation. Obviously it is possible to buy a far superior quality of equipment and materials when building 1000 apartments than when building a dozen or so.”[xxxv]
The Los Angeles firm of Lindgren & Swinnerton was awarded the enormous construction contract. A ten month estimated construction period was indicated, with five weeks necessary to assemble building materials before work could start.[xxxvi] “Exclusive use of Los Angeles labor and Southern California materials” was assured, including over 80,000 bags of cement, 2500 kegs of nails and 350 tons of reinforced steel. “From 700 to 1000 men directly employed in the skilled building trades will be working steadily for a period of ten months, with a pay roll of approximately $1,125,000.”[xxxvii]
On the morning of July 14, 1938, the front page of the Los Angeles Times announced that “Seven million board feet of lumber will begin singing through a sawmill on the East Side within the next sixty days when work begins on one of the largest housing projects in the building annals of America.” The sawmill, set up adjacent to the construction site, would “cut and finish the forest of trees needed in construction. The lumber for each unit of the project will be delivered cut to size.”[xxxviii]
But it wasn’t only the buildings which benefitted from these innovative mass production techniques – the landscape was also “mass produced” on-site. This succeeded in increasing efficiency, with the added benefit that the plant material could acclimate itself to the site over that time.
More than a year before Wyvernwood opened, Peck & Wadsworth, landscape contractors with a nursery specializing in fine trees, established an on-site, ten acre nursery immediately adjoining the construction site “where almost everything used in the beautification of the community has been grown. In all, over 600,000 plants, shrubs and trees will be required.”[xxxix]
When John S. Griffith began determining management policies for the quickly-rising community, he had very little in the way of experience and guidance from similar properties from which to draw. As a result, many important considerations of landlord-tenant relationships had to be decided arbitrarily.
Griffith knew that what they were building was unprecedented, and he wanted Wyvernwood to be a model not only of the latest in financing, technology and site planning, but also an example of a new and active community which would strive to be a new paradigm for human rights.
Appointing Howard Cunningham as manager of operations for Wyvernwood, they started by tacking a large printed copy of the Golden Rule on their office wall and went to work. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” became their guiding principle. [xl]
Naturally, the policies they would create would have to provide the utmost in protection to the Hostetter Estate, the owners of the property. However, from a tenant’s standpoint, “the entire theme of living in a new type of community such as Wyvernwood was different from any they previously had known.” Therefore, one of the most important problems was “the selection of tenants who would establish and preserve harmony among themselves.”
According to FHA guidelines, “in the operation and management of the property itself, the corporation is free to determine its own policies.” It was said that “the terms of leases generally conform to practices prevailing in the particular communities, although the inclination is to favor a simplified lease form.” [xli]
In Southern California, however, it was not customary for owners of rental properties to require tenants to sign a lease. Griffith and Cunningham decided to forego the idea of introducing a lease, instead developing a formal application process for rental designed to give the management practically the same protection normally offered by a lease, with the added function of “keeping out the undesirables,” noting that while it is essential to have a ready means of eliminating those deemed undesirable, “it is still more important to prevent their gaining entrance in the first instance.”[xlii]
The formal process, apparently unprecedented, required a prospective renter to fill out an application form, listing their present address, past address over a 5-year period, business address, name of business or name of employer, credit references, nationality, number in family, age of children, type of pets owned, and the unit desired.
The completed application was sent to an investigation bureau for checking, and then to a renting committee. Reasons for rejection ranged from “bad credit and destructive habits to unacceptable moral characteristics and inharmonious neighbor relations.”[xliii]
Griffith pointed out that “when the tenant moves in, an effort is made to impress upon him the idea that Wyvernwood is on trial for him, and the he is on trial for Wyvernwood, and also that should the trial prove unsatisfactory either to him or the management the arrangement can be terminated easily without the cumbersome process of canceling a lease.” Units would be rented on a month-to-month basis, with only a 30 days’ written notice required on the part of either party.
Rents were set at approximately $8.75 per room per month, or a unit average of approximately $35 (upon opening, rents ranged from $29.95 per month for a one bedroom, to $43.75 per month for a three bedroom. Rental prices included range, refrigerator, water and garden maintenance)[xliv]. It was noted that “the mild climate made possible a low-cost type of construction, so that the mortgage financing amounted to only $648 per room, or approximately $2,600 per family unit. The owners voluntarily reduced rents to an average of less than $8.50 per room for the first units completed, and reports indicate that full occupancy will be attained on completion.”[xlv]
A plan for permanent maintenance requires that one-fourth of the total annual rental for each of the 1102 dwellings be set aside to provide constant maintenance of buildings and grounds.”[xlvi]
All phases of Wyvernwood’s management would be handled by the project’s own administrative staff, which was headed by Howard Cunningham. He oversaw various departments including general administration, renting, service collecting and auditing, and maintenance.
“In many respects the Wyvernwood Administration Building, which is a two-story office structure similar in architecture to the residential buildings and which serves as headquarters for the administrative staff, closely resembles in function a small-town city hall. From the standpoint of administration its principal activity is to promote and maintain community harmony. Probably the best approach to this problem is the one emphasized by the Wyvernwood management – careful selection of residents.”[xlvii]
Construction ran smoothly during 1939, and an opening date of August 25 was set.
SEE THE ENTIRE SET OF WYVERNWOOD POSTS HERE
SEE THE ENTIRE SET OF WYVERNWOOD POSTS HERE
[iii] “Largest Rental Housing Project Under Way,” Insured Mortgage Portfolio, Vol. 3, 1938, p. 19; It was reported that “the project is financed by $425,000 in private funds and a $3,000,000 loan under the Federal Housing Act,” with the $3,000,000 coming from the Bank of America National Trust & Savings Association.
[iv] “Garden Apartments, Apartment Houses and Apartment Complexes in Arlington County, Virginia 1934-1954,” US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet, Section E, p. 17
[vii] “FHA Experience With Rental Housing,” Insured Mortgage Portfolio, Vol. 4, April, 1940, p. 12; The success of Colonial Village coincided with the beginning of conceptual development of Baldwin Hills Village – Reginald D. Johnson and Lewis E. Wilson began collaborating on the Village in 1935, looking for a suitable piece of land in Los Angeles, with Robert E. Alexander doing the first sketch for the Village in 1935 as well.
[viii] “Multiple Housing Under FHA: Government Housing Standards,” Architectural Record, Sept 1938, p. 97
[xv] While I haven’t been able to pinpoint any structures prior to Wyvernwood that Sadler and Witmer & Watson collaborated on, Witmer & Watson did do some houses in Palos Verdes Estates during the years Sadler was working there with the Olmsted Brothers. Witmer’s sister Mary (Mrs. Levering Lawrason), a friend of Sadler and his wife, was a well-known and successful interior designer in Palos Verdes, while Witmer himself served on the Palos Verdes Estates Art Jury, alongside Hammond Sadler, from 1936-41. So they knew each other socially, as well as professionally. With Sadler’s background developing large-scale “City Beautiful” work with the Olmsted Brothers firm, he would be ideally suited to this unprecedented development.
[xvi] “Problems of Planning Large Scale Housing Are Discussed by Architect,” Southwest Builder and Contractor, July 14, 1939, pp. 12-13
[xx] “Problems of Planning Large Scale Housing Are Discussed by Architect,” Southwest Builder and Contractor, July 14, 1939, pp. 12-13
[xxvi] “Problems of Planning Large Scale Housing Are Discussed by Architect,” Southwest Builder and Contractor, July 14, 1939, pp. 12-13
[xxvii] “Landscaping to Be Started,” Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1939, p. E; “Problems of Planning Large Scale Housing Are Discussed by Architect,” Southwest Builder and Contractor, July 14, 1939, pp. 12-13
[xxxvii] “Huge Construction Program Will Boost Southland Industry,” Los Angeles Times, Aug 7, 1938, p. 13
[xl] “Wyvernwood and Its Rental Policies,” Insured Mortgage Portfolio, Vol. 4, No. 8, February, 1940, p. 8
[xlii] “Wyvernwood and Its Rental Policies,” Insured Mortgage Portfolio, Vol. 4, No. 8, February, 1940, p. 8