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How LA addressed its postwar housing shortage

Park La Brea—a single megadevelopment—housed 10,000 residents in 18 high-rises and dozens of garden apartments

It is impossible not to notice. Right off the Miracle Mile, spread over 140 acres of prime Los Angeles real estate, Park La Brea is its own city in the middle of a metropolis. With around 175 garden-style apartment buildings, eighteen 13-story towers and 10,000 residents in more than 4,200 units, Park La Brea is an unavoidable—and necessary—example of multi-family housing on a massive scale.

Less than 100 years ago, the area was rural ranchland owned by the Hancock family, a portion of what remained of the once sprawling Rancho La Brea. According to historian Ruth Wallach, author of Miracle Mile in Los Angeles: History and Architecture, George Allan Hancock donated the land to the University of Southern California in 1939.

In 1940, the New York City-based Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which had been in the insurance game since the Civil War, purchased more than 178 acres of land from USC for $1.5 million. The company had recently begun building moderate-income housing in major cities, including New York and San Francisco, and set its sights on Los Angeles, where housing was in acutely short supply.

According to Wallach, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s initial plan to build a mammoth garden-city complex off the Miracle Mile was initially opposed by local property owners and insurance policy owners.

“When we began our project here and in other cities, people felt that it would be a disadvantage to other local builders,” Frederick H. Ecker, former president of Metropolitan would recall in 1951, according to the Los Angeles Times. “This simply is not true. Because of our mass production methods and high standard in quality of construction we can give facilities which other builders could not possibly afford to maintain. As it has worked out, we really are not a competitor of local housing enterprises.”

The battle went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Metropolitan in 1940. Desperate for more housing, the city of Los Angeles threw its weight behind the project and helped annex unincorporated land to speed up construction.

Work on Parklabrea (initially all one word) started in May 1941. Designed in the progressive garden-style plan by Leonard Schultz and Associates and Earl Heitzschmidt, the original layout called for dozens of two-story garden style apartment buildings in a “Colonial Modern” style. The self-contained landscape, which featured expansive open green spaces, was designed by landscape architect Tommy Tomson, who also helped design Union Station.

“Parklabrea’s overall street plan is in the shape of a diamond connected to two octagons on its east and west via circular plazas,” Wallach writes. “Diagonal streets radiate from the diamond and octagons, creating a grid that is entirely distinct from the mainly gridiron pattern of the surrounding streets. This layout makes the residential development a self-contained environment.”

According to Wallach, Park La Brea’s unique layout was based on a French Baroque pattern. This focus on serene, private outdoor spaces was one of the main tenants of the Garden City Movement, which was adapted by Southern California developers in the 1930s and ’40s.

With America’s entry into World War II, construction slowed, as materials and labor became scarce. Plans for a second wave of construction were put on hold, but the need for wartime housing meant that Park La Brea remained a priority for housing authorities. “Under war conditions enough units are being built to house from 3,500 to 4,000 persons,” the LA Times reported in 1943. “The project ultimately will accommodate more than 10,000 tenants.”

A model apartment at Park La Brea.
Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Park La Brea, one of the country’s largest apartment centers, under construction.
Bettmann Archive

Construction on the first phase was completed in 1944. Rents were set from around $52 to $90 a month. Units each included a large picture window in the living room overlooking a green courtyard. “In keeping with the California climate for outdoor recreation, parks, tennis courts and playgrounds were also available to tenants,” the LA Times reported. Overseeing it all was manager Alice Newberry, who would run Park La Brea for the better park of two decades.

In 1948, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company announced it would begin construction of phase two at Park La Brea. Instead of completing the uniform garden apartment plan, in the style of Village Green, Metropolitan decided to build modern towers to make room for more families. This was probably to accommodate the huge number of returning GIs in search of affordable housing in the postwar era.

Acute housing shortages plagued the U.S. and LA in particular after World War II. According to the California Department of Transportation, “more than 2.8 million new households were formed during the first two years after the war.” A lack of housing meant that new mass production techniques and large scale developments were desperately needed, and Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley were no exception. At Park La Brea, construction began on a massive scale. According to the Los Angeles Times:

For the last several years (with the work stopped by the war) foundations, partly built brick walls and stairways have stood stark and lonely on the wide easterly expanse of the Parklabrea site. It will take about two months to demolish them and in their place will rise, it is planned, 18 limit-height apartment buildings and three blocks of two-story apartment structures all in a parklike setting conforming to that of the already developed portion of Parklabrea… the material from the demolition will not be used in the new buildings.

Residents of Park La Brea would become accustomed to the constant sound of construction over the next few years. They would also find themselves subjected to the continual queries of the rabid LA press in October 1949, when one of their most popular residents vanished into the cool fall night.

On October 7 of that year, actress Jean Spangler ran down the steps of her Park La Brea apartment. She told her family that she was headed to the nearby Farmer’s Market to discuss child support payments with her ex-husband, Dexter Benner. But she told her five-year-old daughter she was going to work.

Jean Spangler was never seen again. Due to her film work, ties to mobster Mickey Cohen, and reputation as a party girl, her disappearance created a sensation. The mystery only deepened when her purse was found at Fern Dell in Griffith Park. But no solid leads were ever found, and Spangler became one of the many unsolved murders that plagued LA in the late 1940s.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company continued to build large scale housing projects all over the country (according to the LA Conservancy, these would include Parkmerced in San Francisco, Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, Parkchester in the Bronx, and Parkfairfax in Alexandria, Virginia). It was joined by other life insurance companies, which found community-building a safe bet in the house-hungry postwar environment.

“Reflecting a commitment to public service and an interest in abiding investments, life insurance companies after the Second World War were responsible for the construction of an unprecedented number of housing developments across the United States,” according to Aaron Cayer in the Journal of Urban History. “They were able to help alleviate housing shortages, elevate the standards of postwar housing, and offer new forms of modern living.”

At an insurance company conference at the Biltmore Hotel in 1948, Metropolitan Vice President Henry North explained the appeal of financing new communities, the LA Times reported:

“We and several other of the larger insurance companies are investing our funds in new dwelling properties,” he explained. “This interests the companies for three reasons:

It is a permanent investment.

It gives white-collar workers decent housing at moderate rentals.

It affords employment to building industry workers.”

The second phase of construction at Park La Brea, costing more than $30 million, would dwarf the first. Architect Leonard Schultz was again at the helm, this time in charge of the design of eighteen futuristic 13-story apartment buildings that would be arranged in a unique X pattern.

Occasionally referred to as the “dragon teeth,” according to Wallach, the unique placement of the towers has led some (conspiracy theorists) to point to the layout as the work of the Illuminati. According to writer R. Daniel Foster, the towers were actually laid out in an X to assure that every tenant had a picturesque view.

Plans were also made for a high-rise shopping center at Third and Ogden Streets, designed by renowned architect Stiles O. Clements. Even the new shrubbery would cost more than $1 million. Metropolitan’s investment was considered a huge boon to the city of Los Angeles.

“A project of that magnitude with costs of probably between 30,000,000 and 40,000,000 could be launched logically only in a community whose achievement record and possibilities invite every range of investment,” columnist Charles Cohan enthused in the LA Times. “Los Angeles may well be gratified by that again recognized fact. At the same time such investment should be an incentive to continued city progress along the right lines.”

Residents began to move into the new towers by early 1951. To accommodate the thousands of new renters flooding into the area, a new trackless trolley stop was added at Park La Brea (the ribbon was cut by ice skater Montel Phillips, Miss Park La Brea for the day) on September 7, 1950. The LA Times reported on the new development, now an unmistakable landmark on the Miracle Mile:

Eighteen 13-story concrete Class A apartment buildings have now changed the Los Angeles skyline, and in their attractive grouping may be seen for great distances. These X-shaped structures were designed to conform with stringent building codes providing for earthquake protection….The new Tower buildings actually occupy but nine and one-half acres of ground area surrounded by acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and park space and recreational parks containing professional tennis courts, basketball and hand ball courts, shuffleboard and other similar sports facilities.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Park La Brea was the height of hip, considered a perfectly executed example of modern city living. Actress Patricia Morrison, of Kiss me Kate fame moved in and didn’t leave until her death in 2018.

However, everything wasn’t so rosy. Morrison claimed that the management did not allow black residents in the complex during the 1960s. By the ’70s and ’80s, it had become to many an outdated eyesore, populated mainly by elderly residents. In 1983, due to safety concerns, the streets of Park La Brea were closed to outside traffic, and gates and security booths were built, further adding to a sense of isolation in the Park La Brea bubble.

It is this sense of serenity and safety that drew (and continues to draw) many newcomers to Park La Brea, including in time a large population of Korean and Indian immigrants.

For others new to Los Angeles, the looming towers, painted black and gold today, represented a new, metropolitan life. Longtime Angeleno Helaine Cira lived in the towers during the early 1990s during pilot season, fresh from provincial Florida. “The biggest thing that I remember that I got such a kick out of and that I loved is that you could actually see the Hollywood Sign from the living room,” Cira says.

“I knew that if it was a really smoggy day you couldn’t see it at all, and if it was really clear and beautiful you could totally see it clear as day,” she says.

Cira also remembers walking on the ordered streets of Park La Brea, olives from the carefully planted olive trees “squished on the sidewalk.” Renovations initiated by Prime Property Capital Inc. (now Prime Group), which acquired Park La Brea in 1995, would soon make these trees a thing of the past. Prime Property dramatically altered the landscape, replacing the olive trees with drought resistant trees and shrubs.

“I had never really lived in a place like this before, so I felt like I was dipping a toe in a totally different lifestyle,” Cira recalls of her first experience in high-rise living at Park La Brea. “A life that I really wanted to belong to but didn’t quite belong yet, but boy was it fun to play and pretend for a bit. I had always lived in houses my whole life.”

For entertainer and comedian Bruce Gold, who travels up to 26 weeks a year, the community offered a quiet respite from the road. “I took one look at the view from my 11th floor two-bedrooms, two-bathroom tower apartment, signed the lease minutes later and stayed for 20 years,” Gold recalls. “Park La Brea is the kind of place you don’t move out of unless you buy a home or leave the city.”

He points to several factors that made Park La Brea the perfect home for a busy working professional like himself. Echoing others who have lived at Park La Brea, Gold says that other tenants were for the most part friendly and anonymous, the apartment functional and comfortable.

“My apartment wasn’t fancy, but the kitchen and its original metal cabinets were functional and efficient, and the wood parquet flooring made the entire space warm and inviting,” he says. “The view was unmatched off of the Wilshire corridor and best of all, I could see the Hollywood Sign from my living room, just in case I forgot why I moved here from Florida years ago. While some prefer an ocean view, I love a high-rise with its mountain views and the twinkle of the city lights at night.”

There was also Park La Brea’s central location, which has drawn tenants for generations. “What I loved most was that it was gated, green, and even with traffic I could make it to LAX in 30 minutes,” Gold says. “When a new company bought the complex, they gentrified the complex, and I could stroll to an onsite cafe and revitalized park—all within walking distance. When The Grove was built across the street, I had the delight of leaving my car in its parking space all weekend and being able to stroll across the street for shopping, dinner and a movie.”

In 2010, Park La Brea underwent another extensive $8 million renovation and rebranding. According to the LA Times, modern amenities and outdoor recreation were added, along with Art Deco motifs.

In 2015, Freddie Mac provided $878 million in refinancing for Park La Brea, the largest loan in its history. That same year, LA Weekly reported that residents were plagued by broken elevators, cockroaches, and little to no help from management. Former residents interviewed for this story concurred, pointing to rising rents and inattentive management as reasons for their departure.

While Park La Brea’s thousands of residents continue to experience the ups and downs of mid-city metropolitan life, for some longtime renters it is the only place they want to live. Though Bruce Gold left when he became a homeowner in Studio City, he still looks fondly on his time at Park La Brea.

“If Park La Brea had gone condo and was within my price range I’d probably have been a resident for life,” he says. “Being able to stroll to The Grove, Whole Foods or the many new shops, restaurants and newly revitalized museums is a bonus, not to mention its... environment, parks, fountains, and lovely biking trails. It is a truly unique property that only seems to improve with time, and though I may never reside there again it will always have a place in my heart.”

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