Opinion: Choose History over the Wrecking Ball
This 1911 bungalow is a window into Santa Monica’s past that is worth saving
By Susan Suntree
In 1875, the amazing Arcadia Bandini de Baker and her new husband teamed up with wealthy silver magnate Senator John P. Jones to found Santa Monica.
One of seven original bungalows built on a lot owned by Senator Jones is where I’ve lived and written for 31 years. Lacking the protections that come with an historic landmark district, it might soon be torn down and replaced with a high-density apartment building.
The whole cluster of early 20th-century bungalows on 11th Street between Arizona Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard is a rare piece of the city’s early history like nothing else within Santa Monica’s original boundaries, and this history deserves to be celebrated and protected.
Still standing on the original subdivision in almost their original shape, these seven bungalows built between 1904 and 1913 (and one back house built in 1924) were homes to the middle-income people — carpenters, brick kiln owners and artists — whose dreams and schemes created our city and contributed to developing the film culture of Greater Los Angeles. Made of old-growth redwood and Douglas fir, they stand as a kind of architectural documentary about the life and growth of Santa Monica and a testimony to the ordinary people who actually did the work it took to create this city.
Designating the bungalow I rent at 1223 11th St. as an historic landmark would preserve the integrity of the bungalow cluster for historic landmark district designation, thereby preserving it for generations to come.
Saving this cluster is supported by the writings of such luminary architectural historians as Robert Winters and Thomas Hines, who have described it as a treasured record of the way Santa Monicans once lived and of an urban philosophy about ordinary people’s housing that involved artistic care down to the smallest of details — even the window pulls.
Winters has written that “only rarely in all of history has architecture been found outside the realm of the “rich and few and well-born.” He points out that the bungalow, which could be built by an owner from plans purchased from a catalogue, grew up in an era of expanding democracy so that it “filled more than the need for shelter, it provided psychic fulfillment of the American dream.”
This particular cluster of bungalows is a living record of that dream as it was realized in Santa Monica.
No, Roosevelt did not sleep here. But a fascinating collection of characters has. Louis B. Mayer, founder of MGM Studios, owned property on this block in 1928. Another intriguing note is that a high percentage of women, mostly married, are listed as owners in the old hand-written records.
My home was once the home of Kenneth Strickfaden, who arrived here from Ashland, Ore., around 1914 with his father, Frank. Kenneth Strickfaden grew up to become a Hollywood special effects genius, with his wildly arcing and sparking electricity effects on James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece “Frankenstein” catapulting him to a career that spanned dozens of films, including the “Wizard of Oz.” He and Les Storrs, the city’s former director of planning and zoning, were good friends. Storrs recalled some of their adventures in his book, “Santa Monica: Portrait of a City.”
In 1915, Frank Strickfaden enclosed the home’s porch and added a side room with multiple windows. The house’s broad-shouldered façade, graceful and stable in its proportions, glows at night like a lantern through its original multi-paned windows. The many windows demonstrate the bungalow philosophy of welcoming the inside and outside to blend together intimately. In this salutary climate, nature and household are literally opened to one another. The world is what people wanted to look at in 1911.
Even the changes made to such old houses reveal much about the way of life of our city’s founding families. They make sense. To this day, a cool sea breeze blows off the ocean and across the coast-facing front windows. Enclosing the porch, a common practice at that time, makes it possible to sit outside/inside into the evening all year long. The trick for us today is to see through neglect to the architectural features and to recognize the story behind them.
This house, like the other bungalows, was built with passive solar cooling by utilizing the low-tech solution of double hung windows. These can be opened on the bottom and on the top to allow cool air to circulate into the house and hot air to circulate out. The original pantry cooler is still in the kitchen. High ceilings and the orientation of the windows also enhance air circulation. This is a house that breathes.
A city needs to know itself. A photo or a notation in a book on a shelf is soon lost to the community imagination and outlook. Though my time living here is soon coming to a close, this house needs to stay.
Protecting 1223 11th St. as a city-designated landmark would preserve an important piece of living history that bridges the eras and grounds our understanding of where we are. The house and its neighboring bungalows should be joined together to form an 11th Street Bungalow Cluster, with the property owners enjoying a generous package of new historic building benefits.
We need living references to our history and an urban fabric that offers alternative ideas. We need to take care of our story.
Please contact the following groups to support this cause:
• The Santa Monica Conservancy – (310) 496-3146, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Santa Monica Mid City Neighbors – midcityneighbors.org
• Santa Monica Landmarks Commission – (310) 458-8341, email@example.com
Susan Suntree is an emeritus professor of English at East Los Angeles College and the author of several books, including “Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California.”