Santa Monica Conservancy celebrates the work of John Byers, who helped redefine the Spanish Colonial Revival style
By Rebecca Kuzins
John Byers forever changed the look of Santa Monica’s north side. A self-trained architect and a Santa Monica resident, Byers created more than 25 homes in the area around San Vicente Boulevard, including many of his signature adobe residences.
The Santa Monica Conservancy is showcasing Byers’ work with “John Byers: Master Architect, Adobe Builder,” a two-day event that begins Sunday with a lecture on Byers by Ken Breisch, assistant professor with USC’s Heritage Conservation Program and president of the National Society of Architectural Historians.
A tour of Byers’ buildings follows next Sunday, when participants can view the interiors of four homes and the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Christine Emerson Reed Park.
Many of Byers’ homes were built in the 1920s and early 1930s and were based on the then-popular Spanish Colonial Revival style. Spanish Colonial buildings are typically clad in stucco and feature low-pitched red tile roofs and wrought iron decorations on patios, windows and roofs.
Byers combined elements of this style with features of Mexican- and Mediterranean-style architecture to design homes with adobe walls and decorative wood features. The curved red clay roof tiles and other tiles for these homes were made by his company, the John Byers Organization for the Design and Building of Latin Homes, which employed Mexican craftsmen who followed traditional hand-sculpting methods.
“He was really a leader in the early 1920s, creating and popularizing the Spanish Colonial Revival style,” said Ruthann Lehrer, an architectural historian and a member of the conservancy’s board of directors. “He came to [architecture] from construction, the craft of building. He had a tile factory at 26th and Colorado where he made his own tile.”
The best place to view Byers’ work is on La Mesa Drive, located north of San Vicente Boulevard between 19th and 26th streets. In their book “Los Angeles: An Architectural Guide,” David Gebhard and Robert Winter proclaim La Mesa to be the most beautifully landscaped street in Los Angeles County, largely because of the Moreton Bay fig trees that line both sides of the street’s parkways.
Byers built many homes on La Mesa, including his third residence in Santa Monica. His house was within walking distance of his office at 246 26th St., now the site of Villetta restaurant. Byers’ home and the adobe Zimmer House on La Mesa are included in the conservancy’s tour.
Byers was born in Michigan in 1875. After completing a year of graduate study at Harvard University, he lived in Europe and later in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he was a teacher and became fluent in Spanish, according to a KCET profile. Byers moved to Santa Monica in 1910, where he taught Spanish and French at Santa Monica High School. He remained a Santa Monica resident until his death in 1966.
Although he had no formal architectural training, in 1916 he was hired to design and build a home for W. F. Barnum, the principal of Santa Monica High School, for whom the school’s auditorium, Barnum Hall, is named.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, Byers worked closely with architect Edla Muir.
“She became his associate and also an architect,” said Lehrer. “There were not many women architects working at that time. She was a teenager who he hired to be his secretary and she worked her way up, getting an architecture degree.”
In addition to his homes in Santa Monica, Byers created residences in Brentwood, Pacific Palisades Beverly Hills and other California cities. And while the majority of his work is residential, two of his commercial buildings will be featured in the conservancy’s event.
The Miles Memorial Playhouse was commissioned by Santa Monica businessman J. Euclid Miles as a memorial for his daughter, Mary A. Miles. The playhouse, built in 1929, is owned by the city of Santa Monica and will be open to visitors during the conservancy’s tour.
Another Byers building — the Unitarian Universalist Community Church at 18th Street and Arizona Avenue — is the site of this Sunday’s lecture.
Ken Breisch’s lecture starts at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Universalist Unitarian Community Church, 1260 18th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $15 or $10 for Santa Monica Conservancy members. Call (310) 496-3146 or visit smcconservancy.org.
The tour is from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 8, starting at 2101 La Mesa Drive, and ending with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Byers-designed Carrillo House, 1602 Georgina Ave. Tour tickets are $35 to $45, and tickets for the tour and reception are $125 to $150. Allow three hours to see all of the buildings.
Editor’s note: The author is a volunteer docent for the tour.