Gregory Ain’s Mar Vista Tract homes brought revolutionary architecture to regular people.
71 years later, they’re still pretty impressive …
Story by Lawrence Yee | Photos by Maria Martin
When entertainment lawyer Amanda Seward and musician Hans Adamson purchased a modest Mar Vista home in 1994, they had little idea it was such an important part of Los Angeles architectural history.
Their single-story, 1,600-square-foot home (including an addition and converted garage) is among the best-restored examples of 52 tract homes designed by modernist architect Gregory Ain for a post-war suburban housing experiment east of Beethoven Street between Venice and Palms boulevards.
Homes in the Mar Vista Tract went on the market in 1948 for about $12,000, which for middle-class buyers at the time meant a $2,000 down payment and an FHA-approved mortgage. Newspaper advertisements at the time proclaimed them “Modernique” homes “Built for Living,” with convertible floorplans that offered cutting-edge modern design by a Guggenheim Award-winning architect at this relatively affordable price.
Some of the features that set Mar Vista Tract homes apart from their contemporaries include separate rooms for the toilet and shower, rows of clerestory windows and high doorways to maximize natural light, recessed wall cabinets to maximize storage space, a kitchen with blinds that close or open to the living room, and folding or sliding doors that can change a home’s footprint to create extra bedrooms in a matter of seconds — addressing a very practice housing concern during the Baby Boom.
“There’s one sliding wall and one folding wall. If you have them both closed, you have two more rooms,”
“You can have one bedroom or three bedrooms, depending on where you are in life at the time,” adds Seward.
Ain’s architectural mission was, after all, to address common housing problems of the common American family. (In 1950, Ain applied ideas from Mar Vista to his 1950 Exhibition House for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a project shepherded by then-trustees A. Conger Goodyear and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III).
“Ain had done a lot of individual design on private homes, but what he really wanted to do most of all was tract homes and bring this design idea to the public,” explains Adamson, who has become an expert on the Mar Vista Tract’s history through extensive research.
“It speaks to everyday life for everyday people, which to me is more relevant than housing for the wealthy,” adds Seward.
The couple has carefully decorated their home with vintage artifacts, film posters and African pop art, but what made them fall in love with it was its inherent flexibility.
They still marvel at the ingenuity of its kitchen, with a hidden Venetian blind and floor flap that can close or open a line of site to the living room.
“Ain read that women were the primary caregivers and spent most of the time in the kitchen, so the idea was they could be in the kitchen but see out and watch their kids play,” Seward explains.
While their home’s design has withstood the passage of time, parts of its foundation hadn’t when they first bought it 25 years ago.
“When we moved in here, we knew there was work to be done,” Adamson recalls. “Amanda said let’s just fix the house up in two weeks, and then we can have a party. And I said, ‘You’re crazy. Two weeks is not enough. It’s going to take at least two months.’
It took five years!”
Getting to peek beneath the surface of his home’s interior made that work an unexpected delight for Adamson, however.
“The guy who lived here since the early 1950s, if he changed something he always left the original under,” Adamson says. “If I took off something, the original was already there.”
By doing so, he was able to restore the walls damaged by termites and even mirror the floating cabinets between the living room and an early 1960s addition that the original owner added. Seward took her research skills to UC Santa Barbara, where Ain’s original Mar Vista Tract drawings and designs are archived (many of which have been uploaded to Adamson’s website on the project: marvistatract.org).
The couple even did their own research into the original paint colors. Seward discovered some plans with Plochere Color System codes, a proprietary set of color samples first published in the late 1940s. Unable to find a reference that could match the codes with colors, Adamson finally tracked down the son of the Plochere Color System inventors. He ended up buying all the silkscreen pieces for the Mar Vista Tract and painstakingly uploaded many of the original color plans online.
Seward and Adamson are sharing their home and research with the public as part of the upcoming Venice Design Series, a string of architectural tours that benefit the affordable housing creation efforts of the Venice Community Housing Corporation. Seward is a longtime member of the nonprofit’s board.
The VCHC’s stated mission is to maximize housing affordability and strengthen the economic and cultural diversity of Westside neighborhoods, which echoes Ain’s philosophy of affordable design that inspired the Mar Vista Tract more than seven decades ago.
The irony that Mar Vista Tract housed are routinely valued at around $1.8 million — more than quintuple what Adamson and Seward paid in 1994 — is not lost on the couple.
“These homes have gotten chichi, and the prices have gone up. A lot has to do with the location. But I think these are a good example of what someone was doing at the time,” Seward reflects. “I like the democratic way in which the homes were designed. They weren’t designed for servants. You can clean the house easily yourself. Even the windows are at a very human scale. It’s one story. You can live in the house in old age.
“Hopefully it provides some inspiration for innovative solutions that deal with the housing issues and housing shortages that we now have.”
Visit venicedesignseries.org for infor-mation about upcoming tours.
Managing Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.