Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Venice Place Apartments: Paradise By The Sea


Lincoln Place Apartment brochure
Venice, California
Hello Everyone:

Yours truly would like to take a minute to acknowledge that we have reached the 75,000 page view mark.  Thanks so much, you all are the most amazing audience ever.

Today we are going to talk about a group of residents in Venice, California who are diligently working to save their midcentury apartment complex.  Lauren Weber of Preservation Magazine for the National Trust for Historic Preservation reports the story of the residents of Lincoln Place Apartment in her article "California Dream: Lincoln Place Apartment."  The Lincoln Place Apartments is an idyllic 38-acre apartment complex in Venice Beach.  The lush landscaping contribute a sense of lushness to the campus.  It makes you wonder why anyone would want to "...demolish Lincoln Place, a collection of 1950s buildings with bold geometric form and wide-open just a mile and a half from the beach."  There is a profound sense of community at Lincoln Place.  However, the trouble began two decades ago when eviction notices and demolition threats began to rear their heads.  This so shocked Ingrid Mueller and many of the other Lincoln Place residents into action.  They rallied the City of Venice and greater Los Angeles into action until the new property owners shared their vision of saving this midcentury gem.

Lincoln Place Apartment, c.1959
Venice, California
Lauren Weber writes, "When the first tenants moved into Lincoln Place back in 1951, they were promised not just coveted amenities, such as garbage disposals and built-in televisions, but also a different way of life-one that promoted better living through good design."

Better living through good design was the theory behind the garden apartments, rooted in the Garden City Movement, the 19th-century European urban planning strategy.  It is a type of utopian vision that combines outdoors and indoors using: low-density, ample green space, and most prominently, a plan that "...encourages a strong sense of community.  It's an approach to apartment design that puts people first."

Douglas DC-6
Los Angeles is home to one of the biggest collections of multi-resident complex, due in part to the booming post-World War II aeronautics industry.  The industry brought new workers and their families to the area.  They found comfortable places to live in garden apartment complexes, including Lincoln Place.  Lincoln Place was one of the biggest, originally containing 795 units in 52 buildings. The complex was designed by architect Heth Wharton and African American designer Ralph Vaughn.  It showcases all the basic principles of garden apartment design: "...simple minimalist building designs; large landscaped expanses; building entrances that open onto common courtyards, rather than streets, parking hidden behind the buildings; curved pedestrian walkways; and a promotion of social life through shared outdoor spaces."  The buildings are laid out in a staggered formation to maximize airflow and natural light while giving the inhabitants a sense of privacy.

Now leasing at the Lincoln Place Apartment
Venice, California
Los Angeles Conservancy director of advocacy Adrian Scott Fine told Ms. Weber,

It's a design that fosters community in a way that a lot of apartment developments before and since haven't done.

The L.A. Conservancy launched its L.A. Garden Apartment Network in 2011 to call attention to these historic apartments.

It was that sense community that brought Ingrid Mueller to the complex.  She said,

I love my neighbors knocking on my door...

This neighborliness is what ultimately saved  Lincoln Place from a date with the wrecking ball.

Front entrance to Lincoln Place
Venice, California

The first eviction notices went out in 1987 and in the succeeding years the tenants slowly learned of the then-owner's plan to raze the property and build high-rise condominiums on the site.  Ms Fine said,

At that time, people were not recognizing Lincoln Place or other garden apartment as historic or worthy of preservation..

Apartment building and lawn at Lincoln Place
Venice, California

The low-density buildings and sprawling green spaces make it attractive to prospective tenants and to developers who saw the potential for increased density and profits.

The hungry eyes of the developers spurred the Lincoln Place residents into action.  Ms. Weber reports,  "They mobilized the Lincoln Place Tenants Association, led for may years by high school teacher and resident Shelia Bernard.  They held regular meetings at a nearby park, where they trained themselves to become effective community organizers...  Ms. Mueller recalled,

They hung Preserve Lincoln Place signs in their window, the bright yellow paper eventually bleached white by the sun.

Sunset loft living room at Lincoln Place
Venice, California
Alejandra Tejeda, a resident since 1992, said

This was home.  We didn't own it, but it was ours.  We loved it, we took care of it.

In 1995, the tenants association scored a big victory with a demolition denial.  The celebration was short lived because there was no guarantee that the complex would be safe.

In 2000, entertainment lawyer Amanda Seward learned of the threats to Lincoln Place at an L.A. Conservancy Modern Committee meeting from at resident asking about historic status.  Ms. Seward knew all about the landmark process, she worked with her neighbors to get historic districts status for the Gregory Ain-design Mar Vista Tract, where she and her family live.

Gregory Ain Historic District
Mar Vista, California
Amanda Seward told Lauren Weber,

At first, I tried not to get too involved in the tenant issues at Lincoln Places...I didn't want to be overwhelmed, and I was approaching this from an architectural point of view.  That was what my interest was.

Ms. Seward wrote the nomination to place Lincoln Place on the National Register of Historic Places, making use of research assemble by film editor and Lincoln Place resident Laura Burns.  As Ms. Seward began to learn more about Lincoln Place's history and the years-long tenants's battle to stay in there homes, she realized she could not turn away.  She told Ms. Weber,

When this kind of architecture is successful and it was successful in the Gregory Ain tract, and it was successful at Lincoln Place-it creates communities...The people who live there feel really tied to their home and to their neighbors.  And seeing these close-knit tenants who refuse to leave, who wanted to save their homes, was a living testament to the power of that architecture.

Pool area at Lincoln Place
Venice, California
Amanda Seward continues,

[Tenant law] was completely new territory for me.  And it was humbling...I was researching in the law library like I was back in law school.  But it reminded me why I went to law school in the first place: to fight for justice.

Fight on.  Ms. Seward battled along other lawyers, including Lincoln Place resident Jan Book.  There were endless trials, hearing, and mediations, with assorted delays and appeals along the way.  Meanwhile the Lincoln Place Tenants Association and a mighty coalition of local activities joined forces to draw attention to the matter.  Lincoln Place-friendly filmmakers created a short documentary about the evictions; designers created a website and posters.  There were fundraisers, rallies, vigils, music festivals sure tours, and discussions.

Semi-private cabanas at Lincoln Place Apartments
Venice, California
In 2003, the devastated community watched as the owner, described as "...local real estate development company," razed seven of the Lincoln Place buildings.  This was later deem an illegal demolition.  More heartbreak followed when the sheriff's department showed in December 2005 to evict 52 households, "...in what was the largest lockout in a single day in Los Angeles History."

Doug Ertman, who moved to Lincoln Place in 1997 with his wife recalled some of sadness,

It looked bad for us because we kept losing...Nothing about it was easy.

Many of the residents eventually took the settlement offer from the developer and moved out.  However, a small but determined number of resident dug their heels and stayed put.  Ingrid Mueller said,

For many years, we just had to tryst that we were on the right path.

Venice Boardwalk
In 2010, things began to look up.  Ms. Weber writes, "That year, Denver-based Apartment Investment and Management Company, or Aimco, which had purchased the property in full in 2004, reached a settlement agreement that called for rehabilitating the remaining buildings."  Hurrah.  Amigo Senior Vice President Patti Shwayder told Ms, Weber,

It was clear the Venice community had a very special place in their hearts for Lincoln Place...And I think it's fair to say we didn't always appreciate the historic nature of the property.

Over time, Aimco began to see the preservation light.  Amico was enlightened on the merits of rehabilitation over demolition.  The economic collapse of 2008 drove home the point that rehabilitating the buildings penciled out to be a more economic feasible option.

Sunset at Venice Beach
Ms. Shwayder said,

We took a second, third, and fourth look to see what we could do with the existing property...And when we we did that, we found retro buildings that we could turn retro-chic.  We found natural hardwood floors the could be refinished and were really quite spectacular.  We found each building had amazing windows and cross ventilation and low-density features that were attractive.  So we began working on how we could move into an existing historic fabric with all these character defining features and add modern conveniences that would make this a showplace.


Amico began the $200 million rehabilitation project in 2012.  The company worked with the L.A. Conservancy, the Historic Resource Group (shout out to Peyton Hall), and the California Office of Historic Preservation, as well as others, following the Secretary of Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties to the absolute letter.  They put up thirteen sparking new building with 99 apartment units to replace the ones that were demolished.  Ms. Weber writes, "Dark gray paint and shiny metal features give a contemporary flair to these buildings, which were designed to be consistent with the complex's original architecture, but not identical."

Musician Harry Perry (a.k.a the Skating Sikh)
Venice, California

Amico also restored the exteriors of the remaining buildings, then continued on the interiors.  Thankfully, Aimco reversed the (visual) damage by an inappropriately altered building from the 1990s, and 39 others had their interiors renovated.  The floor plans remains the same but the bathrooms, kitchens, and appliances were updated.

Lauren Weber reports, "The interiors of the remaining five buildings, with 65 units among them, were meticulously restored to their 1950s appearance.  The kitchens have their original cabinetry, countertops, and tiles.  Any damaged tiles in the kitchens and baths were replaces with materials salvaged from the updated units.  Only the plumbing and electrical wiring are new."

The newly renovated units were offered to the 50 remaining tenants, as part of the settlement agreement were guaranteed lifetime tenancy.  Doug Ertman said,

Our apartments as as close as possible to the way they were when Lincoln Place opened in the '50s."

Aerial view of Venice Beach

Step outside and the retro chic gives way to the 21st-century with an electric vehicle charging station and packed bicycle racks.  The freshly landscaped Elkgrove Circle is dotted with stainless steel grills and picnic tables.  One of the more upscale amenities is a saltwater pool with underwater speakers, cabanas, and fire pits.  There is a two-story fitness center with a roof deck boasting a circular views of the neighborhood and the Santa Monica Mountains.

The newly rehabilitated complex celebrated its ribbon cutting on August 14, 2014 and was awarded one of the Los Angeles Conservancy's prestigious Preservation Awards for 2015.  Adrian Scott Fine said,

There was a marriage of old and new with this project...It showed that these building could be updated and modernized, while still respecting the character of what a garden apartment housing development is about.

Amanda Seward concurred,

When they finally did it, boy, they did it right...This is the best example of how good design was brought to the masses and it's now preserved.

Paradise by the sea.

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