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Park La Brea Apartments
Centrally located in the Miracle Mile district of Los Angeles, Park La Brea Apartments is an expansive modernist housing complex comprising 1,316 two-story garden apartments and 18 thirteen-story mid-rise towers. Developed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in two phases that straddled World War II, Park La Brea stands as one of the largest housing developments west of the Mississippi River. While it was initially designed between 1940 and 1941 as a series of low-rise, modernist garden apartments that echoed a suburban, community-oriented spirit of the 1930s, only half of the garden apartments were finished due to the onset of the war. As demand for housing increased dramatically after the war, the plans for Park La Brea were revised in 1949 to include maximum-height towers. Therefore, Park La Brea boasts both low-rise and high-rise towers that form an enduring dialogue of pre- and post-war urban ideals.
Alongside federal programs attempting to reduce widespread housing shortages during the 1930s, large life insurance companies also participated in large-scale private development. In particular, Met Life devised an investment plan that targeted working-class families by financing, building, and managing its own housing projects. Since large housing projects promised work for hundreds of potential construction workers in addition to fulfilling a need for a vast population of prospective renters, direct investments in housing connected Met Life to families and to the public in new ways. In addition, Met Life believed that environmentally focused, efficiently planned housing could both educate working-class residents about the imperatives of well-being and financial literacy, which could, in turn, extend life expectancies. By the 1950s, Met Life built and leased over 35,000 dwelling units on seven different sites, and it was the nation’s largest owner-builder of housing in the insurance industry. Met Life unveiled its first plans in 1938 to build a large-scale housing development, named Parkchester, in the East Bronx neighborhood of New York City, modeled on Le Corbusier’s unrealized Ville Radieuse. With an unprecedented 171 high-rise towers arranged tightly around large green spaces, it was widely criticized as overly dense and crowded.
To overcome these negative stigmas, Met Life prepared three alternative models in Virginia and in California—states that both showcased a need for housing and openly welcomed pastoral suburban housing. In Alexandria, Virginia, the development was named Parkfairfax, and in California, the projects were named Parklabrea (now Park La Brea) in Los Angeles and Parkmerced in San Francisco. Each of the new projects was designed by New York architecture firm Leonard Schultze and Associates, and the initial plans included only two-story town houses. Schultze, who was noted for designing the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, began to tailor his practice toward housing in the 1930s.
Built on the last remaining 173-acre portion of the Mexican oil-rich land grant, Rancho La Brea, the initial plan for Park La Brea consisted of 2,400 two-story garden-apartments of beige-painted brick that were designed in association with local architect, Earl T. Heitschmidt, who oversaw the construction alongside local landscape architect Tommy Tomson. Signaling an attunement to the urban realities of Los Angeles, the primary organization for the site was the automobile itself, with a prominent octagonal layout and vehicular thoroughfares that intertwined rather than separated city and residence. The apartments were organized in a radial plan around small, decentralized courtyards that were byproducts of five main traffic circles, sealed off by the surrounding apartments and parking structures, which formed barriers to the street.
Construction of both Parkmerced and Park La Brea was halted by the war in 1944. Park La Brea remained incomplete, with only 1,316 apartments. While the buildings were under construction, however, the demand for new housing in Los Angeles had increased exponentially, and the need for housing military workers added a new layer of urgency. Additionally, wartime turned Met Life’s interest in housing into one driven by profit, since the garden apartments yielded a low, 2.7 percent return. Pledging to rent to defense workers and to an intended crowd of returning veterans and their families, Met Life revised the site plan in 1949 by adding 18 maximum-height, X-shaped concrete towers, which adhered to the original site plan, increasing the total unit count to 4,255.
Despite fierce local opposition during the 1940s, Park La Brea became a landmark for Los Angeles and an important site through which to study the transition from suburban ideals of the 1930s to the postwar era of urbanization and commercialism. To many urban critics, however, Park La Brea was an enigmatic outlier: its towers produced an image of high-rise urban living at a time when the city fabric was understood to be low and sprawling; its two-part construction history confounded the historical lineage to which it belonged; and its rigidly planned and organized site plan complicated narratives of Los Angeles as unplanned. Upon his visit to Los Angeles in the 1960s, Reyner Benham reinforced Los Angeles’s horizontal DNA by disassociating Park La Brea from the city’s typical urban condition, referring to it as an isolated culture with pedestrian values akin to an island of New York City on the Plains of Id. In a more extreme example of discounting, a 1967 Los Angeles Times article featuring preeminent local high-rise housing excluded Park La Brea altogether, claiming that its towers were merely an economic “accident.”
While Park La Brea continues to endure as a vibrant housing community, new owners in the 1980s and 1990s (Forest City Enterprises in 1985; Prime Group in 1995) installed fences, gates, and gatehouses that produced a kind of “fortressed” image of Los Angeles housing of which urban theorists, such as Mike Davis, became so highly critical. However, the history of Park La Brea reveals that the underlying motivations of Met Life were based upon a sensitivity to the physical, economic, and social realities of Los Angeles, as well as a commitment to—at least at the time—affordable housing. Fortuitously, the idea to combine high-rise and low-rise housing as a means to alleviate anxieties about densification was ahead of what would later be a trend in housing projects, on that included designs like Robert Alexander and Richard Neutra’s unbuilt proposal, Elysian Park Heights, in nearby Chavez Ravine, as well as Minoru Yamasaki’s initial, yet rejected, proposal of both low- and high-rises for Pruitt–Igoe in the 1950s.
Banham, Reyner. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Davis, Mike. “Fortress L.A.” In City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso Books, 2006.
Hanchett, Thomas W. “Financing Suburbia: Prudential Insurance and the Post-World War II Transformation of the American City.” Journal of Urban History (2002): 313.
James, Marquis. The Metropolitan Life: A Study in Business Growth. New York: The Viking Press, 1947.
MacMasters, Dan. “The View from the Towers.” Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1967.
Moudry, Roberta M. “Architecture as Cultural Design: The Architecture and Urbanism of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.” Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1995.
Rotman Zelizer, Viviana A. Morals and Markets: The Development of Life Insurance in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Stevens, Sara. Developing Expertise: Architecture and Real Estate in Metropolitan America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
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