The best books on Southern California architecture history

Who am I?

I’ve always been interested in art and architecture. I studied Fine Arts at CalArts. I’ve written three books on Mid-century home builders and designers, William Mellenthin, Jean Vandruff, and Robert Byrd, whose life and work in Southern California had gone mostly unnoticed during their lifetimes—with very little information written about them in the press. I spent three years on each book working with the families to uncover their lives and place in local history. This is information that would have otherwise been lost. When you research the life of one person in this profession, you inevitably learn about the life and work of others—some famous, some not. 

I wrote...

Homes by Byrd: The Art & Architecture of Robert Byrd and His Son, Gary

By Chris Lukather,

Book cover of Homes by Byrd: The Art & Architecture of Robert Byrd and His Son, Gary

What is my book about?

Examines the art and architecture of Robert Byrd (1904-1978), who designed and built homes in Southern California from the 1920s to the 1970s—many for Hollywood celebrities. His son, Gary, built homes in a similar style. Byrd is often credited as the inventor of the California Ranch Style of Architecture. The traditional elements of a Byrd Home include exposed wood beams, turned posts, rock and flagstone finishes, and whimsical brickwork. Other distinctive characteristics include round chimneys, curved walkways, indoor/outdoor grills, Dutch doors, custom woodwork, and stained-glass windows.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Fritz B. Burns and the Development of Los Angeles

Why did I love this book?

I was born in Burbank, CA. This book details the early land development deals made by Fritz Burns for new single-family homes in Burbank and the surrounding area beginning in the 1930s.

Fritz Burns was an innovator, showman, and very successful businessman. His office once occupied the historic House of Tomorrow located at the corner of Highland Ave. and Wilshire Blvd. that he commissioned architects Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket to design and build.

He also helped develop the Kaiser tract homes in the San Fernando Valley, and some of the first large hotels in Hawaii in the 1950s. When driving around the neighborhoods of Southern California I’m always searching for historically important buildings and residences.

By James Thomas Keane,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fritz B. Burns and the Development of Los Angeles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Book by Keane, James Thomas

Book cover of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

Why did I love this book?

D.J. Waldie’s writing reminds me of a Raymond Carver short story. His short, deliberate style draws the reader in immediately. You are hooked.

He walks to work. He lives in his parent’s original tract home, part of a planned development built in the 1950s in Lakewood, CA. It was the first one on the west coast. Waldie observes his friends and neighbors, the neighborhood, and its unique place in Southern California history.

After my parent’s divorce, my father lived in Lakewood and Long Beach, so I spent a lot of time down there when I was a kid. Does anyone remember Buffums department store?

By D.J. Waldie,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Holy Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since its publication in 1996, Holy Land has become an American classic. In "quick, translucent prose" (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times) that is at once lyrical and unsentimental, D. J. Waldie recounts growing up in Lakewood, California, a prototypical post-World War II suburb. Laid out in 316 sections as carefully measured as a grid of tract houses, Holy Land is by turns touching, eerie, funny, and encyclopedic in its handling of what was gained and lost when thousands of blue-collar families were thrown together in the suburbs of the 1950s. An intensely realized and wholly original memoir about the way…

Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles

By Stefanos Polyzoides, Roy Sherwood, J. Tice, Julius Shulman (illustrator)

Book cover of Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles

Why did I love this book?

Having lived in West Hollywood for many years, I have always been interested in the beautiful and historically significant courtyard apartment buildings found throughout the city.

One of the more famous buildings, the Villa Primavera (seen in the Gloria Grahame, Humphrey Bogart film, In a Lonely Place) was designed and built by Arthur and Nina Zwebell in 1923. Their story is quite fascinating, since neither one was formerly trained or a licensed architect.

He designed the building’s exterior, while she designed the interior as well as the furniture.

By Stefanos Polyzoides, Roy Sherwood, J. Tice, Julius Shulman (illustrator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As cities throughout the U.S. struggle with housing shortages, valuable lessons can be learned from the principles thatunderlie the design of the courtyard house. Whether humble or sumptuous in scale, courtyards create a sense of privacyand enhance quality of life by creating the impression of green space for their residents.

Now available in its fifth printing, Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles documents the historical, technical, and cultural forces that shaped the development of this distinctive West Coast building type. The authors's in-depth research andanalysis is enhanced by the inclusion of numerous plans and technical drawings. Julius Shulman's sensuous black-and-whitephotographs document…

Book cover of Case Study Houses: 1945-1962

Why did I love this book?

Esther McCoy has long been admired for her writing on architecture in Southern California, particularly on the Case Study House program from 1945-1962.

This is a remarkable story of a once-in-a-lifetime program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine that brought together legendary architects, hopes and dreams, and some fantastic Mid-century Modern Homes.

Many of these Case Study homes are still standing today, and some are available to tour. You can also look up the addresses of these homes and drive by yourself.

By Esther McCoy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Case Study Houses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since the popular Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit of 1989, Blueprint for Modern Living, much attention has been paid to the pioneering work done by the architects of the Case Study Program. Sponsored by John Entenza's Art & Architectue Magazine, the Case Study Houses program brought new thinking, techniques, and materials to post-war California house building. Contains the work of Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Craig Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra, William Wurster, and others.

Book cover of Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture

Why did I love this book?

Alan Hess is the authority on Googie Architecture. He’s written several excellent books on the subject.

His writing style and unique perspective (he’s also an architect) bring insight and authority to everything he writes, which also includes books on Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner. The original Googies Coffee Shop, located at the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Crescent Heights in West Hollywood, was designed by John Lautner.

If you do some research online, you can find some great old photos of the structure.

By Alan Hess,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Googie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The euphoria about the future that followed World War II permeated the outlooks of architects, who, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and with ready access to remarkable new construction material and building techniques spawned by the war technologies, faced the intriguing prospect of redesigning the post war world. Initially the futuristic designs were outrageous, and detractors labeled these structures the Googie School of Architecture after a particularly outlandish coffee shop in Los Angeles. Googie would seem far from outlandish today as those once controversial design elements have become commonplace in both commercial and residential architecture. Author Alan Hess traces the…

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