Metro Los Angeles boasts numerous varieties of apartments and other multi-tenant housing types. Bungalow courts and garden apartments all have always enjoyed a healthy following. I’m sure I’m not the only Angeleno who loves a nice courtyard apartment or those hotel-style mid-rises topped with neon signs that are found throughout Midtown and Westlake. Even the much-derided dingbat has its devotees. In fact, much of the finest residential architecture in Los Angeles is exemplified by apartment buildings — thanks in no small part to the visionary work of architects like Gregory Ain, Greene & Greene, John Parkinson, Norman W. Alpaugh, Richard Neutra, Rudolph Michael Schindler, and Walker & Eisen, to name but a few. There are for more apartments, though, which were never considered for any design awards and pretty much just do the job of housing Angelenos. I count my own building as one of those — and I’m not even sure what, if any, widely-recognized name there is for this sort of architecture. I call it, for lack of anything better, “motel style.”
As architectural terms go, “motel style” isn’t at all clever. I have tried to think of catchier names. Post-Dingbat. Mopartment. Motel Revival. The Two-Over-None. None of those works for me, though. “Motel style,” like the buildings it describes, is straight forward and utilitarian. It gets the job done and I suppose that that is enough. Just as “hotel-style apartment” suggests a building with a shared main entrance, lobby, elevator(s), and units accessible from interior hallways; “motel-style apartment” hopefully suggests a low-rise building with an outdoor breezeway, exterior stairs, and a fairly large amount of space allotted to the storage of private automobiles.
Of course, both of these descriptions, “hotel-style” and “motel-style,” refer primarily to the exteriors and common areas of these buildings. Whereas a “hotel-style” apartment probably includes — unlike most actual hotel rooms — a kitchen, dining area, and bedroom(s), so, too, does a “motel-style” apartment. Even the exterior has its differences, though. I don’t recall having ever seen an apartment with a lit, plastic sign advertising water beds or color TV. Motel-style apartments rarely have live-in apartment managers and certainly never have lobbies that smell like Gujarati cuisine. Finally, unlike real motels, motel-style apartment buildings somehow manage to function without the presence of that bizarre staple of the American motel and hotel — the ice machine.
I’ve never seen any writing about motel-style apartments but surely they take their cue from the design of motels. The motel arose, not surprisingly, in the then-newly car dependent Southern California of the 1920s. It predecessor was the auto camp, auto court, or motor court — a cluster of small, furnished dwellings that provided sleeping and parking accommodations for motor tourists and their automobiles. Early on, automobiles were mainly loud, expensive toys for toffs or tools for farmers. By 1925, though, Los Angeles “boasted” twice the national per capita car ownership of any other city (having overtaken the cow town of Des Moines). Suddenly, one in three Angelenos owned a car or truck. With no real work need for them, motorists turned to driving for leisure. Motor courts grew into motels. The first motel, the the Milestone Mo-Tel, opened in San Luis Obispo in 1925.
Cars were more popular in the suburbs, however, than the city center. Los Angeles was blessed with the largest electric interurban railway system the world has still ever known — the Pacific Electric Railway. Even more Angelenos rode the yellow cars Los Angeles Railway. Density made, then as now, automobiles both unnecessary and impractical. The first bungalow court was built in Pasadena in 1909. The first courtyard apartments were built in the 1920s. Even larger garden apartments followed in the 1930s. All enjoyed yard or park-like common areas rather than parking lots. All, pretty much, were killed, though, by the creation of parking minimums. Green space was replaced with assigned parking spaces. The only greenery left was the thin, landscaped curtilage surrounding the building and, in some areas, a road verge in front.
In stepped the dingbat. The dingbat, for those who don’t know, is a sort of cheap, hastily-built, shoebox-shaped stucco box that first began to proliferate in the 1940s and enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s — a period that saw both Los Angeles’s population increase by 87% at the same time that it was down-zoned from a residential capacity of ten million to just four million. They were designed to maximize use of the lot and cars in a dingbat are tucked under the second story at the street-facing front of the building. In order to elevate these humble shelters, they were often assigned lofty, pretentious or exotic names like “Cavalier Arms,” “The Star-Lite,” or “The Trade Winds.” The best ones are decorated with tacked on ornaments like medieval coats-of-arms, Googie starbursts, hammered glass baubles.
In the 1960s, the wave of residential sprawl splashed against the foothills of Los Angeles’s formidable mountain ranges and began to ripple back inward in a wave of infill. As Los Angeles grew more dense, ironically, more space was surrendered to cars. The growth in the number of automobiles far outpaced growth in the number of human inhabitants. Additionally, changing building codes outlawed the dingbats tuck-under parking. Space for renters shrank as requirements for parking areas grew and moved — depending on whether the apartment had an I, L, or U layout — to the back, side, or middle. These new buildings looked a lot like motels and they flourished up and down the west coast and beyond.
The bungalow court, courtyard apartment, garden apartment, dingbat, and motel-style apartment all share an important feature. They have exterior entrances to units that convey a sense of ownership not unlike the one experienced by the proud owner of a detached uniplex. The separate entrances and, more often than not, multiple stairways and breezeways, give neighbors the chance to avoid passing one another — unlike tenants who share a front entrance, single stairwell, or elevator. The joy of strolling along a breezeway to and from the laundry room — pretending you have no neighbors — is less apparent, I know from experience, in places where the temperature drops to 40°. Its not bad, though, when you live nearer to the coast.
Some motel-style apartments have the same kitsch appeal as dingbats before them, too. The building in which I live was built by a Chinese American family in the early 1960s. They installed a steep, decorative roof and protruding beams meant to evoke Polynesian architecture — or at least Tiki culture. There are volcanic rocks incorporated into the facade and landscaping. I wonder if our motel-style building ever had a name — maybe something like “the Seven Seas of Silver Lake” or “Rowena Atoll.”
The owners sold the building and retired. The new owners, predictably, were some faceless entity registered in the great tax shelter of Delaware. Their tasteless idea of renovation involved slapping subway tiles everywhere and replacing bamboo floors with laminate apparently designed to look as if it had been reclaimed from a rotting Kentucky tobacco barn. I’ve seen other motel-style apartments similarly “improved.” On one, workers were chiseling off the small, shiny, square tiles that gave a building the only charm that it had. On another, named Cathay Apartments, the chintzy Chinoiserie was removed and the building was given a blue and brown makeover — giving it the dated appearance of a 20-year-old wedding invitation or a Re-Elect David Ryu yard sign. The broken wonton font address, with its missing letters, if not exactly offensive, is now bizarrely nonsensical.
It can be hard to establish a sense of community or ownership in an apartment building. With gel-haired, pleated-slack-wearing, body spray-reeking apartment management doofuses (think Tim & Eric‘s “it’s free real estate” character) poking around looking for infractions, it can even be hard to maintain one’s sanity. Prior to operations being assumed by — lets call them “LP BM” — our motel-style apartment really did feel a bit like a small village. When I moved into our building, 75% of the units were inhabited by Thai families already friendly with one another. With the exception of one or two units, we used to all routinely grill out and drink beer in the unnecessarily large parking lot. When one tenant took it upon himself, with the landlord’s permission, to build a communal brick patio for tables and grills in the curtilage, the parking lot was transformed into a space for ping pong and badminton. We planted lime trees, chiles, Thai basil, and other plants. If an ingredient was required, some muscle was needed, a salad was too spicy, or a kid needed to be looked after; we all turned to one another. I found it pretty ideal. No shame if you’re into the whole suburban isolation thing but I always like to point out to the loners that there are 3,006 counties in the US that aren’t Los Angeles and every single one of them is home to far fewer people. And wait until you see how much free parking there is in them!
I guess, with as fond as my memories are of this place, it may come as a slight surprise, then, that I don’t think that these sorts of apartments are worth going out of our way to preserve — not that I’m aware of any efforts to, by the way. They serve and have served a purpose — but are better suited to a car dependent era of the mid-20th century than the city we live in now. Motel-style apartments have a lot in common not just with motels but with strip malls. Like them, they belong in the past.
Sure, some motel-style apartments have some aesthetic charm — but its hard to get too hung up on aesthetics when there are more than 60,000 Angelenos living on the streets and in cars. It’s also not too aesthetic or good for “neighborhood character.” And with so much of what is available housing sitting empty — luxury apartments designed to be investments for the super-wealthy — we need to build more affordable housing and social housing — which means up-zoning everywhere and abolishing minimums parking entirely. Oh, and slap a vacancy tax on those empty luxury properties while you’re at it. And since the planet is heating up, water is drying up, and wildlife is dying off — how about requiring all new constructions have a mix of solar panels, electric (not gas) fixtures, graywater systems, and green roofs?
I’m not saying we need to systemically demolish our motel-style apartments, mind you. There are more than enough surface parking lots, I reckon, to develop first with mixed-use mid-rises. We certainly don’t need to build anything as small as them anymore, though, either. They won’t be around forever. While they are, though, we can appreciate them for their charms and recognize them for the role they played in what was once a medium-sized, car-catering city struggling to ride a suburban vibe for as long as possible. According to the US Census, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim became the nation’s most densely populated urban area during the 2000s. For reference, New York City-Newark is number five. The New York metropolitan area looks less dense because they allow their residents to live in high-rises instead of cram themselves into subdivded suburban homes with additional families living in converted garages and basements. Surely, as with strip malls and motels, we can appreciate these relics of our suburban while at the same time, build a sustainable city appropriate for the present and future.