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027. Sunset for Santa Barbara Plaza. Lomo Featured Project: Santa Barbara Plaza, also known as Marlton Square. Endangered Lomo.

Part I: Introduction

Santa Barbara Plaza is the name of a big mid-Century shopping center in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, designed in 1950 and built out in the years between 1950 and 1965. It occupies a site of about 20 acres in an irregular quadrilateral bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (which street, formerly known as Santa Barbara Boulevard, gave the Plaza its name), Buckingham Road, Santa Rosalia Drive, and Marlton Avenue. See it on Google Maps here: http://g.co/maps/chvf

Santa Barbara Plaza has fallen into shabby decrepitude after years of neglect. The photograph below, taken August 4, 2011, depicts a building that has since been demolished.

This post is a long one. It has to be, given that its subject is one of the greatest Lower Modernist subjects of all time. Santa Barbara Plaza comprises dozens of individual lomo buildings that would be worthy of attention on their own. The subject of attempts to redevelop the site wholesale since the mid-1980s, the Plaza has been frozen in time – except for an abandoned senior housing block on Buckingham almost completed in the last decade before a developer’s bankruptcy stalled it, there are no new buildings to distract one from immersion in this time capsule. Santa Barbara Plaza’s desolate urban lomoscapes capture the imagination with their visions of a post-apocalyptic but simultaneously retro-1950s Los Angeles.

Connoisseurs of disaster better hurry and check it out, because amidst great fanfare and proud speeches of city councilmembers, the demolition of structures at the center commenced in August 2011. The full report on KABC-TV’s Eyewitness News: http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/los_angeles&id=8290074

None of the news reports about Santa Barbara Plaza (also known as Marlton Square after the name proposed for the initial redevelopment) mention the architectural character of this complete non-candidate for preservation. And though I am captivated by the arresting image of Santa Barbara Plaza, I would not advocate for its historical preservation either. I would question whether clearing the site for a new retail development is the most suitable use for the Plaza, but that debate is outside the scope of the Lower Modernisms project.

Before and After (post-demolition photos taken August 28, 2011):

As I wrote in a previous post about Endangered Lomo,

Living in danger is the status quo for the Lower Modernisms. The degree to which a building is a candidate for preservation is an index of its acceptance as legitimate architecture, and therefore recognition on the part of a preservationist movement represents a disqualification from the canon proper of the Lower Modernisms. This constant state of endangerment just makes the LoMos more awesome, as is the case with most forms of danger.

In the case of Santa Barbara Plaza, the impending doom hanging over it for 30 years is precisely what froze it in this state of compelling decay – its individual buildings would have been maintained and updated had their doom not been foretold. While this has been inarguably a tragedy for the neighborhood, it has been a boon for the lomo hunter, who may engage in the victimless crime of being a voyeur in this modernist disasterscape.

This post, an analysis of Santa Barbara Plaza as Lower Modernist architecture, doubles as a requiem for a fascinating and completely underappreciated environment that will soon cease to exist.

Before and After (post-demolition photos taken August 28, 2011):

Part 2: King Boulevard Side.

Santa Barbara Plaza is bounded by four roads, and addresses the context of each by presenting a distinctly different character along each of these four sides. In response to the extremely generous 182’ width of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on its northeast side, the planners of the Plaza concentrated the higher-density uses and located mostly two-story commercial office buildings here. According to a planning logic now long out of fashion, King Boulevard was made to appear even wider by the decision to add a frontage road to separate these buildings from through-traffic. The distant buildings along the King frontage road are obscured by evergreen trees.

At the north prow of the plaza where the frontage road begins stands a two-story building that was once home to Founders National Bank.

Square in plan, with its second story cantilevered on all sides, this building looks like a diagram. The first story walls are pulled in so that the visually dominant second story reads as a suspended mass, itself nearly symmetrical top and bottom.

Rather than expressing soffit and parapet as distinct elements with different expression, the design of this wall system expresses the second floor as an object, with a grammar that has as much in common with radiator grilles and speaker covers as with conventional architectural language.

The wall system is built of precast panels. On a background field of exposed aggregate, the protruding elements are smoothly finished, comprising a vertical structural element that ties top and bottom together, modifying sunlight and views, and providing a structural stop for the glazing. Figure and void are rendered all the more clearly due to the removal of all the glass.

Southeasterly along the frontage road at 3850 King Boulevard is the King Medical Professional Building. With the lot next door long empty, the blank side wall of common brick is exposed. Built after the building that stood on the empty lot, the wall was built from one side only, and the mortar spilled out on the blind side of the wall, never intended to be exposed, gives it a hairy effect.

The hairy effect unintentionally echoes that of the textured concrete masonry unit wall on the building’s front façade. Jauntily off-center, this racing stripe is built of a hirsute block type that was discussed previously in the lomo post featuring Skip’s Liquors. Perhaps the hirsute block serves as a shear wall, and is thus a particularly expressive formal response to a real functional necessity.

The front of the building is 11 modules wide, so that the two bay-wide entrance is also off-center. At one time, this was a neat and tidily detailed small office building.

The thin canopy projects straight out like a diving board. The front legend is a fine example of the Semi-Professional Helvetica; the canopy is supported by what appears to be wide-flange steel beams on each side, neatly capped with a plate at the end to give them their boxy look. This canopy should make a nice precedent study for architects, a class of people prone to fret with inept futility over the design of such canopies.

At the southeast end of the frontage road sits Jerry’s Flying Fox at 3724 King Boulevard. A local’s watering hole and onetime performance venue, the Flying Fox has been operating since the 1950s; a 2010 article in the Los Angeles Wave described it as “L.A.’s last sugar shack,” telling the story of a place that transformed in step with its neighborhood. The Flying Fox has served as a “Third Place,” in the sense popularized by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place.

Despite the sign that swears “We are still here,” it doesn’t look very much like it is still open. I like the signage – the turn down arrow telling you where to go beneath “FLYING FOX”, the jauntily backwards “R” in JERRY’S.

The flair in the sidewalk at the end of the frontage road creates a vast pavement in front of the Flying Fox:

Part 3: Marlton Avenue Side.

Marlton Avenue bounds Santa Barbara Plaza along its southeast side. The buildings here are a mix of one- and two-story retail and commercial office types, consistently built out to the lot line. Despite their development together as part of Santa Barbara Plaza, the buildings, all Lower Modernist, maintain an individual character as you might see on any commercial street developed in the 1950s.

The last standing building to the south is a windowless block – the records suggest this building was once a publishing shop for the local Herald-Dispatch. One front corner is graced with a canopy, a convex curving “hamburger soffit” with crenellations:

Next to it is the “Marlton Building,” a lightweight-looking two-story office building whose most memorable feature is a plaster wall that relieves the monotony of the strip windows.  The “Marlton” sign in large script letters follows the naming style of dingbat apartment buildings:

The plaster wall is akin to a false-front, extending upwards above the roofline, but only as deep as the shadowbox that surrounds it.

Next to the Marlton building is 4033 Marlton, topped by a rooftop sign with a squished six-pointed star. Above the storefront of this building is a plaster wall surface that has been detailed with a recess shaped like a cross between a hot dog and a speech balloon. This small building speaks hotdog.

Next door another small building at 4023 Marlton employs the practice of making a single building read as two or more buildings by use of nothing more than paint. This low-technology tactic was termed “programmatic graphic imposition” by architect Thaddeus Zarse in “Paint the Town” (A Tijuana Novela, 2005).

A blank sign in the waving-banner shape of the Frito-Lay logo is centered on the yellow half of the building, defining a separate programmatic zone. The white half of the building is overshadowed by a crazy cross-dressing palm tree in a long skirt of alien foliage.

Beyond the “MEDICAL SUPPLY” is a pair of sheet-metal rooftop signs that in their decrepitude look austere and constructivist in a manner never intended by their designers.

Peering past this parking lot from Marlton we see the back of the buildings that front on King Boulevard; a jumble of shapes and signs and elements of varying scales.

I wonder what will become of the “COFFEE SHOP” sign. Its excessive street credibility is overflowing onto the adjacent wall surfaces.

Part 4: The Plaza Interior.

Configured like a giant donut, the quadrilateral of Santa Barbara Plaza is ringed by buildings fronted to their lot lines, surrounding a vast surface parking lot on the inside of the superblock. Each boundary street is perforated by a driveway to access the parking lot. In contrast to latter-day shopping malls that surround a single building mass with a sea of parking in a way hostile to urban pedestrian life, Santa Barbara Plaza maintained its primary orientation to the street in a relatively urbanistic way.

Peeking into the donut: this rounded-corner rectangle on a stick marks the entrance to the Plaza interior from Marlton Avenue. The donut is permeable, like a block of swiss cheese (or rather, a swiss cheese wheel carved into the shape of a donut).

The interior streetscapes of the Plaza look quite similar to those on the exterior, and effectively function as an extension of the city streets into the superblock.

A few of the Plaza’s buildings made use of this “commercial arcade” configuration, in which storefronts could be multiplied by orienting them onto a pedestrian walkway passing through the building lot. This configuration also increases the permeability of the plaza as a whole. The two halves of this comcade are conjoined overhead by a trellis grid of 2x lumber.

Inside, the comcade is reverting to a state of nature – a bumper crop of shrubbery, the kind that turns into tumbleweeds when given the right conditions, has sprouted through the pavement and made it impassible.

On the King Boulevard side, another comcade configuration:

The parking lot within the plaza seems impossibly vast; there is so much emptiness begging to be filled, screaming for redevelopment.

Paradoxically, these vast parking lots have helped prolong Santa Barbara Plaza’s undead state. Its developers in 1950 were probably not in the least concerned with providing a flexible structure for new owners decades in the future, and unwittingly created a framework that made the Plaza forbidding to redevelop. Its buildings on separate parcels were owned by dozens of individuals, each with the right to use the central parking lots by reciprocal easements. Each building owner had a legal claim on these parking lots – both the right to use them by legal agreement and the obligation to provide access to them as a condition of building occupancy. In this way, the structure of the deal actively inhibited redevelopment.

Perhaps there is a strategy lesson here for architects who wish to ensure that the buildings they design will survive, equal to training your children in survival skills.

The backside of this bankerly office building is equipped with a screen block wall:

Nearby on King Boulevard is this two-story office building, at one time a bank. The second story is defined by a protruding plastered frame to give it a “tube” expression:

If Santa Barbara Plaza has a patron saint, it is Oran Z. Belgrave, the owner of this building. The businessman, community activist and owner of the Black Facts & Wax Museum has worked for years to keep the Plaza clean and safe. His building is largely occupied by his mind-blowing collection of historical artifacts and negrobilia. When fellow LoMos enthusiast Russ Holthouse and I were out observing the Plaza on Memorial Day, Oran welcomed us inside for a quick peek at the museum’s seriously amazing collection.

As the honorary mayor of “Oranville,” as the Plaza is called by many locals, Oran has advocated for its adaptive reuse, including its use as a filming location. A sign posted near the Santa Rosalia entrance:

The lomoscape west of JJ Cleaners, near the corner of Buckingham and Santa Rosalia:

Part 5: Santa Rosalia Drive.

The southwest boundary of Santa Barbara Plaza, Santa Rosalia Drive, is its most charming and I have saved the best for last. Consisting entirely of one-story commercial buildings fronted to the lot line, Santa Rosalia was designed to a walkable urban neighborhood scale (if one can suspend one’s disbelief and imagine it in a less devastated condition). The collection on Santa Rosalia comprises a rare streetscape of varied, individual buildings where literally each and every one is in the Lower Modernist mode.

The first set of photographs were exposed in the early afternoon on January 30, 2011, and it was looking extra-desolate on this grey, rainy day.

The gently curving street enhances the quality of the view.

Santa Rosalia’s buildings maintain a character of overall cohesiveness notwithstanding that the buildings were individually designed, owned and built. The streetscape is a case study in the classic architect’s design problem of how to break down a large, monolithic element into smaller and human-scaled components.

The decorative rock-wall cladding is an element used repeatedly, creating harmonies in texture and color across different buildings.

The tumbleweed-filled comcade viewed from the Santa Rosalia side:

The next set of photographs were exposed on the morning of May 30, 2011.

The signage is a large part of the appeal of Santa Rosalia. These disused mid-century commercial signs have been consistently whitewashed, generating an alienation effect. Bereft of message, they read as abstract objects. Santa Rosalia’s signs are a tabula rasa awaiting re-use, and I find myself tempted to photoshop my own logos onto these blank canvases.

The mute signage recalls the haunting images of São Paulo in the years after commercial billboards were outlawed, described here in a feature from Adbusters magazine.

The blankness of the signage highlights the sheer abundance of them, as well as their varied styles and shapes. The reliance of this architectural style on so many signs is a form of what writer Owen Hatherley called “component fixation” in discussing the work of Robert Venturi in the introduction to A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain:

Their praise for the chaos of signage that made up Vegas is, in essence, not vastly different to the rhetoric of the Russian Constructivists, whose work was motivated by what historian Kestutis Paul Zygas calls a “component fixation”; where designs were always presented with affixed billboards, posters, slogans, transmitters and tramlines, as if to plug them into the city’s dynamism (xxv).

The components affixed to Santa Barbara Plaza are whitewashed signs, see-through sign skeletons, plywood boards that impart pleasing warm tones to the otherwise muted composition, and the ubiquitous phrase in stenciled letters, “THIS PROPERTY CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC NO ENTRY WITHOUT PERMISSION.”

This sign once advertised Gethers Carpets and Draperies:

And this one long ago, Al Goldstein Meat and Poultry.

The next set of photographs were taken shortly before sunset on August 4, 2011.

Buttress-like walls of plaster, rock or flagstone extend outward to subdivide the continuous row of storefronts. The buildings more-or-less share a common parapet height and canopy, in a nod to the cohesiveness exhibited by city streets where cornice heights are shared between individual buildings; but here the rhythm is looser.

The pastel tones of Santa Rosalia were glowing warmly in the waning light of a late afternoon. Santa Barbara Plaza hardly looked scary at all that day.

These last photographs were exposed on August 28th, 2011, after limited demolition had already started on King Boulevard and Marlton Avenues.

On the angled fascia of the canopy of the one-time VIP Fish Mart, the whitewashed legend “YOU BUY WE FRY” still casts clear shadows.

The Baldwin Crest Realty logo is in the Ye Olde England Moderne style.

Santa Barbara Plaza References:

An informative article about the recent history of Santa Barbara Plaza and attempts at its redevelopment: http://spot.us/pitches/447-redevelopment-hell/story

Interactive parcel map of Santa Barbara Plaza: http://blog.spot.us/marltonsquaremap/

4 responses to “027. Sunset for Santa Barbara Plaza. Lomo Featured Project: Santa Barbara Plaza, also known as Marlton Square. Endangered Lomo.”

  1. Brigitte Ferry

    Sad not to save it

  2. Kai

    Thanks for a great article and awesome photos. Sadly, another piece of architecture history bites the dusk….

  3. Gregger

    The Crenshaw District, Crenshaw Shopping District,Santa Barbara Plaza, and Marlton Square, et. al., were once fabulously beautiful and clean. I grew up in the area from the early to mid 1950s, and continued to visited friends in the area up until the early 1970s. So, what happened? The photographs look like an episode from The Twilight Zone after The Bomb was dropped.


    My Grandfather owned Baldwin Crest Realty. All those businesses were thriving until the early 00’s when that site was to be developed and it never happened. People were forced to close and move and then that entire property went down hill. It’s a darn shame other locations in South LA have been developed and that sits with Kaiser and nothing else.

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