"English and early Colonial [architecture], with red bricks and heavy pillars have no place in Southern California.”
Mary Pickford Fairbanks, from a speech to the Los Angeles chapter of A.I.A., reprinted in Architect and Engineer December 1926.
Mary Pickford was not alone in her devotion to Spanish Revival architecture. Los Angeles’ romance with the style began with the enthusiastic reception of the Panama-California Exposition and continued through the early 1930s. Thousands of homes, apartments, as well as civic and commercial buildings were covered in adobe and designed to look like ranchos or mini-Mediterranean-villas. Though this style was not easily “translated into mass housing,” major architects including Paul Williams, promoted it to clients as a method of infusing their home with the California spirit. (Kevin Starr. The Dream Endures. 1997)
One group of homebuyers seemed immune to the Spanish craze—affluent, retirees from the Midwest who came to Southern California to enjoy the moderate climate and invigorating lifestyle that insured “they would keep the bloom of youth.” (“Why I Live in California.” Sunset. October, 1928) Often conservative in their taste, these transplants bought property in the choicest areas of Los Angeles and hired prominent architects to design homes. These new residences often duplicated what they had recently vacated in the Midwest. Kansans Frederick Eugene and Hattie Pettit are examples of these newcomers. In 1923 the couple purchased a lot in Windsor Square and hired young Paul Williams to design their retirement home in a familiar Midwestern revival style (ZIMA).
The Standard History of Kansas and Kansans (1918) describes Fred Pettit as a self-made man who “found it necessary to make his own living when the average boy is attending school.” Early mentors recognized his business acumen and urged him to enter the general merchandising business. Energetic, aggressive and a master of advertising, Pettit operated stores in several small Kansas towns considered “high grade emporiums” by the local residents. Retiring by age 55, Pettit spent his leisure years tending his investments, dabbling in Kansas Republican politics and doting on his two children. When the children graduated from university and moved to California, Fred and Hattie followed.
Williams met with the Pettits in a series of consultations. Notices in Southwest Builder and Contractor (9/2/1924, 9/12/1924, 10/3/1924) publicized his preparation of plans for an “English styled residence” on Van Ness Ave for the couple. Though young, Williams was quickly becoming known for his talent for understanding each client to personalize the design. “Four walls and furniture do not guarantee a home … and discriminating home owners demand an abode which reflects their own personality and satisfies their particular needs.” (Los Angeles Times. March 24, 1938) This unique ability would become a Williams’ signature.
Williams’ designs and renderings for the Van Ness residence included a working budget of $16,000. This projected cost easily met the $10,000 minimum required by Windsor Square developers to “ensure quality design and construction” and surpassed the $5,000 median cost for a new home in Los Angeles during the 1920s. (Windsor Square HPOZ Preservation Plan. September 8, 2005 and U.S. Housing Census) As a businessman, Pettit knew he was “getting what he paid for…” when he hired Williams and considered him the expert. (Esther McCoy’s essay in Los Angeles Times. August 21, 1960)
Promotional materials described Windsor Square as a place where, “family traditions may be established and maintained … amid surroundings of stability, culture and beauty.” Fred and Hattie’s selection of an English style for their new home reflected their traditional aesthetics and desire for the familiar. Williams’ design had instant curb appeal with its prominent Tudor inspired front-facing gable of brick, large chimney, plaster half-timbering details and an inviting one-story arched brick entry. The professionally landscaped back yard provided ample space for California fresh air and sunshine while the interior was reminiscent of the Pettits’ former home in Kansas.
Current photographs of the interior show modern updates but few alterations to Williams’ basic design. A suite of formal public rooms, each with coffered ceilings, built-in display niches and tasteful details reflect the Pettit’s sensibilities and the architect’s frequently stated belief that “good proportions,” not ostentation is vital to creating “a home, rather than a house.” The rooms are connected by wide arched doorways and have large windows, some with leaded glass, that light the space —a nod to the healthful California lifestyle. Unlike the other designs Williams completed at that time, the staircase in the Pettit home is utilitarian and might easily have been transplanted from some prosperous Midwestern residence. An informal sunroom looks out to the landscaped garden that originally linked the Pettits home with their daughter’s—another Williams’ design on North Norton Avenue.
In her speech to A.I.A. Mary Pickford Fairbanks acknowledged every American’s right to build his dream house in styles deemed convenient and pleasing. The movie star resolutely stated her belief that Mediterranean architecture was the only “real” California style. The “English house …will stand out in bold and glaring contrast to its neighbors” and in the future should be restricted to set aside sections for a more “attractive result.”
Fred and Hattie were not swayed by Fairbanks’ aesthetic opinions and were comfortable with both their design choice and the architect who respected their choice.