When architect Philip Johnson collaborated with historian and critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock on an exhibition catalog for the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the resulting cultural reverberations changed the course of 20th century American architecture. Their book, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922, (1932) was the first to describe the International Style design for an American audience. The rigorously defined style was not embraced by average Americans. Instead they preferred aesthetic elements of the rounded, softer, less ornamented Art Moderne style. This style permeated all socio-economic levels of American consumerism and the look was adapted for jewelry, automobiles, kitchen appliances and architecture. Sleek and clean, Art Moderne expressed the can-do, fast-paced, progressive spirit of the mid-century’s technological age.
As the public embraced this design style, California architects began to rethink their committment to the Spanish Revival look for homes, public buldings and businesses. In the 1930s new buildings across Los Angeles sported curves and speed lines giving the impression that solid buildings were fluid "speeding down some highway to the future" (David Wallace. Hollywoodland, 2002). Taste-setters in Los Angeles applied the look to everything refusing to stop with architecture. Art Moderne style became de rigueur, even influencing movie set designs and plots. Film icons Busby Berkeley's and Fred Astaire's elaborate dance sequences are often viewed as another form of Art Moderne set to music.
In 1947 two investors, Schwartz and Trevelyan, commissioned Paul R. Williams to design an up-to-date, 12-unit-apartment building on Almont Drive in Los Angeles. Though Williams was Southern California's acknowledged master of residential-period revival, he also believed that “…California should not be deprived of smarter styles commensurate with the way we live, rather than a sentiment trying to imitate pioneer modes of seventy-five years ago” (Los Angeles Times. March 29, 1936). The three-story Hannah Schwartz Apartments was his answer to the challenges of designing for modern urban living—a commercial-residential building shaped by the aesthetics of Art Moderne. Though Williams completed a number of projects with elements of this style (Loomis Apartments, 1939, Reno, Nevada) few were as fully realized as the Schwartz Apartments. With its flat roof, smooth surface skin and curved balconies, the solidly built structure seems to ripple and move down the residential street.
Schwartz and Trevelyan sold the apartment building to other investors soon after completion. In 1952 the complex was purchased by Gertrude and Harry Kaye. Currently known as The Gertrude and Harry Kaye Building, it was more than an investment to the Kayes—it became a home to their extended family. The Kaye family has been a presence in the apartments on Almont Drive ever since, marking many milestones in the building. (Currently they maintain 2 of the 12 units.) Gertrude lived there until 2001 when she died at 94. Younger members of the Kaye family continue to have a deep attachment to the building, seeing it as a symbol of "rich history to our family."
In 2011 the Burton Way Foundation, a neighborhood preservation group, asked the City of Los Angeles to add the Kaye apartments (Hannah Schwartz) to the Historic-Cultural Monuments List. In their application the Foundation wrote:
For the Hannah Schwartz Apartments, architect Williams utilized elements and principles of International Modern style: flat painted surfaces, box-like dimensions and metal-framed windows … The apartments convey their stylistic significance through the use of asymmetrical window design that emphasizes corner placement and the rhythmic repetition of shapes…(with) Streamline Moderne decorative flourishes: the motif of squares used in the building-height screens and entry, the curvilinear balconies and sculpted entry walls, planter walls and flat baluster rolling façade screen. (Los Angeles Department of City Planning. Recommendation Report. January 2011)
Paul R. Williams often articulated his philosophy of the importance of not only looking to past architecture for inspiration but incorporating new design ideas into real-life projects. Speaking in 1953 before the New York Herald Tribune's 22nd Annual Forum, New Patterns for Mid-Century Living, he stressed how American it is to enthusiastically accept the new or what is called modern. The greatness of America was the public's ability to tone down extremes and "gradually arrive at a sane American Modern." The Gertrude and Harry Kaye Building is an example of Wiiliams' ability to succesfully define the public's view and acceptance of modern—the building "does not follow a rigid formula" of the International Style but is "a true expression of our standard of living. It will be the American Style."
(Thanks to Steven Dersh for information on the Kaye family and their relationship to The Gertrude and Harry Kaye Building.)