Preserving history — and lifestyle — on San Vicente Boulevard

Courtyard Housing

Santa Monica is fortunate to have grown up as a city with a unique housing identity — a setting that symbolized gracious apartment living in the land of orange blossoms and avocados. In fact, you might describe the Courtyard and Garden apartments in our city as the epitome of the Southern California lifestyle. From the 1910s through the 1950s, Bungalow, Courtyard and Garden apartment construction styles dominated the Santa Monica scene.

All of these low-rise apartments embraced center courtyards with a clear emphasis on space for the dweller. The evolution of these apartments included park-like space within the buildings, and an updated version of the old eastern front stoop. Now residents could barbecue, talk to their neighbors, sun themselves in the warm Santa Monica weather and have a relaxed lifestyle that was the envy of those who resided in the older cities in the East. Garages for the omnipresent automobile were relegated to the rear or side of the units with alley entrances.

The architectural style evolved through the decades, beginning with bungalows and then moving to courtyard apartments. Bungalows tended to be modest with stylistic detail while the newer garden court apartments were architecturally designed. Patios, verandas and balconies opening to a central courtyard symbolize these apartments. The apartments tend to be more spacious with a solid connection to the outdoors and … to the neighbors. Gone were long, internal corridors and the darkness that pervaded Eastern metropolitan apartment living. Courtyards became a place of recreation, with swimming pools and ping-pong tables creating the new urban tableau that was Santa Monica’s own style.

Words like Streamline Moderne, Hollywood Regency, Minimal Traditional and Vernacular Modern defined the different eras of courtyard housing design in Santa Monica, with the largest collection of intact examples of these styles on our San Vicente Boulevard. In fact, from Ocean Avenue to 7th Street there are 28 examples of courtyard apartment housing. If you include the adjoining area of Ocean Avenue, even more examples of the various design styles are found. You can look at 212 San Vicente Blvd., for a fine example of the Streamline Moderne style, view 211 San Vicente for an example of Hollywood Regency style, 437-441 San Vicente for Minimal Traditional and visit the Bermuda Apartments at 540 San Vicente for an outstanding example of Vernacular Modern construction.

San Vicente Boulevard’s environment is unique, and these seven blocks give the street its special character. Families abound, as Courtyard style apartment buildings contain many two- and three-bedroom units. The park-like setting of the wide median running down the center of the boulevard, with its beautiful Coral trees, adds perfect perspective to the courtyard apartments with consistent setbacks and nicely landscaped front yards on either side of the street.

The Courtyard apartments on San Vicente Boulevard represent the mid-century ideal in apartment living and must be preserved. As economic pressure increases in our city, there is a temptation for some owners to use the Ellis Act, which allows them to leave the apartment rental business in order to build new, bigger, denser buildings. As you walk down San Vicente Boulevard today, your view consists of a beautiful, calm street that occasionally is visually polluted by an overly tall apartment building that seems out of place and out of character. An example of this is the six-story behemoth that is 220 San Vicente Blvd. It dwarfs the other buildings on the block and displays the uninspiring standard rectangular construction from the early 1970s.

How do we preserve the historic Courtyard apartments on San Vicente Boulevard, most of which fall within the regulations of rent control? We can begin by supporting the Landmarks Commission as they seek to establish this distinctive corridor as a Historic District. The consistent setbacks of the buildings, landscaped front yards and courtyards, the absence of driveways and curb cuts, the wide center median, and a remarkable collection of Courtyard apartments qualify this as a neighborhood well worth preserving. While this corridor is not the only repository of Courtyard and Bungalow style housing in Santa Monica, it would appear that the San Vicente Boulevard collection — which is occupied by residents who love their neighborhood — represents a worthwhile beginning. The Courtyard and Garden apartment buildings are an integral part of the ethos and the spirit of Santa Monica, where the traditional dark and narrow lobby and hallway to your apartment is instead one of trees and sunlight. This street is one of many that are significant and historic in our city.

San Vicente Boulevard’s Courtyard apartments have repeatedly been identified as significant, beginning in a 1983 citywide historic resources survey and continuing through today. The SMa.r.t. group believes that our city must act to preserve our rental housing stock and that there is no better spot to make a firm stand than with the preservation of the historic Courtyard and Garden apartments on our San Vicente Boulevard corridor.

Both tenants and owners would benefit from the creation of a historic district. Owners of these buildings would gain through preservation incentives. Included in these incentives is property tax relief under the Mills Act, expedited renovation permitting, application of the Historic Building Code, and other benefits. The owners of condominiums and townhomes on the street would be assured that excess development would not occur on San Vicente Boulevard, and the numerous apartment dwellers on this street would be assured of continuing to have a neighborhood to call home within our city. In addition, owners, via the incentives described above, would have more funds to keep their historic Courtyard apartment buildings in top-notch shape.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have lived within the historic San Vicente corridor since 1981: first, at the aforementioned Bermuda apartments and now in a three-story townhome, which has an interior courtyard in a style that emulates the neighboring Courtyard apartments. This boulevard is a street I love and one that I have been lucky enough to call home for many years. San Vicente Boulevard has one of the highest concentrations of children in all of Santa Monica, who live in its apartments and condominiums. This is a street that all residents of our city treasure — a street that must become the next historic district in Santa Monica, so that these children and their children can continue to experience this healthy, friendly, relaxed and spacious lifestyle into the future.

Phil Brock | SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

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