I first met John Leighton Chase 23 years ago, in 1987. I had been sent here by Architectural Review magazine to survey the new architecture coming out of Los Angeles. No sooner had I arrived than I got a cheery phone call from John. (How had he track me down!) He introduced himself and told me he wanted to show me what they were doing at Imagineering, where he was then a designer. I’m sorry, I told him politely but firmly, but the Architectural Review does not cover Disney, in no small part because the company was loathed by Peter Davey, then the editor.
John did not take no for an answer and kept on calling. Almost the end of my trip, he finally gave up on the Imagineering pitch but offered instead to take me on a tour of LA. Barely had I set eyes on the dandified, twinkly-eyed John than I realized what an idiot I’d been not to meet him sooner—not to mention skipping out on Imagineering. He took me on a tour that only John Chase could give, of offbeat buildings as well as some classics. There were hidden gardens and endearing, shabby roadside architecture, all accompanied by a hilarious and perceptive running narration. Followed, of course, by headache-inducing drinks at Tiki Ti, a Polynesian-themed place in Silver Lake. I boarded the plane the next day having fallen in love with John Chase and his Los Angeles.
From then on we were firm friends, at long distance during the four years before I moved here in 1991. When I arrived in LA, John was no longer working at Imagineering. Rather, he was in a less settled phase, doing a mix of small architectural jobs (mostly residential, usually preservationist, and with great charm) and freelance writing projects.
One of those writing projects was with me. We wrote a guide to Las Vegas architecture in 1997, at the very moment its themed casino mania was peaking. Foolishly, we chose to do our research in the middle of August—a week spent in 110-plus-degree sun was not ideal for anyone, least of all a balding redhead—and our faltering efforts birthed a term John loved to use when we were bungling things together: the John and Frances Juggernaut.
But when John put pen to paper, every sentence crackled. Of Caesars Palace, for example, he wrote: “While Caesars... looks like a women’s prison in Tehran from the outside by daylight, inside it is the ultimate Vegas casino... and is, in the best sense of the word, a camp masterpiece, a knowing parodic send-up of the impossibility of really theming a modern hotel on ancient classical lines. The irony is that spiritually... it probably really is the hotel that a licentious Roman of Imperial vintage would feel right at home in.”
John had been writing since college when his thesis was turned into a book, The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture. He was a superb writer, very witty as well as a completely original, and serious, a thinker. In 1982 he wrote Exterior Decoration: Hollywood's Inside-Out Houses, a revelatory examination of modest houses decorated on the outside by their interior decorator and set designer occupants. After that, in 1985, he spent a brief time as architecture critic for the San Francisco Examiner.
Another important publication was a book he wrote with Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski called Everyday Urbanism, published in 1999 and reissued two years ago. In this book and his wonderful book of essays, Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving: Reflections on Building Production in the Vernacular City, John laid out his personal philosophy of architecture and the lived environment. It was a philosophy that would come to flavor his work at the City of West Hollywood.
John started working as Urban Designer for West Hollywood in 1996, and while at times he complained about the constraints of bureaucracy, it seems that this position fitted him perfectly. There he was able to apply all his passions: his fascination with the entire urban fabric; his concern with preservation as well as his embrace of really interesting new architecture; and his preoccupation, unique among architecture critics, with “building production,” which he defined in Glitter Stucco & Dumpster Diving as “the sum total of the built response to human needs.” By this he meant the dominant built environment of “developer housing, blank-faced speculative office buildings, shopping malls, parking structures and warehouses” that were generally ignored or demeaned by the high-art architecture world.
In West Hollywood he had a hand in shaping its streetscape, notably Santa Monica Boulevard, which he declared only two week would be his legacy. He took great relish in shaping its signage, parks, and buildings. He urged developers to aim for high quality. Among favorite new Weho buildings of John’s were the Formosa 1140 condo building designed by Lorcan O’Herlihy and the Sierra Bonita apartments for low-income people with special needs, designed by Patrick Tighe.
When I last spoke to John–several times in the week before his death—he was full of excitement about the next stage of his life. John had announced his retirement from Weho and was anticipating a return to writing and consulting, in the company of the man who brought incredible joy and stability to his life, Jonathan Cowan. (We jointly celebrated our respective marriages in a foursome wedding reception three years ago. John was my daughter Summer’s godfather, so the addition of Jonathan meant she got to enjoy two highly indulgent “godfathers.”)
It is a mean trick of fate that John was taken away in his prime. I just hope that wherever he is, he knows how much he contributed to LA and its understanding of itself, as well as all he gave to me and so many others personally, as the most entertaining, supportive, and beloved friend.