The work of prolific mid-20th century developer and architect William Mellenthin is largely unknown outside of the greater Los Angeles area, where the builder erected more than 3,000 homes over an illustrious career spanning between three decades. Mellenthin, the subject of an informative new book by historian Chris Lukather titled A Birdhouse in Paradise: William Mellenthin and the San Fernando Valley Ranch Homes, pioneered the distinctive “birdhouse ranch” style of the single-family home, a housing variant marked by the decorate application of pitched-roofed dovecote components, back-to-back fireplaces, board-and-batten siding, and other traditional stylings. With his development company—Wm. M.Mellenthin Builder—Mellenthin revolutionized single-family housing design in the city’s San Fernando Valley by delivering affordable new semi-custom homes in eye-catching styles. By combining the indoor-outdoor domestic spaces, rambling floor plans, and sturdy construction methods, the Midwesterner became a force to be reckoned with during the nascent real estate bonanza that engulfed the region in the immediate postwar era. Until recently, however, Mellenthin’s work had been largely forgotten due to its humble qualities and the ubiquity of the dovecote style in the San Fernando Valley, following the wholesale adoption of his “birdhouse” treatments by other contemporaneous builders. Nonetheless, interest in Mellenthin’s work is increasing, especially as real estate prices continue to climb around the region. West editor Antonio Pacheco connected with Lukather to talk about Mellenthins’s distinctive stylings, his most notable works, and the somewhat malleable nature of the homes he built. The Architect’s Newspaper: Who was William Mellenthin and why should architects care about his work? Chris Lukather: William Mellenthin was a prolific builder. He began building homes in Los Angeles in 1923, and built over 3,000 homes in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. [He also] created designs for “Birdhouse” ranch homes that featured a cupola or dovecote built prominently into the roofs of the homes. The undeniable charm and curb appeal of these homes was very popular with home buyers, and, as a result, he created something of a trend. With returning World War II veterans, families wanted a home and lifestyle that epitomized leisure and fun. Mellenthin’s success brought many imitators. Today there are hundreds of “Birdhouse” homes throughout the Valley—many by builders who borrowed the cupola style. But there is only one original, and that is William Mellenthin. Mellenthin was one of several prominent architect-developers of the postwar era—Cliff May and Joseph Eichler are others—How does a Mellenthin home differ from other ranch houses of this period? Mellenthin homes were more “midcentury traditional” than midcentury modern. They featured diamond-paned windows, dual fireplaces, high beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, and wood paneling throughout the house. He usually built floor-to-ceiling windows in the rear of the house to allow more natural light into the home. One trademark of a Mellenthin home was how low it looked from the street. “The lower, the better,” was their motto. Most homeowners I meet today talk about the quality build of his homes. These homes were built to last. Most Mellenthin homes have withstood the major earthquakes, and fared better than other homes built during the same time. What are a few of his more notable works? His most notable work is in the Sherman Oaks area, [where he also designed] the layout of the streets. He created one development in the early 1950s, with only two entrances and nine cul-de-sacs, creating a private, exclusive area of beautiful tree-lined streets and homes. It’s like an oasis in the Valley. These homes, in a variety of styles and sizes, make up the prime Mellenthin development of the era. He [also] built many custom homes in the hills above Studio City, south of Ventura Boulevard. These homes had unique features, and custom-designed cupolas that his homes on the Valley floor usually did not have. You mention in your book that Mellenthin’s son Michael continued the family business and even worked on projects with the architect Cliff May after the elder Mellenthin’s death. What direction did Michael take Wm. Mellenthin Builder when he was in charge? Michael went to the University of Southern California and received a degree in Engineering. He began building homes in the mid-1950s, joining his father’s company and continued working through the 1970s. The family business officially closed in 1978. Although William is known for the quality build of his homes, Michael is known to have built homes better than his father. In the early 1960s, Michael built homes with a more midcentury modern style, and eventually phased out the “Birdhouse” design. Michael also built some commercial buildings in the Valley. Mellenthin worked to provide his clients semi-custom homes—Did he himself envision the buildings as remaining static over time or did he consider them malleable? Mellenthin’s homes were built to suit, so I don’t think he envisioned a lot of remodeling or updates to the homes later on. What would Mellenthin make of some of the changes that some owners have made to his structures? I’m sure he would not be happy with some of the second stories that have been added to his homes today. [However,] a lot of homeowners have knocked out the walls that separate the kitchen from the den or living room. I’m sure he would have welcomed these changes that help create a more open floor plan. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A Birdhouse in Paradise: William Mellenthin and the San Fernando Valley Ranch Homes Chris Lukather Writing Disorder $35.00
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Killefer Flammang Architects and MGA Entertainment team up for 24-acre mixed use campus in the San Fernando Valley
Bratz Doll manufacturer MGA Entertainment and Santa Monica—based Killefer Flammang Architects (KFA) are breaking ground today on a new 24-acre mixed use campus headquarters for the toy- and electronics-maker in the Chatsworth neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley. Dubbed "24" by Uncommon, the real estate company developing the project, the design calls for the adaptive reuse and expansion of an existing industrial structure. (Formerly, it was a Los Angeles Times printing facility.) The developers aim to create approximately 255,000 square feet of office space in the reused building. MGA will move its headquarters from nearby Van Nuys to the new facility and will concentrate development of its wares on-site. KFA’s master plan for 24 features several mixed-use housing blocks containing 660 apartments on land that is currently being used for parking. The apartments will be located above storefronts, with the complex also containing urban amenities like gym facilities, a pair of swimming pool areas, and a park for recreational sports. The complex will also contain a pre-school, community garden areas, and an amphitheater. Regarding the expansion, chief executive of MGA recently told the Los Angeles Times, “The new facility will be a state-of-the-art facility for people to create and work and live and play.” A rendering released by the developers shows the reused printing facility located at the center of the site surrounded by multiple clusters of five- to seven-story apartment courtyard blocks. Surrounding city streets flow into and out of the complex, with internal pedestrian areas generally separated from automobile traffic. The project, which will also feature a transit plaza that will connect to the nearby Orange Line bus rapid transit line and Chatsworth Metrolink commuter rail station, is bounded on its southern edge by a creek that feeds into the Los Angeles river. The project comes as sections of the low-rise industrial and suburban western San Fernando Valley begin to densify and coalesce around new pedestrian-oriented urban centers. Another recently-announced development includes the Westfield Promenade 2035 by Westfield Corporation, Johnson Fain, Togawa Smith Martin Architects, and HKS Architects. 24 will be built in phases with the adaptive reuse component coming by 2018 and the housing component gradually phased-in between 2018 and 2022.
The Westfield Corporation has filed plans to demolish its 43-year old Promenade mall in the far-western San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, aiming to replace the aging complex with a $1.5-billion mixed-use development containing 1,400 residences. The project, with design by Westfield's in-house design and architecture as well as HKS, Johnson Fain, and Togawa Smith Martin Architects, is inspired by the Warner Center 2035 master plan for the surrounding area, which calls for converting the Warner Center purpose-built business district into a functionally-diverse urban neighborhood. Among other things, the plan calls for “a mix of uses that are within walking distance of one another so people can easily walk rather than drive.” The area’s plan, to be implemented in 2035, would also aim to create "complete streets" that “accommodate alternatives to the car, in particular, an internal circulator in the form of a modern streetcar and ‘small slow vehicle’ lanes for bicycles, Segway-like vehicles, electric bicycles, other small electric vehicles, and any other vehicle that does not move faster than a bicycle.” Plans for the Westfield site would incorporate these principles through the addition of new internal, pedestrianized streets that connect to major thoroughfares as well as the use of the site as for “open streets” events that are closed to automobile traffic. Westfield Corporation’s plan for the Promenade mall, sitting just across the street from the area’s namesake Warner Center towers, calls for the addition of 1,400 residential units, 150,000 square feet creative office, 470,000 square feet Class-A office space, and 244,000 square feet of commercial retail space. The project will also contain a 272-room hotel adjacent to the creative offices and a second, 300-room hotel that will be physically connected to the Class-A office component. The housing components of the project will be arranged in low-rise courtyard complexes while the office and hotel components will hug the western and southern edges of the site. Another central component of the project involves a so-called “Entertainment and Sports Center” that will accommodate flexible seating for up to 15,000 spectators. The sports center will aim to boost the community-minded aspects of the new complex, with also include a one-acre central park and upwards of five-acres of rooftop gardens and patio spaces. Construction on the complex is due to begin in 2020 or 2021 and will continue in phases until 2035.