Courtesy of John Mares, AIA RIBA:
Mid-Century America was a time of unbridled optimism, unprecedented success, unrivaled creativity and unknowing naiveté. The post-war period saw the continued westward mass migration from the former dominant east coast cities as young and ingenious people moved to settle in California in search of their own slice of sunshine and prosperity.
Housing these young and adventurous people and their growing families required new thinking with regard to urban planning and residential architectural design. After experiments with tract housing on the East Coast and West Coast to accommodate workers for wartime industry, architects and developers were eager to apply the lessons learned from their fledgling developments to larger, more significant planned communities.
One of the metropolitan areas that saw tremendous growth during the mid-century was San Diego. A former backwater town known for its spectacularly fine weather and its tuna fleet, San Diego almost tripled in size during the two decades following the start of World War II as it became a mecca for the military, the aerospace industry and the new sciences of biomedicine and electronics. Along with the sheer numbers of people settling in San Diego was a burgeoning middle class, with heightened sophistication and optimism.
Nothing embodied that new sophistication and optimism more that the design trends of the day, with the swooping tail fins of automobiles and the long, low cantilevered designs of the mid-century modernists. Architects such as Mies Van Der Rohe, artists such as Alexander Calder and industrial designers such as Charles Eames created the modern aesthetic we know today as “mid century modern”. It only takes a quick look to harken back to a day when everyone’s wish for a personal robot or hovercar was only a few years away from being granted; a more innocent time when nuclear power promised free electricity and American Hegemony was undisputed.
As a practical matter, San Diego became an experiment of sorts. Many developments were created during this time period in what was chaparral and scrub-brush. One of these developments was University City, which was master planned along with UCSD and the Salk Institute, to service the developing scientific and intellectual nexus in the north of San Diego.
A pioneering developer at the time was Irvin J. Kahn, whose vision was to create an affordable tract development with quality, architectural housing instead of the cheap, soulless housing developments of the time in places like Clairemont and Ocean Park. Kahn commissioned architect William Krisel to design the University City tract in 1960.
Krisel was 10 years out of school, graduating from USC with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1949. Krisel’s early career was devoted to designing elegant homes in Palm Springs, helping to double the size of that city in a few short years. At age 35, Krisel designed University City with the same sense of optimism and hope as he did the desert community before. His pioneering work in development of architectural features such as the “butterfly roof”, concrete “shadow block” and the residential clerestory were all prototyped in University City. These design features would become signatures of his work and inspire his peers as well as residents of his signature homes.
His career included design of mid-rise and high-rise structures all around Southern California including the Coronado Shores condominium towers, which stand today as one of the most striking and well preserved examples of the style. There are also a number of Krisel homes in the Pacifica and Sugarman Drive developments in La Jolla.
The original University City development included houses on Stresemann, Lamas, Gobat, Lord Cecil, Award Row, Sandburg and Dalen Avenue. The Butterfly Roof house on Award Row was the model for the development and featured in promotion material at the time. This house embodies all of the spirit and design sense of the time and was a pioneering work not only for its forms and finishes, but for a new type of developer that wished to create quality, architectural homes.
A quick peek around the neighborhood will uncover a lot of other mid-century modern gems.
William Krisel was recently honored by the USC Architectural Guild for his lifetime achievement as one of the premiere Southern California Modernists. He gave a wonderful acceptance speech which included fond memories of all of the projects he worked on and his humble appreciation of the acknowledgement of his peers.
I met him after the ceremony and told him that his designs were one of the things that inspired me to pursue my dream of becoming an architect. I remember my fascination at the design elements such as post and beam structure and the great expanses of glass that separated his designs from the traditional tract houses that are mixed in with the mid-century modern homes in University City.
There is currently a movement amongst many owners of Krisel homes to restore them to their original beauty, including the use of period hardware and décor. Even at age 92, Krisel has participated in some of the efforts, providing copies of his original drawings when requested. His papers have recently been curated by the Getty Research Institute and are available for reference to those individuals wishing to restore their homes.
So take a look around the neighborhood and enjoy a piece of architectural history. Better yet, if you own one of these houses, take a moment to look at some of the details which separate it from the houses around you. And if you have the heart, consider restoring it to its original glory as a concrete symbol of a different time.
Editor’s note: John Mares grew up in University City in 60’s and 70’s and currently practices architecture in Los Angeles with Corgan, designing airport terminals throughout California. His love for all things mid-century was inspired by the Krisel homes he experienced growing up. His career choice was influenced by an appreciation of why these homes were special. His parents still live in UC and his return visits always bring back a bit of nostalgia and memories of a more innocent time.
Courtesy of Peter Hendriks: One more remodeled William Krisel Home in University City. The redesigned front garden was published in the September 2011 issue of San Diego Home & Lifestyles magazine. Garden designed by Owners Helen Hutchinson & Peter Hendriks. Photos courtesy of Peter Hendriks.
Do you live in a home designed by William Krisel? Please share your photo of your home through the ‘Contact Us’ link at https://www.universitycitynews.org/contact-us-or-volunteer-in-uc/