Eichler Tract a Class Act

Twenty enthusiastic high schoolers team up with the Los Angeles Conservancy to keep alive suburbia's modern architectural heritage

la conservancy high schoolers

For many people, the San Fernando Valley is what Southern California historian Kevin Roderick nicknamed "America's suburb" -- the ultimate iconic representation of postwar suburban living, even after a half-century of continued development.

But how does that suburban image change from the perspective of today's Valley teenagers, who are too young to have a nostalgic connection to mid-century architecture and the culture of modern living?

In the Joseph Eichler tract of Balboa Highlands, in Granada Hills, a group of Valley teens recently discovered their architectural heritage firsthand. Twenty students from the John F. Kennedy High School Architecture and Digital Arts Magnet in Granada Hills launched a new extracurricular program last fall with the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit historic preservation organization. Known as Conservancy Student Advocates, the students met after school every two weeks with Conservancy staff members and guest speakers to discuss local architectural history, the preservation process, and fundamental advocacy techniques, all while applying their newfound preservation skills to a semester-long group project.

Their first assignment: surveying the Balboa Highlands Eichler tract to help it gain status as a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, or HPOZ, the official name for historic districts in the City of Los Angeles.

la conservancy high schoolers

Balboa Highlands is one of three Eichler tracts in Southern California and the only one in Los Angeles County. Built between 1963 and 1964 and designed by principal architects A. Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons, the tract encompasses four main streets and more than 100 homes, many of which have undergone significant restoration efforts by preservation-minded residents.

In an area -- and era -- where faux-Mediterranean McVillas seem to sprout like weeds, preserving the past is a constant challenge, especially when that past is less than 50 years ago. If and when designated as a historic district, Balboa Highlands would be L.A.'s second postwar HPOZ, preceded only by the Gregory Ain-designed Mar Vista Tract in West Los Angeles. But while Ain built his tract in the late 1940s, Balboa Highlands wasn't built until over a decade later, which would make it the youngest HPOZ in the city.

The road to historic designation can be long and complex. Between building community support, surveying every structure in the neighborhood, and wending the survey and application through the city's approval process, HPOZ designation often takes years. Generally, much of the official survey work is done by a professional team of architectural historians, often with the aid of community members. Enter the students of Kennedy High School.

Over several weekends, the Conservancy Student Advocates visited Eichler homes for guided tours with the owners, architectural photography workshops, and a seminar on how to complete the surveys. They worked closely with preservation professionals from Pasadena's Architectural Resources Group, Inc. (ARG), the firm responsible for completing the full Balboa Highlands survey.

ARG staff taught the students how to evaluate the Eichlers to discern their historic character and any alterations made over the years. Conservancy staff compiled a visual style guide to original Eichler features such as block house numbers, globe lamps, grooved wood siding, square 'Eichler block' exteriors, and 'Saturn' escutcheon plates.

la conservancy high schoolers inside home

Once familiar with the survey process, each student was assigned two homes in the neighborhood and sent into the field to record findings and photograph the homes. While the whole notion of approaching a complete stranger's house to photograph the details of their steel-sash window treatments seemed a little bit unnatural to some of the students, in several instances the young surveyors were greeted by enthusiastic homeowners, who invited students inside to see their interior restoration work.

Although home interiors are generally not evaluated while producing an HPOZ survey, many students jumped at the opportunity to see a modern home from the inside-out. "I was amazed that there were people, other than Conservancy members, interested in teaching students about historic architecture," said Misael Perez, a junior at Kennedy.

Balboa Highlands residents were equally enthusiastic about the students. "I took special notice of how observant the student teams were when studying the various models and their attention to detail," pointed out Balboa Highlands resident Adriene Biondo. "Introducing them to mid-century modern homes they've only seen in commercials and TV shows like 'CSI' is a unique and meaningful way of engaging their interest and propelling them forward in their architectural studies."

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