Mourning an Ellwood Original

Tour of revered SoCal architectural homes ends in shock, disbelief and a pile of rubble
Fridays on the Homefront
The sound of tractors and chainsaws has become commonplace in Brentwood area of Los Angeles, where the smell of demolition has been known to hang in the air. The Zimmerman house (above), designed by the accomplished Southern California modernist architect Craig Ellwood in the early 1950s, is Brentwood's latest architectural casualty. All black and white photos by Julius Shulman © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Witnessing the demolition of revered residential architecture is a gut punch. Even walking the inclined driveway leading to the empty lot where such a home once stood can be painful.

Such was the case last week, while in Los Angeles. Our emotions ran high.

The sight of a lone mailbox and the smell of demolition hanging in the air was what we encountered face to face on a drive of Craig Ellwood-designed homes in the Brentwood area, on North Carmelina Avenue, near Sunset Boulevard.

Fridays on the Homefront
Behold, the driveway leading to an empty lot where the Zimmerman house once stood. Color photos by Adriene Biondo

Stepping around bricks and rubble, we crossed the zig-zagging tracks of a bulldozer that was still standing by, likely waiting for one more pass. Mature shrubs and trees that once had been carefully placed by modernist landscape architect Garrett Eckbo were now scattered in disarray.

With a demolition, there's always a sense of shock and disbelief, but a quick Google search verified the address, and zeroed in on a Julius Shulman photograph taken in 1953. Yes, this had been the Martin R. and Eva Zimmerman house once featured in Progressive Architecture magazine.

Strangely, the sound of tractors and chainsaws has become commonplace along North Carmelina Avenue. Green 'demo fencing' surrounds enormous properties that are now prized more for the land than their provenance.

Fridays on the Homefront
Zimmerman house living room, 1953.

Today, prime real estate locations are fetching high prices in nearly every major city. In Los Angeles, land values have skyrocketed in affluent areas such as Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, with older homes, or even those with a pedigree, often paying the price. Not far from this Ellwood home, architect John Lautner's Shusett house suffered the same fate in 2010, as did architect William Krisel's own home in 2014.

The single-family Zimmerman residence was commissioned in 1949 and, according to US Modernist, was designed out of Ellwood's office by Emiel Becksy, with Eckbo as landscape architect. In 1968, the Zimmermans sold to Richard Kelton, with the home subsequently changing hands to its last owners, Sam and Hilda Newman-Rolfe, in 2004.

  Fridays on the Homefront
Tool of demolition.

Ellwood's sleekly designed architecture possesses a mystique that was undeniably part of the man himself. Born Jon Nelson Burke in 1922, and without any formal training in architecture, 'Johnnie' Burke moved from Texas to Los Angeles, where he reinvented himself as the suave Craig Ellwood, borrowing his new surname from a liquor store.

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