Passion Sparks Architectural Photo Project

An Eichler home in one of three tracts in the city of Orange is part of a project Michael Locke did in the neighborhoods to document the work of Eichlers architects there. His ongoing project is wide ranging. Home photos by Michael Locke

You may spot him in Los Feliz, Woodland Hills, Brentwood, Mar Vista, an Eichler tract, or almost any neighborhood, really, in the greater Los Angeles area. A brown-haired man with an easy smile, he’ll be carrying a camera and aiming it at houses. If he spots a neighbor, he may stop to chat, or not, depending on his mood.

You may see a woman nearby walking a Chihuahua mix – maybe some golden retriever there? – named Maggie. The woman is Donna Jean Locke, his wife; and the man, Michael Locke, is a former high school coach and current real estate broker focused on architecturally distinctive homes.

“When I grew up I really had a sense, a fascination with architecture. Always,” Michael says. He considered pursuing architecture as a profession, but thought his math skills were lacking. He got an art scholarship, but his parents persuaded him art didn’t pay.

So he studied physical education, but later dropped coaching for corporate equipment sales, then real estate. Today he sells architecturally distinctive homes with the firm Deasy, Penner & Partners, where he is a partner.

Michael and Donna Jean Locke and their dog, Maggie, can often be spotted touring Los Angeles neighborhoods looking for architect-designed houses to add to a useful archive. Courtesy of Michael Locke

He also lives in a Los Angeles historical monument home, the Casa Contenta home, in Spanish Colonial style.

His interest in architecture “blossomed when I became a realtor,” Michael says. He settled in the neighborhood of Silver Lake, which is rich in distinctive homes, including some by Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra. He’s written two books about the history of Silver Lake, edits an online news site about the place, and on top of that founded the Silver Lake Beautification Committee.

Michael has been shooting homes with his digital Nikon for about 15 years and has posted more than 20,000 photos in a series of Flickr albums, most of architecture. He sees his photos as documentation, not as fine art.

What motivates Michael is simply the need to make known, and preserve a record of, the work of architects whom he admires. His quest began when he listed a home by architect Paul R. Williams, a pioneering African-American architect.

“I got a bug about him,” Michael says, and was struck by how many of his homes had fallen out of sight, in part because Williams’ archives were destroyed during the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the police beating of Rodney King.

The Kitty Jean Fox home from 1931 was designed by Paul R. Williams, who in later years designed some modern homes, and some buildings in partnership with A. Quincy Jones

“We didn’t know that was a Paul Williams,” people would tell Michael when he photographed the architect’s homes.

He wanted to help ensure that Williams’ legacy endured.

Soon Michael hooked up with an organization that shares that purpose, U.S. Modernist. The group, based in North Carolina, is a “a nonprofit archive, and claims to be the largest open archive for 20th century modern homes,” Michael says.

Today he contributes photos to the archive, often working from a punch list showing what homes or other buildings they need to document.

 “Yesterday I was in Thousand Oaks and shot about 100 pictures,” he says, meaning the Joe Eichler tract there. He met one neighbor who later emailed him the original brochure. That’s important, because the U.S. Modernist arranges its listings by architect, not by developer or by town. The brochure made clear which plans were by the various Eichler architects.

He has also shot Eichlers in Balboa Highlands in Los Angeles and in the three city of Orange tracts.

Another in Michael Locke's series of homes in Eichler's Orange tracts.

 “I think it’s terrific,” Michael says of the Eichler phenomenon. “I’ve often wondered if I’d like to live in one. But they’re small, and I don’t know what I’d do with everything I have," including a large library.

He says that U.S. Modernist, which has long had a section on Eichler’s architect A. Quincy Jones, will soon produce one on Claude Oakland. There is none on Anshen and Allen.

Michael’s photos get a lot of play. “People contact me all the time,” he says. “ ‘Can I use your photos?’ ”

Michael’s answer is generally yes.

“My photos are used all over the place in architecture books,” he says. “I always ask to get a copy, so I have a large library of architecture books, some in foreign languages.”

He doesn’t try to earn money from his photos, he says. “I also don’t turn money down.” He notes that he has a comfortable life. “My idea has always been, if you do what you want, what you’ll enjoy, you’ll be fine. That’s my attitude.”

“I started taking photos of architecture whenever I had a chance,” Michael says, ranging from Victorian to modern to post-modern.

This home is on North Granada Drive in Orange. Locke generally takes photos of homes in a tract that are well preserved, like this one, but will sometimes photograph those that are not.

On Tuesday, before going to whatever open house he is hosting, he checks the MLS for interesting homes nearby, especially those on U.S. Modernist’s punch list. “I plan my day around that,” he says, photographing nearby homes.

“Sunday, if I don’t have an open house myself, I schedule a day around [photographing homes].”

Michael often gets inside the homes he shoots.

“I’m pretty bold about knocking on doors. ‘Can I come in? I love your house,’” he says.

He also writes letters to ask permission to visit houses that are hidden, gated, or concealed behind landscaping. “More often than not I never hear back from them,” he says.

Michael was recently honored by the U.S. Modernist with an award for his volunteerism, presented with much fanfare during Palm Springs Modernism Week.

Does he have a favorite architect?

“I would have to say John Lautner. I love his wild, expressionist style. It’s unconventional. I’m kind of drawn to the avant-garde.”

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