Off-kilter Koreatown apartment building irks, inspires
No one may have asked architect Stephen Kanner if he designed the whimsically skewed Harvard Apartments to annoy the neighbors, but after nearly 20 years, the 14-unit building punched with odd windows in Koreatown is doing just that.
“We all dislike it,” says Craig Lander, right, standing with a gaggle of his neighbors at the building next door, a 1937 structure called the French Chateau, which fronts James M. Wood Boulevard. Encircled by the French Chateau's balustrades, ornamental parapets, bay windows and soaring turrets, Lander says his neighbors call the 1992 Harvard Apartments “the Swiss cheese building.” He adds that the Harvard doesn’t complement the area’s other structures.
“Maybe if it was painted one solid color, like gray,” Lander says, “it would be more attractive.”
Architecture writer Leon Whiteson differed in his 1993 Times article, calling the Harvard Apartments “an act of sheer delight.” He termed the design a “vivid fusion of seriousness and lightness.”
Architect Kanner said his client asked for a “building that was more than just another box.” Kanner said he delivered a “ham-and-Swiss-cheese sandwich of white-bread Modernism with a filling of L.A. funk."
Kanner, who died last year at age 54 from pancreatic cancer, bemoaned “the incredible sameness” of clients and architecture and “vanilla firms where profits are everything.” Many agreed, and the Harvard Apartments won awards, including the Distinguished Building Honor Award from the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
True to Kanner’s description, the Harvard Apartments are a sandwich of stacked shapes with a dollop of Googie style architecture. The salmon-colored rear slice is cut with square windows set at a tilt. Tenant Alex Adler, pictured at the top of the post, occupies the largest unit with the largest canted window. The teal-colored layer is strewn with circular windows, some functional and others ornamental. Four backward "E" shapes created from rectangular windows look out onto the street.
Next to the French Chateau, which is elegantly clothed in black, white and gray, the Harvard looks downright saucy. The pair of residences are Koreatown’s preeminent odd couple, what novelist D.H. Lawrence called (even back in the 1920s) the “crazy-sensible” of Los Angeles, a term that writer Whiteson noted.
“A landscape in which the bizarre and the banal exist side by side without seeming at odds,” Whiteson wrote in his assessment of the Harvard, “and no one appears to notice the difference.” Well, most of the time.
Joe and Tracey Andruscavage bought the apartment building at 901 S. Harvard Blvd. in 1999.
“After I saw it, we had the building under contract within a few hours,” Tracey Andruscavage says. “It was really cool looking.”
When told some residents of the French Chateau sniff at his building, Joe Andruscavage graciously responded: “Well, they live in a Chateau-style building, and of course they love that. They’re used to it.”
Harvard Apartments was the “first building of what became known in our firm as California Pop,” says Winston Chappell, vice president of Santa Monica-based Kanner Architects and husband of Stephen Kanner’s sister, Catherine. “The firm took a pretty hard left in 1998 to classic Modernism,” which holds firm today.
Kanner Architects was founded in 1946 by Stephen Kanner’s grandfather, I. Herman Kanner. His son Charles headed the firm in 1953 and Stephen Kanner joined in 1982.
Stephen Kanner designed numerous sportive buildings in Los Angeles. “He really saw the joy in architecture,” Chappell said upon Stephen Kanner’s death last year. Kanner launched one of his greatest passions in 2001, the A+D Architecture and Design Museum.
Bill Bouldin, 50, is Harvard’s veteran tenant. After Rollerblading past the building in 1995, Bouldin says he stopped and met Stan Davis, the original owner who commissioned the building. Within a month Bouldin was settled into a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor.
Bouldin, who works as an architectural draftsman for the Los Angeles Convention Center, has witnessed the Harvard endure four color schemes during his 15-year stay. He says he prefers the original yellow, green and “earthy clay color” that best captured the architectural elements.
“I love watching school kids from Harvard Elementary walk past the building,” he adds. “They look at, they touch it, and they’re just amazed. It’s almost like a toy to them.”
-- R. Daniel Foster
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Photos: R. Daniel Foster