Park La Brea, 70-year-old design still feels the love (and hate)
Conceived 70 years ago, Park La Brea has managed to remain relevant in a city that seems to grow ever-young. Perhaps that is because the apartment complex still inspires extreme reactions. One is either in or out of Park La Brea's gates, a resident or a ranter, and sometimes both.
Troll the Internet and your nets will sag with a tonnage of opinions, not unexpected for a place with 4,255 units, still the largest housing development west of the Mississippi. Ardent emotions swirl about its 31 two-story garden apartment buildings and 18 towers, each 13 stories high (one of which is pictured at right, photographed in 1998).
“Never in a million years would I move here.” That had been the proclamation of Rome Viharo, until he did move into an 11th floor apartment one year ago with his 6-year-old son, Rome.
“I always hated Park La Brea — a place for old people, the monotony, a middle-class housing project, the antithesis of L.A.,” Viharo said, sipping coffee outside a Park La Brea espresso bar. He said he had a typical “L.A. hipster” sensibility until a separation from his wife and the need for a child-friendly residence brought him to his knees.
“Kids can ride their bikes to school, they can make lifelong friends here,” he said, likening the complex to a golf resort — though one with “a lot of sameness.”
Some instantly feel at home with the bucolic, ordered look. Lush plantings crowd around three parks edged with cafes, a gym, two pools, an activity center, a theater, a clubhouse, a business center and the coffee bistro. (The garden apartments and towers are pictured here in 2004.)
For others, Park La Brea can impart an unsettling, otherworldly feel. Wherever the eye lands, it does land on similarity: the replicated planes of the towers, the innumerable beige-to-mustard shades of the garden apartments.
Spend five hours inside Park La Brea and then exit on 3rd Street, and you'll feel the blaring contrast of dueling worlds: a sylvan, artfully planned planet, and the craggy L.A. moon that crazily orbits it. Park La Brea's isle of predictability (mahjongg at 9 a.m., bridge at 11 a.m. and coffee klatch with the maintenance department at noon) can be soothingly safe for some. For others, the constructed reality of what was billed as a post-World War II brave new world seems to induce comparisons to some “Lost” world.
“Eleven thousand people and I see one kid on a bike,” director of residential services John Burney said, gazing down from a lonely 11th story model apartment during a tour.
Harriet Zaretsky sat on her couch with her sixth-floor neighbor, Nancy Lemay, a 20-year resident. Zaretsky's eighth-story tower view was stunning, thanks to the towers' X-shape design that maximized vistas, inspired by French architect Le Corbusier. The women's rapid-volley conversation wound from the “constant low rumble” of new central air conditioning to renovated lobbies that Lemay termed “bat caves.”
Zaretsky: “People see the imposing gates and the god-awful colors, but then they come in, and it's heaven.”
Lemay: “You can also get lost. The streets are an Orwellian maze. And those silly white sticks and mirrors in the lobby. In the '80s it was all teal and pink.”
The pair of self-described “New York refugees” kvetched about Park La Brea for an hour, like mothers doting over favorite sons who can never do wrong and never do right — at the same time.
“In the end, I would tell people that Park La Brea is better than you think it is,” Lemay said, citing the location, views and community. “Tell them that. Write that down in your notebook.”
“When I moved in, they wouldn't allow black people in the whole complex,” said Morison, 97, the lead in “Kiss Me, Kate” on Broadway (1948-1951) and “The King and I” with Yul Brynner in 1954.
Park La Brea has long been attractive to older residents. As one of Morison's neighbors explained: “We don't lift a finger.” The age demographic has skewed younger since the 1980s, management said.
Morison rose from her couch surrounded by photos snapped with Cole Porter, Alfred Drake, Oscar Hammerstein and Ezio Pinza.
“Oh, honey, it's a bloody bore, this leg, you have no idea,” she said leaning on a cane required after a car accident 12 years ago. But her home, with windows that spanned from the Griffith Observatory to downtown, was lovely.
From the outsider's viewpoint, it did seem better than one might think.
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-- R. Daniel Foster
Top photo: One of Park LaBrea's 18 towers. Credit: Los Angeles Times
Middle photo: Garden apartments and towers in 2004. Credit: Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Actress, singer and longtime Park LaBrea resident Patricia Morison. Credit: Howard Pasamanick