ARCHITECTURE, PLANNING, AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
Robert E. Alexander
Interviewed by Marlene L. Laskey
Completed under the auspices
Oral History Program
University of California
Copyright © 1989
The Regents of the University of California
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RESTRICTIONS ON THIS INTERVIEW
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Photograph courtesy of Leigh Wiener,
Biographical Summary viii
Interview History xiii
TAPE NUMBER: I, Side One (July 24, 1986) 1
Childhood in suburban New Jersey--The Alexander
family tile business--Alexander ' s brother and
TAPE NUMBER: I, Side Two (July 24, 1986) 21
Decision to study architecture--Entering the
Cornell University School of Architecture--A
traditional beaux-arts curriculum--Working in
Pasadena with Garrett Van Pelt--Marriage.
TAPE NUMBER: II, Side One (July 24, 1986) 43
More on working for Van Pelt--Working for Corbett,
Harrison, and MacMurray--Designing the elevators
for the New York Life Insurance Company Building--
Pasadena architects design for a specific
lif estyle--Odd jobs during the Depression--Working
as a laborer in construction--First projects-- John
TAPE NUMBER: II, Side Two (July 24, 1986) 67
Working for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
on the design of Parkchester--The evolution of
public housing in the 1930s--Alexander ' s advocacy
of public housing--Fighting the real estate lobby.
TAPE NUMBER: III, Side One (October 2, 1986) 81
Impressions of Los Angeles in the 1930s--Roland
E. Coate and the Monterey style--The Spanish
Colonial revival in Southern California--
Partnership with Louis E. Wilson--The origins of
Baldwin Hills Village--Comparison with mass-
housing projects on the East Coast--Vehicular
access and street layout--Factors in designing
quality low-cost housing--The Baldwin estate's
investment goals--The relation of Baldwin Hills
Village to modernism.
TAPE NUMBER: III, Side Two (October 2, 1986) 100
Includes single-story, one-bedroom apartments in
Baldwin Hills Village--Variety of textures and
color in Baldwin Hills--Siting the buildings--
Landscaping--Disputes with the Federal Housing
Administration ( FHA ) over unusual elements in the
design--Planning for children--Changes in Baldwin
Hills Village as a result of World War II.
TAPE NUMBER: IV, Side One (October 2, 1986) 117
Recreational facilities at Baldwin Hills Village--
Siting of public park and elementary school--
Alexander's projects in early 1940s--Lakewood
TAPE NUMBER: IV, Side Two (October 2, 1986) 136
The craftsman tradition in construction--Working
for the production-control division at Lockheed
Aircraft during World War II--Telesis South--The
Pasadena Citizens Planning Council--Alexander ' s
involvement in urban planning education--
Alexander is appointed to the Los Angeles City
Planning Commission--More on the real estate
lobby's opposition to public housing.
TAPE NUMBER: V, Side One (October 3, 1986) 157
The city beautiful movement and the origins of
the Los Angeles City Planning Commission--
G. Gordon Whitnall--Zoning laws, 1904-1940--Union
Station and the development of the civic center
area--Preface to a Master Plan--Fletcher Bowron ' s
reform administration--The master plan of
parkways--The civic center plan--The Arroyo Seco
Freeway--1945 revision of the master plan of
TAPE NUMBER: V, Side Two (October 3, 1986) 183
More on the Westchester development--Evolution of
the beach plan--Hyperion Treatment Plant--Sewage
and the water table in the San Fernando Valley--
Providing sewers for the Valley in 1945--Planning
for parks and playgrounds--Garbage- and waste-
disposal plans--Smog and trash incinerators--
Comprehensive revision of the city of Los
Angeles's zoning laws in 1945.
TAPE NUMBER: VI, Side One (October 3, 1986) 207
Setback requirements in the 1945 zoning
ordinance- -Building- height limits- -Conditional
uses--Post-1945 subdivision of the San Fernando
Valley--The Adohr Ranch controversy--The Los
Angeles City Community Redevelopment Agency
( CRA ) --Relationship of the CRA to the city
planning commission--The Bunker Hill
TAPE NUMBER: VI, Side Two (October 3, 1986) 228
More on Bunker Hill--Residential development in
the downtown area--Alexander ' s proposal to use the
right of eminent domain to control land
speculation--Forest Lawn Mortuaries--Zoning
variances and city politics--Red-baiting of public
housing advocates during the McCarthy era.
TAPE NUMBER: VII, Side One (October 3, 1986) 246
Frank B. Wilkinson--Developing the master plan for
Orange Coast College--Garrett Eckbo--Designing the
UCLA University Elementary School ( UES ) .
TAPE NUMBER: VII, Side Two (October 4, 1986) 267
The American Institute of Architects--UES appears
in Architectural Forum- -Baldwin Hills Elementary
School--The Schmoo House--Working with Douglas
Aircraft to develop prefabricated housing--Reasons
for the failure of prefab housing proposals in the
post-World War II period--Relationship with Ayn
TAPE NUMBER: VIII, Side One (October 4, 1986) 286
Meeting Frank Lloyd Wright--Impressions of
Richard J. Neutra's von Sternberg House--
Alexander hired to develop a master plan for a
model rural community in Southern India--A visit
to Tokyo--A visit to Bangkok.
TAPE NUMBER: VIII, Side Two (October 4, 1986) 307
Calcutta--Madras--Studying village culture--
Working with Indian architects--Planning for an
interconnected system of ten villages--Brick-
making machines--Problems with the distribution
system in India--Building a demonstration
village--Bureaucratic conflicts terminate the
TAPE NUMBER: IX, Side One (October 4, 1986) 325
Working with Richard Neutra to prepare a plan for
the redevelopment of the Sutter subdivision in
Sacramento--Working with Neutra on Chavez Ravine--
Relationship of Chavez Ravine plan to the Bunker
Hill redevelopment project--Planning for both
low- and high-density housing--Opposition from
the real estate industry--The development of
Alexander's partnership with Neutra.
TAPE NUMBER: IX, Side Two (October 4, 1986) 348
More on the partnership with Neutra--Assessment
of Neutra 's personal character--The Los Angeles
County Hall of Records--Developing a master plan
for Guam in 1952--Proposals to reorient Guam's
economy toward East Asian markets--Designing for
Born: November 23, 1907, in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Education: B.Arch. , Cornell University, 1930.
Spouse: Eugenie Vigneron, married 1931, deceased 1952;
two children. Mary Starbuck, married 1953, divorced
1984; 1 child. Nancy Jaicks, married 1984.
Partner, Wilson, Merrill, and Alexander, Los Angeles,
Assistant to works manager, Lockheed Aircraft, Burbank,
Owner, R. E. Alexander, Los Angeles, 1946-49.
Partner, R. J. Neutra and R. E. Alexander, Los Angeles,
Owner, R. E. Alexander F.A.I. A. and Associates, Los
Consultant in field, Berkeley, 1982-present .
Baldwin Hills Village, Los Angeles, 1935-42.
Estrada Courts, Los Angeles, 1939.
Lakewood Village, Los Angeles, 1942.
Baldwin Hills Community Church, Los Angeles, 1946.
Baldwin Hills Elementary School, Los Angeles, 1947-49.
Los Angeles Demonstration Elementary School, UCLA, 1948.
Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, California, 1948-55.
Redevelopment plan, Sacramento, California (with Richard
Redevelopment plan, Elysian Heights, Los Angeles (with
Richard Neutra ) , 1950-53.
Territorial plan, governor's residence, and three
schools, Guam, 1952-54.
San Pedro Hotel (with Richard Neutra), 1953.
Child guidance clinic, Los Angeles (with Richard
Family housing. Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho
(with Richard Neutra), 1954.
Mellon Science Building and Francis Scott Key
Auditorium, Saint John's College, Annapolis, Maryland
(with Richard Neutra), 1955.
Science building, arts and music auditorium and sports
facilities. Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, California
(with Richard Neutra), 1957.
Miramar Naval Base Chapel, La Jolla, California (with
Richard Neutra), 1957.
Alamitos Intermediate School, Garden Grove, California
(with Richard Neutra), 1957.
Church Fine Arts Complex, University of Nevada at Reno
(with Richard Neutra), 1958.
Palos Verdes High School, Palos Verdes, California (with
Richard Neutra), 1958.
Fine arts center, California State University, San
Fernando (with Richard Neutra), 1958.
University Elementary School, UCLA (with Richard
Gettysburg Visitors Center, Pennsylvania (with Richard
Petrified Forest Visitors Center, Arizona (with Richard
Police facilities building, Santa Ana, California, 1958.
Dayton Museum of Natural History and Planetarium,
Dayton, Ohio (with Richard Neutra), 1959.
Getchell Library, University of Nevada at Reno, 1959.
Megastructure, Caracas, Venezuela (with Richard Neutra ) ,
City plan, Escondido, California, c. 1960.
Great Western Savings and Loan Building, Los Angeles,
Catskill Elementary School, Los Angeles, 1961.
International Student Center, UCLA, 1961.
Dining facility. University of California, San Diego,
Swirlbul Library, Adelphi University, Garden City, Long
Island, New York, 1963.
United States Embassy, Karachi, Pakistan (with Richard
Lincoln Memorial Museum, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (with
Richard Neutra), 1963.
Married student housing. University of Southern
Los Angeles County Hall of Records (with Richard
School of Medicine, University of California, San Diego,
Residence halls, Revelle College, University of
California, San Diego, 1966.
Baxter Hall of Humanities and Social Sciences and Ramo
Auditorium, California Institute of Technology, 1968.
Bunker Hill Towers, Los Angeles, 1968.
Los Angeles City Central Library addition, 1970.
Beckman Behavioral Biology Laboratories, California
Institute of Technology, 1972.
Ridgecrest Mental Health Center, Ridgecrest, California,
Carson City Hall, Carson, California, 1976.
Los Angeles City Planning Commission, 1945-51;
Consultant, Public Housing Administration, 1950.
Consultant, government of India, 1951.
Consultant, government of Guam, 1951-52.
Consultant, Federal Housing Administration ( FHA ) ,
Consultant, University of California, San Diego,
Consultant, California Institute of Technology, 1966-72.
Consultant, Claremont Colleges, 1966-76.
Consultant, Ministry of Culture and Education, Brazil,
Consultant, Pacific Architects and Engineers, Tokyo,
American Institute of Architects, fellow, 1956; Southern
California chapter, vice president, 1969; president,
California Club, 1959-69.
California Planning and Conservation League, board of
Town Hall of California, Los Angeles, board of
Willard Neighborhood Association, president, 1985.
Honor award, American Institute of Architects, 1946,
Rebuilding a City: A Study of Redevelopment Problems in
Los Angeles, with Drayton S. Bryant. Los Angeles: John
Randolph Haynes Foundation, 1951.
The Rural City. New York: United Nations publication,
Environmental Quality and Amenity in California: An
Analysis of State Development Decision Procedures
Affecting Visual and Other Qualitative Characteristics
of the California Environment, with Rai Y. Okimoto,
Marlene L. Laskey, Interviewer, UCLA Oral History
Program. B.A., Political Science, UCLA; has researched,
organized, and led architectural tours of Los Angeles.
TIME AND SETTING OF INTERVIEW:
Place: Tapes I and II, Laskey 's home, Los Angeles.
Tapes III-XIX, Alexander's apartment, Berkeley,
Dates, length of sessions: July 24, 1986 (147 minutes);
October 2, 1986 (173); October 3, 1986 (217); October 4,
1986 (288); May 11, 1987 (137); May 12, 1987 (117); May
13, 1987 (291); May 14, 1987 (196).
Total number of recorded hours: 25.25
Persons present during interview: Alexander and Laskey.
CONDUCT OF INTERVIEW:
The interview is arranged chronologically. Major topics
Include buildings and projects Alexander designed, his
interest in redevelopment and public housing, his tenure
on the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, his partner-
ship with Richard J. Neutra, and his involvement in the
American Institute of Architects. Periodically,
Alexander consulted written documents, particularly
while discussing the planning commission.
George Hodak, editorial assistant, edited the
interview. He checked the verbatim transcript of the
interview against the original tape recordings, edited
for punctuation, paragraphing, and spelling, and
verified proper names. Words and phrases inserted by
the editor have been bracketed.
The edited transcript was sent to Alexander in December
1987. He verified proper names, made some corrections
and additions, and returned the transcript in March
Richard Candida Smith, principal editor, prepared the
table of contents. Paul Winters, editorial assistant,
prepared the biographical summary and interview
history. Teresa Barnett, editor, prepared the index.
The original tape recordings of the interview are in the
university archives and are available under the
regulations governing the use of permanent noncurrent
records of the university. Records relating to the
interview are located in the office of the UCLA Oral
TAPE NUMBER: I, SIDE ONE
JULY 24, 1986
LASKEY: Robert Alexander was an architect in Los Angeles
in the thirties, in its most explosive and interesting
time, and also on the [Los Angeles] City Planning
Commission in the late forties when a great deal was
happening to change the look of Los Angeles. But you're
not a native of Los Angeles, are you, Mr. Alexander?
ALEXANDER: No, I was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, a
peninsula that sticks into lower New York harbor. At a
time-- Well, it was before the petrochemical industry took
over in that area. We were within a short distance of the
lower New York Yacht Club, which had a sunset gun every
evening which I remember. My father [Edwin Hixson
Alexander] had been born in Jersey City, which is adjacent
to it; my mother [Clara Evans Alexander] in south Jersey
near Moorestown, New Jersey.
As a city boy he became entranced by fresh vegetables
and so forth growing on my mother's father's farm, so that
even in Bayonne we had a flourishing garden every year at
the back of the house. I lived there until I was six years
old. I was born in 1907; therefore I'm an Edwardian. I
remember some things that you wouldn't connect with a place
like Bayonne. For instance, in a sort of warehouse
adjacent to the New Jersey Central Railroad, I remember
seeing many times a crowd of people in all kinds of strange
dress. Turned out it was a movie company making movies
before Hollywood became the real center.
LASKEY: When would this be, about 1912, 1913?
ALEXANDER: Well, yeah, 1912.
LASKEY: And they were filming on location, so to speak?
LASKEY: Well, they had an indoor set. Of course, they
couldn't depend on the weather the way you could here, so
they were making movies in a sort of a warehouse next to
the railroad line. My Grandmother Alexander lived a couple
of blocks away from where we lived. Father was one of
eight children, four boys and four girls. Two of his
brothers still lived in Bayonne.
LASKEY: What's your father's name?
ALEXANDER: Edwin Hixson Alexander. Like many parents,
they were interested in seeing that their children got a
good education and grew up in a suburban area, I suppose.
So we went searching. I remember going out on the Jersey
Central to Westfield, New Jersey, which is the place they
decided on, where we took a surrey with a fringe on top out
with a real estate man to see the sights. And he pointed
out some grand estate that's no longer there, where there
were bronze deer on the lawn and all that sort of thing.
In any event, it was a small town of fewer than 15,000
people. They rented a house first for two years while
Father designed and had a house built that's still there in
LASKEY: Your father designed it?
LASKEY: Was he an architect?
ALEXANDER: He was not an architect, although long after I
went to architectural school I found out that that had been
his lifelong dream. Of course, you might suspect that.
But he never overtly came out with it.
LASKEY: That's interesting.
ALEXANDER: He was, however, draftsman to his firm; that
is, his brothers had started a tile-contracting outfit in
Manhattan. At a certain point there was the usual crash
panic on Wall Street and throughout the nation. Every few
years they had a corrective crash of that kind. Then on
this occasion my grandfather, whom I never met (Grandfather
Alexander), had been building brick row houses in Brooklyn
like crazy. Suddenly the bottom fell out of the market,
and so he was out of his normal occupation, sitting at home
with nothing to do. His boys, who had started this tile-
contracting outfit called Alexander and Reid Company,
kidded him so much that he left home. At which point my
father, who was in the fourth grade, was induced to leave
school to help his brothers in their outfit in New York.
LASKEY: In the fourth grade?
ALEXANDER: Yes. And from then on he educated himself
beautifully. He went to Cooper Union College, I guess you
LASKEY: In New York?
ALEXANDER: He took life drawing and various other things,
of which I remember samples. He did a lot of drawing and
painting. And then he became their draftsman. Inciden-
tally, before he could claim to be a draftsman, he
recounted a story in the blizzard of 1888, I think it
was. Well, that could be checked as to when there was an
enormous blizzard. It was so tough that he and his
brothers walked across the Hudson River to open the office
on a Saturday morning. [laughter] Of course, there was
nobody else in there.
LASKEY: But it was open.
ALEXANDER: But, by god, they were going to open the office
or else. But to be able to walk across the Hudson--that
hasn't been done many times in history. Well, in any
event, he eventually became president of the company. They
did the tile in all the well-known hotels, starting with
the Bervort and the Waldorf-Astoria, and many hospitals and
all the Childs' restaurants when they were all tile. They
were tiled floors, walls, and ceilings, when it was the fad
to be very pure and pristine with your food after the
muckraking days of-- I'm thinking of the guy that started
EPIC [End Poverty in California].
LASKEY: Upton Sinclair.
ALEXANDER: Upton Sinclair, yeah. The Pure Food and Drug
Act came in and then everybody was germ conscious. Pasteur
had made a stir about germs and suddenly cleanliness was
the way to go, and white tile was just in.
LASKEY: That's very interesting. I never would have made
that relationship between the architecture being influenced
by what's going on in the world. It seems so removed from
the architecture. Did your father employ tile makers, tile
layers, tile setters?
ALEXANDER: Yes. Tile setters.
LASKEY: Was this a very specific kind of a craft, with
ALEXANDER: Absolutely, very much so. One of my uncles set
tile for his brothers and then became an officer in the
company. Well, if you know good tile work, it's quite
different from slapping things on the way they do now with
plastic adhesives and that sort of thing. It was quite an
art at one time, with masonry, with cement materials, to do
a good job of tile setting.
LASKEY: Were the tiles made in New York, New Jersey, or
ALEXANDER: Well, some were made in New Jersey. I remember
going to a plant near the Raritan River that is near-- What
would it have been? Perth Amboy, somewhere in there. The
Raritan River had deposited some excellent clay, which is
always the foundation of a tile-manufacturing industry.
I'll never forget the sight of a room full of boys younger
than I was--that is, younger than twelve years old--at
little benches, with hammers attached to the benches so
that they would swivel, holding long sticks of tile, out of
which they would make tesserae by nipping them with the end
of a hammer and making little squares out of these things
with irregular sides so that they looked like ancient Roman
or Greek material.
LASKEY: Yeah, the tesserae are the little pieces that are
set into the tile to make intricate patterns, is that
ALEXANDER: Yeah. This was child labor, which I had seen
for the first time there.
LASKEY: This was before child labor laws, obviously.
ALEXANDER: Yes, probably. And a lot of their tile was
made in Zanesville, Ohio, I believe, but also some came all
the way from California. The name of the firm was
Batchelder. I met the founder of that firm, who was still
here in the thirties.
LASKEY: Well, Ernest [A.] Batchelder was--
ALEXANDER: That's it, right.
LASKEY: The Batchelder out of Pasadena. And this, of
course, is also the craftsman movement, so you have these
beautiful art tiles.
LASKEY: Correct. Well, they used a lot of that--it came
all the way from California. I was amazed as a kid, you
LASKEY: So the kind of tile work that your family or dad
was involved in then was art, as well as the sort of--
ALEXANDER: It involved a lot of delft tile from Holland
also. They did work for the [Frank A.] Vanderlip estate on
Long Island and this, that, and the other. They did
outstanding tile work. And when it came to tile on the
subways, some, I would call them gangsters, took over,
[laughter] But my father's firm's work was outstanding.
So they pretty much cornered the important work from an
LASKEY: How did that affect you as a young boy? Were you
impressed by the quality of the work, by the beauty of the
tile, or did you really not pay much attention to it?
ALEXANDER: I didn't pay all that much attention to the
tile, but we had several paintings hangi-~7 in the house
that my father had done when he was quite a bit younger.
His letters were sprinkled with little sketches that were
just delightful. So I had a dose of art at home from that
Then we lived all my growing-up days nineteen miles
from Manhattan. Before I was twelve, I would go in by
myself on a Saturday on the Jersey Central commuting train
and take the Liberty Street Ferry across and then a subway
or L uptown, and then go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
or the [American] Museum of Natural History. And four
years later--that is after I was twelve I guess, yeah,
twelve to sixteen, something like that--my father gave me
season tickets to the Walter [J.] Damrosch symphony
orchestra [New York Symphony Society children's concerts].
That was always on Saturday afternoon, and every Saturday
morning I'd crawl all over the two museums there.
LASKEY: How wonderful. Were they the Metropolitan--?
ALEXANDER: --art museum.
LASKEY: The Metropolitan and the Museum of Natural
ALEXANDER: Museum of Natural History, yeah, at the foot of
the park. I had a lot of contact with events in Manhattan.
LASKEY: New Jersey must have been quite different then.
You mentioned that earlier on. It wasn't a total urban
experience; you came through a suburban or a country kind
ALEXANDER: Oh sure, sure, right, yeah. Well, there was
always an intimate woods at the back door, you might say,
which is in such contrast to what I found out here. Of
course I came to love this open country, the great forest
experience here. I've done a great deal of backpacking and
I know the Sierras pretty well. But it's an entirely
different experience from being able to walk out your back
door into a woods, an intimate place where the trees aren't
all that big but the trailing arbutus is there.
LASKEY: So you essentially had both worlds when you were
growing up. You had the great metropolis of New York with
all it had to offer, and then you had this sort of country
ALEXANDER: Yeah, this was pretty countrylike. Well,
elementary school was just a literal baseball throw from
our house right at the foot of the street on Broadway,
Grant School. But when I went to what you'd call junior
high school, seventh and eighth grades, I used to walk to
the center of town practically. I suppose it wasn't more
than a mile, but in the process I ' d go through people's
backyards, but mainly went through what later became
Mindowaskin Park--which was sort of a swamp. Mindowaskin
Park, Indian name. When I was in high school, somebody had
the idea to put a little dam up and dredge some of the
swamp into a little lake, which is still there, and drain a
lot of the other area. So it had become a civilized
park. But when I walked to school I walked through this
thing, with skunk cabbages to kick and dogtooth violets and
all sorts of things.
LASKEY: Sounds lovely. Was it on the ocean or was it
pretty far? I don't know the geography of New Jersey.
ALEXANDER: Well, it's adjacent to Plainfield; it's
probably twenty miles from the ocean. But, of course,
after my migration to California-- I think people still do
it to some extent, but at that time anybody who had just
arrived was fair game to get them to admit that this was
the greatest place on earth and that there was no place
like it on earth, and so forth. And as a defense
mechanism, I would relate to them the fact that at my home,
instead of having to go forty miles to the ocean, I'd go
twenty miles to get to the ocean. The beaches were
absolutely magnif icent--which they were. Instead of going
125 miles to Palm Springs to see cactus and that sort of
thing, I could find native cactus within 80 miles of my
LASKEY: In New Jersey?
ALEXANDER: Yes, in what's called the Pines in south
Jersey. I could even find right near the Pines a virgin
forest, absolutely virgin because it wasn't worth cutting
down, you know. [laughter] It was full of deer and scrub
oak and that sort of thing that never had been cut.
LASKEY: Well, I think when we talk about Baldwin Hills
Village much later in the interview, I think that you said
that the inspiration of Westfield was part of what
influenced the design of Baldwin Hills Village, that
remembrance of going- -
ALEXANDER: The place that my father decided on for this
house was called Stanley Oval, because it was a cul-de-sac,
a very short cul-de-sac with a great big oval. The oval
was maintained and owned mutually by the property owners
surrounding it. It was a place for a little bit of mild
Softball and that sort of thing, not a very good athletic
park. But it was a quiet, dead-end street. It was a novel
thing in those days. So when it did come to Baldwin Hills
Village, I had this dream of something like that but on a
much grander scale of course.
I've been back to visit that house, let's see, just
within the year or maybe a year and a half ago, and I went
through it. It was quite an experience. It had been a
long time, fifty years or so since I'd seen it. And the
house Itself was just as I remembered it. The only changes
that I found were in the basement, where partitions were
still marked out on the floor. I could see where there ' d
been a pretty extensive room for canned goods about half as
big as your living room here. Another place was called the
laundry, where I also had my chemistry set. I used to give
my mother a bad time by getting acid in the laundry tubs.
LASKEY: Oh, she must have loved that.
ALEXANDER: The laundry tubs are still there, no partitions
around it. There were a couple of coal bins for two
different sizes of coal, one for the coal range and one for
the furnace. They were all gone; the oil furnace [took
LASKEY: Yeah, of course.
ALEXANDER: Otherwise, the house was as I remembered it.
Of course the kitchen had undergone some changes, but it
was still there, the same size and shape--no longer any
wooden drainboards and that sort of thing, no longer a coal
stove. Of course, the coal stove went when I was still
there. It was quite-- The experience affected me. I loved
it. I loved the experience to see this thing still there.
LASKEY: To have it still be there. It was probably an
experience you wouldn't have in Los Angeles. [laughter]
How long did your family live there?
ALEXANDER: Well, let's see, I think we moved in 1915, and
they must have lived there until 1935 or maybe later.
During the Depression--when I was not there--my mother fell
for a chain-letter scheme and happened to win out and get a
zillion silk stockings. [laughter]
ALEXANDER: So she decided to set up a little shop in the
house. My father's business went down the tubes pretty
much. I mean, it was in bad shape for several years.
LASKEY: In the early thirties, yeah.
ALEXANDER: Many large contracts that he had, the owners
would declare bankruptcy and not pay. It just set him way
back. So my mother developed this little lingerie shop in
her home and then bought a few gift items for a gift
Then came summer, and we'd always gone somewhere for
summer vacation. Mother said, "By golly, we're going to
have another vacation, and I'm going to pay for it." So
they went down and found a place at Spring Lake that they
could rent for the summer. It required a restaurant
operator to run it, so she said, "Okay, I'll hire a
couple" --which she did- -"and I'm going to run the gift
shop, and that's the way we're going to make out." So she
set up her gift shop, and about halfway through the summer
she found that the people she had hired were stealing her
blind. By the custom at the time, in order to get
business, somebody selling butter wholesale would say,
"We'll give you 10 percent or 20 percent of the order if
you'll just order from us." These people would order a
dozen pounds of butter when they needed six and throw the
rest in the garbage.
So she said, "By golly, that's not going to happen
again." So the next time they went down and they rented
and finally bought a great big old mansion right on the
ocean and right across the street from the Monmouth Hotel,
which is an enormous hotel, and made it into a little hotel
[the Sandpiper Hotel] with a famous--it became famous--
restaurant on the ground floor and gift shop and rooms
upstairs, not many, I guess a three-story building. So
they finally sold the house in Westfield and moved down
there. They had an enjoyable life, running this thing five
months of the year, fooling around in Florida and whatnot
LASKEY: Your mother sounds like quite a woman.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, she was a dynamo.
LASKEY: What was her name?
ALEXANDER: Clara Evans Alexander.
LASKEY: You said the hotel was on the ocean. This was
ALEXANDER: Spring Lake.
LASKEY: And Spring Lake is a city in New Jersey on the
ALEXANDER: Yes, on the ocean. It's not as far south as
Atlantic City, but it's south of Manasquan and Asbury Park
and that sort of thing. For one year when I was back
there-- Well, in the summertime that year I took a ferry
(that no longer exists) that ran between Manhattan and
Atlantic Highlands, which is south of Sandy Hook. So it
was a long, long water ride and then a train from here on
down. It was just like returning from Europe in the
morning or going to Europe in the afternoon on this long
ferry ride. It was wonderful. It went right through all
the shipping that came into the harbor at that time.
LASKEY: You sound like you were relatively independent as
a youth. Was that unusual, or was that your family, sort
of coming and going to Manhattan, traveling around New
ALEXANDER: Well, I spent a great deal of time with the
family; all of the vacations that I can remember were
family oriented. But yes, I was permitted some freedom, I
guess you could call it, and spent a lot of time in the
woods. Oh, one of the great things that my father gave me
was a-- One summer when I was seventeen I went to Camp
Quest and went on the Alagash trip that summer. The
Alagash trip consisted of a canoe trip for a period of
thirty days, more or less, three hundred miles in the Maine
wilderness. At that time it was a real wilderness. And
that was, you know, reliving one of my dreams, having read
[John] Burroughs ' s Boy Scouts in America, Boy Scouts in the
Maine Woods, this, that, and the other. I lived all of the
experiences that I dreamed about and developed a real taste
for camping out, which I've carried on to today, for that
matter. We spent several summers in Maine.
I had a friend, my best friend in Westfield. His
father was a judge in the county court in Elizabeth. They
had bought a little farm on Casco Bay outside of Portland,
Maine. I spent several summers there or with my family at
Sebago Lake, where my father went fishing every spring or
landlocked summer. That was a mystique that probably went
back in the family to a time when my father's mother, my
grandmother, was born in Aberdeenshire in, let's see, some
place that has become the onshore oil capital of the North
Sea--Petershead. It was a fishing village. The family
undoubtedly was up to their ears in fishing as a living.
LASKEY: This is something that your father carried with
ALEXANDER: Yeah, he took me on many a fishing trip.
LASKEY: So that the canoeing, the backpacking, the outdoor
life is something that at least marginally came through
your father, something that he had enjoyed. Did your
mother enjoy it? Was she an outdoor lady?
ALEXANDER: Well, she grew up on a farm, from that
standpoint. She was born on a farm. [laughter] No, she
wasn't [an outdoor lady]. She'd much rather go--as we did
many times--to Beach Haven, which is in south Jersey on the
shore south of Atlantic City, and stay at the Inglewood
Hotel, which was one of the best there. That was her
speed. I mean, she--
LASKEY: A city person?
ALEXANDER: Well, she was a country person who loved the
city life, and my father was a city boy who loved the
country life, you see.
LASKEY: And you sort of got the best of both of them.
ALEXANDER: Well, that's one way to look at it.
LASKEY: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
ALEXANDER: Yes, I have one of each. My brother [Harold
Alexander], four years younger than I, also went to Cornell
University, graduated in architecture--more talented than
I, I think, artistically. I did bad enough by being in the
class of '29 and graduating in the beginning of the
Depression. But he did even worse. By the time he
graduated four years later, 1934, there were just-- Well,
there wasn't anything when I graduated and there wasn't
anything when he graduated. So anyway, he got a job with
the Libby-Owens-Ford [Company] . One of his roommates was
the son of an officer of the company there. He went in
with college graduates who were sent through every
department in the company, a little bit of this and that to
see where they thought they might fit in.
One Friday afternoon, he went to the local pub, and
one of the officers of the company came up to him and said,
"How are things going?"
He said, "This is for the birds. This company doesn't
do anything but make flat glass. No imagination whatsoever.
What you call a research department that I was in last
week--they don't do any research except on ceramics to make
glass pots . "
"Well, what would you do?"
He said, "You have this damned sales force out
there. I hardly ever see them, and they never come into
the factory. But they have contact with the public. They
would know what the public needs. Here is the makings of a
research group if you just put a little imagination into it
and asked the salesmen what might be made out of glass that
you could do. Then if you set up a little manufacturing
unit to try it out and see if it is worth manufacturing,
you might have going a three-way deal here."
He said, "Well, I'll tell you, if you put that in
writing, I'll take it up with the board on Monday."
So that was the way, eventually-- I mean, it went
through several cases of nepotism, but eventually he was
appointed head of this new group in the company. And then
he finally became vice president in charge of research and
LASKEY: For Libby-Owens-Ford?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, and he's now retired living outside of
Toledo. My sister [Eleanor Alexander Griffin], eight years
younger than I, lives in Pennsylvania. I just visited her
not so long ago. She's a Quaker. She's taught yoga for
thirty years, I guess. She's done all the right things.
eaten all the right things, just the opposite of anything
I've done. No smoking, no drink, no alcohol, green
vegetables, and so on and so forth.
LASKEY: She sounds like she was about forty years ahead of
ALEXANDER: Well, I don't know about that. Here I am,
without feeling any ill effects of my age, and I just got
the word this year that she has cancer. In spite of her--
You do everything you can just right. It's just a damn
shame. Well, those are the two siblings. We didn't fight
very much. I didn't fight at all with my sister. My
brother had an interesting introduction to education. That
is, I was a good boy, and I always did the right thing in
LASKEY: You were?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. I mean, when I was in school. At
that period I was not what I am now. I'm a naughty boy
now. But boy, I got good grades all the way through, so I
made a name for myself as a student in elementary school
and high school. Along comes my brother, and this brother
of his has made this name that he's supposed to live up to,
and he'd be damned if he would. So he was very much
ingrown. He'd spend hours and hours at home. He'd come
home from school and go down in his little shop and make
ship models that you wouldn't believe, just gorgeous
things. He'd get a jeweler's lathe and turn out little
cannon-model molds and make the models and the molds and
pour these things and get a little knitting needle and saw
it into little pieces and burn three holes in each one, so
they'd be deadeyes, you know. He made these from the
ground up, and they were just beautiful. He had one hobby
or another going on at all times and no social life to
speak of. And a lousy record in school.
He went up through his junior year in high school, and
I invited him up to Cornell. I met him at the train. I
was playing football, so I had to practice all the time. I
had a very good friend in architecture who took him around
to see the place, and every time they came to a corner
where there was a possibility of there being ice cream,
he'd demand that they stop and have another strawberry
sundae or something like that.
LASKEY: Was ice cream new or he just liked the idea of it?
ALEXANDER: I don't know. I'm just telling you my
experience. I just heard about this, and that was what I
heard. Well, pretty soon I got a letter from home: "What
happened to Harold when he was at Cornell?" "I don't know
what happened to him." "Well, all of a sudden he's
bringing his classmates home. He's developed a social
life. They tell me in school that he's getting good grades
now. What's going on?" Well, what went on was that he
decided he wanted to go to Cornell. Boom! He just--
TAPE NUMBER: I, SIDE TWO
JULY 24, 1986
LASKEY: Let's continue with brother Harold.
ALEXANDER: Well, SO he succeeded in getting a recommen-
dation from the principal, which was all you needed at that
time to be entered at Cornell. So we had one year, my
fifth year and his first year, together and cemented a
lifelong friendship during that year. And followed by
another, just in the fall, when in the depths of the
Depression, when I wasn't getting anywhere with anything
else, I was given a job of coaching freshman football there
and lived with him and a couple of other characters at
Louis Agassiz Fuertes ' s studio in Ithaca. Had a great
time, got to know each other even better. So even though
we have had divergent careers and probably opposite
political views, we get along just fine when we do get
together. It's a great pleasure.
LASKEY: Well, you mentioned that he did shipbuilding,
model building, which shows somewhat of an artistic bent.
What about you? You played football. Did you have any
other hobbies? Did you draw? Did you have anything as a
child that sort of indicated where your career in
architecture would come from?
ALEXANDER: I don't think so. You know how it is: Johnny
can draw until he's six years old. No, I wasn't
particularly talented in that connection, although there
was drawing in the family. I think I've related in writing
that when my father set me down in my junior or senior year
in high school: "What are you going to do? What are you
going to be?" I wanted to be an archaeologist. He said,
"You can't possibly make your living as an archaeologist,"
which I found out since is not true. I could have made a
career in that. "Well," I said, "okay, how about foreign
service?" "Well, now wait a minute, it takes a millionaire
to be an ambassador." At that time there was no such thing
as [Franklin D.] Roosevelt set up, which was official
training for civil service. You were a rich man to get
into it in general, not just to be an ambassador. It was
sort of a hobby for people instead of a serious avocation,
a vague vocation at that time. And then I said, "Well, how
about architecture?" Since this was just at the right time
in architectural history--the boom after World War I was
still in effect--my father thought, "Well, sure, architects
make money!" So he said, "Okay, that's a good idea." It
came about that way, rather than an intense desire. Of
course once I got into it, I just became dedicated to it
and couldn't be turned away from it by anything, even
during the hiatus of the Depression.
But as I said, I think my brother was more talented,
you might say, in drawing or in what you might call the art
part of it. But I was-- In contrast to his experience when
he was young, I was very social, not with a vast number of
people, but we developed what we called the Secret Octagon
Society, the SOS club.
LASKEY: SOS club. [laughter]
ALEXANDER: We had a meeting once a month or more
frequently. I think it was just once a month. May have
been once a week, that could be. Of course the refreshments
were always the most important thing. But we also had a
formalized agenda. We had officers, and we studied and
followed Robert's Rules of Order. We always had a well-
balanced program. Somebody played a musical instrument;
somebody put on a science experiment or whatever; somebody
did some entertainment like magic tricks; somebody read
from Shakespeare. Everybody at the meeting participated in
some way. We got on our feet formally, you know, and
addressed this audience of seven people. [laughter] That
was good training. That was more of a hobby than anything
else I can remember.
LASKEY: Would this have been in high school?
ALEXANDER: Yes .
LASKEY: I think I read you also played a musical instrument,
you were involved in music. Or did that come later?
ALEXANDER: No, that was in the high school years. That
is, after going to four seasons of Walter Damrosch, my
father wanted to know what instrument I'd like to play, and
I said, "A cello. "
He said, "I can't afford one of those."
I said, "Well, how about an oboe?"
He said, "Those guys go crazy or they get consumption.
You don't want to do that, do you?"
LASKEY: Oboe players get consumption?
ALEXANDER: Oboe, yeah, yeah. This was the myth at the
time. You either go crazy or you get consumption.
LASKEY: I see.
ALEXANDER: I said, "No, I don't want to go crazy." I
said, "I've noticed that the C-melody saxophone plays the
same score as a cello."
He said, "Oh well, we can get one of those."
So he got me a C-melody saxophone that became obsolete
several years thereafter. It's no longer made. It's
obsolete now. And then after I tortured the family with
that for several years, he bought me, before I went to
college, a B-flat tenor, a silver job. Instead of having
to polish this brass, I had a silver-plated job. Although
I started by taking some lessons, I soon became tired of
reading music and more or less went by ear on everything.
In college I played in the saxophone sextet, of which Phil
[Philip] Will [Jr.] was also a member. He's just deceased
last year, one of the founding partners of Perkins and Will
Partnership, architects in Chicago, and president of AIA
[American Institute of Architects] nationally and that sort
of thing. Very close friend for somebody I didn't see very
much. So I did follow that a bit, and these days I enjoy
playing an electronic organ and anything I can get my hands
on, a harmonica or whatever, that comes along. So sure--
that ' s been a fun part of my existence.
ALEXANDER: Just football. If the urge comes these days
for exercise, I lie down till the urge goes away.
LASKEY: No more football?
ALEXANDER : No .
LASKEY: But you're still backpacking and camping.
ALEXANDER: Well, I wouldn't backpack now, but, yeah, I
love to camp outdoors. I don't do much of it now. I don't
get a chance. But I've selected sites to live on that are
pretty outdoorsy. For twenty years I lived on the top of
Mount Washington, if you know where that is, looking across
at the Sierra Madres and Mount Wilson.
LASKEY: Were you a neighbor of Jack Smith's?
ALEXANDER: Oh yeah, yeah. I got into his column once in a
while. Then I built a house on one of the choicest sites
in Mammoth Lakes; the elevation of the living-room floor
was eight thousand feet. And then built a house in Big
Sur, right on the ocean, about fifty miles south of
Carmel. So those, as living sites, have been oriented to
the changing seasons and so on.
LASKEY: Beautiful. Well, you live in Berkeley now. Do
you live in the Berkeley Hills?
ALEXANDER: No. I live in a little apartment that has its
charm, in an old house that's just my age and looks worse
than I do. It's just a block from Alta Bates Hospital.
It's on Regent Street, north of Ashby [Avenue]. So it's
within walking distance to the campus [University of
California, Berkeley] . We look up at the hills and into a
backyard wih an enormous magnolia tree that has a life of
its own; all kinds of dove, squirrels, and so forth inhabit
it. No, it's not as wild and woolly as some of the other
LASKEY: Well, Berkeley can get pretty wild and woolly on
ALEXANDER: Yeah, in lots of ways.
LASKEY: How was the decision made to go to Cornell?
ALEXANDER: Well, Princeton [University] would have been
the obvious choice because it was very close to home, but
at that time their architecture department was largely what
I would call archaeological. It was oriented toward
diggings in Cyprus and Athens and that sort of thing.
LASKEY: More historical than technical.
ALEXANDER: Rather than having to do with fitting one to
becomed a practicing architect. MIT [Massachusetts
Institute of Technology] and Cornell were more or less on a
par as far as their objectives were concerned. I just fell
in love with the Cornell campus. It's the most beautiful
campus in America without any question of a doubt. I just
fell in love with it. That was it.
LASKEY: Was it difficult to get into Cornell?
LASKEY: Because coming, as I do, from the Midwest and then
coming out here, we think of the eastern colleges as being
ALEXANDER: Today, it's out of the question. But at that
time there was no such thing as an SAT [Scholastic Aptitude
Test] , and my brother and I simply had our high school
principal's recommendation that we were college material.
They didn't inquire any further. The dean accepted us. It
was a personal-interview matter. They were interested in
what your extracurricular activities were and what you did
and that sort of thing. But it was not hard to get into.
After all, the entire campus had a population of fewer than
five thousand students.
LASKEY: Really? Well, what was the campus like that
impressed you so much?
ALEXANDER: Well, it's on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake,
and the terrain is such there that a stream makes a
regular-- We'd call it a canyon here--what they call a
gorge. There are two gorges two hundred feet deep. They
go right through the heart-- Well, one of them through the
heart of the campus and the other on the campus, let alone
others in the countryside. Rolling hills across the lake
and Civil War-type buildings around the main quad. They're
still there and maintained; one exception is the new
library. But it never was an urban place, and it isn't
now. It's removed from city life, which is not true of
anything around Boston or Cambridge or New Haven. At the
time it was founded, transportation was more or less by the
Erie Canal up into the Finger Lakes. I've looked at
records of a house that was built above the shore of Cayuga
Lake, in which their barrels of lime and that sort of thing
were barged up the canal and down the lake. That was at a
time, when this [the Cornell campus] was built, when it was
quite inaccessible. For many, many years the only way to
get there was the Lackawanna Railroad.
ALEXANDER: Even now, it's like crazy to find an airplane
that will go. The Mohawk Airlines go or the Allegheny--
LASKEY: The Mohawk Airlines. [laughter]
ALEXANDER: Or something like that. But it's like crazy.
You've got to go to Newark and then get a puddle jumper
that goes up there. Otherwise you go by automobile I
guess. But at that time it was quite a trip by automobile,
although we went up there, a couple of hundred miles from
nowhere- -from some place I mean.
LASKEY: To nowhere.
ALEXANDER: So I just-- Well, I challenge you to find a
more beautiful campus today. The buildings aren't all that
good, but the setting is great.
LASKEY: The setting hasn't been destroyed by the growth of
ALEXANDER: No, no. What God hath wrought, man cannot
LASKEY: Try as they will.
ALEXANDER: As San Francisco's finding out, you can do a
pretty good job, but you can't really wreck it.
LASKEY: Was Cornell--? I'm trying to remember. Was it an
early coeducational school?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes. It was coeducational when it
opened. This was really quite unusual at the time. It was
one of the land grant colleges which after the Civil War
were granted lands in the West as sort of an endowment to
be sold for whatever they could get for them--as a result
of which it had certain obligations, such as that it was
obligated to have an ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps]
ALEXANDER: When I went there, freshman and sophomore years
involved compulsory ROTC for the men. I think that's no
longer true, but I'm not sure. Although I got out of it
most of the time. The football coach made a deal with the
general in charge, so that during football season I didn't
have to go, which was great. Otherwise, I was currying
great, big, fat horses in the artillery, learning to take
an automatic pistol apart, and learning to deal with a
French 75-mm cannon, firing over Cayuga Lake--crazy. But I
didn't have very much of it.
LASKEY: Yeah, I think that the ROTC thing sort of, with
the protest about Vietnam, ceased being mandatory. I'm not
sure about that.
ALEXANDER: I'm not either.
LASKEY: Did you go specifically into the architecture
school at Cornell, or was it a basic undergraduate degree?
ALEXANDER: No, they didn't have that kind of a system,
which I can regret now in a way, but anyway, that's the way
it was. Five years in architectural school with certain
electives. I took public speaking, for instance, in the
LASKEY: Which, I think you've said in your writings, has
been extremely helpful as an architect.
ALEXANDER: I don't know how in god's name it happened, but
I was on the first board of managers of the Willard
Straight Hall, which had just been completed as the student
union, and then became president of the Saturday noon club
or Saturday lunch club, which entertained visiting
dignitaries. So I became accustomed to introducing these
characters and entertaining them afterwards and that sort
of thing--which was also very helpful. I made it an
objective to go out of my way to find the opportunity of
public speaking. Yes, I think that's as important a tool
as drawing in architecture.
LASKEY: When you went for your interview, what did they
want from you? What were they looking for from you when
you went into Cornell? Or were they looking for anything?
ALEXANDER: I'll be darned if I know for sure, but I think
my father's background and knowing architects in Manhattan
and working with them probably helped in conversing with
the dean. The fact that my nose wasn't 100 percent to the
grindstone was in my favor. The whole school of
architecture consisted of not more than two hundred
people. The graduating class got down to twenty, something
like that. So it was a pretty intimate thing, and it was
the liveliest school on campus. They were always doing
something that called attention to themselves, good or bad,
and the envy of a lot of the students from that standpoint.
LASKEY: From a social point of view?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, raising hell in one way or another.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, could be. [laughter] Their
participation in Spring Day made it an outstanding event.
LASKEY: Spring Day is a special celebration at Cornell?
ALEXANDER: Yes. It started out largely as the finals of
the crew races, but then it became an outrageous sort of
time for parades and outrageous things such as the Beaux
Arts Ball, which was a campuswide mystery and kind of a
LASKEY: What do you mean by saying that the Beaux Arts
Ball was a campuswide mystery?
ALEXANDER: Well, I should say that the very name developed
a certain mystique, if you know what I mean.
LASKEY: I assume from the name that it was a ball put on
by the architecture school?
ALEXANDER: Right. For the architects and mainly attended
by architects. But it gained a certain amount of infamy
and fame and so forth. Remember, this is during the period
of Prohibition, when everybody in college was required to
get drunk on occasion.
LASKEY: You started Cornell in 1925. So we're talking in
the period from 1925 to 1930, the jazz age.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, right, and it was outrageous.
LASKEY: Was it really?
ALEXANDER: Well, looking at it now it's so goddamned
innocent it isn't even funny, but at the time it was
outlandish in the eyes of our parents and so forth.
LASKEY: We're talking about bathtub gin and flappers, the
ALEXANDER: Well, the great parties, the junior prom, the
great campuswide dance held in the drill hall which had
been built for ROTC, an enormous hall, with Jimmy Dorsey at
one end and somebody, Paul Whiteman, at the other end of
the hall playing one after the other all night long. One
of those things.
LASKEY: Did you ever compare notes with your brother? It
must have been a very different Cornell that he went to.
ALEXANDER: No, not really. I mean, four years--
LASKEY: Yeah, but those four years, that was '29-- It came
right in the middle of that.
ALEXANDER: No, I never did, from that standpoint. I just
assumed life went on. [laughter]
LASKEY: It went on, but I would think it would have gone
on very differently.
ALEXANDER: It could be. I just don't know. It sure went
differently for me, I'll tell you.
LASKEY: Well, you mentioned that Beaux Arts Ball. Going
to Cornell in the twenties, you were then going right as
architectural styles were changing, as "modern
architecture, " quote unquote, was coming in. Did you go
into the architecture school with any kind of a feeling
LASKEY: Were you even familiar with the modern movement?
ALEXANDER: Not a bit. As a matter of fact, I just
figured, "If this is the way you do it, if you can learn
it, I can learn it. If you go to an architectural school
to become an architect, that's what I'm going to do." I
had no ideas-- I remember hearing tales about what was
going on at Yale [University] and figuring at one point,
"Gee, I might transfer to Yale, " because something was
happening there. In my freshman year the school was
dominated, from the standpoint of design, by the beaux
arts. Every member of the faculty had been to the [Ecole
des] Beaux-Arts or the landscape faculty had been Prix de
Rome winners, and so forth. Everything was strictly
classical; we learned to render the orders and that sort of
thing. It started to loosen up when we had a visiting
professor from Manhattan, Alexander Duncan Seymour,
otherwise known as Alexander Drunken Seymour. [laughter]
LASKEY: Poor Mr. Seymour.
ALEXANDER: He and a young assistant professor started to
put some life in the program. He was of the Paul [P.] Cret
school, you might say. Paul Cret at the University of
Pennsylvania and Otto Phaelton at Yale and somebody Morgan
at NYU [New York University] and Alexander Seymour at
Cornell were of the persuasion that classical forms were a
must, but that we must introduce some fresh way to use
thein--which they did. That was a breath of fresh air. I
would say a hero at the time was-- [pause] The guy who
designed the central library in L.A. and--
LASKEY: Oh, Bertram [G.] Goodhue.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, Bertram Goodhue was a hero at the time.
We never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright.
ALEXANDER: That's right.
LASKEY: I find that really interesting.
ALEXANDER: We had a hell of a fine library at the time.
But [I] never heard about that guy until I--
LASKEY: How about the Bauhaus? Had that--?
ALEXANDER: That hadn't started, no. I mean, no news of
LASKEY: It had been around a bit.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. I don't doubt that there were other
students, probably even at Cornell, who had a different
experience. But I don't remember hearing about those guys.
LASKEY: But this was the education you were getting. It
did not include references to Wright?
ALEXANDER : No .
LASKEY: How about the Chicago School with [Louis H.]
Sullivan? Did you get that sort of thing?
ALEXANDER: Oh yeah, yeah. However, there was a dramatic
change over a period of five years from strict orders in
beaux arts to beaux arts liberated, you might say.
During my junior year, the summer of my junior year, I
drove out to California with a fraternity brother who was
also in architecture and who had to return to Pasadena. We
lived at his house in Pasadena. He came back to get a job
with his former boss, who was Marston.
LASKEY: Oh, Sylvanus Marston?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, who had been in partnership with
[Garrett] Van Pelt. It was Marston, Van Pelt, and [Edgar]
Maybury. Then Van Pelt split from Marston and Maybury and
had an office in the same block on Euclid Street. I got a
job with Van Pelt and so did John Porter Clark at a later
date. He was the guy with whom I drove out to
California. He's now in Palm Springs and has been an
architect there since the middle of the Depression.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. John Porter Clark. Then I was offered a
job if I would come back upon graduation. Furthermore, Van
Pelt offered to show me around Europe. So my father bought
a Model A Ford roadster, which we took across on the
LASKEY: Now, just a second. This was after you came here
for the summer between your junior and senior year?
LASKEY: You went back and--
ALEXANDER: That was the end of my fifth year.
LASKEY: The end of your fifth year. Then you went back
for your fifth year and then went to Europe with Van Pelt
ALEXANDER: The summer I graduated, 1930. I was there for
three months .
LASKEY: What an opportunity.
ALEXANDER: Well, he knew Europe like the back of his hand,
which was a fantastic opportunity. And so we went all over
France, Spain, and Italy for three months. That was
fabulous. I had a great experience there. Came back,
worked here in Pasadena for Van Pelt for a year. I figured
everything was just going fine. The Depression was on in
the rest of the country, but I had a job. Then I went back
East, got married, came back here three, four, or five
months later. One Friday afternoon, every client in the
office called and canceled. Van Pelt locked the door and
that was it, and I was out on the street.
LASKEY: Oh, my goodness. This was about 1932?
LASKEY: You went back to get married. Was this someone
from New Jersey or someone from school?
ALEXANDER: No, it was someone that I had met on the trip
out here in '28. She had come out having graduated from a
ladies' college in Saratoga [Springs]. Swarthmore-- Not
Swarthmore . [Skidmore College] Well, anyway, she had come
out to join the community theater in Pasadena, which was
LASKEY: Oh, the Pasadena Playhouse?
ALEXANDER: Right, it was famous at the time as a community
theater. She found that it already had been corrupted by
Hollywood into an organization that used mainly Hollywood
people and was no longer the community theater that it had
been. So then she decided to go back, and she and her
mother and her sister booked passage on the steamship
Virginia going through the Canal Zone, which I had also
booked to get back. I met her there. Then she went to
Cornell for an M.A. during my fifth year and then got a job
teaching at Dickinson College in Williamsport,
Pennsylvania. That's where we were married, then flew out
LASKEY: Flew out here?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. That was crazy. We got to Salt Lake
City and we were to change to Western Airlines at Salt Lake
City. We waved good-bye to our plane that then went on to
San Francisco and said, "Where's ours?" They said, "Well,
you know, due to the Knute Rockne crash, all Ford trimotors
have been grounded. So we're very sorry." I said, "Now
what do we do?" So I rustled up a mail plane pilot who
flew a plane-- Let's see, I don't remember the name of it
now. But it had an open cockpit for the pilot and two
staggered seats. The fuselage was so narrow that they
couldn't get two seats next to each other. So it had
staggered seats and open windows, if we wanted them open.
I guess we could close them up, but he had his head in the
breeze all the time.
LASKEY: You flew like that from--
ALEXANDER: Flew from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas to Los
Angeles. I ate my box lunch, which made my wife throw
up. [laughter] She was just deathly sick. So then when
we came over the San Gorgonio Pass, I said, "Whew, look at
those wonderful yuccas." She could have killed me.
LASKEY: What was your wife's name?
ALEXANDER: Marie Eugenie Therese Antoinette Vigneron
Alexander. We had two kids together [Lynne M. Alexander
and Timothy M. Alexander] . She pulled me through the
Depression by getting a job teaching school at West lake
School for Girls in Pasadena--$100 a month for nine months,
$900 a year. I earned a like amount in one year--$934 or
something like that--sketching for Doug [Douglas] Honnold
and getting little jobs here and there, digging ditches
occasionally, getting jobs at United Artists studios in the
art department and that sort of thing. And then we had a
couple of kids. She went to USC [University of Southern
California], got an M.A. in library science, and then
became the librarian of the Library of Architecture and
Allied Arts, which was an independent organization founded
by the Allied Architects [of Los Angeles], who attempted to
corner all the city and county business at one time, headed
by [Edwin] Bergstrom,
LASKEY: I believe they did a master plan for the [Los
Angeles] Civic Center. What else about them?
ALEXANDER: Well, they were sued by old Martin. What's his
name? Albert [C] Martin, Sr. He sued successfully, so
they had to disband. As part of their public relations
gesture, they gave their library that they had assembled,
set it up as a public institution with an endowment. It
was in very bad shape after a period of years because the
endowment just didn't take care of rising inflation and so
on during the war. Anyway, she became their librarian and
tried to get it in shape.
Then on an occasion when I was back at Ann Arbor,
Michigan, at a conference of architects and school
administrators and educational publishers, I got the news
that she had been killed by a Santa Fe train.
LASKEY: Oh, Mr. Alexander.
ALEXANDER: She was driving home from the library on
Fletcher Boulevard and there was a grade crossing at that
point. There was construction going on on Fletcher so that
the cars were jammed up in a single line, and she was
stranded in the middle of the tracks when the gates came
down on both sides.
LASKEY: Oh, how horrible.
ALEXANDER: So that —
LASKEY: When was this?
ALEXANDER: I think it was '51. Then I became a member of
the board of the library and determined to put it where it
would be self-supporting and at the same time do everybody
some good if they took advantage of it. And that became
part of the UCLA library. I had conferences with [Franklin
D.] Murphy, and we donated the library to UCLA and used the
endowment, which is still in existence, to give the library
a shot in the arm every year.
LASKEY: Is this the architecture library or the research
ALEXANDER: The Architecture [and Urban Planning]
Library. It's part of it. I presume it's integrated. It
should be by now. It was a library that was very heavily
used by the movie industry at one time, the art departments
in the movie industry. So it had quite a collection of
things that you wouldn't find in a normal architectural
library, things that had to do with decoration and with rug
designs and all kinds of stuff. It also has some historic
stuff in it.
TAPE NfUMBER: II, SIDE ONE
JULY 24, 1986
LASKEY: I want to go back just a little bit, Mr.
Alexander, to the period when you first came out to Los
Angeles and then you went back to the East and then you
went to Europe. I'm wondering about all the influences of
all these changes on you.
ALEXANDER: Well, I had worked in Manhattan for [Wallace
K.] Harrison. It became Harrison and Abramovitz. This was
the Harrison that was with [Harvey W.] Corbett and [William
H.] MacMurray, the firm that was doing Rockefeller
Center. So it was quite a change to work in an office in
Pasadena that was doing nothing but residential work. It
was all very well-designed residential work. At that time
it was customary for the draftsman to be given the time to
draw charcoal sketches full-size on the wall, for instance,
of say a New Orleans grill and then to follow that through
and go out to the iron worker, where he'd help the modeler
make a clay or wax model of this thing and then see it cast
in cast iron. That's something that no architect has a
chance to do these days. It was really a marvelous
LASKEY: Oh, yes.
ALEXANDER: Or to design as part of a total picture some
large-scale vase, or whatever, as part of some
Mediterranean house and then to make a full-size of it on
the wall and then go around to the Greek sculptor who
couldn't get jobs doing what he was taught to do in the old
country but who would make a model of this thing. It was a
five-foot-high thing that Sinbad the Sailor would be proud
to jump out of.
LASKEY: Were they in the offices? You worked these out on
the walls of the offices?
ALEXANDER: Well, I mean you put a piece of paper up first.
LASKEY: And then take them to the craftsman and say, "This
is what I want, " and you worked together.
ALEXANDER: So you really become involved. I mean you
could become involved at that time in the hands-on
experience of craftsmanship. You're not doing it; you're
not trained to do it, but you get a piece of the action.
So this was a very personally satisfying experience.
Of course, going to Europe just blew my mind. I
didn't expect to and didn't get a chance to do anything
such as I had seen over there--that is, up to a certain
point. But I was really given a great opportunity the very
first year I came back. At that time it was quite
customary for people to go to Pasadena for the winter,
especially if they were from Chicago, or in this case
Rochester, New York. Rochester, New York, can have an
absolutely miserable winter if you're a certain age. I
mean, when I was young I loved it, but, geez, what a
place. So people would form the habit of coming out here
every year. They'd go to, let's see, the Huntington Hotel
or one of the hotels. (I have a story about that, by the
way.) But this client that I'm thinking about was a shoe
manufacturer named Mr. Stein or something--! don't remember
what it was. Anyway, I'd say he romanticized Mediterranean
influence by the Arabs somehow or other: [mimics Eastern
European accent] "Mr. Alexander, go down and look at the
Green Hotel." There would be something in the lobby that
he thought was terrific or there would be the dome on the
roof: "Look at the dome, just what I want." Anyway, I had
been to Majorca. I'd spent two weeks on Majorca. I just
loved the place. I was given full speed ahead to design
something for this guy, and it's still there. It's near
the Huntington Hotel, which is no longer-- Is it shut down
LASKEY: Well, it's--
ALEXANDER: Been condemned.
LASKEY: Well, it was, but they are protesting that.
ALEXANDER: Oh, good.
LASKEY: I think it's still operating, and there's a chance
that it will continue as it is. At least, we hope so.
ALEXANDER: It was customary for a hotel in Pasadena-- Or I
should say, several of the hotels bought quite a bit of
land around them. And if somebody was a regular guest and
would like to come out and build a house there, they could
sell them a piece of property for a house. He could come
over to the hotel for meals anytime he wanted, and so on
and so forth. He knew everybody who came out every year
the way he did. So that was part of the system. This guy
bought a piece of property that went down to El Molino
[Avenue] up to whatever that little winding street is
there. I designed a fantasy there. The two gates, the
gateposts I should say, have objects on top which you
wouldn't believe. I was enchanted by-- What do you call
them? They grow up by Castroville.
LASKEY: Oh, artichokes.
ALEXANDER: The form is like a pineapple, so regular and
beautiful in such a pattern. I just became enthralled by
that. I went down to the greengrocer and bought a couple
of these artichokes and came back and designed artichokes
about three feet high that go on top of these gateposts.
And then the doorway has something I wouldn't be caught
dead with now I guess--a fanciful sort of design. I don't
know that it has a name. It's sort of a floral design that
was done in emerald blue, or what do they call a stone
ALEXANDER: Yeah, or the stuff from Arizona that the
LASKEY: Oh, turquoise.
ALEXANDER: Turquoise-blue tile. It's sort of an elaborate
flowing thing, just out of nothing. And it's still there.
LASKEY: This is around the doorway?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, around the doorway to the house. And
this place was bought by [Isaac N.] Van Nuys, famous for
Van Nuys in the [San Fernando] Valley. The reason I know
it's still there is that I had a call from a young man who
in partnership with another young man had bought this home,
and I guess is living in it now. They wanted me to come
around and tell them something about it. On the centennial
year I was taken on a bus tour--I was supposed to talk
about some things. And, by god, we went right past this
thing. I don't know whether I got a chance to say anything
about it or not, but it was on the tour. Nobody knew
anything about it. It's just a "strangey."
LASKEY: Well, is it a whole house?
LASKEY: But it's done as a fantasy?
ALEXANDER: Well, I'd call it-- It came right out of
Majorca from my standpoint. The entrance is through a
patio and columns and corbels, which were nicely carved to
my design. It was really fun to work on something like
that, especially right out of school.
LASKEY: When you came out here and started working for
[Garrett] Van Pelt, they dealt a lot, did they not, in
Mediterranean houses and Mediterranean-style architecture?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah.
LASKEY: Was that new to you?
ALEXANDER: Not after that trip. Well, I knew something
about it from the library at Cornell [University] , but it
was quite new to think of doing a thing like that when I
Do you know where George Vernon Russell lives? Well,
it's in Pasadena. It's off of Orange Grove [Boulevard], up
a driveway. It used to be an estate belonging to this one
house, but the house has been-- Stuff in front of it. It
is, you know, multiple family now. But he bought this
thing which was designed by Van Pelt's office--I
participated in it--for a Mrs. Hill. I forget the
background of Mrs. Hill, but she was very well-off. That's
pretty typical of the really solid Mediterranean stuff that
we were doing at the time. I designed fireplaces, mantles,
and some of the outside. Well, the basic plan I think Van
Pelt did. But John [Porter] Clark and I both worked on
that one. John came to work for Van Pelt. Well, it was
during the Depression; it happened all the time.
There were three sisters-- What's the name Young in
the movies? Three sisters, their last name is Young.
LASKEY: Loretta Young.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, there you go. Well, he designed Loretta
Young's house right off of the UCLA campus, right across
Sunset Boulevard from the UCLA campus up on a hill. It's a
four-column, Georgian, two-story building.
LASKEY: It's Still there.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. John designed that.
LASKEY: Did you work on that one at all?
ALEXANDER: I worked on some of the stuff, fireplaces,
LASKEY: Well, would your beaux-arts training from Cornell
have helped you in this kind of architecture?
ALEXANDER: Oh, certainly. Sure. I still approach a
serious design problem from the standpoint of balance. And
the beaux-arts design training was actually a course in
logic, the way it was taught, as I recall it. So that,
regardless of the form, the approach was more or less the
LASKEY: Did you have to go through the charette? Was this
part of the training?
ALEXANDER: Oh yes, yeah. Esquisse and esquisse-
esquisse. The eight-hour project and the three-day
project. And then you had to set down in one day what your
basic concept was and then not deviate from that as you
developed it over a two-week or ten-week period.
LASKEY: Did they give you the program and tell you and
then you had to--?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. They give you the program. Then you
sit down and develop an esquise-esquise, which was in
sketch form. And if you departed from that you got an hors
de concours (HC), or you could get an HC for being late.
You'd get around to the last day and then work all day and
night, sometimes two days and nights. And when we started,
the first couple of years Cornell was part of a system in
which we sent some of our projects, the best ones that were
judged by our faculty, to a central place for judging. So
that there was a competition between colleges, which had
its healthy aspects, but which resulted really in paying
too much attention to the presentation and not the
content. It was abandoned the end of the second year I was
there. But not the beaux-arts system.
LASKEY: How long did the beaux-arts system last?
ALEXANDER: Well, from a standpoint of teaching, I don't
know how long it lasted. It was there all the time I was
there. But they got away from the stiff rules and the
intercollege competition, that sort of thing, which I think
was under the circumstances a good idea.
LASKEY: As you moved West, did you find any other
influences that were different approaches to architecture
ALEXANDER: I didn't know a hell of a lot different from
what I found out here, as a matter of fact. I had that one
experience of working for a summer in Manhattan. I had
worked one summer in my father's office, which was not at
all architectural. But outside of that-- Well, I did
become familiar with the whole elevator background.
Corbett was the name of the head architect; Corbett,
Harrison, and MacMurray was the firm. We were doing
Rockefeller Center and had just started on the New York
Life Insurance Company Building. The life insurance
company had hired an efficiency expert by the name of Mr.
Comfort, who was getting in the hair of Mr. Corbett. Mr.
Corbett took me aside and said, "Now, I'm going to assign
you to this man, and you just keep him occupied, will
you?" [laughter] So I worked with this guy on
permutations and combinations of how to deal with
elevators. That is, whether you have a double-decked
elevator that stops at two floors at once or whether you
had two elevators operating at the same chamber at the same
time. And what safety devices you have to have- -how many
feet a minute. Twelve hundred feet a minute, I think, was
about as fast as they went at the time, I'm not sure. But
I got a liberal dose of elevator lore: how you figure out
where you're going to have express stops, how you handle
express locals beyond that, and what is the most efficient
way to handle the whole elevator deal. This is pretty far
out compared to designing a little house out here, or a big
house for that matter.
LASKEY: The elevator work that you were doing, was it
actually in conjunction with the building of Rockefeller
ALEXANDER: Oh no, this was the New York Life Building,
LASKEY: The New York Life Building. But the Rockefeller
Center was being built at the same time. I guess that's
the question that I'm trying to ask you and not phrasing
very well. You're involved, and you see Rockefeller Center
at one point on one side and then you have this sort of
hacienda or Mediterranean style--they were such different
life-styles. And you were a young man, and also the
distances between the coasts were greater in 1930 than they
are now. I'm just wondering--it sounds like it would have
been exciting and challenging.
ALEXANDER: Well, I didn't have a development in depth in
Manhattan from that standpoint. From the standpoint of
surroundings, of course, I knew what an urban scene was. I
was dumped into a country scene here, really. The
architects with whom I worked here also had beaux-arts
training, although they may not have actually gone to the
Ecole des Beaux-Arts. But they knew how the rich people
for whom they designed houses liked to live--which is
something to learn. A lot of people don't know today how
they did like to live at that time. That is, this whole
idea that came in with modern architecture, so-called, of
opening up spaces so that there were no doors separating
the kitchen-- In fact, the kitchen becomes part of the
family room or the living room even. No such thing as a
dining room in many of those designs. Dining space, this
space, that space, and the other space all mashed into
one. Whereas the idea of coming into a reception room
where one is received if he has the right card when he
comes to the door and puts it in the tray-- And if it is
perfectly okay, then the door is opened again for him to
come in. Then he must wait for admission into the parlor,
if it's a formal thing. The whole idea of the formal
dining room and the butler's pantry, which is a real
pantry, and the kitchen and the place for the servants to
eat and to live and all that sort of thing is foreign to
our living these days. It was something that was foreign
to me as far as my home was concerned, although we had a
maid's room in the house. We never had a maid to speak of,
maybe for a short time. But learning what was considered
the good life was something that was necessary and
LASKEY: Well, Pasadena in particular wooed the upper
class, or an upper-middle-class kind of resident.
ALEXANDER: Well, Van Pelt designed the McCormick place for
instance. Coming out from Chicago to the [Henry E.]
Huntington [Library and Art Gallery] year after year, you
finally had to have a place right across the street from
the Huntington of course. The thumbtack king, that was a
[Sylvanus] Marston job that Jack Clark worked on. You
know, the country club life at the time was something that
has not been indulged in since.
LASKEY: Well, you had made a statement that I was looking
for in talking about this period and the architects who
were designing. You said that there was no way that they
would ever design a house where the front door would open
into the living room.
LASKEY: Which is exactly what you're saying. I think that
describes so well the difference, this sort of elegance and
formality of what I think of when I think of Mediterranean
houses and what I think of as Southern California.
Did you live in Pasadena when you were working out
ALEXANDER: Yes. I lived in several places, but for quite
a while in a little cottage right off El Molino, Let's
see, what's it called? Oak Knoll Gardens Drive, right off
Oak Knoll [Avenue], or off El Molino near Oak Knoll. When
I finally got some work in Los Angeles in [Reginald D.]
Johnson's office and later with Wilson and Merrill, I used
to take the red car in. This was one block from Lake
[Street] , where the red car ran. Then I moved to a little
house out on San Gabriel Boulevard, which is on the east
side of Pasadena, beyond, well, out Lombardy [Road].
LASKEY: Okay. I think of Lombardy as basically in San
ALEXANDER: Right, yeah. San Gabriel Boulevard runs right
into San Marino, but it's Pasadena at that point. That was
just before and after the war started. Then I moved to
Baldwin Hills Village and lived there for nine years. For
fifteen years I lived in Pasadena.
LASKEY: When Mr. Van Pelt closed his office door that
Friday afternoon, what did you do?
ALEXANDER: Well, John Clark and I were both looking for
something to do--preferably to get paid for doing. So
Colorado Boulevard and Lake were just desolate looking. A
whole department store had closed down. The store windows
were drab and oh so sad looking. Everything had come to a
standstill. Came to the bank holiday-- For instance, I had
a savings account. I'd been putting something in this
savings account religiously every week. It was the only
bank that failed to open after the bank holiday. Anyway,
here's this miserable-looking street, and we thought,
"Well, we could maybe persuade these people to jazz things
up. They have these vacant windows and they look
terrible. So let's get a job window decorating." I guess
maybe we got two jobs for very little pay, if any. That
just didn't fly.
Then another friend of mine was C. Hunt Lewis III. He
and I had both worked in Johnson's office for a little
bit. He had graduated from Princeton [University]. Or had
he? I think so. He was married to Rosemary Street
Lewis. Her father was Julian Street. You know of him?
LASKEY: No, I don't.
ALEXANDER: Author for the New Yorker. Well, anyway. Hunt
Lewis and I-- Here was Prohibition just going out, people
were stocking up on wine. Let's design some wine-cellar
accessories. [laughter] Well, you know there's not much
money in it. Maybe we had a couple of jobs, but we
couldn't make a go of it. I had maybe two or three weeks
working for Reggie Johnson on a house that was already
under construction. It was a luxurious palace, costing $2
million at the time, for Seeley [G. ] Mudd in Pasadena.
LASKEY: It was in Pasadena?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Johnson had a superb chief draftsman and
a couple of great designers, one of whom was a Cornell man
whom I had known, Cooney [M.] Cameron. Carpenter was the
other designer, wore a smock, good old French style. I
worked on paneling in some grand room or other and came to
the end of the employment. Johnson said, "Well, now, why
don't you go around and see if Frank Hodges, the
contractor, can use your help. You might get some
contracting and construction experience." So Frank Hodges
sent me around to see his foreman. His foreman rubbed his
hand in glee to see this lily- fingered character looking
for a job. So the first Job-- It turned out that the day
before, Mr. Mudd had been on the job and he had gone down
into the little tiny basement they had, which was just a
partial basement big enough for the heating system. He
looked up over the retaining wall and said, "Well, now,
that looks rather untidy in there, don't you think, Mr.
Hodges?" Mr. Hodges said, "Yes, it is rather untidy. What
would you like?" He said, "Well, I'd like to have it very
tidy." This thing covered what seemed like an acre, you
know, and the only access to this underspace under the
house was one access port in the center of this concrete
floor. There were concrete beams that came down within
eighteen inches of the dirt. And the game was that some
Mexicans would take wheelbarrow loads of pea gravel, very
small, fine gravel, and dump it down this access hole, and
another Mexican and I would get under there and get this
pea gravel and spread it around two inches deep over the
whole thing. We'd have to get it out from where they were
dumping it down in quantity first, and then get a two-by-
four and screed it until it was two inches deep over the
whole damn thing. Well, for two weeks I did this until I
couldn't stand up straight. [laughter]
LASKEY: I was going to say, I'm surprised that you could
even maneuver. I would think you had to be using muscles
you hadn't ever used.
ALEXANDER: It was absolutely crazy. It was insane.
So at the end of two weeks Seeley Mudd comes along
with another grand idea. By that time they had framed up
to the second floor, and he says, "Now, is this my
We said, "Yes. "
He says, "Is that a bathroom right next door to it?
Won't I hear the plumbing?" I mean, it's his own goddamned
plumbing you know. [laughter]
LASKEY: He had seen the plans to the house before?
ALEXANDER: Mr. Hodges says, "Yes, Mr. Mudd, you probably
"I think we should have some sound insulation in that
wall, don't you?"
"Oh yes, Mr. Mudd. "
So at that time there was no such thing as bats of
glass wool, something nice and clean like that to put up
with paper on one side. But you got burlap sacks of spun
glass. Then you were to pack this into the wall. Well, I
think we were given masks, so that that helped a little bit
so we didn't get, what do you call it, from glass in the
lungs. But I had little pieces of glass sticking me in my
ear and down my back and unmentionable places all over. I
just couldn't get rid of it with a shower or anything else
for another two weeks packing glass wool.
LASKEY: How could they get anybody to do that? I mean,
that sounds like a job that could literally kill you.
ALEXANDER: I told Seeley Mudd about this years later when
I was a consulting architect at Caltech [California
Institute of Technology] and he wanted to locate an
astronomy building that he wanted to finance. This was
just before he died. Well, he was amused, but he didn't
remember it, [laughter]
LASKEY: All the havoc that he wrought and he didn't even
remember it. Was that the end of your construction career?
ALEXANDER: Well, no, I did some more ditchdigging on
occasion for brief periods. Actually, one really good
experience I had from the standpoint of understanding how
things are put together--which we did not learn in college
the way some do at San Luis Obispo [California Polytechnic
State University] these days, or they have in the past
years--was just how two-by-fours are put together to make
things work. I had a friend who lived adjacent to the
Valley Hunt Club, Harlan [B.] Robinson. His mother was
living alone, or I guess he was living there with her at
the time, and it was only a few blocks from the Huntington
Memorial Hospital. She had an idea to bring in some extra
income. She needed a garage. She wanted a two-car garage
with an apartment attached to it that she could rent to a
nurse. So she wanted me to design it. Well, it was
great. She had a very big heart and was a grand lady. I
think she sympathized with my plight, but in any event I
got a little money for designing this thing. Then she
said, "Well, now that you have it designed, how about
building it?" I said, "Oh my god, I don't know anything
about that." She said, "Well, you think it over."
So that night I had a friend, a Cornell architect who
was then studying sculpture at USC [University of Southern
California], "Bill Berk, the jerk from Albuquerque"-- He
came over and we had a little music going on. By that time
I had accumulated six ocarinas of various sizes, from a
little soprano ocarina to a bass ocarina. He had developed
what he called a stomach pump, which was a f ive-and-ten-
cent-store flute with a long length of rubber tubing that
he'd put around his neck and blow. He'd put the flute on
the floor and play it. So we had a couple of numbers and I
mentioned this opportunity, which I thought was scary. He
said, "Oh no, I know all about that stuff. My father has
all the tools. He'll lend [them to] us." He said, "Don't
worry, we can do that." Well, I didn't know it, but he
didn't know much more about it than I did, but he had balls
and the tools. Of course, I didn't have any tools or
anything like that. We even rented a little cement mixer
that was like a coffee pot, but would break down right in
the middle of everything. Well, anyway, we decided we
would try it. He brought the tools along and he taught me
how things go together. By doing it myself and building a
whole little house without any outside help--
Furthermore, we got about halfway through this-- He
always had crazy ideas. He was married; he and Suzanne had
heard about a wonderful opportunity to go around the world
and make their money doing it. This was [the idea of] a
guy who thought he was a millionaire. He inherited quite a
bit of money and he had bought a sailing vessel, the
Eastern Star or something like that, in San Francisco
harbor. He was outfitting this thing and he was rounding
up a group of artists of various kinds: a sculptor, a
writer to chronicle the whole thing, this, that, and the
other--a painter too. They were going to take a sail
around the world and going to do all these things that
would make money to support it, and in the meantime he'd
finance them. So Bill, all of a sudden right in the middle
of our construction project, went sailing off to San
Francisco to build their quarters on the boat, which they
did. But then, unfortunately, the guy who owned the boat
turned out not to be a millionaire, but to have had what
money he inherited go to his head. So he thought he was a
millionaire. So that didn't work out.
But in the meantime I was left holding the sack with
this house half completed. So I finished it. That
intimate contact with having to do certain things, to put
two-by-fours together and to make the house work, really
freed me a great deal from the fear I had of tools and the
fear I had of wondering how-- You know, looking at
copybooks is one thing, but getting your hands on it and
doing it is another. So that was really good construction
experience- -as tiny as it was. It's been torn down since,
by the way.
LASKEY: Oh, that's too bad.
ALEXANDER: A couple of my things have been torn down.
Parkinson [and Bergstrom; later Parkinson and Parkinson],
who was a big firm here at one time.
LASKEY: Donald Parkinson?
LASKEY: John and —
ALEXANDER: Well, it was father and son.
LASKEY: Yeah, John and Don.
ALEXANDER: I knew both, but when the old man had died--
Donald had a client, G. Schirmer, who turned out sheet
music. Mr. Schirmer wanted a store in Los Angeles, and it
was a little job from Parkinson's standpoint. I had
several occasions like this when an architect didn't want
to take on the obligation of having a permanent employee,
but he had a job that he wanted done. I had several cases
where I was employed like that. Just to come in and do the
whole thing: "I don't want to hear a thing. Take care of
the client, get it built, and get it out of here." So I
designed this one-story store in downtown Los Angeles. I
forget exactly where it was now, but right near Pershing
Square. It was quite urbane. And that's been torn down.
LASKEY: It wasn't about, oh, say, somewhere near Hope
[Street] and Ninth [Street] or in that area?
LASKEY: Because for years there was a music store that
sold sheet music.
ALEXANDER: This was like Sixth [Street] .
LASKEY: Oh, really next to Pershing Square.
ALEXANDER: Probably some other things have been torn down
that I don't know about. I just thought of those two.
Another one that may have been torn down similar to that:
Palmer Sabin had his office right next to Arroyo
[Boulevard] and California Street and Roland [E.] Coate
[formerly of Johnson, Kaufman, and Coate] also had his
office there. Palmer Sabin, when I was looking for a job.
said, "You know, I have this little project for the school
board of San Marino, which is an auditorium, and I'd like
you to handle the whole thing." There I did the plans and
the specifications and saw it get underway. That was right
on Huntington Boulevard. I don't know whether it's there
still or not, but it was a little auditorium, pretty
superficially classic. The most interesting thing about it
was that a friend of Palmer's, also in that same little
complex with Palmer Sabin and Roland Coate, was a
contractor who had patents on something called lattice
steel, in which he would erect a sort of basket of very,
very light steelwork and put a paper core, a reinforced
paper core inside so that it was hollow, and blast it with
Gunite from the outside--that is, pneumatically blown
concrete, very dense. This was the construction of the
thing. What's the name of the guy? [Fritz Ruppel] He was
a very interesting character. He did the reconstruction of
one of the missions south of here, San Luis Key I think, in
Oceanside. [He] developed a brick that looked like an
adobe brick in size, scale, and so forth, specially for
this job. well, anyway, that's a diversion. Where were
LASKEY: we were talking about some of your buildings that
had been torn down in San Marino, and having talked about
Palmer Sabin and Roland Coate.
ALEXANDER: Everything is a diversion.
LASKEY: Well, not always. Did you do anything else for
the Parkinsons in downtown Los Angeles? Were you involved
in anything that went up on Spring Street?
ALEXANDER: No, no. I got to know the old boy before he
died, though. He had come from Canada.
LASKEY: This was John, the father.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. He'd come from Canada, and when he first
arrived there was a building boom on here. All of the
lumber, of course, was coming down from the Northwest by
ship. When it arrived, it was not only green, but it was
full of sea water. And maybe-- How long have you lived
LASKEY: Almost thirty years.
ALEXANDER: Okay, then you may remember at the foot of
Bunker Hill, across from the [Los Angeles Central] Library,
there were some five- and six-story tenements of wood.
LASKEY: Across from the library?
ALEXANDER: Well, this side--
LASKEY: Well, across from Hill Street, across from [Grand]
ALEXANDER: Yeah, correct. Yeah, yeah. Well, not only
there but on the other side of the hill there were these
five- or six-story walk-ups in wood. Well, he had designed
those when he first came from Canada.
LASKEY: Parkinson did?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. It was his introduction to Los
Angeles. I mean, it was a building boom--boom, boom,
boom. This was probably 1910. Anyway, he was a careful
man, and he got out a transit and measured the thing when
it was built. I forgot how many months later, it was nine
inches shorter in height. And this is not supposed to
happen to Douglas fir. I mean, everything's supposed to
TAPE NUMBER: II, SIDE TWO
JULY 24, 1986
ALEXANDER: I remember that scene. When he was telling
that story, it seems to me it was at the Pierpont Davis
house. Pier Davis, Dave [David J.] Witmer, [Edwin]
Bergstrom--the group of people who were in what was called
Allied Architects [of Los Angeles] . We were in tuxedos at
his house. I don't know where we had come from, but I
remember he told me that it's ridiculous to wear these
fancy shirts with a tuxedo. A tuxedo, after all, is a
dinner jacket, you just wear an ordinary white shirt. When
it comes to formal wear with tails, that's something else,
but don't give me this stiff -shirt business. I mean, you
wear that to dinner, for heaven's sake, every night.
LASKEY: Of course, of course. [laughter]
ALEXANDER: That was the group when--
LASKEY: Now, when was this, or is this the same period
we've been talking about?
ALEXANDER: Well, I'll tell you, when I got into working
with Dave Witmer-- Let's see, the war hadn't started yet.
[pause] But maybe it had. Oh, I know. It was after I
went back to visit my family at Spring Lake. I had sent my
wife [Eugenie Vigneron Alexander] and daughter [ Lynne M.
Alexander] back ahead of me. I was working with Wilson and
Merrill. And our last active job in the office was
converting an opera house in Bakersfield into a [Twentieth
Century] Fox West Coast theater. That came almost to a
close under construction and I was free to take a
vacation. So I was going to just take a two-week vacation
in Spring Lake. I went back with a fishing rod, white
ducks, and tennis shoes, and that's about all.
LASKEY: Your white tux?
ALEXANDER: No, no, white ducks.
LASKEY: You travel for every occasion. [laughter]
ALEXANDER: I Just expected to stay two weeks, instead of
which, just before I was to come back, I thought I'd visit
Clarence [S.] Stein in New York City. He had been our
consulting architect on Baldwin Hills Village. He never
came out here that I recall during that period, but he did
keep us on the track by correspondence. He was just a
delightful gentleman. So I went in just to call on him,
and he said, "Hey, by the way, while you're here why don't
you get some experience in large-scale housing?" I said,
"Well, why don't I?" He said, "Well, tell you what. You
know Richmond Shreve, " who was the architect of the Empire
State Building. He was a Cornell architect. He said,
"Just tell him you're from Cornell--! mean you were
educated at Cornell--and that you'd like a job on this
thing that they're working on down at Metropolitan
Life [Insurance Company], [at] the Metropolitan board of
design. He's chairman of the board of design. They're
designing the largest housing project in the world, 2,275
apartments," or whatever it was. It became Parkchester.
That was the name of it.
And so I went down to see Shreve, and he said, "Oh,
sure, we need some people. We're hiring right now." This
being still in the Depression era, it sounded good to have
something going on like that, really active. So I went
down to Union Square and the Metropolitan building, where
the drafting building was, and I was hired on. I said,
"I'd just like to have some experience for a couple of
months." He says, "Well, we'd like to have you aboard."
So at the end of the month I was told that "If you commit
to stay for six months, we'll give you a raise and you do
this." Then at the end of another month, he said, "If you
agree to stay for a year, we'll give you this
responsibility and increase your pay." So I did. I was
there for the whole damn year, unexpectedly.
LASKEY: This was about in 1937, 1938.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I think. My Social Security card, the
first one I ever had, I think it's '38. Yeah. Well, I
came back from that to Los Angeles to find that my partner
Wilson had become a joint-venture partner on several teams
in public housing.
LASKEY: Just to back up a little bit, who was Wilson?
ALEXANDER: Lou Wilson, Louis Eugene Wilson, was the older
brother of the Wilson who founded a very extensive practice
here. And what was his name? Wilson, another Wilson.
[tape recorder off]
Adrian Wilson's firm [Adrian Wilson and Associates]
blossomed during the Vietnam War, doing a lot of work
overseas that I didn't care for very much. Over a period
of years, I had a lot of, not bitter, but I was in a feud
with Adrian. But it wasn't really all that bad. I didn't
like what I considered his principles to be, whereas his
brother I thought--well, I know--was an entirely different
kind of character. Lou Wilson was a go-getter businessman
and architect from Kansas. He had gone into partnership
with Edwin Merrill, who was a well- trained architect, a
graduate of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] .
But Merrill was stone-deaf, very close to stone-deaf and
disabled that way in practice. But a real student and a
great technical man, not a designer--neither one was.
Well, Lou had--
LASKEY: Well, what was his expertise then?
ALEXANDER: Getting business.
LASKEY: Oh, okay.
ALEXANDER: And just a wonderful human being- -good,
sociable guy. He had, in 1934 or '33-- Yeah, in 1934 he
had rounded up ten contracts. He had the contracts signed
and wanted to get these houses designed. And that was when
Reg Johnson referred him to me. That was the first so-
called steady job that I had. It wasn't very steady,
because as soon as I got my license that year I demanded
partnership. Of course they'd be delighted to have me as a
partner, which meant that I didn't get paid at all.
LASKEY: This was what, 1932?
ALEXANDER: ' Thirty- four .
LASKEY: 'Thirty- four, okay.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. I mean sometimes I didn't get paid at
all. Anyway, I had to share in their ill or good fortune,
whatever. Well, I came back to find that Lou had entered
these joint ventures without any reference to my being a
partner of our firm of Wilson, Merrill, and Alexander.
LASKEY: What's a joint venture?
ALEXANDER: Well, that is a one-time partnership for that
specific job only. It's the same as a partnership except
it's not extensive, it doesn't cover everything. It covers
that one particular thing. It's a venture that is entered
into jointly by one or more firms. President Roosevelt's
policy at that time was in any one of these things, such as
the public housing program, if you were to engage in
architecture you must spread the work. So that no public
housing project should be designed by one architect only.
You must have three or four, at least three.
LASKEY: You know, I never realized that. That's why there
are always several firms connected with any public housing
ALEXANDER: At that time that's true.
LASKEY: I didn't know that.
ALEXANDER: That was not true later on under the postwar
[Harry S.] Truman effort, but it was true during the
Depression. So I found that he had been a member of more
than one of these groups without involving me. I said to
myself, "Well, two can play at that game." So that's when
I went to see Walter [W.] Alley, who was the head of the
staff of the [Los Angeles City] Housing Authority at the
time, as to which architects were not involved and what
potential projects might there be. And at that time the
housing authority had no money and no resources to do all
of the work that it took to have the city council declare
an area subject to redevelopment or, I should say,
qualified for public housing. The architect was expected
to sort of pioneer that and provide a study free of charge.
LASKEY: With your own time, with your own money?
ALEXANDER: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. So I found that Dave
Witmer, who had been chief architect of the FHA [Federal
Housing Administration] and had resigned from that to
design a project parallel to Baldwin Hills Village--
LASKEY: In Los Angeles?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, right next to the public housing project
I was part of. You know, where the murals are.
LASKEY: Oh, Estrada Courts.
ALEXANDER: Estrada Courts, okay, right near the Sears
[Roebuck and Company] headquarters.
ALEXANDER: Wyvernwood it was called. Wyvernwood. He was
architect of Wyvernwood. So he was in the housing game. I
went to see him, and he said, "Well, I don't have the time
to promote this thing, but if you'll promote it, count me
in." I said, "We've got to have three at least." He said,
"Well, a friend of mine. Wink [Winchton] Risley, is not
involved in any other team, so let's make a team." So we
made a team, and then I did all the legwork that it took to
qualify this thing and get it before the city council and
get it approved. Then we were designing this thing. And
prior to this time Witmer had been engaged by-- It was
Witmer and [Loyal F.] Watson. Witmer and Watson had been
engaged by [John] Griffith and [Herbert C] Legg. Griffith
was a rich entrepreneur from Pasadena and Legg was the
former county supervisor, who became a county supervisor
again after that. In the interim, he got into the housing
game. They had acquired an option on a big piece of the
Montana Ranch down at Lakewood. It's now the city of
LASKEY: Oh, down near Long Beach.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, near Long Beach. They had acquired this
acreage, and Witmer and Watson were involved as
architects. And Witmer needed somebody to lay out 2,400
houses, lots, so on and so forth. So he asked me to do
that. I was working in his office but on a piecemeal
basis. One day he got a telephone call from Washington,
D.C., from Mr. Bergstrom, who had been president of the AIA
[American Institute of Architects] nationally.
LASKEY: Was that the Bergstrom of Parkinson and Bergstrom
out here, Henry Bergstrom?
ALEXANDER: Right, right. Bergstrom called him in his
office. Dave came out of the office, went over to me, and
said, "I've just been asked to go to Washington and I might
do it. If I do, will you go into partnership with us?" I
said, "Sure." So what it was-- Bergstrom had been, as
president of the AIA, asked to be the chief architect of
designing the Pentagon. Because he had been, I think,
simply careless about not getting authorization for certain
funds, that he didn't put in his pocket, but he had been a
naughty boy with AIA funds, I guess--
LASKEY: Oh, I see.
ALEXANDER: --in the eyes of the profession. And he had
been asked to step down and had been asked to get out of
the Pentagon job. And so he had asked Dave to take his
place. Dave became chief architect of the Pentagon and
rounded up architects--that ' s where I got [to know] such
people as Pier Davis and other characters who had worked in
the Allied Architects and had a beaux-arts slant--to go
back and work on the Pentagon with him. That's the way I
got to know these guys.
LASKEY: Oh, I see.
ALEXANDER: Such as Parkinson and--
LASKEY: Well, first of all, I'm curious, did you ever ask
Wilson why he didn't include you in--?
ALEXANDER: I don't know whether I did or not.
LASKEY: It isn't something that you remember or seem to
ALEXANDER: No, no, no. He was more or less going his way,
and I thought, "Well, what the hell, I'll go mine too."
LASKEY: Were you particularly interested in public
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes, from an emotional and political
standpoint. Oh, yeah. I was up to my ears in it and
maintained that interest over a period of years, right
through after the war when the vets came back. We had two
successive statewide propositions for state public
housing. I was active statewide with Katherine Bauer and
Hal [Harold F.] Wise and the public housing establishment.
And I always went to the conventions in Washington on
public housing. I got to know Charlie [Charles] Abrams,
who was one of the first public housers in New York City, a
lawyer, and Strauss. I don't know, just anybody who was in
the public housing game at that time, including Clarence
Stein and Henry Churchill of Philadelphia. And in
Washington, D.C., it was Louis Justement. He wrote New
Cities for Old. Anyway, yes I was very much concerned. My
interest went right through to a time when after the war I
was working on these statewide campaigns. Of course, I was
really right up against the real estate lobby. I was a
prominent part of it because I was president of the [Los
Angeles City] Planning Commission at a time when these
campaigns were going on. I was outspoken and debated Fritz
Burns in front of town hall and would go out into the
lion's mouth, the Wilshire real estate, whatever it was,
real estate organization, to speak to them. I went all
over the state speaking in favor of public housing. The
opposition was as ruthless as they could be without
On one occasion-- I forget the name of the housing
organization there [Citizens Housing Council] . Father
O'Dwyer was an active member of the board, as I was. I
found that a sympathizer with our cause had gotten a job as
a secretary in the opposition's camp, which was run by a
couple of ruthless bastards who ran political campaigns.
She would send is copies of memos, intraoffice memos, that
were outrageous, about how they were going to get this
Alexander. "Get his boss." Then the note would come back,
"Well, he doesn't have a boss." "Okay, get [Fletcher]
Bowron to fire him." Well, Bowron, the mayor at the time,
was very sympathetic with my position. But as long as I
said by disclaimer every time I spoke that I was not
speaking for the city administration or for the planning
commission but on my own, he said, "Just go right ahead.
[I'll] back you up anytime." So I was called in these
memos "Red" Alexander, because the idea was that if you're
for public housing that you're naturally a communist.
LASKEY: Of course.
ALEXANDER: Well, where were we?
LASKEY: How did you develop an interest in public housing?
ALEXANDER: Well, in the first place, I had never had the
experience of poverty before the Depression. I remember
standing in line when I found out that at a certain point
my family was without food and that you could get food by
coming down to some place that was in a department store in
LASKEY: This is your family out here, your immediate
ALEXANDER: Yes . I just had a wife and a daughter, but we
didn't have any food in the house, and I'd run out of money
and she'd run out of money. So I went down and I stood in
line. Well, I got up to the window and backed away--I
couldn't do it. So we went hungry. And this affected me
deeply. And it turned me from what you might call an
inherited Republican to a wild-eyed, fiery liberal, if not
a communist. I never joined the Communist Party, but I
undoubtedly rubbed shoulders with plenty of them. And
anybody who didn't question our economic system at the time
was dead between the ears. So I was all for Upton
Sinclair's EPIC [End Poverty in California] and all kinds
of other crazy ideas.
Anyway, I got to know the real scene of the way people
were living at that time. And even though the slums of New
York were famous as slums, we had slums right here right
next to the city hall--within view of city hall. I got
grand tours of these places and talked to the people. And
nothing was being done to ameliorate that situation, so I
just became a part of the movement to get something done.
LASKEY: Public housing was a new concept then, wasn't it?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes.
LASKEY: That came out of the late Depression?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. The first public housing project in
Manhattan Island was a result of this. Charlie Abrams told
me about it. They-- How was it? Some buildings were torn
down and there were a lot of toilets and steel bars and
this, that, and the other thing. Junk that they were going
to just take out and dump in the ocean. He said, "Well,
now, wait a minute. If you're going to get rid of it
anyway, may we have it?" And they started their first
public housing by using junk to put it together. It was
better than the tenements that had been built with, you
know, a cold-water tap on the floor and you go outside to a
privy. Well, the conditions here, even though on the
surface-- In Watts, for instance, superficially one-story
high, little, innocent bungalows, you go back in the alley--
and It was all built with alleys in that area--and what had
been little garages with dirt floors had become living
quarters. Well, anyway, I--
LASKEY: So you had a commitment to public housing, an
emotional commitment. Whether Wilson would have been
involved or anything, this is something you would have
gotten involved in.
ALEXANDER: Oh yeah, sure.
liASKEY: It was then a federal program?
LASKEY: Through what agency?
ALEXANDER: We tried to create a state program prior to the
federal program, but that didn't work. The real estate
lobby beat us. But yes, it was a federal program. And
after these unsuccessful state things came along, that put
me in the public eye. And to everybody's amazement, this
new little president got his public housing bill through.
Nobody would believe it because, that is, in California the
real estate lobby had put up so much flak about socialism
and communism and so on and so forth. When Truman got his
public housing bill into law, locals just couldn't believe
it. And then I was supposedly the fair-haired boy of the
TAPE NUMBER: III, SIDE ONE
OCTOBER 2, 1986
LASKEY: Mr. Alexander, you came to California permanently
in the summer of 1930, right after the end of the Roaring
Twenties and the very beginning of the Depression. You
went to Pasadena and you worked with what we would call the
gentlemen architects of Pasadena. What was that like?
ALEXANDER: Now, before I start, you remind me that we
ended the last session with a question about what I
remember most about Pasadena at that time or Southern
California. I would say there were two things that
impressed me most: the ever-present mountains hanging over
the Los Angeles plain, and they were quite visible all the
time, and the other thing was the beaches. During the
Depression I did a great deal of surf-fishing from Santa
Barbara to Lower California, below Ensenada, and this vast
stretch of beach was also very impressive. And as for the
architects, I think I mentioned that I set up house next to
Roland [E.] Coate's sister and that, plus the fact that he
was a graduate of Cornell [University] .
LASKEY: Roland Coate was also indirectly responsible for
your being out here, wasn't he?
LASKEY: Wasn't he the one who was the sponsor of John
ALEXANDER: No. No. John Porter Clark's boss was Sy
LASKEY: Marston, I'm sorry.
ALEXANDER: Sy was very, very traditional in his approach
to architecture. Roland Coate was quite a bit younger, and
he was always searching for a fresh means to express the
relationship of the early California scene to architecture
that he was designing at the time. So that I think he was
the one who made the so-called Monterey style an important
one. He went up and took photographs of the Monterey
custom house and residences there and popularized the
transition to using the long balcony on the second floor on
the front of the house in places where it had no meaning at
all except that it was obviously a style of some kind. It
was a combination of the ship carpenters that came around
the Horn dealing with the adobe they found here and using
wood sparingly but to good effect.
Roland also sought out some real ranch houses, which
were few and far between at that time. One of them that he
directed me to see was the ranch headquarters at Santa
Margarita Ranch. Santa Margarita Ranch was bought at the
beginning of the Second World War by the military, by the
United States to serve as the Marine Corps training base,
which it still is. Camp Pendelton. That was the largest
[California] ranch intact at that time.
LASKEY: Did you know that that was the ranch house that
Cliff [M.] May grew up in?
ALEXANDER: He grew up in it?
LASKEY: Yes, that was his family's- -he spent his summers
there. His aunt lived there.
ALEXANDER: I'll be darned. I didn't know that.
Well, one thing I remember that Roland experimented
with, or demonstrated in the house that he built for
himself, was the traditional Spanish-influenced house built
around the central patio. And instead of having screen
doors leading out to the patio, which are always a damned
nuisance and come apart before their time, he put a screen
dome covering over the entire patio, so that you had the
freedom from insects and so forth and lots of glass doors
leading out to the patio.
LASKEY: This would have been in the early thirties?
ALEXANDER: Yes . I don't know how-- When you say early
LASKEY: Oh, before 1935.
ALEXANDER: Yes, that's right. Yeah.
LASKEY: Well, did you feel that the Monterey style was not
indigenous to Southern California, which was why you feel
It really didn't work here?
ALEXANDER: Oh no, I meant to say that the typical second-
floor balcony was developed for the street scene in
Monterey, where people could sit out on the balcony and
talk to the people going by either riding horseback or in
carriages, have polite conversation from the second floor
without getting themselves down to the first floor, which
was all horse manure and mud.
LASKEY: [laughter] So it was a very urban--
ALEXANDER: Yes, it was a device that was quite popular, I
think, on that account. It looked the same, but it didn't
serve the same purpose when it was translated to a house
with a setback on California Street in Pasadena, that sort
LASKEY: Well, the Pasadena architects that we're talking
about worked a lot in Spanish style, didn't they?
LASKEY: Did you work with Wallace Neff at all?
ALEXANDER: No. I admired some of his work very much. Of
course, some of it is quite-- Well, all architecture is
influenced mainly by the clientele, and when he got a
Hollywood clientele a lot of his work became fantasy, which
is fun, but-- I met him several times, but I didn't know
him well. Reg [Reginald D.] Johnson, of course, I got to
know very well, especially through our association in
Baldwin Hills Village. Palmer Sabin had an office in the
same complex as Roland Coate, at the corner of California
Street and what's now Arroyo Boulevard.
LASKEY: You were working for [Garrett] Van Pelt and
[Edgar] Maybury, is that right?
ALEXANDER: I was working for Van Pelt. Van Pelt split
from Marston and Maybury before I came out here in 1928.
They were disassociated in, I suppose, 1927.
LASKEY: Where was your office?
ALEXANDER: Van Pelt's office was in a new building on
North Euclid [Avenue] almost at the corner of Green Street
and Euclid in Pasadena. And that was, oh, almost adjacent
to an older building where Marston and Maybury had their
office. So that when I came out here in the summer of
1928, my friend John Clark went back to work, of course,
with Marston and Maybury and I got a job right next door
with Van Pelt.
LASKEY: And were you working mostly on residential?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah, that's almost all that both firms
were involved in.
LASKEY: And they were involved in very traditional
ALEXANDER: Yes .
LASKEY: And architecture for the elite?
ALEXANDER: That's right.
LASKEY: So that was quite a major jump when you got
involved in Baldwin Hills Village.
LASKEY: How did you get from Pasadena to Baldwin Hills?
ALEXANDER: Well, for the first five years of the thirties,
hardly any new buildings were being designed or built. And
jobs that I could get in architectural work were few and
far between. On at least a couple of occasions, maybe two
or three, I had brief engagements in Reginald Johnson's
office, which was in Los Angeles, in the city, although he
lived in Pasadena. Each engagement would be for maybe just
a couple of weeks with a long dry period in between. After
one of those engagements, Lou [Louis E.] Wilson, architect
of Wilson and Merrill, asked Johnson to recommend somebody
as a designer, because he had signed up some ten clients
for residential work and didn't feel capable of handling it
and needed help. And Johnson recommended me. So I started
out designing ten houses for Wilson and Merrill. During
that period in 1934, I finally got enough work in
architects' offices to get my license. And the minute I
had my license, I demanded partnership, which was in a way
a mistake. Maybe I mentioned that before, did I?
LASKEY: You didn't mention it in detail.
ALEXANDER: Well, it meant that I didn't necessarily get an
LASKEY: This was in 1934, so were any architects getting
an hourly wage at that time?
ALEXANDER: Oh, sure. Anybody who was an employee got it
or he could raise hell about it, but if you're a partner
LASKEY: well, I guess basically what I'm saying is were
architects being employed at this time?
ALEXANDER: Well, to some extent, but not very much. The
engagement was very light,
LASKEY: I think you had written somewhere that in five
years, from 1930 to 1935, more construction was destroyed
by fire in the U.S. than new construction was built. Did
that apply in Southern California as well?
ALEXANDER: Oh, sure, sure. And during that period, up to
that period I should say, I had been reading quite a bit in
the field of architecture and planning and the relationship
of buildings to buildings and buildings to the community.
And I became very much interested in large-scale housing,
especially for low-income people. That is, I looked at
what I had been doing in working in Johnson's office, for
instance on the- The last one was the Seeley [G. ] Mudd
house, I think. And the W. A. [William Andrews] Clark
house in Santa Barbara, things like that. And I decided
that tny mission, what I would try to concentrate on in my
career, would not be single-family, custom-designed houses
but that I would try to tackle housing as a social and
economic problem. There was a great deal of discussion
among architects at that time of slum clearance and housing
for the masses and that sort of thing. That became a major
interest. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but I
know we discussed this in the office of Wilson and Merrill,
later to become Wilson, Merrill, and Alexander.
LASKEY: Where were the offices of Wilson, Merrill, and
Alexander? In Pasadena?
ALEXANDER: No, they were in the Petroleum Securities
building, which was the Doheny Building on Olympic
[Boulevard] and Figueroa [Street]. It's still there.
There was a great deal in the architectural press, a
great deal of discussion countrywide about housing as a
social and economic problem. Lou Wilson was very long on
energy and weak on prestige, and he was interested in
developing some type of large-scale housing under the new
laws that had just been passed for setting up the FHA
[Federal Housing Administration] , under the rules of the
limited-dividend corporations espoused by the FHA. So he--
that is, Wilson--found a site that he thought was
adaptable. I think it was on Exposition Boulevard. And he
got Johnson interested in joint venturing their
architectural services, and in turn Johnson got a
The contractor was Joshua Marks, I think that's right,
from Marks Shardee. Johnson had his office in the
architects' building, which is now the location of
Richfield Center at the corner of Figueroa and Fifth
Street. And Marks had his office in the same building.
Marks was a San Franciscan who had come to Los Angeles to
represent [Alfred B.] Swinerton, a contractor whose name is
still associated with a company in San Francisco, Lindgren
and Swinerton, which is still in business. And Lindgren
and Swinerton had been selected to build the Santa Anita
racetrack. The Santa Anita racetrack had been built on
land previously owned by the Baldwin estate, [Elias J.]
Baldwin having been one of the silver barons who struck it
rich in Nevada, then went to Southern California and bought
a vast ranch. And part of that ranch was used, eventually,
to build this big racetrack.
So Marks came down to supervise the racetrack
contruction. He got to know the Baldwin estate heirs, and
the manager of the estate was Ray Knisley. So the three,
Wilson and Johnson and Marks, got together on this site
that Wilson had first identified, and they found that that
wouldn't work out for some reason, which I don't recall.
But Marks said, "Hey, the Baldwin estate still owns a lot
of property out at Baldwin Hills. It's a great big rabbit
warren. They just raise sheep on the hills--there ' s
nothing there. I bet they'd be interested in promoting
some housing to start to develop their land. " So they went
together to see Ray Knisley, and Ray Knisley became very
much interested and did designate something like two
hundred acres at the foot of Baldwin Hills, leading up to
the base of the hills, as available. This was after I had
become a partner, and I made the first sketch proposed for
what became Baldwin Hills Village in August of 1935, I
believe. I still have a copy of that sketch somewhere.
The idea was to have one very long cul-de-sac
boulevard leading up to a shopping center and a school,
with a lot of little cul-de-sacs feeding into it, which
were a reproduction in very large scale of the place where
I grew up in New Jersey, No. 1 Stanley Oval. Stanley Oval
was a little cul-de-sac, and that was my ideal of a quiet
residential environment. So this whole proposal was a
multiplication of this concept of the cul-de-sac: quiet
living environment and a means to walk to school without
crossing streets. It had the distinct disadvantage of any
long cul-de-sac into which these little ones feed. In any
event, that took up most of the two hundred acres. And
this essentially was just a subdivision of single-family
LASKEY: Now, the reading that you had been doing prior to
this, would this have included things like the Ebenezer
Howard book. Garden Cities of Tomorrow?
ALEXANDER: Oh, sure, right.
LASKEY: This was a relatively new idea. The idea of
planned communities arose about the turn of the century,
when they first really began to see the need and to talk
ALEXANDER: Yes, that's right.
LASKEY: How did you justify or how did you conceive of the
need for a planned community in an area like West Los
Angeles, which must have been very sparse at the time.
ALEXANDER: It was quite sparse. Well, our objective was
not to develop a planned community as much as it was to
make housing available to middle-income people. The way it
turned out, the apartments in Baldwin Hills Village were
rentable at $12.27 per room per month, which was quite a
feat. And that was really the objective. We also would
have liked to have included a school and a shopping center
and even an industrial area. But this was beyond anything
that we could get through the FHA at that time.
LASKEY: So the original plan at that time was for a
community of single-family dwellings?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. And in working with the FHA and finding
out that they had started a separate branch devoted to
rental housing-- There were a few examples in the East, a
couple of which had been designed by Clarence [S.] Stein of
Wright and Stein Architects. One was Chatham Village in
Pittsburgh. Also Sunnyside Gardens, I think it was, in
Long Island. In any event, the FHA was enthusiastic about
developing rental housing in order to get the cost of
housing down and within reach of people who were still, of
course, feeling the pinch of the Depression from 1935 and
on. Things didn't turn around until about 1940.
So, as a result of working with the FHA and finding
out about their experience on these places in the East, we
turned our attention to reducing the size of the
development to one half of the originally contemplated size
and reserving the rest for an expansion, if it proved
successful. Then we narrowed it down to one hundred acres,
let's see, about twenty acres of which in the final plan
was reserved as what you might call a protective barrier or
protective strip of land around the village over which we
would continue to have control, but which was undesignated
as far as use goes. The thought was that eventually
Baldwin Hills Village would be duplicated or doubled in
size by developing the portion to the south, up to the
LASKEY: Up to the hills.
ALEXANDER: And so we started to work on this concept of
rental housing. The town-house concept in the East was--
Well, did they call it town houses? Well, the housing in
Brooklyn, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington--attached
housing--was long strips bordering a street with some space
behind them but no space in between them. Continuous block
after block, in New York, Brooklyn, and all over the East
Coast, wherever there was housing of that type built. Los
Angeles City had a building law that permitted attached
housing up to a certain point. I think the maximum number
of units before a break, in order to get fire equipment
around I presume, was four units on the second floor, if
I'm not mistaken. Anyway, it was a building-department law
in Los Angeles that helped form and shape the buildings in
Baldwin Hills Village.
Johnson made a trip to the East Coast and came back
with glowing tales of various things he'd seen along the
lines of what we were talking about. And also he had met
with Clarence Stein and wanted to know if we would go along
with having Stein as our consulting architect, which we
agreed to do. Stein, as I recall, never visited us or Los
Angeles during the entire development. But he did keep in
touch by correspondence. Since the planning spanned a
period of five years and it was seven years until it was
completed, he served a very important function in keeping
us on the track. That is, over a period of time, if a
project is in an architect's office for five years, when
things are not particularly active anyway, they are always
tinkering with the darned thing [laughter] and they can't
keep their hands off of it. So I think on occasion we
would have some brilliant idea that would be untrue to the
objectives that we had at first established.
LASKEY: Had you defined your objectives by then?
ALEXANDER: The major objective, I think, was to make the
automobile accessible--which it had to be in Southern
California--but to make it a servant instead of a master,
and to somehow create a serene environment in which the
automobile would not intrude, but yet make the automobile
accessible. That was the major objective.
LASKEY: That was rather far-reaching for 1935, wasn't it?
ALEXANDER: Well, yes. Although this had been the
objective of-- Let's see, Clarence Stein' s--
ALEXANDER: Radburn, yes. Radburn was largely single-
family residences, but it did pay attention to separation
of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. We had the good
fortune of having the rapt attention during all of the
planning period of Ray Knisley of the Baldwin estate.
Although Ray was very conservative, he also could see that
if large-scale housing was to be made available to-- How
should I put it? We had to attempt economically to make
housing available to the largest income group, which meant
pretty low income. His economic objective was investment
rather than speculation, which is the number one, perhaps
the most important thing that separated Baldwin Hills
Village from any other housing that went on after it.
LASKEY: Do you think this is the main reason why there
were no more Baldwin Hills?
ALEXANDER: Yes, absolutely. It was developed in an era of
investment and with investment in mind, and not with the
hit-and-run objective of most speculators.
LASKEY: That also has to do with a rather crucial period
of time in which the village was built,
ALEXANDER: Yes, that's true. It was built partly after we
were--in fact entirely after we were--in the war. And we
had to get permission from the War Production Board to
LASKEY: But it was designed before we were in the war--
ALEXANDER: That's right.
LASKEY: --and built during the war. So you have a great
dichotomy that's opened up here.
LASKEY: Before we get into that, I'm curious as to whether
any members of the Baldwin family were involved in the
ALEXANDER: Not directly, but after construction was almost
completed I remember Lou Wilson going to Anita Baldwin, who
was the surviving heir, the most important surviving heir
at the time, to get her to donate $10,000 for putting in
some specimen olive trees in one of the seventeen courts as
a demonstration. And he was successful. As far as I know.
that's the only direct Baldwin influence except for Ray
Knisley, who was the manager of the estate.
LASKEY: And he was doing it as an investment, so this
wasn't an act of charity on the part of the Baldwin family.
ALEXANDER: Oh, no.
LASKEY: Or a social cause they were involved with.
ALEXANDER: No, no.
LASKEY: Strictly an investment.
ALEXANDER: They agreed to put up the acreage necessary,
which finally turned out to be, I think, sixty-four acres.
LASKEY: Now, was this the amount of acreage negotiable?
You mentioned that you started out with two hundred. Had
you wanted to develop the entire two hundred acres, would
that have been available to you?
ALEXANDER: I think so if we could have. I think it was
possible. You see, we started out with a single-family
house plan and we ended up with something that would
require two stories. But our objective was to develop
something at ten families to the acre. This was an
abstraction, but from experience the FHA liked it. And
that's the way it turned out. We probably ended up with
the same number of housing units as we had, spread over two
hundred acres. But this was definitely a feasible plan.
What made it possible to develop at all, under the FHA
regulation, was the fact that the Baldwin estate put the
land in as their investment, and they did not specify what
the land had to be worth. So then all during the five-year
period, well, I guess certainly dozens of financial setups
were made in our office, and the variable was the price of
the land. So that in order to make the thing work out
economically, you'd work everything else out and then put
the land in at whatever value would make the whole thing
LASKEY: [laughter] You got away with it?
ALEXANDER: Well, it wasn't a question of getting away with
it; it was a question that they were willing to do that.
It wasn't getting away with anything, but it would have
been very difficult for us to have had a fixed price for
the land and then make everything else work. As a matter
of fact, we didn't get under construction until after the
war broke out, at which point Marks Shardee were
apprehensive about what was going to happen during the war
and they backed out, and Herbert Baruch, the Herb Baruch
Construction Company came in to build it.
LASKEY: What is it that Marks and Shardee were
ALEXANDER: World war.
LASKEY: But I mean relating to Baldwin Hills Village.
Would it be not being able to get materials, not being able
to get workmen, or were they just apprehensive about the--?
ALEXANDER: I just don't know. Don't know.
LASKEY: You had come from Cornell with a beaux-arts
background and you worked with Reginald Johnson, who was
building large, single-family residences in Pasadena.
Where did you acquire the knowledge to start working on
multiple-family dwellings in houses or buildings that are
essentially very modern?
ALEXANDER: Well, I don't know how to answer that question.
LASKEY: Now, the modern movement was surfacing in Los
Angeles late in the thirties.
ALEXANDER: Sure. There's nothing very modern about the
external appearance of Baldwin Hills Village--at least in
my eyes. The external appearance is rather bland and not
typed as to style. I think that's a great advantage, that
it wasn't typed with the International style or some other
LASKEY: Well, it's modern in the sense that it wasn't a
style at that point in the thirties, when they were still
ALEXANDER: You mean it wasn't Spanish.
LASKEY: --bungalows and Spanish and identifiable types.
This was a flat roof, a very severe building which one
thinks of as being modern.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I guess so.
LASKEY: They certainly weren't building these buildings in
Pasadena at the time. And you wouldn't have been doing
this at Cornell. I think even Radburn, looking at some of
the housing that Stein did in his planned communities,
tended to have styles or to very much reflect the nature of
the community in which they were built. But Baldwin Hills
Village was different.
ALEXANDER: Well, we had an economic objective that helped
pare it down. And I know I had developed a dislike of the
rather phony, very often phony, Spanish things, which if
you had a lot of money to spend you could develop into
something which was quite acceptable, something that was
almost Spanish. But if you go through Lemert Park or the
area where you live and you see this developed in an
inexpensive way, it isn't at all what even the poorest
Mexican would do, as far as being true to itself.
TAPE NUMBER: III, SIDE TWO
OCTOBER 2, 1986
LASKEY: You developed a rather unique style for Baldwin
Hills Village, not using references to classical styles.
ALEXANDER: For one thing, before the design was jelled,
you might say, I had gone back East in the summer of '37 or
'38, ostensibly for a two-week vacation. I stayed there
for a full year, gaining experience not only in the design
and layout of apartments, but looking around the East at
the time and maturing my idea of breaking away from what I
called copycat architecture. That undoubtedly had a major
influence on the way the design turned out.
LASKEY: I'm curious-- This is an aside. But why did the
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company decide to go into
ALEXANDER: They had a lot of money and they wanted to get
some return on it. If they got 2 percent on their money,
they were in clover compared to-- I mean, they had to earn
money for their policyholders, and they were given
permission to invest a certain amount, a certain proportion
of the total policyholders' money they had in housing.
Insurance companies are regulated. I don't know the
details of it, but they are regulated by states and by the
federal government, for that matter. They couldn't put all
of their investment in housing or pretty soon they'd own
the whole damn country. But that's the way they got into
it, and that's the way they later got into-- What's it
called on Wilshire Boulevard?
LASKEY: Park Labrea.
ALEXANDER: Park Labrea is Metropolitan.
LASKEY: That's what I was going to ask you. At the time
you were working on Parkchester, was there any thought
about Park Labrea at that time? I think Park Labrea was
just slightly after that.
ALEXANDER: Correct. Yes. Yeah, I remember when we went
to see-- Well, let's get back where we were on the
design. I had noticed that projects that were a 100
percent two stories high or higher were not-- Well, I just
didn't feel they had a residential quality that was
appropriate. So one of my objectives when I came back was
to change the design where we had everything two stories
high, uniformly, to introducing 10 percent of the building
area in one-story design. So where we had some three-
bedroom apartments-- A three-bedroom apartment normally
doesn't work out to be equal in size between the first
floor and the second floor; that is, you can get two
bedrooms and a bath to balance a first-floor living room,
dining area and kitchen. Well, in any event, we had these
large apartments at the center of a long building
overlapping each other. So I took those apartments and put
them on the end of the building, a portion of which was one
story high. So that when you're walking along on a path
and you round the end of that building, you can really
almost reach up to the eaves with your hand. They're that
low. And then I used a one-bedroom-- Let's see, was it one
bedroom? Yeah, one-bedroom apartments I made one story
high. I forget what the proportion was in the total scheme
of things, but I used that one-bedroom apartment also at
the end of another row of two-story blocks. And I also
used those one-bedroom apartments to form some buildings of
three one-bedroom apartments. These one-story features
were introduced in the plan as a whole at places where the
path turns around a whole group of buildings. So that
walking through the village, you had in several cases these
low, typically Californian, as I saw it, buildings that I
think changed its character from what it had been when I
left Los Angeles to go back East.
LASKEY: Now, these one-story parts of the building were in
a different material too.
ALEXANDER: Yes. Well, the one-bedroom apartments, whether
they were one story [at the] end of a building or three
one-bedrooms making a building that's all one story, were
made or were fashioned of large bricks, whitewashed. And
those bricks were adobe-brick size. They had been
developed by Fritz Ruppel. Fritz Ruppel had developed
these bricks— hard, burned clay--for the restoration of the
San [Juan] Capistrano Mission. Was it San Capistrano? No,
it was San Luis Rey, I think. In any event, he was
restoring a mission (he was a contractor) and he wanted to
get the adobe effect with the permanence of burned-clay
brick. So he developed this size, and they were available
at the time. They were used for these one-story, one-
bedroom apartments. And we depended on a variety of
textures and a variety of color and a variety of roofing
gravel to overcome the monotony of everything being exactly
the same. Whether that was desirable or not, that was the
LASKEY: Now, how did you go about siting the buildings in
the village itself?
ALEXANDER: Well, I don't know exactly how that happened,
but I know that Lou Wilson— We had developed a plan that
looked just like a bunch of cigars taken out of a box. It
had no central focus; it was just a rigid assembly of these
building blocks. On one occasion, I think over a weekend,
Lou Wilson arrived Monday morning with a suggestion for a
layout that did have focus. I don't know whether he
personally devised this thing or what happened, but it was
a refreshing change. The main thing that it had was at the
center of the plan facing Rodeo Drive there was a proposed
office or rental building, an office building and a
semicircular arrangement of short blocks of apartments.
And behind that, at the center of the plan, was a nursery
school. The buildings were arranged in a Greek fret
pattern, that is, two long buildings perpendicular to the
adjoining road and a building at the end of those,
perpendicular to them and parallel to the road, making a U-
shape into which you could drive and park your car in
parking sheds. And then that U-shape connected to another
U-shape with a building parallel to the road, forming a U
facing the interior of the scheme, which would become a
park. So that they're developed in this fret pattern, a
series of openings facing the road where you would drive in
and park your car in carports, alternating with a series of
U-forms facing the interior park. And in the development
of this scheme there were to be three major parks with
smaller residential-type parks flowing into them. I don't
know whether that describes it--trying to describe these
things in words is really weird.
LASKEY: I know, but possibly we'll be able to include some
plans or photographs.
ALEXANDER: However, even then, I would say the plan lacked
any real grace, but at least it had some organization
instead of being bland, monotonous. This is so often true
of developments, where everything is the same and
everything, for instance, is two stories high and without
any form. And this introduced some form in the scheme, but
went through a lot of work after that.
One factor occurred during the working-drawing stage
that was probably the most beneficial thing to the grace of
the interior plan. For many years, the Cornell
[University] School of Architecture, which included
landscape architecture, had been preeminent in the field of
landscape architecture. So that almost every year a
Cornell-graduating landscape architect would win the Prix
de Rome, which was the most prestigious award in landscape
architecture. And the year-- Let's see, it must have been
1938. The person who won the Prix de Rome from Cornell was
sent to Mexico instead of Italy, because Mussolini was
making it very difficult to live in Italy. I think he
wrote me from Mexico that he was coming through Los Angeles
on his way back East, and I met him at the station. The
reason was that he was going to visit his uncle, who was
the designer of the hotel that you just mentioned, the
Huntington Hotel. Myron Hunt's nephew was the guy, and
what in the hell was his name?
LASKEY: Fred Edmondson.
ALEXANDER: That's right. So did I go through all this
ALEXANDER: Okay, so I met Fred Edmondson at the station.
and the very next morning I had him working at the
office. He worked with me ten days and ten evenings on
specific paths and shrubbery and tree massing that changed
the whole aspect of the thing and made it graceful and
livable. A lot of the things, or some of the things that
were proposed and were at first built, have been eliminated
since, but in any event, that was really a great
contribution that he made. Okay, where do we go from here?
LASKEY: How about the FHA?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. From a standpoint of design--since
their only experience with multiple housing had been on the
East Coast, where cities had been built before the
automobile came along--they just could not believe there
was any necessity whatsoever for a plan, which we insisted
on, of having one car stall for every apartment, plus an
additional parking space equivalent to the number of
apartments. They just couldn't believe it. Every one of
their projects that they had insured in the East was easily
accessible by pedestrians to their employment by public
transportation of some kind, and an automobile was unheard
of almost. So we had quite a battle to defend our one
carport for every apartment plus one parking space for
Another thing, when Baldwin Hills was almost wiped out
by a flood when the dam to a reservoir burst above it, it
wiped out a few of the apartments but didn't destroy the
village as a whole. But I was quite apprehensive that the
owner, who by then was Baldwin M. Baldwin, would change
everything for the worse. Instead of which, he was able to
do some things we were not able to do under the FHA and
under available technology at that time. For instance, we
had a patio for every apartment that had a ground floor,
and the aluminum sliding glass door had not been developed
at that time. After the flood a lot of these went in where
they should have been in the first place.
LASKEY: Oh, to lead from the dining area out into the
ALEXANDER: Well, to lead from anything at all--I mean from
the bedroom even. The major battle with the FHA was just
as they couldn't imagine a car for every apartment, they
couldn't imagine our next proposal, which was that the main
entrance for every apartment be on the garage side of the
building. That was definitely not the prestige side. It
was obviously going to be the garden side. The garden side
was the place where we would have expected to have the
patios, and have the prestige or the main entrance on the
side facing the garages, or the back of the garages. We
proved that that area, although narrow, could be attractive
by showing them a little narrow alley that exists between
the main public library [Los Angeles City Central Library]
and the California Club in downtown Los Angeles. It's a
very narrow space, but it's very beautifully landscaped.
We would take them down there and show them that a small
space with a wall on one side and entrances to apartments
on the other could be quite pleasant, and that was the way
to do it because that was the shortest distance between
your automobile and your residence. But we lost out on
that--we had to have a prestige entrance facing the park.
So that at a certain point I can show you cobwebs growing
on the doors to the park, and the place where the kiddies
meet their daddy was in the kitchen.
LASKEY: So if you had had your way, the Baldwin Hills
buildings, then, would just be turned around from the way
ALEXANDER: Yes . It would take some modification, but that
was the essential idea, yeah. The impressive nature of
these great green areas, the three large parks in the
center and the subsidiary parks leading into them, created
a park system that I suppose any manager in his right mind
would attempt to preserve as a pristine park. It had been
intended, from a social standpoint, that the kids would
play ball with their dad in the center green and this would
be a real living place. The kids could pitch tents out
there and play cowboys and Indians and whatnot. But this
was not to be. At one point the chief gardener, chief
groundsman, brought in a truckload of trees, and I saw him
in one of these greens spotting these in such a way that it
would be impossible to play ball out there anymore. The
gardeners were Instructed that if they saw any kids playing
out there they were to turn the sprinklers on.
LASKEY: Now, this was the owners or the managers?
ALEXANDER: This was after New England Mutual Life
Insurance Company bought the thing.
LASKEY: Who were the original owners?
ALEXANDER: The original owners were some twenty
individuals: this included the architects, the Baldwin
estate, and the Chandlers, and I don't know who, a whole
bunch of people. There were quite a few investors. I
think there were twenty or thirty--I'm not sure which.
LASKEY: Well, who was the leading light behind it? There
must have been somebody who was holding all of this
ALEXANDER: Ray Knisley and Reg Johnson.
LASKEY: Really? That's amazing.
ALEXANDER: It was sold after the war to New England
Mutual, and then they in turn later sold it to Baldwin M.
Baldwin. Each time for a profit, of course.
LASKEY: So in the beginning, then, it was just the idea of
a group of people who wanted to see a plan like this.
ALEXANDER: Well, it was the idea of Ray Knisley and the
architects, influenced of course by costs and so forth that
the contractor would advise on. And as far as I know, no
ultimate investor except those I mentioned had any part in
the decisions or the social objectives or whatever.
LASKEY: So then the large part of the funding was through
the FHA, which is why they had so much authority.
ALEXANDER: I believe it was an 80-percent loan. So the 20
percent had to be in cash and services and land. The hard
dollar investment was not tremendous, but compared to what
happened after the war with speculation when they got away
with murder and didn't have a nickel in it, this was quite
different. The FHA limited-dividend corporation was based
on experience in housing in England for some hundred years,
in which it was shown that investment in housing could be
successful over a long period of time. The investment was
limited to 6 percent per year and the balance put in a
separate fund for amortization, so that at the end of its
life you could tear it down and you'd have the money to
rebuild. Reserves were required to be put up for
replacement of water heaters every seven years, of Venetian
blinds every five years, of this, that, and the other
according to what experience showed the life of the gadget
might be. Unlike other investments in housing-- Where the
owner or owners milk it for all it's worth, without any
thought of the future, and then when it comes time to
replace a water heater, "Oh my god, where ' s the money going
to come from? We're going to have to take it out of the
current rent." And there's hardly any of that reservation
of what some people used to call a sinking fund to replace
or repair or repaint. These days, for the most part,
that's all of a sudden a shock that you have to spend this
money. So that was a very good discipline, which, however,
was avoided or eliminated as soon as New England Mutual
bought it. Let's see, Lincoln of Omaha, is it? Lincoln
[National Life] Insurance Company. Well, I think they were
the first lenders. But the FHA doesn't put money into
anything. Did you know that?
LASKEY: Well, they make available loans to you.
ALEXANDER: What they do is they insure loans.
LASKEY: They insure the loans.
ALEXANDER: And then Fanny Mae [Federal National Mortgage
Associate (FNMA)] is the one that takes over the loans.
LASKEY: Well, then it is not unlike the banking system,
the FDIC [Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation], in that
they simply insure the loan for the lender.
ALEXANDER: That's right, yeah. Okay, where are we now?
LASKEY: After Baldwin Hills Village was built, you moved
into it. But where were you living? What was your life
like at the time that this was being built? You were not
living in Pasadena anymore.
ALEXANDER: Well, I was in Pasadena still.
LASKEY: Oh, you were?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah, up until the time-- Let's see, yes.
When it was under construction I lived on North San Gabriel
Boulevard, which is in Pasadena, in a three-bedroom house,
one story high, designed by Curtis Chambers. It had been
built by Earl Huggins in Pasadena, a contractor who had
wanted to do good things. He had bought the land that had
belonged to a rather large estate where the building had
burned down, and he built-- [tape recorder off] Huggins had
surrounded the site of the old house that had burned down
with a whole series of one-story houses and had intended to
convert the interior into a park, which would be owned
jointly in common by the people surrounding it. He ran
into an obstacle by the FHA as to maintaining it, so that
never happened. But it made a nice informal playground for
Speaking of kids, in Baldwin Hills Village we had the
ideal that this would be a family place with lots of
kids. So we had evenly divided, more or less, eight or
more little "tot lots." And after the thing opened, or I
guess just before it opened, it was decided to change the
nursery at the center of the thing. The nursery school was
to become a recreation center. It was decided as a matter
of policy that certain areas would be for families with
children and certain other areas would be for families
without children. This imbalance-- For instance, in the
years when there were no gas or electric clothes dryers,
you had diaper--
LASKEY: No disposable diapers either.
ALEXANDER: Right. So you had this imbalance of the
laundry yards. Where there were kids or little children
you needed a lot, and you didn't need as many in other
areas. Over a period of years the attrition set in, caused
by the fact that any manager in his right mind with a
waiting list twice the occupancy of the village would pick
people who were sterile and went to Europe every year, that
sort of thing. [laughter]
LASKEY: To make his own life easier.
ALEXANDER: So that eventually children, families with
children, hardly existed at all in the village. And then
tot lots were turned into additional parking or whatever.
Then with the advent of the dryer and the washing machine,
the large laundry-hanging areas were also converted into
additional parking. I don't know what other changes, but
in any event it has become a place without children.
Another disappointment at the very beginning was that,
without telling us, the FHA eliminated 212 benches that we
had planned through the village.
LASKEY: On the greens and in the park areas?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, right. So that makes walking in the
park-- Well, benches are conducive to park walking as far
as I'm concerned. They were cut out, I think, just because
they needed to show a balance sheet, and this was a little
bit of money that nobody would notice. But it never has
recovered from that. The park areas are serene and
beautiful, but they look as though they are not lived in.
LASKEY: And obviously none of the future owners ever saw
the need to put in benches.
ALEXANDER: Right. Well, it was always, at the beginning,
something we would get around to doing when we had the
money. The first years during the war, two factors made it
very difficult for it to survive economically. One was
that unless you could prove the war-related need for a
telephone, you were not permitted a telephone. That meant
that we had to have a telephone exchange manned twenty- four
hours a day at the office of the village.
LASKEY: At your expense? Or at the expense of the
ALEXANDER: Yeah. The rents were frozen, and then we were
required to put in this telephone service. We had
originally had a commitment from the bus lines, the rapid
transit, whatever it's called, the RTD [Southern California
Rapid Transit District] , to run a bus out to Baldwin Hills
Village to get regular bus service. When we entered the
war, the War Production Board refused to permit them to
come out, so the Baldwin Hills Village Company had to pay
for a shuttle bus from the village to the nearest shopping
center, in the form of a big station wagon. Would you call
it a station wagon? It was a little old bus.
LASKEY: A little van.
ALEXANDER: A little van, right. And those two unexpected,
unplanned- for expenses made it touch and go as to whether
it would survive during the war. Of course, at the end of
the war it was a very attractive buy.
LASKEY: Well, the fact that it was filled up to 100
percent at all times, as I think you've written, helped
make it through this tough period.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, that's true.
LASKEY: When did you move into the village?
ALEXANDER: Nineteen forty-two.
LASKEY: As soon as it was completed.
ALEXANDER: Shortly after it-- Well, I guess the occupancy
started in stages. We were not by any means the first
family to move in. It was all full when we moved in.
LASKEY: Now, you went from Baldwin Hills Village to your
next project, which was Lakewood City, the next planned
LASKEY: Were you doing those concurrently, or was Baldwin
Hills Village, at least your part in it, pretty much
finished at that point?
ALEXANDER: I'm trying to think.
LASKEY: I think they probably overlapped, at least a bit.
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. Yeah, the Baldwin Hills Village
plans were finished and it was under construction before I
was asked by [David J.] Witmer to lay out Lakewood City, as
it was called.
TAPE NUMBER: IV, SIDE ONE
OCTOBER 2, 1986
ALEXANDER: Returning to Baldwin Hills Village. I lived in
it for nine years, including some of the war years. My two
children [Lynne M. Alexander and Timothy M. Alexander] went
to Baldwin Hills Elementary School, and then my daughter
went to Dorsey High School. It was ironic that the horrors
of war and their side effects had the benefit of creating a
lively community in Baldwin Hills Village. We used the
adult clubhouse, which was programmed seven days a week,
several hours every day, with a Friday night forum to which
we invited speakers to debate various issues. We had a
square dance night every Wednesday night, as I recall it,
card games and so forth. We had celebrations and plays and
an annual Baldwin Hills Olympics, with egg-throwing
contests and jogging contests and so forth. Because of our
restricted ability to get around on account of the
conservation of gasoline and so forth, we developed a
Lanham Act nursery school in the first floor of one of the
buildings next to the clubhouse.
LASKEY: What was the Lanham Act?
ALEXANDER: I don't know. There was a congressman named
[Henry J.] Lanham, as I recall, who set up assistance for
nursery schools during the war, when so many mothers were
engaged in war production. Since we were not permitted by
the War Production Board to build the commercial area that
was planned at one end of the village, we remodeled the
ground floor of the other building adjacent to the
clubhouse as a market. The fact that travel was restricted
gave us a real sense of community in the village. Although
you might not know your next-door neighbor, there were
people in the village that you knew very well and got to
Following the war, from a social standpoint, I think
it declined for a long time. The erosion--and I think I
mentioned it already--of the manager having a long waiting
list and being able to pick and choose the people who would
cause him the least trouble resulted in eliminating
children. Then when It became a condominium, much to my
horror, the new owners who changed it to a condominium put
deed restrictions in the new deeds that no one under the
age of eighteen was to live in the village, and if you
became pregnant, you'd have to move out.
ALEXANDER: Yes. I went to the state legislature to see if
I could overcome this by state legislation. But whereas
they could, and did, enact a statewide law against
discrimination [against] children in rental units, they
couldn't do anything about a private dwelling or a private
condominium. In any event, I did experience the village
intimately during its first years and enjoyed it
LASKEY: Living in it, are there any major changes you
would have made?
ALEXANDER: Well, I mentioned the 212 benches that were
missing. I would put the benches in.
LASKEY: How about a swimming pool?
ALEXANDER: Well, that was planned. But as a decorative
part of the landscape plan, immediately in front of the
community building there was a fountain, a spray pool sort
of. This was one step toward having a swimming pool. We
had planned having a swimming pool, but we put in this
spray pool for small children. It would accumulate, when
it was in operation, water perhaps four or five inches
deep. One day when the kids were splashing around in it,
one of the mothers noticed that a child was lying in the
center of the pool, nose under water. It was only about
four inches of water, and yet the child would have died if
she hadn't gone in and taken the child out and pumped the
water out. So that put the kibosh on even the wading pool
(it was called a wading pool), so we converted it into a
mound of earth with plants growing out of it. I mean, talk
about liability insurance!
LASKEY: [laughter] Yeah.
ALEXANDER: We just gave up on having a pool. It was to
have been between the clubhouse and the office; that was
where the pool was planned. We did originally have an idea
of developing a more or less self-contained community. We
had visualized the commercial area where it is now, but we
had hoped to get the elementary school and a church and so
forth, other functions, within the community. We found
that the school board--! should say the person in charge of
school planning--was entirely opposed to the idea, since it
seemed to him to be a sort of exclusive-- We didn't have in
mind having only Baldwin Hills children in the school, but
we wanted to have a school within the community somehow,
and we were especially concerned about the safety of the
kids crossing Rodeo Road.
LASKEY: With good reason.
ALEXANDER: Nevertheless, they put it on the opposite side
of-- They bought the land from the Baldwin estate across
the street from Hauser [Boulevard] and Rodeo Road. They
bought a piece of land that was just big enough for the
school buildings plus a playground completely covered with
asphalt. And so I did persuade-- It took a lot of
persuasion to get a resolution passed by the [Los Angeles
Unified School District] Board of Education and the park
department [Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks] that if
I could get a park given to the city, ground given to the
city for a park adjacent to the school, that there would be
joint use between the school and use as a park. That is,
they would then have some green areas as well as the
asphalt area. And this was agreed upon, and Ray Knisley
was intrumental in the Baldwin estate giving the land for
the park adjacent to the school.
After New England Mutual Life Insurance Company
purchased Baldwin Hills Village, I became a sort of
troublemaker from their standpoint. On one occasion when I
had-- Let's see. I had gone to Guam, and from Guam we
decided to go on to Manila and Tokyo before going home, in
order to explore the availability of materials for
construction on Guam. I looked at my medical record
regarding my passport and found that I needed a booster
shot for cholera. It turned out when I got home that I'd
evidently been shot with a dirty needle, and I got
hepatitis, which socked me in the hospital. But at the
same time I got an eviction notice from the manager of
Baldwin Hills Village, because in my absence my daughter
had taken pity on a little kitten and had taken the kitten
in the house and was keeping it. That was against the
rules. We were not to have any animals.
LASKEY: Oh, couldn't they just--?
ALEXANDER: So the grounds keeper, under orders, found the
kitten in an odd moment outside the house and destroyed the
LASKEY: Oh, no.
ALEXANDER: And also issued me an eviction notice.
LASKEY: Do you think it was because you had the kitten or
ALEXANDER: Oh, no, that was the excuse for getting us
out. So that was when I got permission-- Well, I bought
the remaining interest in the building that had been built
as a-- What do you call it? There was a building that had
been built for the architect, a construction building that
I had used as an architect's office, and I got permission
to move that fifteen miles across town at three o'clock in
the morning and make a house out of it. Anyway, that was
the end of my Baldwin Hills experience.
LASKEY: Did you contest it at all?
ALEXANDER: No, there wasn't any sense that I could see.
LASKEY: Weren't you outraged?
ALEXANDER: Yes, I was outraged, and I considered the New
England Mutual absentee landlords to be about the worst,
but there isn't much you can do with a giant like that.
LASKEY: But while Wilson, Merrill, and Alexander were
working on Baldwin Hills Village, you did have some other
projects that you were involved with. Some that weren't
built, like the Dana Point project.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, what can I say about them? Well, there
were several residences that were the things that brought
me to Wilson and Merrill, later Wilson, Merrill, and
Alexander. I think there were a dozen single-family
residences. One of them was for Marjorie Rambeau, a
silent-movie star. That was above Sunset Plaza [Drive],
you know, where- -
LASKEY: Doheny [Road] up above Sunset [Boulevard]?
ALEXANDER: Sunset Plaza Drive winds up above Sunset
Boulevard above where the Trocadero [Cafe] used to be.
LASKEY: Yeah, I know where that is.
ALEXANDER: Anyway, we designed two houses up there. I
went back to see them one time, I guess three or four years
ago; they're still there, still about the same. We
designed a house for Calvin Kuhl, who had been sent out by
some New York advertising agency to be in charge of their
new radio program in Toluca Lake. There again, I went
around to see if it was still there, and it's still
there. It was a sort of Cape Cod colonial, a one-story
house with eaves that you could touch with your hand. Two
little people, and a house to suit them right on the
lake. One of the other projects was-- You mentioned the
Sherwood Inn. Bing Crosby was one of the ringleaders in
establishing the Del Mar racetrack, which was the catalyst
that would presumably bring back the life of this great big
hotel at Del Mar which had been built in the big hotel
LASKEY: Was it one of the hotels like the Del Coronado?
LASKEY: That period, the turn of the century.
ALEXANDER: Nowhere as good as the Hotel [Del] Coronado,
but, yeah, about the same time. Barney Vanderstien was an
entrepreneur whose business in the old silent-movie days
was the care and feeding of a movie crew on location, out
in the desert or wherever. And when the Boulder Dam was
proposed and the six companies got together to build the
dam, they needed somebody to take care of the care and
feeding of the thousands of people who built the dam. And
Barney Vanderstien took the contract for the housing and
feeding of these people. Well, at the end of the war, he
was looking around for things to do and bought the hotel,
One project that delighted me and I had a lot of fun
with was the bar for the remodeled hotel. I subscribed to
the theory at the time that a bar could not be successful
unless the ceiling was low and the lights were dim. The
Sherwood Inn sounded pretty English to me, so I decided
that an appropriate theme would be the Knight's Inn or the
Knight's Bar--what was it? Well, in any event, this hotel
had very, very high ground-floor ceilings, inappropriate
for the bar, I thought. In order to lower the ceiling
without too much cost, I devised a fabric ceiling of wide
red and blue alternating stripes draped over rope molds
covered with gold leaf. And to carry out the theme I had
in mind, I used Burke's Peerage to get the coats of arms of
people with whom racetrack fans might identify--people such
as Captain Cook and Shakespeare and Morris (who invented
the morris chair) [laughter] and various people who had
something to do with California or would be recognized by
relatively unsophisticated Calif ornians.
LASKEY: And racetrack fans.
ALEXANDER: And I got a wood-carver by the name of
Peckaneck--! couldn't spell it precisely, but Peckaneck was
the name--who was carving in depth, somewhat in the style
of Grinling Gibbons, a famous British wood-carver.
LASKEY: Where did you find Peckaneck?
ALEXANDER: In Pasadena. I forget what I had him do before
that, but he was looking for work. I made full-size
drawings of each one of these coats of arms, which he
developed in three dimensions, beautifully carved, heavy,
thick wooden models of the coat of arms, which were then
silver-leafed and gold-leafed and colored correctly
according to Burke's Peerage. And it made quite a show,
one of these coats of arms for each booth. Each booth was
set up as if it were a horse stall with a carved horse's
head. And at the center, where there was a musician's
stage for a trio, he carved a Saint George slaying the
dragon scene, pretty large scale. I forget how big it was,
but quite substantial. And then I got a friend who had
made a hobby of Burke's Peerage and coats of arms to write
up a description and the background of each one of these
characters, which was on parchment adjacent to the arms.
That was a lot of fun.
LASKEY: What happened to the hotel? Was it successful?
ALEXANDER: Well, it was, but I wasn't able to follow it
until I was engaged by the regents of UCSD [University of
California, San Diego] and I found that there were some
people who remembered the bar and they remembered when it
was changed. I think the hotel was torn down, but I'm not
sure about that. But in any event, the bar was dismantled
at one point and the fragments of these carvings had been
dispersed somehow. I located Saint George and the dragon
in some other bar in the area. I wasn't able to track down
the whole thing. I was just interested.
LASKEY: It's kind of nice that it got recycled and not
LASKEY: Then you got Involved with the Bakersfield Opera
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Well, that was an "opery" house that
still had some of the stage props behind the scenes when we
went in, and it had been bought by [Twentieth Century] Fox
West Coast to convert to a movie theater. I was very
excited about the project and figured on doing something
new and different for an entrance to a movie. We were of
course to have a marquee--that was a necessity. As long as
you could call attention to yourself by building over the
sidewalk, then that is the thing to do. I had the concept
of having a movie screen up above the marquee and at the
outside of the marquee having a projector to project movies
of coming movies or whatever. Of course, it would only be
shown at night, as it would be invisible during the
daytime. So I didn't worry about that too much, because I
was so excited about the thing.
I also had got excited about the use of neon, which
was of course the big rage in the twenties. But rather
than having the kinds of pylon or tower that was prevalent
at the time, I had a neon character, a salesman, help me
design a spiral neon as the tower with an exposed tube.
And I made a model to illustrate this concept having a
movie screen above the marquee.
LASKEY: Now, the marquee is jutting out over the sidewalk,
the general thirties marquee.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, from the outside of this triangular
marquee there would be a projector; the theory was to
project onto the screen.
LASKEY: Where's the screen going to be?
ALEXANDER: On the face of the building.
LASKEY: On the face of the building, so the projector is
at the point of the marquee projecting the film onto the
ALEXANDER: Yeah. I don't think I could make it work now,
but that was the idea, and I was so excited about it I made
a model .
LASKEY: Where was the neon tower?
ALEXANDER: At just one corner of the building.
LASKEY: But this is up above the actual building and
ALEXANDER: And I made a model with real neon that would
light up and so forth and took it to Mr. [Spyros P.]
Skouras ' s office, and it went over like a lead balloon. He
took one look and said, "No, it's not fancy enough." So we
went back, and I found out that the only way to go with
Skouras was to engage the services of Tony [Anthony B.]
Heinsbergen. Tony Heinsbergen had his place out on-- What
LASKEY: On Beverly.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, on Beverly Boulevard. And the only thing
that was not a Heinsbergen, when I got into the decoration
of this building, was the doors. I found somebody who had
developed a technique of sandblasting in three dimensions.
That is, he used something like tape or gummy substance--
what was it?--a rubbery substance with which you coat the
glass. And then the portion that you want to be the
deepest, you cut out of the rubbery substance, peel it off,
then sandblast, and then you peel off some more around that
and sandblast it again. In other words, instead of
building up, you build down. The portion that gets four
sandblasts is the deepest portion, and the one that gets
only one is the shallowest, so that you can build this
thing in three dimensions. I made a floral design on the
glass which was developed that way. That was my
contribution to the ornament.
LASKEY: Now, at the same time--we had discussed this last
time--you were also getting Involved in public housing.
You were working on the Estrada Courts and Lakewood [City].
ALEXANDER: Estrada Courts came after I had been in New
York. I came back from working on Parkchester and found
that Lou [Louis E.] Wilson was in two or three joint
ventures with other architects and that I wasn't
included. So I said, "Well, I'll go out and stake out my
own claim." Did I discuss this in our previous session?
LASKEY : Yes .
ALEXANDER: Yeah, okay.
LASKEY: But I wanted to ask you about Baldwin Hills
Village, and I think I did ask you: In relation to Estrada
courts, and also then going on into Lakewood village, would
we have had any of those developments if there hadn't been
ALEXANDER: Perhaps not, I don't know. Well, we have
always needed housing for moderate- income people and poor
people and so forth. And the FHA [Federal Housing
Administration] was the product of a national conference
called by [Herbert] Hoover. Hoover called for a conference
on the problem of housing. That conference produced about
a two-foot-long shelf of books that I found in the public
library at Pasadena some time later in the early
thirties. And the major product that came out of this
Hoover conference on housing was FHA. Now, I don't think
that was the product of the Depression, but just the
product of the need for public interest in the housing
industry, to see that it was serving all the people.
Before the FHA, it was customary to have very short
mortgages and to have a balloon payment required if you
were going to keep your property. In other words, you
wouldn't pay very much per month when you started, but the
theory was that you were going to get rich and then pay it
all off in one block-just in five or ten years or
whatever. That was quite unsatisfactory, and it didn't
serve the public or the investors or anybody. So I think
the FHA would have happened in some form anyway, and part
of that FHA effort was rental housing. So I don't think
that was a product of the Depression. I don't know about
whether public housing would have-- I think public housing
would have likewise come along somehow anyway.
LASKEY: Well, the trends, the history of it go back before
the Depression, but there had not exactly been an aura in
this country of acceptance or seeming to understand the
need for it.
ALEXANDER: Right, that's true.
LASKEY: Now, the large developments that were built after
the war, like Levittown--which I think was a postwar
development- -were definitely not caused by the
Depression. They were not caused by a communal need so
much as they were caused by the pressures of population.
So possibly you're right in saying that these developments
would have happened because there was a need for them.
ALEXANDER: And Levittown was the result of five years of
forced idleness in housing. So there was a pent-up demand,
a lot of new family formation, and a hiatus in the whole
housing industry during the war.
LASKEY: Lakewood City sort of falls in between these
developments that we're talking about. It was single-
ALEXANDER: It was single-family dwellings and it was built
before the war. Part of it was built during the war. A
lot of the carpenter labor in that project consisted of
people from Oklahoma and Arkansas moving to the West. And
I remember when we had the submarine scare here, the
bombing near Santa Barbara, all of a sudden there were no
carpenters on the job. It was the first attempt that I
know of to build housing with a factory in the fields.
That is to say, there were two young men who had been
engaged by contractors who built Wyvernwood [Los Angeles] --
which was developed and owned by John Griff ith--who became
the contractors of Lakewood City. They set up a big shed
and sawmill in which, after having seven different floor
plans and after building a mock-up of each one, they would
take it apart and see how long each member was and cut to
fit every stick of lumber that went into the house, bundled
according to which window, which door, and so forth must be
built in the house. Everything was labeled, bundled and
trekked from this sawmill to the site. It took three Ross-
carrier loads per building. The first one would take it up
to the floor, the rough-floor stage. The second load would
take it up, including the roof, and the third load would be
all of the finished lumber. They had this organized like
that with holes for wiring or plumbing or whatnot, pre-
LASKEY: It was a kind of prefabricated house?
ALEXANDER: It was probably the most successful prefab
attempt. It was really prefab using traditional methods of
nail pounding and so forth. But this managed to get to a
stage where there were eight completions a day; there was a
house an hour being turned out.
LASKEY: How many houses in total?
ALEXANDER: Well, 2,400, I think. There were approximately
500 hundred at a time in a surge. I was the only one able
to do the field supervision or inspection, or whatever you
want to call it--observation for the architect. [David J.]
Witmer had been called to Washington to be chief architect
of the Pentagon. His partner, [Loyal F.] Watson, was very
hard of hearing; also, he was quite a bit older. So I was
elected to go out and furnish the observation. Well, when
we got to the stage of there being a house an hour
completion--and each house had to have five inspections--I
would go out with this FHA character, McDonald I think his
name was, who knew construction down to the last nail, the
way I did not. I walked around with him until I walked my
legs up to my knees; it was really pitiful. Five
inspections per house and eight houses a day. That's forty
houses to review, in one stage or another. That was a job
and a half. This guy Mcdonald could see that something was
wrong from a half a block away about a house that we were
walking over to see. I learned a hell of a lot about
putting things together.
LASKEY: Did that help you when you were involved in
further planning of communities?
ALEXANDER: It didn't help me very much in community
planning, but it helped me understand construction where
sticks of wood were involved.
LASKEY: You've written, "Although I would come to look
with horror on such an object"--I'm talking about Lakewood
City--"I approached the task with enthusiasm." Why did you
come to look at it with horror?
ALEXANDER: Oh, well, making everything individual and
different from every other person's-- To make every house
different is not my objective anymore. I think it's a
mistake. We were trying to mimic a community that grew
gradually, and we did [it] overnight, falsely, by twisting,
turning, reversing, and upside-downing, attached or
detached garage, simply for the sake of making something
There's a little book by, I think his name was
Rasmussen, that points out the difference between the
British and the American. The British wanting to live in a
house that is just like the one next door, so that you
don't notice him. You go to Bath, for instance, and you
see a row of houses, every one exactly alike, and they just
love it that way. The American wants to stick his neck out
and call attention to himself: "I'm an individual!" And
this forced difference I detest now, which I did not at the
time. Everybody's attempt to be different at any cost.
LASKEY: Well, if you were designing a subdivision now--
these are single-family residences--would you have them all
look the same? I mean, I think that's a little bit
different when you are doing a community or a subdivision
like that than when you're doing something like Baldwin
Hills Village, which is a different kind of a community.
You could have probably more shared features. How would
you--? How do you visualize now--?
ALEXANDER: I guess I just wouldn't get into the game.
LASKEY: Just wouldn't do it. [laughter] Well, I guess
they still are building subdivisions with single-family
residences. It is just sort of running through my mind
whether they are even doing that anymore, even out in the
ALEXANDER: I don't know. I'm unfamiliar with the field
TAPE NUMBER: IV, SIDE TWO
OCTOBER 2, 1986
LASKEY: Regarding the importance of craftsmen,
particularly the importance of craftsmen in the prewar
building, what happened to those craftsmen when the war
ALEXANDER: Well, they got jobs in the aircraft industry
making models, full-size fuselage or whatever. I wasn't
able to track them, but I know that they got out of the
business they'd been trained in and into allied fields in
the war industries, in shipbuilding. I'm sure that they
had modelers in shipbuilding. There's one blacksmith in
San Francisco that still has his blacksmith's shop--he's
not shoeing horses anymore. But he's pretty rare. I
noticed on Olvera Street there was a wrought-iron craftsman
who was doing work right up to ten years ago at least.
LASKEY: He just died last year.
ALEXANDER: Is that so?
LASKEY: They just closed up his little place.
ALEXANDER: Well, I don't know where they went, but I know
they had jobs in war industries.
LASKEY: Well, after the war, with the changes in
technology used in architecture and in design, there
doesn't seem to have been a place for them. Because I
think you mentioned at some point in your writings about
how important these men were. Again going back to the
early architects of Pasadena, that they could probably not
have built or designed a building without the use of these
craftsmen. And after the war, that is probably not true.
ALEXANDER: Well, even in just simple painting-- Caradoc
Rees, who was the father of our state senator--
LASKEY: Tom [Thomas M.] Rees?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, Tom Rees. Wasn't he a congressmen
also? Well, his father, Caradoc Rees, was a real craftsman
in the field of painting. He would insist on doing a
perfectly beautiful job that turned a piece of wood into
ivory. NO one would consider painting with a thin coat of
paint, letting it dry, and then rubbing it with— what do
you call it?--volcanic ash.
LASKEY: Pumice stone.
ALEXANDER: Pumice, yeah, pumice and water. And then doing
another coat and pumice and water and doing a sixteen-coat
job--in a kitchen. But that's the only kind of work he
knew how to do, and he was very much in demand by people
who had the money and who loved beautiful things. And in a
way, it shows how our standard of living has declined, or
at least we place emphasis on things other than
craftsmanship. Nobody would consider doing what he did at
all today, and he found that out. I saw him many times
after. His business had just practically disappeared
because of the lack of appreciation and the willingness to
pay for a superb job. He reverted to painting landscapes
LASKEY: And probably the technique was not passed on to
ALEXANDER: That's right. There was no demand for it
LASKEY: Well, at the point of Lakewood City and the
building of Baldwin Hills Village, and even the
construction of Estrada Courts, we were in the war. Given
restrictions on building--in fact, I think there was a
moratorium on building--what did you do?
ALEXANDER: What did I do? I went to work for Lockheed
[Aircraft] . In manufacturing, not in plant engineering.
LASKEY: How did you do that?
ALEXANDER: How did I do it?
LASKEY: What was your background?
ALEXANDER: Well, my background was architectural school,
in which one is trained to synthesize, put things
together. I had a theory at one time that architectural
training was a pretty good generalist training from the
standpoint of not taking things apart, but putting them
together. To oversimplify, I figured that lawyers picked
LASKEY: And architects put it back together.
ALEXANDER: In any event, I went into the production-
control division of Lockheed, the function of which is to
get everything that goes into building an airplane at the
right place at the right time. And I went from that to
assistant to the works manager of factory two, which was
across the street from the original main factory.
LASKEY: This is the Lockheed in the [San Fernando] Valley?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Before that I was asked to be in charge
of what was called "area 300." It was part of production
control. The management decided to tap the womanpower of
the San Joaquin Valley by setting up sub-assembly plants
from Bakersfield to Fresno. This would require shipping
things out of the mother plant and receiving them back.
Here again, it was a question of getting parts to the right
place at the right time and supplying these plants. So
there was a control point, area 300, in a big warehouse
across the street from the main factory, and I was put in
charge of that. That was a hair-raising experience. I was
called into a meeting, top management, and asked if I would
accept the job, and I said, "Yeah, I'll tackle anything."
I didn't know what was going to happen. But a ditto memo
went out to every department manager saying what they were
going to do and that I would be in charge of the control
point as of a certain date and that each department head
was to give me so many employees. The result was that each
department head would look at his personnel file and find
the troublemakers that he wanted to get rid of and send
them to me. The first few days my telephone was ringing
every minute; I couldn't put it down without its ringing
again. It just drove me crazy. Then the first load of
stuff to go out to these plants accumulated much faster
than we could possibly ship them out, so that there was
this long line of stuff on dollies waiting to be shipped
out that extended way back into the main plant. So I was
being cursed right and left because I wasn't getting this
stuff out fast enough. I was given a supreme record
keeper. Our main job was to keep track of things: what
went out and what came in. And, you know, if everything is
cool, steady, and systematic you know what's happening.
But when it's a frantic rush to get these plants
established from Bakersfield to Fresno, good god,
everything just went to pot. But one fortunate thing was
that in order to run these outside plants successfully, we
had to have-- What were they called?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, expediters, that's right. And
fortunately, along with the guys who had records with
various departments, I got some real pirates. If I needed
something, I'd just call my pirates in and tell them we had
to have a certain number of a certain part out at the
Fresno plant. They'd go out and find them, even if they
had to climb walls and steal stuff.
LASKEY: It must have been some department.
ALEXANDER: Oh, that was a hair-raising experience. When
that subsided so that it was manageable, then I went to the
works manager in factory B, where I had an odd assortment
of personnel under my control, including some expediters,
including thirteen sort of mother hens. What would you
LASKEY: They sort of oversaw?
ALEXANDER: No. The plant was overloaded with women who
were having their first experience on the assembly lines.
If you think women have problems, you have no idea what
problems they had during the war. In an entirely new
environment, all of a sudden out of the family home, all of
a sudden they were being supervised by a man, or whatever.
ALEXANDER: Counselors, right. I think I had thirteen
counselors reporting to me. Women problems-- jeez I My
counselors needed counseling.
LASKEY: Well, it was a whole new world for everybody. Not
just for the women but for the men too.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, right. And there were all kinds of
jealousies that I'd never run up against before. Well,
this organization, in the short time I was there, which was
like four years or something like that, the total personnel
grew from nine thousand to ninety thousand, or whatever. I
just don't remember the figures now, but it was just an
enormous surge of employees.
LASKEY: So you're dealing with a bureaucracy. You had
never really dealt with a bureaucracy at that level before.
ALEXANDER: Not before and [not] after. I'd never been in
an organization where everybody was struggling to get one
step ahead on the ladder. I had my swing shift equivalent,
the guy in charge of my area 300 swing shift, who figured,
with very well-founded facts, that he was a much better man
than I was, because he had been in the aircraft business
for a long time and he knew by number every part of the PV-
2 (which was thousands of parts) and I didn't know anything
like that. I heard that he was after my job, wanted to get
the day shift. So I talked to my immediate superior, and
he said, "Why don't you take a vacation and see how he
makes out?" So I took a one-week or maybe it was two-week
vacation, to let him take my job while I was gone, see what
happened. It worked. I mean, he didn't hang himself, but
he couldn't handle it very well, just from the standpoint
of handling people. He had a relatively quiet time on
swing shift. Everything went to hell in the day when
everybody was there.
LASKEY: His thirteen women counselors. [laughter]
ALEXANDER: Well, this was area 300, dealing with the
northern plants. Well, I learned a lot about organization,
some of which I could apply, but not much, in architecture.
LASKEY: But you figure it was your architectural training
that allowed you to deal with the problems at Lockheed.
ALEXANDER: I think so.
LASKEY: Without the benefit of knowing the four thousand
parts of the airplane.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, sure.
LASKEY: Did you stay with Lockheed after the war?
ALEXANDER: No. I was offered a department-head position,
but I decided that that was not what I wanted to do. I
wanted to be an architect on my own. I remember we had an
AIA [American Institute of Architects] chapter meeting the
night of V-J-Day. That was the final, you know--not V-E
[Day] , V-J-Day. Two architects asked me to go into
partnership with them. The first was Sumner Spaulding and
the second was Bill [William] Pereira.
LASKEY: That's very impressive.
ALEXANDER: In both cases I turned them down. I said,
"Before the war I was depending on other people, other
partners and so forth. I'd like to tackle it on my own and
see what I can do by myself." It was just a feeling I
had. So that's the way it was. I was determined to be an
LASKEY: Well, by the end of the war you were already
involved in the [Los Angeles] City Planning Commission.
How did that come about?
ALEXANDER: Well, before the war I had been a member of
Telesis South. Telesis was an organization founded in San
Francisco by a group of architects who, in the case of San
Francisco, where they were so physically close from the
standpoint of office location, could meet every noon or
anytime they wanted to--they could get together easily.
One of their members is now living in Berkeley. He became
a member of the city planning staff here. What the hell is
his name? Mel Scott. Mel told some of us about this
organization in San Francisco named Telesis interested in
city planning. We formed one in Southern California which
had to meet at night. People would come from miles
around. One guy came down from Bakersfield every time we
had a meeting, for instance. This was a group of young
whippersnappers who were going to change the world.
Also in Pasadena, when I was living there I was called
upon by a committee of the League of Women Voters to
recommend a course study in housing and to speak to them on
the housing problem in Pasadena. So my message was to
forget about housing for Pasadena. What they needed was
city planning. "Okay. What would you give us for a
bibliography on that?" I gave them a bibliography. Pretty
soon they knew more about city planning than I did.
LASKEY: The League of Women Voters has a way of doing
ALEXANDER: So the League of Women Voters committee had to
go to the statewide organization to get permission to have
a subcomniittee on city planning, to include that, at least,
in the housing problem. Oh, they were hotshots. For one
thing, it was sort of outrageous, the equivalent of a city
council. I don't know what they call them in Pasadena,
governors or something like that. The board of governors,
LASKEY: I don't know. We'll find out.
ALEXANDER: The equivalent of the city council of Pasadena
[board of directors] decided to place the function of city
planning in the sanitary engineers' department--that is,
the sewer department.
LASKEY: What was it doing there?
ALEXANDER: Believe it or not, that was their proposal.
The League of Women Voters committee went down and pounded
the table until the board members saw the light and put on
a nationwide search for a director of city planning--which
is something I had recommended. They found a guy who had
just resigned as head of the city planning department at
Columbia University. James Marshall Miller was his name.
He became the first city planning director of Pasadena.
Later on, many years later, he worked for me in charge of
my city planning projects. But, meantime, in addition to
raising hell with the city fathers in Pasadena, they [the
League of Women Voters] organized a series of lectures at
Caltech [California Institute of Technology] . They had six
lectures on city planning. They really became a force for
improving the city, organizing through the chamber of
commerce and other organizations in Pasadena.
LASKEY: Were you involved with them through this whole
cycle during all this time?
ALEXANDER: Well, not intimately with the League of Women
Voters, but I was kept in touch with the organization they
helped found. In fact, let's see, what did they call it?
I helped them organize a citizens-- You might call it an
advisory committee on city planning for the city that had a
newsletter that went out all through the war. I kept
getting copies when I set up practice after the war. It
was called [the Pasadena Citizens Planning Council] . I was
involved in one of their acts before the war came along.
It was an exhibit at the Grace Nicholson Gallery, an
exhibit on city planning. The league put that one on for
something like $250.
LASKEY: The entire exhibit?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, and their blood, sweat, and tears. The
son of one of the League of Women Voters' members-- She had
a son named Michael. Michael went around Pasadena to look
at this, that, and the other. Then they had these big
photographs and illustrations of what he saw in Pasadena.
So it was sort of a mirror of what Pasadenans could see for
the first time of themselves.
LASKEY: How interesting.
ALEXANDER: It was very effective. At the same time I was
working on--what the hell was that called?--an organization
that was meeting at--
LASKEY: Was this the organization with Carey McWilliams?
ALEXANDER: Arts, sciences, and profession council? No,
that was not it.
LASKEY: It was close to that. We'll check that.
[Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts,
Sciences, and Professions.]
ALEXANDER: You know the Jake Zeitlin who had his studio at
that time on Carondelet [Street]?
LASKEY: Oh, really? Near downtown.
ALEXANDER: Right in downtown. I'm trying to think, how
was it organized? I know we got $5,000 from the [Los
Angeles County] Board of Supervisors to put on an exhibit
of city planning in the county museum. That was also
before the war started.
LASKEY: You mean the L.A. County Museum? That would have
been down in Exposition Park then, right?
ALEXANDER: Yes . But I don't remember how in god's name
that was organized. Anyway, I know I was working on that,
and that went on about the same time as the League of Women
Voters' exhibit in Pasadena. It cost $5,000 and a lot of
hard work and was no more effective than the one that the
league put on, I would say. We had some great big maps.
[Richard J.] Neutra worked on it.
LASKEY: The one in Pasadena?
ALEXANDER: No, the big one.
LASKEY: Oh, the big one.
ALEXANDER: But, I don't remember how it was organized. I
guess the last meeting of Telesis occurred in Jake
Zeitlin's studio on Carondelet the night of the infamous
air raid, [Lieutenant General John C] De Witt's false air
raid of Los Angeles.
LASKEY: What was that like?
ALEXANDER: Well, what it was like was that everybody
decided to go home. All of the lights in the city were
out, and my wife and I had left our kids in the charge of a
babysitter and we knew that she would be disturbed. We
were damn well determined to get home. We went all the way
home on the Pasadena Freeway without headlights. No other
cars that I could see.
LASKEY: Did you have any idea what was happening?
ALEXANDER: No, we just knew there was an air raid
warning. We didn't know if it was an air raid or not. It
was only very shortly after that we found out it was a big
intentional scare by this stupid General De Witt.
LASKEY: He was also the one who was very involved with the
incarceration of the Japanese.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, right. Well, may his soul rest in
ALEXANDER: Well, anyway, we were getting to what happened
on the planning commission. I had been very noisy, in
other words, about city planning.
LASKEY: So you had been involved with the League of Women
Voters, you had been on the arts and sciences council, you
had written some things.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, diatribes.
LASKEY: Diatribes. [laughter]
ALEXANDER: I had been a member of-- Sumner Spaulding had a
group meeting on city planning which he called his
"commandos." This was a popular name at the time because
Great Britain had the commandos that made raids, and we
were going to make a raid on the city and make it sit up
and fly right. So that was another outlet.
LASKEY: NOW, Sumner Spaulding I always consider as a beaux-
arts or city-beautiful, a very traditional kind of
architect. This sounds like he —
ALEXANDER: No, he was a rabble-rouser. You may be
thinking of Sumner Hunt.
LASKEY: I could have the two of them mixed, but I thought--
ALEXANDER: Sumner Spaulding, sure he was beaux arts
trained, but at that time everybody was. But he was a
radical rabble-rouser in a way.
ALEXANDER: Yep. And very provocative. He saw, before
anybody that I knew, the meaning of the atom bombs--maybe
with the exception of Einstein. Hardly anyone foresaw the
LASKEY: But as far as the community here was concerned.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. He was a very exciting guy. Anyway, we
had a group that devoted our attention to city planning. I
was very vocal about it, and it was at a time when very few
cities in California had a city planning commission or
department. And I was going around talking about how
important this was.
So, in the meantime, before the war came the Shaw
scandal. Mayor [Frank L.] Shaw was ousted by a referendum,
or recall I mean. And eventually Fletcher Bowron became
mayor. The main complaint against Shaw was that in the
[Los Angeles City] Planning Department there was an open
buying and selling of planning privileges. So one of the
major tasks that Bowron addressed was reforming the
planning law in the city and changing the department and so
forth. He appointed an outstanding group of five
conunissioners, including Bill [William H.] Schuchardt--who
was president--and the president of Occidental College.
What was his name?
LASKEY: Remsen [D.] Bird.
ALEXANDER: Remsen Bird, oh yeah. Bird resigned at some
time. Well, I guess he resigned as president of Occidental
College. He stepped down, or out; he wanted to move up to
Monterey. His successor, an economist, was somebody I had
known and worked with, maybe even debated, I don't know.
Coons became the president of Occidental.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, Arthur [G.] Coons. Well, anyway, I
really don't know the story as to how I was identified by
Bowron to be asked to replace Remsen Bird. But when Remsen
Bird resigned, Bowron asked me to take the job.
LASKEY: Had you met Bowron before?
ALEXANDER: Never met him before. I do know this, that
according to Bowron ' s secretary [Albine P. Norton] (whom he
later married), they had made an exhaustive search of my
record by getting letters of recommendation or whatever
from all kinds of sources, such as the head of the AFL-CIO
[American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial
LASKEY: That's interesting. How did they get to the AFL?
ALEXANDER: Bowron, evidently, had a way of going about
investigating people that he was going to appoint to
something through a broad range or spectrum that I would
not have believed. That man became a regent. What was his
name? Do you know?
LASKEY: I don't know. [Cornelius J. Haggerty]
ALEXANDER: Well, anyway, somebody I'd never met.
The United Auto Workers [UAW] had asked me, while I
was still working at Lockheed, if at the end of the war I
would be head of their housing movement. The UAW had the
most advanced organization in all kinds of social issues
such as housing.
LASKEY: Was this when [Walter] Reuther was still involved?
ALEXANDER: Yes. I was invited to be head of that. I had
a long session one night with Carey McWilliams as to what I
should do. I was undecided.
LASKEY: Since we've mentioned Carey McWilliams a couple of
times, you might want to identify what your relationship
was with him.
ALEXANDER: Well, the only way I got to know him was by
being a member of the board of the arts, sciences,
professions council of the-- What was it called? Citizens--
Well, anyway, the arts, sciences, professions council.
Carey McWilliams and my dentist, Don McQueen--
LASKEY: Your dentist?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. And the [California] Supreme Court
justice's brother. The Supreme Court justice who had been
on there before anybody, [Stanley] Mosk.
LASKEY: Stanley Mosk.
ALEXANDER: Stan Mosk ' s brother [Edward Mosk]. Anyway, I'm
naming the board members of the arts, sciences, professions
council, and this was the way I knew Carey McWilliams. I
went to him for advice because I knew he knew labor people
and so forth. Anyway, I decided not to accept the offer.
But that was the way that somebody at Lockheed,
representing UAW, was evidently asked by this guy who
became a regent, the labor leader--! used to know his
name. I just don't remember these damn things. Anyway, I
think he also undoubtedly asked the head of the AIA
chapter, who I think was Herb [Herbert J.] Powell. He got
a lot of comments from various people, and as I say, I'd
made a lot of noise.
LASKEY: They knew where you stood.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Mayor Bowron was very active in the
council of mayors, the National Council of Mayors, so that
he got their points of view and was very familiar with the
point of view of any eastern mayor to whom public housing
was the greatest blessing to take care of a real need and
problem in the community. So he was not prepared for the
violent resistance of the real estate lobby in California
to the whole public housing issue. So he defended me right
LASKEY: Now, are you talking about the Proposition 14
debate, or does it go back before Proposition 14?
ALEXANDER: He didn't have to defend me before that.
LASKEY: Oh. [laughter] Well, Proposition 14 was for
statewide public housing, is that right? It was there that
you did head-on battle with the real estate lobby. But
hadn't they also been instrumental in preventing
development and city planning within the city of Los
Angeles? I'm thinking about Bunker Hill and some of the
other developments that were talked about as possible
redevelopment areas and then stopped. Or wasn't that the
real estate lobby?
ALEXANDER: I think it was. Well, I was appointed to the
planning commission in 1945. What were the dates? What
was VJ-Day? Was that '46?
LASKEY: 'Forty-six or '47.
ALEXANDER: August 8 or something like that, '46? Or was
LASKEY: It was '46 or '47 [August 14, 1945].
ALEXANDER: But anyway, part of my tenure was very quiet.
just hard work on things to come, preparing for the
holocaust which came at the end of the war when all of a
sudden this pent-up need for housing and so forth just went
wild and the housing industry suddenly became clogged with,
not only good actors, but some people that I thought of as
real gangsters. The gangster type suddenly found an easy
way to make a buck with other people's money. And Congress
was so wild in trying to promote housing that they opened
the door to anybody who was willing to organize something
like this without a nickel of his own money in it and make
a million. I figured there were a great many abuses there,
but these people did not want any competition from public
housing, even though all kinds of protections were enacted
to protect their vested interest in private housing by
making a gap called the Klutznick gap.
LASKEY: What kind of gap?
ALEXANDER: A Klutznick gap. You know Phil [Philip A.]
Klutznick? Ever heard of him?
LASKEY : No .
ALEXANDER: Well, he's been very prominent in supporting
Israel. He's a Chicago homebuilder, a very decent chap. A
gap of eligibility, when a person is eligible for public
housing and not eligible for it. I don't want to explain
all that stuff. But anyway, we're getting back to the
planning commission stuff, or did you want to do something
LASKEY: No. I want you to talk about the planning
commission. You, the commission, Los Angeles, housing.
ALEXANDER: Well, another thing about being appointed-- I
don't know how important this was, but it must have
probably had some importance. During my fifth year at
Cornell [University] , my last year, there was a weekly
seminar given by a visiting professor, a Cornell graduate
in architecture who had been born and grew up in
Wisconsin. And I attended this seminar, which was really a
delightful relaxation, in which we looked at architectural
magazines and talked about architecture. It was a lot of
fun. And this old boy turned out to be Bill Schuchardt who
was on the planning commission. He was very well-off. He
had never needed to work for a living as an architect, but
was a very gentlemanly and scholarly character of whom I
was very fond. So undoubtedly he put in a good word for me
and that sort of thing. He had become very hard of hearing
TAPE NUMBER: V, SIDE ONE
OCTOBER 3, 1986
LASKEY: We were going into a discussion of Forest Lawn
[Mortuaries] and its battle with the [Los Angeles] City
Planning Conunission. It might be a good idea to refresh us
on the history of the city planning commission development
ALEXANDER: The first city planning commission of Los
Angeles was founded in 1920, largely as a result of the
tireless efforts of [G.] Gordon Whitnall, who in about
1910-- Do you mind if I refresh my memory on this?
LASKEY: Oh, no, go ahead.
ALEXANDER: Well, preceding that, in 1911 the preliminary
transportation study of Los Angeles by Bion J. Arnold was
issued through the [Throop] Polytechnic Institute, which is
now Caltech [California Institute of Technology] . That was
followed by the Robinson plan, so-called, prepared by
Charles Mulford Robinson for a study commission appointed
by Mayor George Alexander. It was a plan which included
some street-widening recommendations and which emphasized
the city beautiful, including a civic center scheme which
inspired many successive plans, giving this feature a
planning priority in the eyes of the public. In 1913, City
Councilman [Fred C] Wheeler introduced an ordinance to
form a city planning commission, which gained substantial
public support and was studied in committee and amended by
the [Los Angeles City] Council, but never adopted for seven
During the first decade of the twentieth century when
motion pictures came to the city, the Automobile Club of
Southern California was born and the population of the city
increased from 102,000 to 319,000.
LASKEY: In one decade?
ALEXANDER: An alarming 212 percent in one decade. That
alerted a few citizens to the desirability of planning
physical growth of the area, and Whitnall became a zealous
missionary for the cause, devoting the following ten years
to developing broad public support for the concept, after
which he plunged in as a self-taught lifelong professional
at a time when formal academic training in planning was
unavailable. At the same time as the Wheeler ordinance was
proposed, there was an extensive city planning exhibit
prepared by the American City Bureau of New York, and it
was displayed in Los Angeles under the auspices of the
Municipal League [of Los Angeles] , financed by the city and
county. Gordon Whitnall eagerly attended every day,
registering the names of all who expressed more than a
passing interest in the subject. Immediately on the close
of the exhibit he rounded up a few prominent citizens, who
joined him in inviting the signers to a meeting in which
the city planning association was formed. In 1918, as an
Incident in the business of the association. Mayor
Frederick [T.] Woodman appointed a civic center committee,
which became known as the [William] Mulholland Committee,
after its chairman. It recommended the present location of
the civic center--the one where it finally landed--and it
was received and filed. And as I said, the commission was
formed in 1920. Believe it or not, to give the commission
the broadest community support, it was given fifty-one
LASKEY: Fifty-one members?
ALEXANDER: Serving three years, with seventeen terms
expiring each year and each member representing some
organization. Naturally, Gordon Whitnall was given the
unenviable task of organizing and managing it. He
organized the commission and nine committees dealing with
various phases of the work, the chairmen of which became
the executive committee, meeting weekly, while the
commission met monthly. During the twenties, that's when
the real surge in population came. More than 650,000
people came into the city of Los Angeles within the city
limits between 1920 and 1930. So they were facing a real
challenge, you can imagine.
LASKEY: I think I read somewhere that the population of
Los Angeles regularly doubled every decade the first five
decades of the twentieth century.
ALEXANDER: Well, actually it got a slow start. The first
hundred years accounted for 10,000 people.
LASKEY: I know. Isn't that amazing?
ALEXANDER: The next twenty years 100, 000--that is, it grew
to 102,000, actually. The next thirty years it grew to
1,000,000, the next twenty years to 2,000,000, and the next
thirty years to over 3,000,000. That's approximately.
ALEXANDER: That big surge in the decade from '20 to '30
was Just fabulous.
LASKEY: What would have accounted for the large surge in
ALEXANDER: Well, the [Los Angeles] harbor had just been
completed. World War I ended, and the oil boom came in--I
mean the second oil boom. This oil boom was right down
near the harbor, where you could just move a ship up to the
oil pump and--
LASKEY: And fill it up.
ALEXANDER: --fill it up. And that caused a land boom, and
combined, this was just a tremendous surge. Nineteen
twenty-three was probably the biggest year of people coming
into Los Angeles. If you know the dumpy little
architecture of the time-- Attempts at Swiss chalets, the
best ones of which had long since been built. You
recognize it all over Los Angeles, bungalows--
ALEXANDER: Well, "planning challenge" was the name of the
LASKEY: So it was this major increase in population, this
population explosion, that was really the trigger for the
need for planning in the city.
ALEXANDER: Owens Valley water had been brought to Los
Angeles, the port of Los Angeles was opened, and World War
I had been completed. Boom! The rate of population growth
had reduced from over 200,000 to less than 100,000, but
even more people had been added to the population than in
the previous decade. The commission had just been formed
in time to witness the city's second oil and land booms and
to try to deal with the population increase from a little
more than 500,000 to almost 1,250,000 persons. During this
wild period the unwieldy fifty-one-member commission was
replaced after five hectic years by a five-member body, and
the secretary became Manager-director Whitnall. Since
Secretary Whitnall and one stenographer constituted the
entire staff during the first five years, such a monumental
basic task as mapping the city could only have been
accomplished by the regular field and office staffs of the
engineering department under Whitnall. Due to pressure
from the realty board and the chamber of commerce, zoning
became the first order of business.
LASKEY: Why was that?
ALEXANDER: That's a conservative protective measure,
zoning is. It's to preserve the status quo, to keep
unwarranted intruders out of the district. "This is zoned
for R-1, and you've got to keep it R-1. This is
pristine." And Huber Smutz, a recent graduate of the
University of California School of Public Administration,
was selected by Whitnall to serve as zoning engineer.
Although zoning probably originated in Los Angeles and
landmark legal cases which established the
constitutionality of the zoning concept arose in the city,
Los Angeles's zoning at this time was considered archaic.
LASKEY: When was the first Los Angeles zoning law?
ALEXANDER: Well, let's see. I don't know if I have that
here. It was prior to the establishing of a commission.
There was a--
LASKEY: I can find that. I think I have it in my notes
ALEXANDER: Sy [Simon] Eisner would tell you in a minute.
Oh, in 1904 Los Angeles had established a residential
district, prohibiting industrial activities therein, and in
1908 most of the city as it then existed was divided into
industrial and residential districts. In the following
decade several special zones were created to cover
individual uses, such as zones for undertakers, cemeteries,
poultry slaughterhouses, and so forth. But there was no
comprehensive, consistent zoning plan. The most prominent
comprehensive zoning ordinance in existence at that time
was that of New York City. That became a model for a lot
of cities, including Los Angeles at the time. Shortly
after establishment of the five-member commission, an
ordinance was adopted providing for five use zones:
single-family residential, multiple residential and
institutional, commercial, light industrial, and heavy
industrial. By the time less than half of the city was
zoned, it became obvious that three or four times as much
property had been zoned for commercial use as could ever be
used and that such zoning often blighted the property as
owners waited for commercial development that never would
LASKEY: Oh, that's interesting.
ALEXANDER: And that went on for years and is still the
case. A similar Imbalance was observed in the two
residential zones, and these features would persist for
more than half a century.
LASKEY: How was the problem finally solved?
ALEXANDER: Well, it wasn't solved. It is still out of
balance. There have been major attempts, and some of them
successful, at what you might call rollback of zoning uses
or zoning density, intensity of use and so forth. But we
still have an ample supply of commercial, not industrial,
but commercial and multiple-residential zoning.
LASKEY: So it would be to the advantage of the developers
to have these large areas for commercial and multiple
residents. Was that the reason?
ALEXANDER: Well, people have stars in their eyes about
what a commercial organization will pay for property. They
heard about this place that my grandfather bought for so
much and he sold it for ten times that because it became
First and Main. Well, that's okay for that particular
piece of property, but if, in fact, you hold out because
you're waiting for that time when you get ten times what
you paid for it, you'll never use it, you'll never sell
it. That's the situation that still exists to some extent,
but not as bad as it once was.
In 1930, the Los Angeles zoning laws were amended by
establishing four residential zones, two commercial zones,
and two industrial zones. But zoning continued to be
limited to the use of property, largely neglecting space
around buildings, intensity of use, and other controls.
The R-2 and R-3 zones limited heights to two and a half and
four stories, respectively, and lot coverages to 60 or 70
percent for a corner lot. The principal improvements were
administrative: providing procedures for zone changes and
so forth. The staff proceeded with the enormous task of
applying the new law to about 200 square miles [which were]
previously zones A and B, as well as 242 square miles
unzoned, including 170 square miles in the San Fernando
Valley annexed May 22, 1915. That was unzoned
completely. And when I came on the commission we were
still faced with this crazy patchwork of some places not
zoned at all, some A and B, and some loosely zoned
according to these five zones.
Having been unaffected by a previous nationwide
recession, civic leaders of Los Angeles were surprised when
the Great Depression finally included them. [laughter]
Little action took place in either planning or
development. The irregular colonial street pattern between
First and Boyd streets from Main [Street] to Hill [Street]
was realigned during that period. City mapmaking continued
and a landing field for airmail was proposed to be built
over the railroad tracks at Union Station. No one could
conceive that air travel would eclipse the railroad as a
passenger carrier. In 1932, a proposal was made to make
Olvera Street a tourist attraction. And the following year
a geodetic survey of the city was started using a federal
grant. And then Frank [L.] Shaw came in and William [N.]
Thorpe was director-manager of planning, and all hell broke
In 1935 the [Los Angeles City] Planning Department
staff included Huber Smutz, [William K.] Woodruff, [Henry]
Wall, Les Brinkman, Simons, Carl Hourston--although he
spelled it different ways at different periods in his life.
LASKEY: That's interesting.
ALEXANDER: All assembled by Gordon Whitnall, and still on
the staff after World War II while I was on the
commission. Plans were proposed for a municipal auto park,
expansion of the city hall to the east, and a municipal
auditorium/opera house/convention hall to replace the old
high school on Fort Moore Hill.
LASKEY: Now, this was all--
ALEXANDER: Nineteen thirty-five.
LASKEY: Well, that's when Shaw was still mayor.
LASKEY: When was he recalled? It's either '38 or '39.
[Frank L. Shaw was recalled from office September 16,
ALEXANDER: It was recognized that Chinatown would be
eliminated by Union Station and might be relocated. On
January 1, 1935, a yard ordinance became effective,
defining the space, setback from the side lines, front, and
rear. In 1936, the city received electricity from Boulder
Dam; the Griffith Observatory was built; and oil drilling
in Venice was a major subject of planning attention. In
1937 and '38, in spite of severe storms and floods, the
local economy started to improve, evidenced by a 35 percent
increase in building permits.
Then we get into the forties. The most exciting and
influential period in the existence of the city planning
department was the decade of the forties, when, especially
because of the war coming along, there was so little action
possible that they had time to think and plan. And there
were so damn many problems caused by this tremendous influx
of population in the twenties and thirties that they had to
do something about it. Fortunately, just before the war,
the Pacific Southwest Academy, of which Arthur G. Coons,
the economist and president of the sponsoring organization,
was president-- They had a conference which resulted in the
development of a volume called Preface to a Master Plan,
edited by [George W.] Robbins and L. Deming Tilton, who was
well-known in planning circles. I don't remember what he
did, but I knew him at the time. It was financed by the
[John Randolph] Haynes Foundation. And chapters of the
book- -contributed by local experts on various elements of
the physical structure of Los Angeles--outlined the current
state of the city and became the agenda of tasks to be
tackled by the recently reorganized planning department of
the city of Los Angeles. It couldn't have come at a better
time. Reformer [John R.] Haynes had just been responsible
for the adoption and legislation whereby a corrupt Mayor
Shaw was recalled and replaced by Fletcher Bowron, a judge,
who then became receiver of the city and was elected mayor
LASKEY: So Haynes was one of that group--
ALEXANDER: Yes, right.
LASKEY: --in the mid-thirties that was involved in trying
to clean up Los Angeles.
ALEXANDER: He was mainly responsible for the recall law
that made it possible to get rid of Shaw. Then Bowron was
at first receiver of the city as a judge, and then he was
elected mayor. Other people who were in that group- -
[Griffith J.] Griffith, who donated Griffith Park to the
city, and his son were wildly enthusiastic Bowron
supporters and denouncers of Shaw. Since a prominent
feature of corruption under Mayor Shaw had been the open
buying and selling of planning permits, spot zone changes,
and variances. Mayor Bowron took a particular interest in
restructuring the planning process.
LASKEY: Were these spot variances and spot zoning changes
a way of combatting or getting around the zoning ordinances?
ALEXANDER: No, the zoning ordinances of the time permitted
changes in zone, but there were no minimum boundary
requirements. In other words, you could change the zone of
a piece of property in the middle of a block and not the
rest of the block. That sort of thing.
LASKEY: But isn't that a loophole, then, in the zoning
ALEXANDER: Yeah. However, it was obviously never
intended, and it was obviously not good citizenship to
offer to buy it [a change in zone] and to offer to sell it
as a commissioner.
LASKEY: So this is where the corruption came in. Not in
the fact that the possibility existed for spot zoning
changes, but that they were sold, that they could be bought
ALEXANDER: Well, Mayor Bowron, first of all, chose some
commissioners who were plainly disinterested, such as
Charles E. Scott; Remsen D. Bird, president of Occidental
College; William H. Schuchardt, retired architect, past
member of the art commission and public lands commission of
Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And after a nationwide search,
Charles B. Bennett and Milton Breivogel, of Milwaukee and
Racine respectively, were selected as director of planning
and principal planner, bringing vital leadership, public
respect, and knowledgeable direction to the staff. Under
Bowron, all variances were placed in the hands of a newly
created chief zoning administrator, and the office was
occupied by Huber Smutz, one of the staff members selected
by Gordon Whitnall in 1926, who filled it with the utmost
rectitude, probity, and serious industry for thirty-eight
LASKEY: Thirty-eight years.
ALEXANDER: Boy, he had a ramrod down his back, you know.
He was terrific. A little bit too much, sometimes. He was
honest to the point of pain. The commission was given as
much power as any appointed body should have, being
overridden by not less than a vote of two-thirds of the
city council, or by three- fourths of its members if the
mayor sided with the commission by a veto. In most cases,
such as around here [Berkeley], the planning commission is
simply advisory. They say, "We think this, " and the city
council by a simple majority vote disregards it. In the
case of Los Angeles, a case doesn't go to the council
unless it's appealed. Then, when it does go to the
council, they have to override--if they do, by a two-thirds
vote. And if it's something that the mayor can veto and he
does-- And that's pretty tough. I think it's as far as any
power ought to go over an elected official. The zoning
administrator's decisions could be appealed only to a
three-member zoning appeals board, thus removing variances
entirely from politics. From there you can only go to the
LASKEY: I see.
ALEXANDER: The commissioner's decisions were forwarded to
the city council, where only extremely rare and presumably
important cases were reversed. Other charter amendments
defined the duties and functions of the commission, the
responsibilities and authority of the director, and created
the planning department headed by the director and the city
coordinating committee, of which the planning director was
LASKEY: Well, since some of these ordinances seem to
strike right at the heart of the developers, did Bowron
have any problem getting these, the new--?
ALEXANDER: No. The public was so alarmed and wrought up
by the Shaw recall that everybody was gung ho for what
Bowron was proposing.
Well, Preface to a Master Plan, that volume- -which was
seminal--went to the publisher before Pearl Harbor, after
which the War Production Board prevented any physical
action to remedy the many pressing problems outlined in the
book, but giving the planning department staff time to
address some of these problems in the planning stage in
preparation for the end of the war, when accumulated
pressures would explode and make quiet, thoughtful planning
almost impossible. As urgent as were some of the problems
caused by unprecedented growth and neglect for ten years
due to the worldwide depressed economy, the authors could
not foresee the wartime frenzy of shipbuilding and aircraft
production, nor the deluge of new inhabitants during and
after the end of the conflict, compounding and making the
solution of these urban problems critical after five more
years of forced neglect. Workers engaged in shipbuilding
increased from 84 in 1940 to 95,000 in 1944, and in
aircraft production, from 15,930 in 1939 to 275,000 in
1944. The L.A. birthrate per thousand, which had plummeted
from 22 in 1924 to 12.2 in 1936, rose to 18.5 in 1943,
making prewar predictions even more vulnerable.
Just to give you an example of the expert estimates of
the time, there is a background paper on population in
Preface to a Master Plan by Constant ine Panunzio, one of
the board of directors of the Pacific Southwest Academy.
He wrote that "A liberal estimate would set the population
in Los Angeles city in 1980 at the very most at not more
than 2,150,000." Actually, the city population almost
reached that figure by 1950, and by 1980 it was close to
In 1941, in addition to the basic charter-planning
amendment adopted by the electorate, the city council
approved a civic center plan and a master plan for Pacific
Ocean shoreline development. The commission approved a
3,332 acre community development plan for Westchester and a
master plan of parkways. And a WPA [Works Progress
Administration] land-use mapping project covering 450
square miles was also completed. That was 1941, the year
of Pearl Harbor.
LASKEY: Now, the master plan of parkways was actually the
freeway plan, right?
ALEXANDER: Well, no. It depends on what year you're
talking about. See, there was a parkway plan proposed by
Robinson way back in 1910 or something like that. I
LASKEY: Yeah, 1911, the first transportation study. That
was a parkway plan.
ALEXANDER: Today's freeway plan doesn't vary a great deal
from that, as a matter of fact. But it was not proposed at
that time that it be elevated and completely cross-traffic
free. It was not proposed as a freeway plan, it was
proposed as a parkway plan--city beautiful. The civic
center attention came first because that had a sort of
appeal to the public imagination. The Southern California
chapter of the American Institute of Architects [AIA]
collaborated with the planning commission and staff in
preparing a civic center plan.
LASKEY: Now, the civic center plan still maintains the
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah, sure.
Well, this plan proposed a concept, most of which is
evident more than forty years later, and it was one of
several, starting with Robinson. But in 1923, location
became a subject of dispute among the members of the city
planning commission, which numbered fifty-one men and
women. Some sixty prominent architects had banded together
for the purpose of rendering personal service for public
buildings. In the year 1924 they prepared, at their own
cost, a comprehensive civic center plan, which was approved
by the county supervisors. But since the architects hoped
to corner all the architectural work, this was hardly a
charitable enterprise, and they were soon sued and
disbanded by the court. Did you hear that from [Albert C]
Martin, Jr., by the way? Because it was his dad [Albert C.
Martin, Sr.] that brought the suit.
LASKEY: Yeah, this is the suit against the Allied
Architects [of Los Angeles] and their city-beautiful plan.
ALEXANDER: Right. Avoiding conflicts of interest by
keeping the authors anonymous, the architects organization'
in 1940 prepared another civic center plan and
painstakingly obtained endorsements from every city in the
county before gaining approval of the city council and the
county board of supervisors at a joint session. Changes
made in the plan since then have been highly beneficial,
such as moving the power and light building [Department of
Water and Power Building] west to make room for the Music
Center [of Los Angeles County] and moving the county courts
onto the mall. The original concept of a grandiose county
courts complex with Saint Peter 's-like arms embracing the
passengers arriving at the Union depot would have become
ridiculous, in view of the fate of rail passenger traffic,
and would have almost obliterated the remains of the old
Spanish plaza. Although the existing civic center east of
the Music Center is lifeless, pompous, dull, and does not
approach the design quality or the vision outlined by
Schuchardt, it is nevertheless one of the most impressive
groups of public buildings in the United States outside of
Washington, D.C. Schuchardt even had the imagination to
forecast, "In another few decades, traffic needs may become
a relatively unimportant consideration. It is even
conceivable that traffic may altogether cease to be a
problem in the area and in passing out will leave in its
wake a disappointing group of buildings on which many
millions of dollars have been expended." Stranger things
have happened--to the Union Station, for instance.
There was another group-- Let's see. Two department
store heads, P. [Percy] G. Winnett of Bullock's [Department
Stores] and-- Who was the head of, not the Broadway, but
the furniture store?
LASKEY: The Barker Brothers.
ALEXANDER: The Barker Brothers. Neil Petry, is that the
name? Anyway, it was mainly P. [Percy] G. Winnett who set
up a private fund and organization to deal with problems
that cut across city and county lines [Greater Los Angeles
Citizens Committee] . And one of those things was, of
course, the civic center, which was mainly county, but
included city and federal and so on. So he set up a study
group on that headed by the architect in charge, Sandy
LASKEY: Sandy Turner.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, do you know him?
LASKEY : No .
ALEXANDER: Well, he's still around. He goes to AIA
meetings and so forth. He's well-known, even among current
Changes in the civic center plan, such as the parking
garage under the mall, things like that, were still going
on when I was on the commission in the forties. And in
1947, the planning department proposed community civic
centers and prepared plans for twelve branch administrative
centers in 1949. That was carried out likewise and
paralleled by the [Los Angeles] County Regional Planning
Commission. What was especially impressive was to have a
city set up branch centers all over the place, which was a
very good idea.
Then the streets and highways-- At the dawn of the
twentieth century, most great American cities we know today
had already attained their prominence and basic form, while
Los Angeles contained only 102,000 people scattered over
forty-three square miles. Other big cities already had
extensive networks of surface-street railways, subways, and
elevated rapid transit, and by 1910 had largely completed
these systems on which their inhabitants relied almost
entirely for nonrecreational mobility. Although the
Pacific Electric Railway, advertised as the world's
greatest interurban line, was started in 1900, its mission
was not the movement of people within the city but the sale
of real estate at hitherto undeveloped locations in
LASKEY: Something that is not pointed out very often.
ALEXANDER: The L.A. Railway Corporation did provide street
railway service for the area at the turn of the century.
But its resources were hopelessly overcome by a tenfold
increase in both land and people in thirty years. More
influential than the inadequacy of public transportation
was the availability of the private automobile, which
occurred prior to the major growth of the city. Pershing
Square should have an enormous fountain with a pedestal on
which there is a fliwer--as the idol of the city and the
reason for its being the automobile city. The Automobile
Club of Southern California was founded before 1900 and
soon served not only the rich pleasure driver but the
average Angeleno, who found his flivver at first a
liberator, permitting him freedom to live on inexpensive
land anywhere in the city, and then an absolute necessity
to which he became a slave in idyllic bondage.
For the purpose of real estate subdivision and
rectangular-lot sales, major streets in the city had been
laid out about a mile apart, east-west and north-south,
with the impartiality and lack of focus suited to the
universal, ubiquitous presence of the family car. In the
1941 Preface to a Master Plan, the chief engineer of the
Automobile Club of Southern California, E, [Ernest] E.
East, could truly say, "With a few exceptions, we have in
an area of some 1,235 square miles of metropolitan area no
district given over exclusively to residential purposes.
Hot dog stands, dairy farms, cattle-feeding pens, cafes,
cocktail bars, dance halls, schools, churches,
manufacturing plants, retail stores, gravel pits,
junkyards, and oil wells are intermingled throughout the
area. During the past eight years, 200,000 people have
been killed or injured in motor vehicle accidents within
the area . "
The contribution of the automobile to the form of the
city appeared to be formlessness. Mr. East, however,
proposed a solution. He proposed "a network of motorways
designed to serve transportation rather than land. These
motorways should be developed on a right-of-way, about 360
feet in width, no crossing at grade at any point--all cross
streets should pass over or under. Upon the central
portion of the right-of-way, a four- to six-lane pavement
should be provided, with a planning strip separating
opposing traffic lanes. The slopes on either side should
be planted. In the event motor buses or trolleybuses prove
to be inadequate for the transportation requirements of the
future metropolitan district, an excellent right-of-way
will have been provided for a rail rapid transportation
system." This most daring futurist proposal became the
subject of many newspaper artists' pictures of the
future. "Passing through built-up business districts,
these facilities could be straight into and through
specially designed motorway buildings located in the
centers of the blocks, with connecting bridges over the
cross streets. In these buildings, as many floors as
necessary would be developed to parking." Although part of
the dream never became reality, the development of East's
motorways exceeded his expectations, with one exception:
excess condemnation of land for the inclusion of the center
planning strip for future mass public transportation was
provided only in rural, suburban stretches, where it may
never be used for that purpose.
In 1941, the Arroyo Seco Freeway connecting Pasadena
with L.A.'s central business district was completed as a
four-lane highway passing through Elysian Park in a single
tunnel system. The first such experiment in the country,
its short on-ramps, with stop signs at the freeway
intersection entrances, are extremely substandard and
hazardous today. The Cahuenga Pass freeway connecting
Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley was built as the
Hollywood Freeway from the west bypass to the Hollywood
Bowl, as planned. In 1945 the city planning department
revised their 1934 master plan of highways, added one for
the San Fernando Valley in 1946, and both were adopted in
Meantime, the transportation engineering board, the
state division of highways, and others were working on
plans. In 1947 the state division brought before the
planning commission for comment and approval a plan for 165
miles of freeway to be built in ten years for an estimated
$300 million, to be expanded to an ultimate 613 miles. The
plan was similar in alignment to parkway plans proposed by
the Robinson plan and the Olmsted [Brothers] plan proposed
in the second decade of the century. The term parkway
correctly refers to a linear park containing a limited-
access and scenic drive, similar to those developed in New
York State by Robert Moses. The term has romantic appeal
and was used in most concept plans until the early fifties.
when "freeway" was substituted--derived from its freedom
from grade-level intersections, not because it didn't cost
much. The unparalleled boldness and grace of the freeway-
system is a marvel of construction which has reshaped the
city and added new dimensions, stimulating new centers,
tying them together, and shrinking the time-distance factor
in civic life.
Another subject that was tackled by both the Preface
and by the planning department was subdivisions, which was
lucky, because at the end of the war they [subdivisions]
came in by droves. And as a result of state law changes or
adoptions and city planning-- First of all, with the
California State Map Filing Act and then the city planning
department proposals, we had something to hang our hat on
for handling the subdivisions that came in. Fifty thousand
or more new lots were recorded from 1943 to 1949.
LASKEY: Fifty thousand?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, and every one had to come before the
planning commission itself after being studied by
the [appropriate] section of the department and approved or
disapproved or conditions required. The community
development plan for 3,023 acres approved by the planning
commission and the council was a grand subdivision of land
to be called Westchester near the newly conceived Los
Angeles municipal airport, another planning project, that
was referred to in a flier the airport commission [Los
Angeles City Board of Airport Commissioners] put out called
"Los Angeles: Tank Town or Terminus?"
LASKEY: Who put that out?
ALEXANDER: The airport commission, which was headed by Bob
[Robert L,] Smith, who was publisher of the [Los Angeles]
Daily News--which was a really good paper in my view. It
[Westchester] was planned by Don Ayers in close
collaboration with the planning department, in
collaboration with the department to contain all the
amenities considered desirable for community life, such as
land for parks, playgrounds, elementary. Junior high, and
high schools, a balanced amount of commercial land, and
three times the area of retail commercial space in
automobile parking areas adjacent to and behind shopping
buildings. Several builders, such as Marlow-Burns,
participated in development and construction of the
TAPE NUMBER: V, SIDE TWO
OCTOBER 3, 1986
ALEXANDER: One of the features of the plan was the
requirement by the planning department that the land
developers dedicate land for major limited-access highways,
which necessarily paralleled interior service streets, a
duplication which enhanced the value of the development.
The developers sued and forced the city to pay for the
limited-access highways, which served the city at large but
also provided access to the city for the community and
protected the community from through traffic. The suit was
carried all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the
planning commission's requirement was sustained in a
landmark decision. The wisdom of public officials,
however, cannot be legislated. The wisest laws sometimes
protect us from the lack of foresight of even the best
intentioned of public servants.
When planning department employees accompanied the
developer of Westchester to urge the [Los Angeles Unified
School District] Board of Education to buy the school sites
shown on the plan at raw land costs. Dr. Evans, the school
planner, referred to his little black book and said, "There
are 353 people living in that area now, and when there are
children, we'll pick them up in buses." Within a decade,
the population of Westchester was more than 30,000, living
in 11,000 homes. And the board of education was purchasing
entire blocks of recently built homes to acquire school
sites. (I was on the commission at that time, and we were
approving school sites on blocks of houses. )
In a similar way, the city recreation and parks
commission [Los Angeles City Board of Recreation and Park
Commissioners] was offered free sites, shown on the plan
for parks and playgrounds, providing the commission would
sign contracts agreeing to develop the sites as soon as
they were surrounded by houses. This offer was turned down
because no funds had been budgeted for the purpose. Many
complaints have been made regarding the venality of city
bosses such as Krump of Memphis. But it is said that at
least the public got ten cents [worth] of parks for every
dollar he diverted to his own use. The public may be
served worse by the stupidity of well-intentioned guardians
of the public trust.
And the beaches. My god, the beaches. Before the
war, the beaches had been condemned because of the
sewage. The Santa Monica Bay beaches, you couldn't go
swimming in them. They were condemned by the state and
signs were posted. And you didn't need the signs for the
most part. You'd find-- Well, what's his name? The famous
LASKEY: Thomas Mann?
ALEXANDER: Thomas Mann describes walking on the beach with
friends, and he couldn't understand these thousands of
white worms or something. And then he finally found out
they were condoms on the beach.
LASKEY: At Santa Monica?
ALEXANDER: This is the Santa Monica Bay beach, all through
Los Angeles. And this was all from the Hyperion sewage
plant [Hyperion Treatment Plant], which didn't even strain
the darned sewage--it just went into the ocean, just
P. G. Winnett, president of Bullock's Department
Stores, in pondering the need to bring merchandising to the
people in a multifaceted metropolis, became interested in
public planning. A man of public spirit and action, he
organized in 1943 the Greater Los Angeles Citizens
Committee, which funded a staff that produced studies on
airports, auditorium sites, transportation, beaches,
redevelopment and industry, [studies] cutting across
political jurisdictions. Their plan of Santa Monica Bay
beaches, extending from Topanga Canyon to El Segundo,
including the Marina del Rey small-craft harbor which had
been proposed by the county regional planning commission in
1923, became the foundation for the Los Angeles Planning
Department beach plan, completed in 1944 and adopted in
1945. Two years later the state appropriated $10 million
for county beach acquisition, of which Los Angeles County
received more than $4 million, which had to be matched in
dollar and land value. Within the city limits, the city
and county transferred 3 2/3 miles to the state. The state
purchased 2 1/4 miles and then leased all state-owned beach
frontage back to the city and county for development and
administration in contracts that expire at the turn of the
century. I had quite a thrill signing that agreement for
LASKEY: I bet you did.
ALEXANDER: To see that it was the year 2000.
LASKEY: We're protected.
ALEXANDER: We're almost there. Thus the first major
recreation project planned by the city appeared ready for a
unified and coordinated public use. But the next subject
LASKEY: I was going to say, what happened to our
beaches? How did you get those cleared up?
ALEXANDER: Before it could be used, however, a huge
project delayed by the war had to be tackled and
completed. Should I read this stuff or just kind of
summarize it? Eventually you can see this, but--
LASKEY: What did happen? Because there was a major battle
waged over the placement of the Hyperion Treatment Plant.
ALEXANDER: That's correct, yeah.
LASKEY: Which was very important.
ALEXANDER: Well, the--
LASKEY: Were you involved in this? Were you on the city
planning commission when this was going on?
ALEXANDER: Oh yeah, sure.
LASKEY: So what do you remember?
ALEXANDER: Well, I'll tell you how bad it was. Before the
war only 55 percent of the sewage was screened, and not
well at that. The discharge of sewage in Hyperion fouled
the coast. Permit for operation of this plant was
officially revoked September 3, 1940. The city was given
one year in which to make specific improvements. And of
course the war came along, and by 1945 the problem had not
been cured, and an increase in 20 percent of the population
did not improve the situation,
LASKEY: I was just about to say, now in 1945 what was the
population of Los Angeles? We were well over a million at
that point, I believe. And all the sewage from--
ALEXANDER: In 1945 the population of Los Angeles was over
LASKEY: It was just being flushed into the Pacific Ocean.
ALEXANDER: Right. Well, I remember I lived in Baldwin
Hills, and we frequently went down to where the marina is
now. We'd walk on the beach, and it was sticky with sewage
on our bare feet. And I remember the sea gulls by the
droves would be feeding on the sewage.
LASKEY: Well, the smell must have been--
ALEXANDER: Oh, it was terrible. Well, the [Los Angeles
City] Department of Public Works wanted to simply expand
the plant at Hyperion, and the planning department was
opposed to that, one of the reasons being that we assumed
if they simply expanded the plant, the action would make it
impossible to use the tons of sand in the sand dunes at
that location. And sand is a vanishing resource, because
dams, both for flood control and for water resource, have
prevented the flow of new sand out of the rivers and into
the ocean along the shore. There is constantly a littoral
drift of sand to the south; sand is always moving along the
coast of California to the south. And people don't realize
what's going on because there's always some more sand
coming from up north, where there are still some wild
rivers. But the sand that was originally formed and
eventually formed these great sand dunes was being occupied
by houses at-- Was it Camino? Where the marina is,
whatever they call it now.
LASKEY: Marina del Rey.
ALEXANDER: The sewage treatment plant, the original one,
had been built on the top of these sand dunes. So we just
imagined that they would go ahead and expand the plant and
would cut off the possibility of using this sand to expand
the beaches. So we were adamantly opposed. There were a
lot of other reasons. And finally the mayor called a Joint
meeting in his office of the planning commission and the
[Los Angeles City] Board of Public Works, where he had a
lot of discussion about what was going to happen as to
location. (We were favoring a site at Venice.) And one of
the items was the sand resource at the present location of
the Hyperion plant. Another question was what do you do if
you do put in a decent plant and you have all of this
sludge: "What are you going to do with it? Are you going
to sell it?" "Oh, no, we're going to purify it. We're
going to purify everything and then flush it in the
ocean." Well, this raised hackles on the back of my head,
and it would have made authors of the Preface to a Master
Plan revolve in their graves. Because the most precious
resource of Southern California is water, and the second
most is the soil for agriculture. And here we're purifying
the water and then dumping it in the ocean; we're purifying
the sludge and then flushing that into the ocean.
LASKEY: Which could have been used as fertilizer.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, that was the theory anyway. So I raised
the question about the sludge, and they said, "Well, you
see, we figured it out, and it costs five cents a bag to do
that. I mean, we'd lose five cents a bag." Well, that's
because the accountants in their department are in charge.
and there's no department that says "Look, that's valuable
stuff. It's valuable to the state, it's valuable to the
city." Anyway, they weren't going to do it because they'd
lose five cents a bag. And when it came to water
conservation, oh, that was horrendous. They wouldn't
conceive of reusing water.
LASKEY: This is the board of public works?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. "Well, the public's not ready for it
yet. And besides, it's going to cost more because you have
to pump it uphill." I said, "Now, wait a minute. How
about putting in sewage treatment plants starting in the
[San Fernando] Valley and various places downhill from
there and then reusing it in agriculture only or in
Industry?" "Oh, they wouldn't stand for it," Well, this
was the same time the board of public works was asking for
$10 million to sewer the Valley. Well, you win some and
you lose some.
LASKEY: So they got their Hyperion plant.
ALEXANDER: They got their Hyperion plant. Actually,
though, there is some good news there. Let's see. The
board of public works had their way in using the Hyperion
site and managed to design and construct that in such a way
that by 1948, 14 million cubic yards of sand had been
transferred hydraulically from the sewage treatment plant
site to widen the area of six miles of beach from 75 feet
to 600-650 feet in depth.
LASKEY: So they did manage to find a way to at least use
ALEXANDER: Yeah. The beach quarantine was lifted in
1950. Since the late forties some treated water has been
used to inject into wells along the shoreline in an attempt
to prevent the intrusion of salt water, which was seeping
inland due to the overpumping of fresh water from wells in
the coastal plain. And the county has an experimental
sewage treatment and reuse project. Many provisions have
been made to enhance percolation in dry riverbeds to
recharge the natural underground-water reservoir.
LASKEY: Of course, I don't know whether you have seen the
papers or not, but Santa Monica Bay has once more become
ALEXANDER: No, I didn't know that.
LASKEY: It's a major problem that Santa Monica is dealing
with right now.
ALEXANDER: Well, after-- This is a personal note. After a
joint meeting in his honor's office-- I think I have it
right here. I'll get it for you. [tape recorder off]
Well, I had only had a couple of private sessions with
Mayor Bowron and didn't know him very well. I wanted to
test his humor because he was rather an austere-looking
individual. [He was] plump. He could have looked jolly.
but he always looked stern. So I sent him this copy of
Gems of American Architecture by Greer, which is a
compendium of outhouses, including such items as a two-
story privy with staggered seats, which was inappropriate
for Los Angeles, I avowed. And I asked him to look through
and see which one he would support. He didn't go for the
"sportsman," which had a pair of wagon wheels on it so that
you could wheel it to a new location in a hurry. But he
finally picked what was called the "Venetian," referring of
course to our preference for a sewage treatment plant in
Venice. This one was built to overhang a stream. And his
response in his letter was a delightful and humorous
LASKEY: Where did you find this?
ALEXANDER: I don't know. It was given to me one time,
evidently in the thirties, and I just happened to have it.
LASKEY: So he responded accordingly.
ALEXANDER: Well, the whole story of handling the sewage
problem in the county of Los Angeles— Naturally people
want to handle sewage by gravity wherever possible. It's
the cheapest way. And in order to do that, you cut through
all types of administrative lines. Gravity doesn't have
any respect for city boundaries. So it's been a complex
and wonderful development, the cooperation. Wherever
irrigation or water and gravity are of some importance.
people start to cooperate. In any other field it would be
called communism. But in the case of water going downhill,
everybody recognizes that it's a god-given right.
LASKEY: Especially in Los Angeles.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. According to a Mr. [Raymond] Goudey, who
wrote the Preface chapter on sewage, "In 1940 there were
over two thousand miles of sewers in the Los Angeles area,
having a total discharge of 205 million gallons per day,
and twelve independent sewer systems in the metropolitan
area, which serviced 2.5 million people, or about 90
percent of the population. The explosive development of
the San Fernando Valley in widely scattered subdivisions
posed a major health problem." The Valley, at first, when
it was first developed for farming dry agriculture,
depended on mining the lens of pure, fresh water underlying
the valley. And when shallow wells were first punctured
into this reservoir, artesian water spouted eighteen feet
in the air.
LASKEY: In the Valley?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, it was just marvelous. Of course they
thought, "This is here--it's going to be forever." Well,
of course, in no time flat the wells had to be drilled
three hundred feet deep and they had to use pumps to pump
the water out, so that that natural resource was soon
depleted. And then the Owens Valley water came in. And it
only came to the northwest end of the Valley. The Valley
was not in Los Angeles city limits, [but] the water was
paid for by the people of Los Angeles and, by god, they
were going to have it come to Los Angeles. So it had been
foreseen by some smart individuals that it would be a wise
move to buy up Valley land, which was purchased at around
$2 to $2.50 an acre. And the city not only needed the
water to use themselves, but they needed heavy consumers of
water. Because they paid all this money and they had to
pay off the bonds, and they needed heavy water consumer
customers. The natural thing was for farmers who had the
wherewithal to farm on a big scale and use a lot of that
Owens Valley water--and they had more water than they could
use at the beginning.
So the Valley, of course, was developed without sewers
and with septic tanks right and left. That was okay when
it was a farm community, but as the population started to
fill the Valley, the water built up underground at the
lower end of the Valley. It kept seeping downhill. At the
east end of the Valley there turned out to be a dike of
impervious rock below ground that you couldn't see. So
that backed up the water as if it were an above-ground
dam. The water that went through the people of the Valley
and through their cesspools and septic tanks filtered
through the Valley gravel to this dam, where Griffith Park
is. And then eventually it came up to the surface. And
the people right near Griffith Park who had septic tanks
found that the tanks were floating in sewage and their
septic tanks wouldn't work. Because the water table,
instead of being fifty feet deep, was two feet deep. Or
there was even sewage running in the streets.
This was the situation when I came on the commission
in 1945. Nothing could be done about it in 1945, but we
had to plan on something. One part of the plan was when we
came to a new zoning law, after a conference with people in
the Valley, we found that it would be popular and it would
be a useful thing to have an area called R-A, or
residential-agricultural, halfway between [residential and]
agricultural use. It would really be a suburban use of a
half acre, and that would be big enough, we figured, to
have a leach field to serve one residence on that twenty
thousand square feet .
LASKEY: A leach field. What is that?
ALEXANDER: Well, that's the same as a private sewage
treatment plant. You run the effluent from your septic
tank through several yards of sand or gravel, and it
purifies it. Anyway, that was one of the attempts, but
ultimately, it came to the bond issue that Bowron put on at
the end of the war, which included about $10 million for
sewering the Valley completely.
LASKEY: So it wasn't until this time that the Valley got
ALEXANDER: That's right. There were no sewers there at
all. Well, hardly any. I think there was one that went
out to Van Nuys.
To relieve the pressure on this water building up
behind this impervious dike, the city drilled wells in the
dry bed of the Los Angeles River, and they found, to their
amazement I think, that the water that had been through one
use and had taken as much as three years to filter down was
pure as the driven snow. So they were able to pipe it
directly into the water system without running it through a
sewage treatment plant or anything like that. It had its
own sewage treatment plant in the Valley itself. So I
think 17 percent of our water supply at that time, after
these wells were drilled, came from the reuse of water that
people didn't know was being reused.
LASKEY: That's interesting. From the Los Angeles River?
So that was joined with the water from the Owens Valley.
ALEXANDER: It was water from the Owens Valley, originally.
LASKEY: It was water from the Owens Valley?
ALEXANDER: Sure, but it was being reused. It's still
going on, but people don't recognize it that way. They
still have this pumping field right at the foot of the new
and more beautiful Forest Lawn. [laughter] And this bond
issue provided for completely sewering the Valley. In the
long run there is no question, in my mind now, that it was
the thing that should have been done. But I still think
that the intermediate sewage treatment plants at various
stages of elevation above the ocean would have been a good
Anyway, at the same time, a group from the planning
staff was working on a recreation plan. The bond issue
provided funds for buildings and equipment, for police
administration, health centers, and fire department, and
$12 million for public recreation. That gave the parks and
recreation department [Los Angeles City Recreation and
Parks] a good start in carrying out a really magnificent
plan that the planning department worked out, starting in
1942 with a survey and helped by the Greater Los Angeles
Citizens Committee in 1943. And the planning staff started
to work in earnest in 1945 and adopted minimum standards
LASKEY: This is for the city parks?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, this was for parks and playgrounds. And
the plan, that I thought was terrific, is still being used
for locating parks and playgrounds. It provided for little
local communities and for areas that you might call
regional within the city and for citywide as a whole. It
had these various levels, and it had excellent standards
for sports centers, district playgrounds, and neighborhood
parks and playgrounds. And it is still being used for
locating new ones where they're needed and when they have
the funds. By 1945, just two years after the bond issue,
twenty-nine new playground sites had been acquired,
fourteen were being developed, two public golf courses were
completed, three beaches were widened, and new recreation
buildings, swinuning pools, tennis courts, and baseball
diamonds had been completed. Hansen Dam and the Sepulveda
flood control and recreation area had been developed, all
with the bond issue made possible [by] the planning that
went before it.
LASKEY: And you were involved in developing this plan.
ALEXANDER: Don't forget, I'm talking about the planning
department [not the commission] . It really gets the credit
for things like this. But this was a very exciting time
for the planning commission to be in office and to at least
see these things and encourage these things to go on.
LASKEY: How closely did the planning commission work with
the planning department?
ALEXANDER: Well, officially, we sat down twice a week:
once a week was devoted to public hearings and the other
weekly meeting was devoted to planning matters.
Eventually, we managed to pass off some of the work. For
instance, in the conducting of public meetings, we had a
change in the law adopted to make it possible for a deputy
of the commission to conduct the hearing and let us know
what the results were. The idea was to give us time to
breathe and take a look at some of the policies that were
necessary and desirable to discuss and develop. But
informally, such a commissioner as Schuchardt would spend
quite a bit of time messing around, seeing what the
employees were doing. I did some of that, but I was trying
to found a practice at the same time, so I didn't have the
same amount of time.
LASKEY: You worked closely with Schuchardt, didn't you?
You were personal friends as well as members on the board.
ALEXANDER: Yes. Charlie [Charles B.] Bennett used to say--
When I would have some wild, glorious planning dream to
talk about, he'd say, "You know, we have to get the streets
cleaned first. First things first."
Well, waste elimination was another thing that was in
the Preface to a Master Plan. And to quote: "The Los
Angeles metropolitan area"--this was in 1940--"is hardly
removed from the Dark Ages in the matter of a coordinated
system of waste elimination. In the problem of garbage or
refuse collection or disposal, there is no uniform plan.
Combined facilities of the metropolitan area should be
pooled for collection and disposal of sewage, garbage,
refuse, dead bodies, and junk." He pointed out that
"disposal of garbage is made directly to twenty-five
privately owned hog ranches, which receive a thousand tons
of wet garbage a day." This was in 1940. "Over 230 dead
animals are removed every day from the city streets.
Planning is essential to provide a program which would lead
to benefits from reclaimed water or fertilizer."
LASKEY: There was no system for that?
ALEXANDER: No, this was during the war. People don't
recall-- Well, let's get on with it. There were no garbage
disposals, nothing under your sink that would chew up
garbage and send it to the-- That's one of the problems
that they have in running a sewage treatment plant today.
Everybody has a garbage disposal, so they get all the
garbage that used to go to the hogs. It was recycled when
it went to the hogs; at least you got some good meat out of
it. But now it's chewed up and goes to the disposal, where
it clogs the sewage plant. And at that time we had wet
garbage and dry garbage. The dry garbage we were supposed
to burn ourselves in our backyard incinerator.
LASKEY: That's right.
ALEXANDER: During the war and before that. And the wet
garbage went to the hogs.
LASKEY: How did it get picked up?
ALEXANDER: Well, it got picked up by--
LASKEY: Private —
ALEXANDER: Yeah, private companies that had--they were
managed like public utilities, I guess--contracts with the
city. Now, here [in Berkeley] they pay a monthly charge
for a garbage can. My recollection in Los Angeles was that
we didn't have a bill for garbage. It was not on our tax
bill or anything like that--except hidden. (The city paid
for it. )
Well, smog, first noticed in the early war years,
caused every potential source to be blamed by those
responsible for other potential sources. And, of course,
the obvious smoke from incomplete combustion in thousands
of incinerators was the first source identified as the
cause. The planning department was given the unenviable
task of holding public hearings on a citywide plan locating
enormous public incinerators, which were said to be so
designed that they would consume wet garbage and dry trash--
except for metal, glass, and ceramics--so completely that
they would produce virtually no smoke. The citizens at
public hearings on the subject expressed their disbelief
readily, [laughter] which put incinerators on a class of
popularity equal to cemeteries and slaughterhouses.
Finally the great day dawned when the Lacy Street
incinerator, the first of a proposed series, was ready to
be loaded. Private trash collectors, in a line as far as
the eye could see, were also ready, loaded with
miscellaneous sofas, bed springs, and other indigestibles
mixed with the garbage, so that the incinerator soon
belched, choked, and expired, putting an end to the dream
of central incinerators. Tons of firebrick used in
construction of the Lacy Street fiasco lie at the foot of
Mount Washington--where I used to live.
And then smog. Well, I remember when I first noticed
it. I used to take the Pacific Electric red car from
Pasadena, the Oak Knoll line to Sixth [Street] and Main
[Street], and then walk from there over to the Doheny
Building at Tenth [Street] and Figueroa [Street] , And Just
before the war started, when I was on this routine, I
noticed smog for the first time in just walking along and
suddenly getting all the fumes, especially the truck
fumes. But I remember as president of the planning
commission, I was invited to a breakfast meeting down at
San Pedro harbor called by the Western Oil and Gas
Association to discuss the smog problem. And after lengthy
discussions and finger-pointing and so forth on the part of
those present, I asked, "Well, since it's admitted that
part of the problem, at least, comes from these refineries
down here, when are you going to do something about it?"
And the president of the Western Oil and Gas Association
said, "We'll clean it up as soon as we can find a
profitable means of doing so." [laughter] So that was
that. Anyway, we were concerned about it at the time, but
didn't do anything to stop it.
LASKEY: What did you feel at the time you could have done
to have stopped it? Had you had total power, were you an
emperor-- Would the banning of automobiles have
ALEXANDER: Banning automobiles? [laughter] I don't think
that would have been enough by any means. I think there is
still a great deal of industrial abuse that goes on without
having any attention paid to it. But there is no doubt
that automobiles put a lot of it into the atmosphere.
LASKEY: Can it be stopped as long as there are six, eight,
ten million people living in an enclosed basin?
ALEXANDER: I think so, yeah. I think wherever regulations
impinge on industry in any way, whether it's the automobile
industry or electric generating plants or whatever, there
are squawks and they are paid attention to, and there is
not strict enough enforcement. And if Los Angeles gets
stricter enforcement, then the federal government says we
take priority or something like that. It's a hard thing to
do, but it can be done, I believe.
Well, there was a really monumental achievement of the
planning department in the preparation of a totally revised
comprehensive zoning ordinance for the entire city of Los
Angeles, adopted by the city planning commission on July
31, 1945, The staff and commission, with consultants
Gordon Whitnall and Earl 0. Mills of Saint Louis, worked
intensively for more than two years to produce an
innovative zoning law and a map applying it to 454 square
miles, the largest zoned area of any city in the country.
It helped influence the shape of the city. It replaced
nine separate ordinances directly affecting zoning
administration, plus other regulations which governed
directly. Almost half the area of the city had been zoned
only by excluding nonresidential uses, and the rest was
covered by two primitive sets of regulations. Before the
new plan was adopted, the areas of the city where
residential uses were permitted had a legally permitted
capacity of 14 million people. To avoid a confrontation
with property owners who thought mistakenly that commercial
and multiple-housing designations guaranteed such uses and
consequent riches, few adjustments in permitted use were
made in the older parts of the city. Such a head-on
proposal as that of a rational zoning plan would have
stopped the ordinance cold. As director Charlie Bennett
and principal planner Milt Breivogel said after the
adoption of the new ordinance, "There will still remain a
considerable surplus of business in apartment house
zoning. It is hoped that after several more years of
stewing in the Juice of frustration, property owners will
see the wisdom of adjusting the zoning pattern to more
closely conform to the law of supply and demand." It's
clear that they too were frustrated by the intransigence of
landowners whose dreams of riches could never be
Now, just among other things, this zoning ordinance--!
think for the first time in the country-required
automobile parking off street in a garage in an R-1 zone.
One for every house, and a certain number for apartment
houses. It had to be off-street parking. You can just
take a look around Berkeley today, which was largely built
up before the automobile became popular. But even today
they don't have a law like that.
ALEXANDER: People that are not stupid usually build a
garage when they are building a new house. There are very
few new houses around here. That was just one thing that
was a breakthrough in a zoning ordinance.
LASKEY: You also zoned the Valley in that ordinance. That
must have been a major undertaking.
ALEXANDER: Yes indeed. I have a separate section on the
Valley that we can talk about. To give additional meaning
to the scope of the ordinance, a staff analysis showed that
6 million people could be accommodated in the areas
proposed to be zoned for residential use, and that on the
basis of 30 lineal feet per 100 population, this 643 miles
of property zoned for conmnercial use would serve a
population of 11 million. Well, that's about the
proportion. As late as April 1947, there were 125,000
vacant subdivided lots within the city, 16,000 of which
were within a closed-in area bounded by Highland [Avenue] ,
Glendale [Boulevard], Pico [Boulevard] and Franklin Avenue,
TAPE NUMBER: VI, SIDE ONE
OCTOBER 3, 1986
ALEXANDER: Well, we were on zoning. Of course, for one
thing, zoning perpetuated the small farmlet shape of
housing in Los Angeles, which was a midwestern concept.
Note that the principal planners came from the Midwest, and
the majority of settlers that came in the vast surge after
World War I were from the Midwest, retired farmers. They
thought of a town house as being a small farm, and the
front yard was a necessity, as far as they were
concerned. Just the opposite of what I would have expected
had the Spanish and Mexicans been in charge, where it would
be typical for them to build to the property line, to the
street line, and have an interior court that was their
living environment. Instead, you sat on the front porch
and talked to the neighbors and mowed your lawn while they
mowed theirs and so forth.
It's not that it's any better or worse than other
ways, but I find a great contrast between the Los Angeles
situation, that has been frozen into their zoning,
contrasted with the San Francisco picture, which came from
an urbanization that was frozen before the automobile
became popular. And where in the city it was originally
expected and planned to have a shop owner live over his
shop, and where there is life in the city twenty-four hours
a day--in contrast to downtown Los Angeles, where you can
shoot a cannon down the street and not hit anybody after
seven o'clock. And where it's quite reasonable to expect a
two-storied development, at least two stories, sometimes
higher, in a city that is bounded by water on three sides,
as in the case of Manhattan or other restricted places,
where you can see the terminus of the city, the end of the
land, compared to Los Angeles, where there was no end. But
I was in favor of making it possible for some areas, if
they chose, to be developed along the Mediterranean
lines. I would enjoy seeing that kind of variety being
made possible if people chose it. But that was not to
be. I mean to say I couldn't argue my way through that
LASKEY: It really is in the city ordinance of Los Angeles,
then, that there have to be lawns, that it has to be set
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah, there have to be side yards and rear
yards and front yards of a defined size. I would like to
see the possibility of having an entire area of the city,
at some time, take on a different form, but that is just a
personal preference for diversity.
LASKEY: Now, this was, as you pointed out, a product
partly of having planners who came from the Midwest, who
were instituting the farmhouse kind of an ideal. How did
the developers feel about that? Because they're very
powerful here in Los Angeles.
ALEXANDER: Well, of course, they're in favor of anything
that will sell, and people are used to what they see
there. In fact the developers revel in it. I debated
public housing with Fritz Burns before the Town Hall [of
California] audience on one occasion. And he vowed that he
never heard such music in his ears as the lawn mower every
Sunday morning in his subdivisions.
LASKEY: He was perpetuating the American myth.
ALEXANDER: Well, it's also of some interest, historically,
in that the first residential lots prescribed by Governor
de Neve--Felipe de Neve, the first governor of North
California, Alta California--in his plan for a Los Angeles
were just about the same size as the typical 6, 000-square-
foot lot in Los Angeles that is prescribed by law to be not
less than 5,000. Five thousand is the minimum, and most
lots in subdivisions are around six thousand. And that was
just about the size of de Neve's lots that he planned to
surround the plaza. So the size has a long and honorable
Another thing that has gone by the boards that I
regret: In the early days you'll see in pictures of
downtown Los Angeles, the commercial areas, [that] the
sidewalks were covered, as they were in many pioneer
towns. [Now they are] sometimes covered with snow,
inclement weather, or whatnot, but no one is permitted to
build over the sidewalks now. In San Francisco it's legal
to have a bay window project beyond what is obviously the
property line. It doesn't hurt anybody, and it's a pretty
good feature. In the case of the Los Angeles law, there is
an exception made for a movie marquee. The movie industry
had enough clout to permit a movie marquee to go beyond the
lot line, but every marquee has to be approved by the fine
LASKEY: I knew that all pieces of public art did, but I
didn't realize that movie marquees were included.
ALEXANDER: Anything that projects beyond the property line
has to be approved by the city art commission.
LASKEY: Well, it's just another indication of what you
were saying about the Spanish-Mediterranean history of Los
Angeles being obliterated by Midwesterners. Because the
colonnades and covered walks are a part of Mediterranean
ALEXANDER: Like the old [Governor Pio] Pico House. It has
a covered arcade all the way around it, and you'll see some
fairly good examples of that coming back that I applaud.
They're all within the private property line, I should say,
such as the building on Sixth [Street] that Bill [William]
Pereira designed. Not the new Crocker building--
LASKEY: Oh, the Ahmanson Center, perhaps, on Wilshire
ALEXANDER: No, I'm thinking about downtown on Sixth
Street. It is a building that has an arcade walk that's
within the property line, but it does make an arcade that--
Do you have it there?
LASKEY: I think so. Oh, the Security Pacific Building
that is downtown. I think it's on Sixth. There are two
Security Pacific buildings downtown. There's the A.
[Albert] C. Martin [Jr.]--
ALEXANDER: I know that one. That's on Bunker Hill. How
LASKEY: I don't see it. There is no Crocker here.
ALEXANDER: There's a brand-new Crocker Building on Bunker
Hill, but there's one where O'Melveny and Meyers have their
LASKEY: Yeah, the Crocker Building. It's a tall
building. They're all tall buildings, [but] it's
particularly tall, steel framed. It's just not listed
here. But it is the Crocker Building, the Crocker Bank
ALEXANDER: Yeah, that's it. I don't know whether they
call it the Crocker Bank Building now.
LASKEY: I don't think so. I think it's under new
ALEXANDER: There's a new Crocker Building on Bunker
Hill. I wonder if O'Melveny and Meyers didn't buy the
LASKEY: Well, I think so, because it hasn't been the
Crocker Center for a while. Yeah, the Crocker Center is
the new one that Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill have done
down on Bunker Hill. The old one that Pereira did hasn't
been Crocker for a while.
ALEXANDER: Okay. Well, it's possible to recapture some of
that, but I think it would be great to be able to walk
around the city under some kind of shelter like that, much
as you do in Bern, Switzerland. Have you been there?
LASKEY: No, unfortunately.
ALEXANDER: Arcades all over the place covering the public
LASKEY: What's sort of fascinating is that we don't have
arcades or public walks in Los Angeles, that all of our
shopping centers are inside, covered malls, which doesn't
make any sense relative to the climate.
LASKEY: Nor are there many outdoor restaurants.
ALEXANDER: Uh-uh. Well, of course, the skyline came along
in 1956, requiring a charter amendment. Up until that
time-- In fact, when I first arrived at Los Angeles, the
city hall was new. And the city library [Los Angeles City
Central Library] was what? Five years old. It was
finished in '25. And they were the most prominent-- Those
two things and Pershing Square were the three things people
remembered about Los Angeles downtown. Kevin Lynch made a
survey of what people could recall of downtown Los
Angeles. They identified those three points as the three
salient memorable objects in downtown Los Angeles.
LASKEY: That's interesting.
ALEXANDER: Of course, the 1956 change in building-height
limit from thirteen stories, or 150 feet, to the equivalent
of thirteen stories times the area of the property being
the maximum in any form-- It could be half the area of the
property and twice thirteen stories high in the most dense
area. So that the intensity of use was not increased, but
the flexibility of height was changed. And it may be to
someone's sorrow one of these days when they have a really
big earthquake, which I don't think will knock buildings
down, but on the upper floors of tall buildings it's apt to
make people projectiles and their furniture lethal and
throw people out of windows and so forth. It may not
actually knock buildings down, but it's hazardous, really,
to go as tall as they're going in an earthquake-prone area.
LASKEY: Well, even the mild quakes that we've had tend to
have the upper stories swaying pretty far, even as it is.
ALEXANDER: I wish I had the quotation right now--I've been
looking for it. I wish I had [G.] Gordon Whitnall's
quotation from something he wrote many years ago now,
foreseeing the future of Los Angeles. He forecast what
it's becoming, which is a multiple-centered city, which was
made obvious by this change in the building height. Up to
that time, there wasn't very much difference between
thirteen stories and a six-story area, and that sort of
thing. But with the liberation of the height limits, you
can see clearly that it's a multiple-centered city. It
still has a major downtown, which I think it should and is
necessary, but it's a unique city in that respect.
LASKEY: Well, if you ever go up to the planetarium
[Griffith Park Observatory] on a clear day and look out
over the city, you can see that.
ALEXANDER: Oh, this is the Gordon Whitnall — There's a
quotation from Gordon Whitnall in 1923: "This great
metropolitan district shall be not one great whole, but the
coordination of many units, within each of which there
shall be the most ideal living conditions," and so forth.
"That, to me, seems the great ideal American city, a
community of the future--the recognition of a small unit
and its perpetuation." Gordon Whitnall, 1923.
LASKEY: That was before Los Angeles had really started to
expand. I don't think Bullock's Wilshire had even been
ALEXANDER: That's right.
LASKEY: That was built a couple of years in the future,
and that's considered the first major monument to the
decentralization of the city. So that was rather
farsighted. It was very farsighted. Did you know
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes.
LASKEY: Did you work with him?
ALEXANDER: Well, I never did any work with him, but yeah,
I knew him. [I] saw a good deal of him after he retired.
We were both members of Lambda Alpha, which is an
organization of people interested in land planning and land
economics and land generally. He was a regular attendee.
He was eloquent, as most Welshmen seem to be, and sometimes
too verbose to suit me, but he was certainly a force in
planning in Southern California.
Then conditional uses and special conditions were
addressed by the ordinance for the first time. The
ordinance was approved at that time. That made it
necessary for Forest Lawn [Mortuaries] , for instance, to
ask for conditional use. Conditional use may be permitted
in any zone whatsoever. For instance, it's reasonable to
permit a church to exist in a residential area and not be
confined to a commercial or an industrial area. But it's
also recognized by the conditional-use technique that its
use ought to be controlled somewhat. For instance, it
should have parking for its meetings; it should have
perhaps, visually, some surrounding hedges around the
parking lot; it should confine its meetings to certain
preordained hours when the neighbors know it's going to be
noisy, when they're going to sing their heads off at a
certain time on a Sunday morning, that sort of thing. So
that is permitted in any zone, but only with certain
conditions that may vary from place to place. You can't
always predict what the conditions are going to be. It
depends on the situation. And that applied, among other
things, to cemeteries, which before that time had sort of
special cemetery districts, which didn't make any sense at
all, because it just applied to that parcel the size of a
postage stamp, or whatever it was. It could be a little
one or it could be a great big one.
You mentioned the San Fernando Valley. The [Los
Angeles City] Department [of Planning] worked out what I
thought was a magnificent planning proposal for the
development of the Valley, which had hardly been developed
at all in 1940, '45. However, the plan depended for
implementation on the permanence of a zoning pattern, and I
found that that's nothing to rely on at all. That is, for
the first time in anybody's zoning law, we had, as I
mentioned, the suburban zone of a half acre per lot, as
well as the R-1, and in addition to that, agricultural
zones of two orders: one a two-acre and one a five-acre
piece. And at the time this was planned, there were 212
square miles in the Valley. Sixteen small centers of
population had developed, widely separated by agricultural
land. Well, this plan proposed to increase the size of
each of these sixteen small centers, to surround the
commercial, industrial, and residential land--multiple-
residential and single-family-residence areas--with
suburban lots. And those in turn [were to be] surrounded
by two-acre agricultural lots, and those surrounded by a
five-acre maximum. This doesn't mean that every ownership
in the five-acre area would be five acres. That would be
the minimum subdivision and suitable to an intensive
agricultural area. This, in effect, was expected to
produce greenbelts around these sixteen communities.
And, as it was laid out, the area of the city within
the Valley was large enough to contain the entire city of
Chicago. It was anticipated that the Valley, as formed by
the zoning that I just mentioned with the sixteen centers
surrounded by agricultural greenbelts, would accommodate
900,000 people. It was not expected to reach that
population until the year 2,000. But nevertheless, it
would have contained 900,000 people if developed according
to the original zoning plan. And, as it was originally
contemplated, if the zoning had been intensified in those
sixteen centers outward, it could contain the present
population and still have greenbelts.
But the greed of the developer immediately after World
War II, as well as the frantic demand for housing, made
Congress, the city council, and everybody else bow down to
the developers: "Please get us housing." They frustrated
the plan and wrecked it completely in no time flat.
The Japanese surrender came only one month and two
days after the [Los Angeles City] Planning Commission
adopted the comprehensive zoning ordinance. The population
of the city had increased 20 percent, adding about 300,000
in the previous five years. The white population had
increased only 17.7 percent, while blacks had increased
108.7 percent and others, mainly Mexican-Americans,
increased 49.9 percent. Few residential units had been
built during the war, and the pent-up demand [was]
estimated in 1947 to be an immediate need of 123,159
dwellings, or 150,847 through 1948.
In response, 804 subdivisions, creating almost 40,000
new lots in the Valley, were approved in the four years
from 1945 to '49. More than 98,000 new dwelling units were
built in the city during the same period, most of them in
the San Fernando Valley, where the speculators had a field
day. With the vast pent-up demand and a sure market, it
would have been quite profitable for developers to buy
undeveloped lots in any of the existing town centers or
even to acquire adjacent unsubdivided land, applying for
changes in zone from R-A [residential-agricultural] to
suburban R-1. But nothing would satisfy their greed.
Instead, they obtained options for practically nothing to
buy the cheapest land zoned for agricultural use, and
applied for changes in zone to R-1. Sometimes, accompanied
by a veteran with an American Legion hat, they found
willing cooperators in the planning director and four of
the commissioners, who needed no urging to respond to the
hysteria of the housing shortage. And they gained untold
riches as they converted greenbelts, so-called, to densely
packed urban town lots. To compound this wave of
destruction, the county assessor was not only forced by law
and custom to assess a new subdivision according to its
value as intensely used urban property, but he assessed the
adjacent farmland as potentially the same--a self-
fulfilling prophecy which spread like wildfire.
I took some Xeroxes of one of the hearings that had to
do with the extinguishing of the Adohr [Ranch] dairy farm,
which was the largest dairy in America, right in the city
limits and far removed from any one of these centers. A
character named [Spiros G.] Ponti developed it, and, well,
it was just a field day. A president of the National
Association of Home Builders in his district, a man who
successfully completed a great many projects, Mr. Ponti
submitted a petition submitted by people in favor of the
application (not nearby residents) and said that he had
built 947 homes in the past year that sold for over $10.5
million and stated that the proposed subdivision was well
planned, recognized the proposed freeway, and included
sites for a school, playground, and business property. He
said he was not an investor or speculator but "just a home
builder, " and that he had built homes for seventeen
years. He boasted that lots would contain a thousand
square feet more than the minimum, which was five thousand
square feet. In response to a question by the chair, he
said that they had set aside eight acres for a school site
and five acres for a park and a playground, and that the
property will be held until the department concerned has
the necessary funds to purchase the property. The homes
would be for veterans and other citizens of the community,
he explained, and the homes will be a credit to the
The next speaker in favor of the proposal was J. W.
0' Sullivan, commander of the Los Angeles County Council of
Am Vets [American Veterans] , who made a minor career
supporting the applications of home builders and opposing
public housing. Flaunting his campaign hat, he testified
that three years after discharge the veterans' first need
was low-cost housing, that the only way to get it was by
mass production, and threatened that if they didn't get
their homes this way, "They will get them in some other
manner- -government subsidy 1" He explained how the
magnanimous builder would pass any savings on to the lucky
veteran, who would realize a profit of $5,000 if he had to
sell his bargain, and that this was not a get-rich-quick
scheme, [laughter] that Mr. Ponti appropriated additional
sums of money to landscape the surrounding grounds, making
the community a beauty spot. To assure the commission of
the purity of his motives, Mr. 0' Sullivan said that he
spoke, "in the interest of public welfare and convenience."
LASKEY: Oh, my. Where was the Adohr Ranch?
ALEXANDER: Where was it in the Valley? Well, that's a
good question. I couldn't tell you exactly, except that it
was on the south side of the Valley, out quite a ways, I
suppose. Would it be near Tarzana?
LASKEY: But it did get developed by Mr. Ponti.
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah, it did get developed by Mr. Ponti.
It was developed under a creative section of the zoning
ordinance, which contemplated planned unit developments,
PUDs, and they would get favored treatment if they were
planned comprehensively to have amenities that the
community needed. They were to offer the land for
community needs, such as schools and that sort of thing,
free to the community. But he didn't see it that way.
LASKEY: I'm not surprised.
ALEXANDER: He was asked if he had made an analysis of
developing the property in half-acre lots as currently
zoned. It was already zoned so that it was possible to
change this dairy to suburban areas. Mr. Ponti said it was
impossible, since development costs ran from $3,000 to
$3,500 an acre, making it impossible to offer homes for
less than $10,000, which he had to do.
LASKEY: Did he finally do that?
ALEXANDER: About two months later, the commission received
a letter from Mr. Marlow, who had spoken on behalf of
Ponti, questioning the right of the commission to require
land for municipal facilities, which the Adohr Ranch owner
had been asked by the commission to donate free of charge
if the application were approved. Instead of exceeding
their authority, as Mr. Marlow charged, however, they were
complying with the ordinance permitting self-contained
communities with town-lot subdivisions, provided adequate
open spaces and municipal facilities, utilities, and
services are made available in a manner satisfactory to the
commission. The case was too important and the stakes too
high for the landowner and the builder to give up their
assault easily. Subsequently, the city council overrode
the commission by the two-thirds vote required, the mayor
vetoed the council's action, and the council overrode the
mayor's veto by the required three-fourths majority. Don't
tell me they weren't paid off.
Well, one significant thing that happened during the
period while I was on the commission was studies by our
department of a new concept called redevelopment. The
studies of the [Los Angeles City] Planning Department,
studies for redevelopment, were used both nationally in the
development of a federal law and in Sacramento in the
development of state law, enabling local communities to set
up redevelopment agencies or to establish redevelopment
agencies as city councils. And while I was still on the
commission the laws came into effect, and [Fletcher] Bowron
appointed the first redevelopment agency of the city [Los
Angeles City Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA)]. Bill
[William T.] Sesnon [Jr.] was appointed chairman, and he
remained chairman for over twenty years. Milton [J.] Brock
[Sr.], vice-chairman, was a home builder, a reliable one;
Howard L. Holtzendorf f , secretary-treasurer, was a director
of the [Los Angeles City] Housing Authority. One of the
requirements of the law of redevelopment was that if
redevelopment displaces people, housing for those people
must be found for them within the price range of what
they've been paying. That required, in many cases, a
housing authority. Ed [Edward W.] Carter of the Broadway
and Phillip [M.] Rea were also members of the first
redevelopment agency. William T. Sesnon, Jr., a descendant
of the pioneer ranch family, stuck with it for twenty years
through thick and thin (it was mostly thick), during the
years when the law was being challenged in the courts. And
the Bunker Hill redevelopment area, which was the largest
of its kind in the country, was being challenged right and
left. He finally saw it through to the first major
building in that redevelopment, which was the Union Bank
Building at the corner of Fifth [Street] and Figueroa
[Street], and then second was Bunker Hill Towers, where I
was involved. This [agency] has become the most powerful
planning force in the city.
LASKEY: Why would the CRA have more power than the
ALEXANDER: They have money. They can do things, they can
act. The planning commission can regulate, and I didn't go
into that part. Part of the regulation was subdivision
zoning, for instance. Those are all limitations,
conditional uses and special conditions. Those are laws,
and they're not very creative in that they don't have any
dynamo to make them go. But in the case of redevelopment,
which started out with a good deal of subsidy, in order to
get them federal subsidy, to give them leverage to acquire
the land that was considered blighted--and actually,
unproductive economically is what it came down to--the way
it finally got through Congress, the definition of--
LASKEY: What was your opinion of the way that Bunker Hill
ALEXANDER: Well, I don't expect a pear tree to produce
fish. The way the law was enacted by Congress finally-- It
started out as a slum-clearance idea, and I was very much a
part of the national and statewide scene in this effort.
The way it finally was enacted by Congress, a blighted area
was defined as one which is uneconomic- -in other words,
where it costs the city more to maintain it than it pays in
taxes. You have a ledger, and you receive so much in taxes
and you know how many fire calls you get in that area and
how many cases of TB are there. They add all this cost up,
and it's a costly thing to have this millstone around your
neck, this old place. Of course, it had its charm at a
certain period. As a matter of fact, I forgot about
this. Before the redevelopment law that finally got in,
there was a Works Progress Administration [WPA] attempt at
redevelopment in the prewar period under the Roosevelt
LASKEY: Oh, really.
ALEXANDER: I worked as an employee, not as a principal,
with a group of architects who were proposing to redevelop
Bunker Hill under this law. And it was declared
unconstitutional when we had gone through-- We went through
the business of planning and what should be done and so
forth, and we went back to Washington to get this thing
approved. And we found stiff opposition from some very
influential forces in Los Angeles, who just happened to own
some of the best whorehouses in the city.
LASKEY: Oh, okay.
ALEXANDER: And —
LASKEY: Just happened to be on Bunker Hill.
ALEXANDER: And also, what property was rented to Chinese
and other low- income people had the highest rent per square
foot per person that you'd find anyplace. Much higher
than-- You think about high-rent things as being a thousand
dollars a month places. But if you figure out the square-
foot cost of rent and you figure that you have a whole
family living in one room in an old slum in Bunker Hill, or
maybe two families, they're paying through the nose for
that little space.
Well, anyway, we were frustrated by finding that there
was all this opposition from these Presbyterian landowners--
only to find that the WPA effort was found unconstitutional
in a project in Atlanta before we got it any further. But
when Congress finally enacted a legal thing, it applied,
for instance, to the Monterey Hills, where there isn't a
single house and there's no malaria. There's nothing at
all going on there, because in the first oil boom in the
city, where oil wells were built right in what is downtown
now, cheek by jowl, the whole Monterey Hills area was
assumed to have a lot of oil under it. And engineers laid
out tracts of land there on a rectilinear basis, with
streets that nobody could possibly climb because they're so
TAPE NUMBER: VI, SIDE TWO
OCTOBER 3, 1986
ALEXANDER: These lots that were not feasible to develop
were sold throughout the United States, from Maine to
Florida, to people who wanted to speculate in this oil that
was coming right out of the ground in downtown Los
Angeles. And this was only a half a mile or so away from
downtown, and it was just a perfect place for oil to be
found. They'd buy these lots, and then two or three
generations later, these people who had inherited these
lots would look in their safe-deposit box and see that this
lot must be valuable now. And it was not valuable to build
on. It didn't have oil under it, as far as anyone could
tell, and yet people were hanging onto this darned stuff.
And it was an uneconomic situation. So since it was not
economically viable, it became subject to redevelopment.
As far removed from slum clearance as you can possibly get,
but this was according to the law.
Now, you get to Bunker Hill, and that was a
combination of things. Bunker Hill redevelopment had been
planned one way or another for many, many years. One plan
was to bulldoze the thing down to make it honest and level
with the rest of the downtown city. That was the [Henry
A.] Babcock plan, by an engineer whom I respected very
much, but he made this for some downtown property owners.
I think that it was inevitable under the terms of the
redevelopment law [that] it should be redeveloped the way
that it was.
LASKEY: Was it possible to save part of Bunker Hill, at
least some of the older buildings that were part of the
heritage of the city? Was it ever considered?
ALEXANDER: I don't think it was ever considered. Of
course they were not respected the way they are today. So
politically it wasn't feasible. Practically, I don't see
how it could have been done. In that [John Randolph]
Haynes Foundation thing that I wrote, the second half that
was not published was devoted to a specific plan for the
development of Chavez Ravine as a place, a decanting place
for the people from Bunker Hill, in that plan right there.
LASKEY: This is Rebuilding the City: [A Study of
Redevelopment Problems in Los Angeles]. It's done in
1951. This is a map book.
ALEXANDER: Nineteen fifty-one, was it? Then it was
after. It was a long time before they got around to
redeveloping Bunker Hill.
LASKEY: But you do talk in this book, which I'm going to
come to a little later, about Bunker Hill being one of the
major areas considered for redevelopment. I think there
were eleven different areas that you list, and you talk
about Bunker Hill, and then the pictures and the
discussions on Chavez Ravine. And then the need for
revitalization or redevelopment of these areas because they
cost the city so much money.
ALEXANDER: Well, in a way it was a major victory to get a
portion of Bunker Hill devoted to residential use at all.
And it was a pioneering venture that seemed risky to people
who seemed interested in residential development. Because
why is it that people don't live downtown anymore? Well,
unless they had just come out from living on Park Avenue
[New York City], they couldn't imagine living downtown.
"Who would want to do that?"
LASKEY: Well, all the development had been away from
downtown, too. They were developing our valleys.
ALEXANDER: Well, we had to figure out how much it cost for
people to commute and how much they would save if they
lived in an apartment there and walked to work. I lived in
the twenty-three-story Bunker Hill Towers. I had an
apartment there in the seventies. Anyway, it was
inconceivable to a lot of people, especially developers or
people with money.
LASKEY: We're getting a little bit ahead of ourselves
here. We'll come back to Bunker Hill Towers. In talking
about the differences between the CRA and the city planning
commission, I think one of the watershed points, or what
you started to talk about some time ago and we never got
back to, was what happened to Forest Lawn.
ALEXANDER: How does Forest Lawn fit in with
redevelopment? Were you trying to get a connection there?
LASKEY: No, I think what happened to Forest Lawn is that,
well, essentially the planning commission was powerless in
the long run to stop what Forest Lawn did. Because you
don't have the powers that eventually the CRA would have.
You don't have that kind of clout.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. For instance, before the construction of
the freeway passed, well, what became Riverside Drive--
Before-- I don't know. What is that, the 605?
LASKEY: The Golden State [Freeway].
ALEXANDER: Before the construction of the Golden State
Freeway and before land was taken for various reasons
around there, the Forest Lawn property constituted an ideal
addition to Griffith Park in that it would provide a great
deal of relatively flat land, some of which has been taken
up by other uses since then. So, many people were plugging
for its use as Griffith Park. Well, we didn't have any
money. The [Los Angeles City Recreation and] Parks
department didn't have any money for that purpose. But if
we were the redevelopment agency, we'd say, "That's the
best use for that land. We'll buy it." And the planning
commission doesn't have that power. It can regulate, but
they can't say, "That's a great idea. We'll chip in on
it," which is what the redevelopment agency can do today.
The way that law works has its pros and cons, I
think. Especially since Proposition 13 a lot of counties
are raising hell with cities for having redevelopment areas
that detract from county taxes. The state law that permits
the redevelopment agency to impound the difference in taxes
between the taxes prior to development and the taxes after
redevelopment-- And I'll be darned if I know how they
handle inflation. But in any event, that gives them a hell
of a whack of money for something. Well, even in the city
of Carson, it was a big factor. And they tried to be good
citizens. I think they've done a remarkable job throughout
the state. I haven't heard of any real scandal in the
handling of this buying and selling of land. I mean
scandal in the usual political sense. They may be
scandalous in some people's eyes about some of the things
they do, but it's remarkable to me that in all that money
involved, there hasn't been, as far as I know, a big blowup
that there should have been, following history. I think
that once any redevelopment agency has paid through the
nose for land--in other words, the community in effect has
paid through the nose for acquiring land substandard in
some way--that the community should retain title to it
forever and simply lease that land. Eventually that might
mean that all cities would be leased land, which I think
would be good. I think the major curse of the cities is
caused by land speculation.
LASKEY: Did you propose this when you were on the planning
ALEXANDER: Yes, I talked about it.
LASKEY: They must have found that incredibly scandalous.
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes, that's communist, communist talk.
Especially regarding mass transit, I did a great deal of
calculating to convince myself, first, that it could be
done. If a mass rapid-transit system is planned, and
especially if it's planned not to compound the present
strangulation of congestion, but planned in areas that
would benefit most from a system, in other words, [areas]
not too highly developed at the present time-- And if,
before implementation, it would buy land in a half-mile
radius from each proposed station and then build the system
and lease the land after the system is in operation, the
system wouldn't cost them a nickel, except to the people
who leased the land, which would then be desirable as next
to a station.
Well, I even wrote about this proposal in great detail
with facts and figures and examples in history, in Canada
particularly, to a congressman whom I considered one of the
most liberal in the Congress, George [E.] Brown--great guy
as far as I'm concerned. He's the only congressman in
history who has twice voted one to 100 percent--! mean one
[against] everybody else. And each one was a Vietnam
appropriation. Anyway, he said, "It won't fly. It will be
called communist. You can't do it." Well, anyway, it's
not communist, but it makes great sense. We struggle on
and don't have any kind of a system. In planning the San
Francisco BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] system they didn't
even think to look into what the price escalation would be
in land around their stations until it was already half
built and they were in trouble. That's too late.
LASKEY: I'm always surprised when something like that
happens, because I assume that people who are involved in
these multibillion dollar operations, that's what they're
there for, to consider these aspects and to consider what
kinds of influences and inputs these major changes will
have on our lives. And so often these important elements
get overlooked. So what did happen with Forest Lawn?
ALEXANDER: Well, let's try to make it brief, I guess. Mr.
Eugene U. Blalock was the attorney and a member of the
board of Forest Lawn who planned everything and appeared
before the commission. He was an eloquent spokesman for
Forest Lawn. And he was quite aware of the new planning
law, in which he would have to apply for conditional use.
So he wanted to test it, he wanted to test the
cominissioners. I didn't realize this until much later.
But we got an innocent little application for a nineteen-
acre extension of the existing Forest Lawn into the city of
Los Angeles near Eagle Rock. It really didn't amount to
beans, but I found in reviewing it recently that it took
seventeen pages of minutes to record that little stinking
case that hardly anybody objected to. We surely didn't,
but we did require certain conditions. This was the first
conditional use we were asked to address, and during that
review he found only one commissioner who raised an
objection to something and that was Sam [P.] Lev, a real
estate man from the Valley who was naive and sweet as could
And later we got the first case of "a new and more
beautiful Forest Lawn" to serve the San Fernando Valley, to
be adjacent to Griffith Park on the Providencia Ranch. It
was a ranch that had been used by the movie industry for a
jillion westerns and right near Hollywood, very
convenient. I guess Warner Brothers [Inc.] did a lot of
pictures there. And we were alerted, just before it came
before us, by an editorial in the Hollywood Citizen News
that forecast just about what was going to happen. Well,
we soon found that Commissioner Lev was invited by Forest
Lawn to make an appraisal of the ranch. This was before it
was known to be proposed for a cemetery. And he even came
to the commission for their approval of his plan, that if
they [Forest Lawn] came before the commission with any
action, of course he would disqualify himself. So the
commission agreed that that was okay, not realizing that if
Forest Lawn could get three commissioners in that position
they would avoid going to the commission at all. Sure
enough, he did have to disqualify himself. And [Glen E.]
Huntsberger, another commissioner, a Cadillac automobile
dealer from the Valley, disclosed to us that his mother's
estate included a very large and valuable painting and
Forest Lawn was considering buying it. So he disqualified
himself. And a person that I had considered a good friend,
who lived in the [Baldwin Hills] Village as I did and was a
commissioner on one of the other commissions, approached me
one evening with the news that Forest Lawn would very much
like me to change my attitude, which had already been
revealed, and that if I did, I would get no end of
commissions from Forest Lawn--and they had a great big
LASKEY: Who was this?
ALEXANDER: The commissioner who approached me? An
advertising man. Bob Hixson, That's not important, anyway.
LASKEY: What was your response to that?
ALEXANDER: Well, I was disgusted. My response was, "I'm
not starving yet. My practice isn't in very good shape
yet, but Lord deliver me from that one." I was not
interested anyway. I didn't realize the implications until
later, after I had resigned from the commission in 1951.
After [Samuel W.] Yorty became mayor, I got a call from
[Charles] Luckman saying, "Yorty would like to appoint me
president of the planning commission. Would that interfere
in any way with my getting any city work?" I said, "Well,
it might not, but Roger Arnebergh, the city attorney, has
told me that it would be a felony." He said, "Well, thank
you very much." And he didn't accept the appointment. He
instead got the zoo. [laughter]
Well, anyway, it went through the first hearing. I
conducted both hearings. Because [William H.] Schuchardt ' s
[sense of] hearing was bad and he didn't feel able to
conduct a hearing, and Lev, who was vice president of the
commission, had disqualified himself. So Schuchardt asked
me to conduct the hearing in both cases. In the first one,
in 1946, we had five commissions 100 percent opposed. It
would be the [Los Angeles City] Board of Public Works-- You
see, the site proposed for this new and more beautiful
Forest Lawn was to have the Whitnall freeway go through
it. There was already a right-of-way for the city water
and power for a big power line through it. It drained into
the pumping station in the bed of the Los Angeles River,
[the source of] almost 17 percent of our water supply.
where it was feared by some that the embalming fluids in
thousands of bodies would contaminate the water system. So
we had the health department-- Well, there were five
commissions adamantly opposed. So in spite of Dr. Fifield
and all his pompous religious chicanery, we turned it
down. And the city council didn't have enough votes to
override. Incidentally, it was found that the conditional
use does not require the mayor's approval or veto. So he
had no chance to veto a conditional use. If it had been a
regular ordinance or a regular resolution, he could veto
it. So all [Forest Lawn] had to have was a two- thirds vote
to override us. But they couldn't get it that first
time. In the following two years, there was an election
and there were three new members of the city council. One
of those new members was immediately appointed chairman of
the planning committee of the council, a plum which no new
councilman had had before. And he later became a
supervisor and came into real ill repute on other things,
in any event.
LASKEY: This is Debs?
ALEXANDER: [Ernest E.] Debs, yes. Debs. In the second
go-around the council could override us and did. In the
meantime it was revealed in the Hollywood Citizen News that
the state law provided for a cemetery being automatic
wherever six or more bodies are buried. This was to take
care of a ranch, for instance, where people were buried on
their own property. And wherever six or more people were
buried that became automatically a cemetery; you couldn't
do anything about it. So in the period between the first
and second hearings. Forest Lawn, according to the
Hollywood Citizen News, found eight people who had died in
penurious circumstances, such as the deaf-mute husband of a
deaf-mute wife, who were in straits and to whom they
offered the full treatment of a Forest Lawn funeral,
flowers, cemetery, the whole bit--providing the widow would
sign an agreement that at their will Forest Lawn could move
the body at a later date to "a new and more beautiful
Forest Lawn. " So when the council was about to vote.
Forest Lawn had these eight bodies on ice outside the
fence, and the minute they got news via their walkie-talkie
that the council had overridden the planning commission,
they jumped the fence and started to bury bodies. There
were some other heartrending tales which I can go into.
LASKEY: That's incredible.
LASKEY: It really is.
ALEXANDER: Well, that's what happened.
LASKEY: That's what you had to deal with. I think it was
interesting because you wrote, "This was only one example
that led to my conclusion that the planning commission had
enough power to keep politics out of planning, except in
the most important cases."
During those years that you were on the planning
commission and before, you were also beset with political
problems and personal attacks.
ALEXANDER: Most of this had to do with my support of
public housing as a concept. During the Depression, it was
not only the Boy Scouts, but solid American citizens who
were lauded for their interest in helping the poorest
people. And I grew up with the understanding that part of
my life should be devoted to the community. During the
Depression I had personal experience in feeling poverty,
and I thought it was only natural and entirely the American
thing to do to support a movement that I thought would help
solve one of the most pressing problems in the land. This
view was shared by many, many people in the country,
especially in eastern older cities. And the people with
whom I associated in conferences on the problem, of course,
were all in favor of it. So it was somewhat of a shock to
find the virulent opposition of the real estate lobby in
California to the whole concept.
Mayor Bowron, for instance, had associates in the
National Council of Mayors, most of whom thought the public
housing movement was a great thing for cities. It was help
for one of their most pressing problems. He always took a
position to support me in my position regarding public
housing, as long as I made it clear that I was speaking for
myself and not for the city. His opponents and mine tried
to get me in various ways. They always would have to come
to the conclusion that I was nobody's employee, and hence I
could not be fired. Mayor Bowron supported me so that I
could not be discharged from the commission, and they had
no way to get at me except by innuendo and false statements
made in the press. This was part of the era that became
known as the McCarthy era, which I felt severely at times.
I remember, as a member of the American Planning and
Housing Association, I was invited to go to the first
international conference on development and elected to go
to the conference held in London. [I] stayed at a ladies'
college, with no ladies in it at the time the conference
went on, in Regents Park. It was Regents College, right
around the corner from Baker Street, where Sherlock Holmes
had lived. The opening address was to be given by Mr.
[Edward A.] Ackerman, who had been head of the TVA, the
Tennessee Valley Authority. I was approached the day
before with a request that I substitute for him, because he
was not going to speak "on advice." I found that "on
advice" meant that his State Department had told him not to
speak, because there were communists, people from behind
the Iron Curtain, attending the conference. So I agreed to
this. I don't know what I spoke about, but it wasn't the
TVA. But later, I visited some friends in Welwyn, one of
the original new towns, built about 1902, something like
that. It was one of the products of Ebenezer Howard's book
[Garden Cities of Tomorrow] . We were watching the telly,
and the Home Office was being questioned by one of the
members of the house: "Why are you opposed to this
meeting? This is the first time in recent English history
that we have objected to people speaking freely, no matter
where they're from or what they are speaking, as long as
they simply speak." He said, "Well, it's not their papers
and what they say at the conference, it's what they talk
about at teal" [laughter] Anyway, for the first time,
McCarthy got to the English. So I didn't know whether my
passport was going to be picked up or what.
Meantime, back at the ranch here, at Los Angeles, I
was a member of an organization that was fighting in favor
of Proposition 14, a statewide housing amendment or
measure. Such stalwart characters as Monsignor O'Dwyer,
Mrs. Sumner Spaulding, Frank [B.] Wilkinson, Shirley
Siegel, Hal [Harold F.] Wise, I think it is, and I, were
members of this committee [the Citizens Housing Council].
And there was an opposing committee, of course, with enough
money to hire a team of political promotionists . Without
our request or knowledge, some young lady who favored our
cause applied for and got a job as a secretary working for
this political group that was opposing us. And every
evening [she] would drop off into our mailbox a copy of an
interoffice memo or two. So that I soon found-- One memo
would ask, "Who's his boss? Who's Alexander's boss? Have
him fired." Who's this, that, and the other. It was
really a scream to get this inside view. However, I always
found it a comfort to realize that I was my own boss and
couldn't be fired and could speak my mind without rebuke.
LASKEY: Well, did they genuinely feel that you were a
communist, or were they using this as a means--
ALEXANDER: Sure they were using it.
LASKEY: --to get you out of their hair?
ALEXANDER: I used to sometimes speak in a lion's den such
as the Wilshire Realtors Association. I would start out by
saying that I was pretty sure that my opponent, as I did,
had driven there on socialized streets, under socialized
streetlights, and had walked on socialized sidewalks, had
just drunk a glass of socialized water, and had even been a
product of socialized education. And that our very country
was founded, our constitution was the result of a meeting
called by George Washington to discuss two socialist
enterprises, which the fledgling government carried out.
One was the Cumberland Road and the other one was the
Potomac Canal, both of them socialist enterprises. So I
supposed I was a socialist, along with my opponent.
Anyway, it was an exciting time and a frustrating time.
What else can I say?
LASKEY: Well, I know they--
ALEXANDER: Oh, another thing. I was in the index and in
the text of three successive Tenney Committee [California
State Legislature Joint Fact-finding Committee on Un-
American Activities] reports in the state of California.
The Tenney Committee was the state equivalent of the un-
American activities committee, HUAC, the House Un-American
Activities Committee. I was charged with absolutely
nothing; I was simply mentioned in the text. And any time
that some stalwart Bircher wanted to hurt me in some way,
he would simply say that I was in the Tenney report, and
this would scare the hell out of people. And this occurred
for years afterward.
After I was appointed consulting architect to
UCSD [University of California, San Diego], I was also at
the same time doing a city planning job for Escondido.
Escondido has almost as many retired admirals as Coronado
Island. It's a rock-ribbed Republican scene, which I knew
when I got the Job. And I was informed on one occasion by
the city manager that I was being accused of being a
communist because my name is in this Tenney Committee
report. [Jack B.] Tenney, incidentally, was ultimately
sent to jail for some corruption--! don't remember what.
And [I was informed] that [University of California]
President [Clark] Kerr had sent an emissary down from the
university to listen to my presentation before the council,
where it was bound to come up. So he said, "You had better
go around and see the newspaper editor or publisher, " the
local [one] (this was Escondido ) . Which I did. And he
asked me if I had had a security clearance. I said, "Yes,
I just happen to." And he said, "What was it and how did
you get it?" I just told him it was low clearance--it was
no special deal. But the Rand Corporation at one point
wanted me to be a consultant, and they said it would help
my work with them if I would get a security clearance,
which I had gotten. He said, "Can you get me a xerox?" So
I said, "Sure I could." Well, I hadn't gotten it before
the meeting, but the meeting went off without any problem
at all. I'm sure President Kerr was satisfied. But that's
just one of many instances where somebody would attempt to
interfere with my work or keep from having me hired to do a
job. It would happen many times, especially in school work,
LASKEY: And this would have been somewhat after the fact
of the McCarthy period.
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. That's 1961 or '62.
LASKEY: So the af teref fect--
ALEXANDER: It was ten years.
TAPE NUMBER: VII, SIDE ONE
OCTOBER 3, 1986
ALEXANDER: The accusations, for the most part, in the
Tenney Committee [California State Legislature Joint Fact-
finding Committee on Un-American Activities] reports were
that I was seen leaving a certain meeting with a certain
Frank [B.] Wilkinson. Frank Wilkinson was the public
affairs officer for the [Los Angeles City] Housing
Authority, [and] therefore a suspect character. And of
course, he became infamous in their eyes by refusing to
answer questions about his party affiliations at a later
date. A solid American citizen. And I personally felt
very close to the founding of our country (my ancestors had
been here three hundred years ago) and intimately concerned
with the American ideals, which of course made me more
suspect in the eyes of newcomers, witch-hunters. [laughter]
Well, at the same time this was going on, one of the
most important commissions I got at the time was to work
with Orange Coast College. Does that tie in with what you
were thinking about?
LASKEY: Yeah, just the fact that you did have a career,
that you had made the decision in 1945 to resume your
architecture career, and that you had a career that was
running concurrently with your time on the [Los Angeles]
City Planning Commission.
ALEXANDER: I was trying to get it started, yeah. One
thing, the Baldwin Hills Village organization was not
permitted by the War Production Board to build a commercial
center until after the war. I was commissioned to design
some shops and a Thrifty Mart. And at the same time, the
Baldwin Hills Company agreed to finance what amounted to an
office for me, as a field office in which I acquired a part
ownership, jointly owned by them and by me. So I had an
office which was a sort of a shack on skids. It was very
well lighted, served very well as a drafting room.
LASKEY: Now, was this at the site?
ALEXANDER: At the site on South La Brea Boulevard. So
from that I oversaw the design of shops and the
One of the first important commissions, important in
my future, was being hired by Orange Coast College. They
had sought the services of Herb [Herbert J.] Powell--Smith,
Powell, and Morgridge I believe was the firm name--who had
done community college work. As part of their [proposed]
contract to provide a master plan, they had insisted on
being the executive architects of [all] the work to
follow. And Basil Pederson, the president of the college,
refused to go along with such an idea. So I think I had
sort of a stall for an exhibit at a meeting, a statewide
meeting of school administrators, and Pederson and his
assistant in charge of business. Bill Kimes, approached me
for an interview and told me the story. I called Herb
Powell, and he said, "By all means, go ahead and take the
job if you want to have it on the basis that they will go
for." And I was only too eager to do so. The
understanding was simply a gentleman's agreement that I
would be paid on a time basis for the master planning.
There was no formal agreement that I would get to design
all the buildings in the master plan, but that I should be
assured of their good will, and that as long as I provided
satisfactory services, I would do their work. Well,
Pederson was a careful Mormon who abhorred being in debt
and refused to go along with any thought of a bond issue
(which was going into debt) and insisted on a tax-rate
increase of ten cents a hundred or something like that, so
that he could build one building a year.
ALEXANDER: Cash on the barrel head. So every year for ten
years I had a budget for a certain building and I was to
spend as much of that budget as I could in building what I
was building, but I was not to spend any more. This was
quite a trick, especially when the Korean War came along
and all of a sudden we had inflation. But over a period of
years, we performed very well as far as our estimates
versus the final costs were concerned. And in each case, I
designed the building and had a joint-venture agreement
with [Dick] Pleger, who had his office in Newport Beach in
the district and who performed the construction services.
This went along swimmingly until Orange County architects
split from the Southern California chapter [of the American
Institute of Architects (AIA)] to form their own Orange
County chapter, at which point they sent a committee around
to see the board of directors of the Orange Coast College
district, insisting that an architect with an office in
Orange County should be hired instead of me. So the
directors, with tears in their eyes, at the next meeting
told me that they had decided what they should do, in spite
of the fact that my services were satisfactory and so on
and so forth. So I found myself in the unenviable position
of being a firm AIA supporter and finding the goddamned
organization doing something that an individual architect
was prohibited from doing. In any event--
LASKEY: Did you protest?
ALEXANDER: No, it would just have caused more bad-- I
mean, would it get me anywhere? No, I didn't protest.
LASKEY: How much had you done for Orange Coast College at
ALEXANDER: Well, I ' ve a record somewhere. I think there
were fifteen projects in ten years, one right after
LASKEY: You'd done the master plan, and then you had done
quite a number of buildings.
ALEXANDER: Well, I think there were probably ten
buildings, plus underground electric, this, that, and the
LASKEY: Was your master plan followed after you were no
longer associated with them?
ALEXANDER: No. I mean, they didn't tear anything down.
You see, this was started before Disneyland, at a time when
more than half the campus was devoted to agriculture,
because one of the prime employers in the area was
LASKEY: Now, we haven't established where the college is.
ALEXANDER: Well, it's in Costa Mesa, which is northeast of
Newport Beach and Balboa. The place has grown so
drastically--that is, changed drastically--and the entrance
at one time when it was originally founded-- Oh,
incidentally, the site had been owned by the air force as a
training base, not an airfield, and it became surplus
property after the war. So a public agency like the junior
college district or community college district could obtain
the land free of charge, as well as any buildings on it.
So they started the college [with] the existing air force
buildings, all of which, except the chapel, were condemned
by the state as unsatisfactory for seismic forces, and they
permitted the college to continue to use them, providing
that within a certain period of time they had supplanted
all of the air force buildings or brought them up to
code. So we had to play hopscotch; we couldn't tear down a
building until we had something to replace it, and that
should go in the right place in the ultimate plan. So this
was kind of a hopscotch trick.
LASKEY: So the school was being carried out in the
abandoned barracks of buildings, and you had to build a new
campus almost around these extant buildings.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, since that appeared to be the best site
for the buildings and the least desirable for agriculture--
that was a big important point. And the entrance, the main
drag, still exists, but the frontage on the main drag has
long since been sold by the junior college district for
millions. And so the entrance to the college is from the
opposite side from where we started; however, it's much
closer to the center of the buildings. Well, having a new
type of building with new requirements each year meant that
I-- Since I was being a student of the situation, I had the
time and took the energy to explore the specific needs of
each building in detail and compare it and go around and
look at other buildings of the same use on other campuses
to see how they can be improved and so on. So that I
became intimately familiar as an individual person, aside
from the staff, with all of these academic and community
needs and uses.
Dr. Pederson was one of the prime movers and leaders
in the community college movement in California. He based
the college curriculum on a study of the job opportunities
in the area. Of course, over a period of years, before he
left his position, the needs of the community had changed
radically. In fact, I remember in the first building,
which was a technology building, in the portion devoted to
classrooms we recommended removable and reusable
partitions, not knowing that within the first year of use,
they would find that TV repair suddenly became an important
employer. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing during the
war. I mean, it was known that there was such a thing, but
nobody knew that it was going to go boom! So we had to
change the use of certain rooms in that building to TV
repair rooms and to different sizes and so forth. And it
meant that in the first year of use, the additional cost of
using removable and reusable partitions was paid for, but
it was just by luck. But things changed radically. Where
cattle raising and feeding was an important part of the
program at the beginning--and I designed a cattle-feed shed
as one of the items and a cattle-feed mill--today it's
LASKEY: Do they even use it anymore as an agricultural
ALEXANDER: No, I think it's been scrapped.
LASKEY: Well, I noticed on the list of credits for the
college that Eckbo, Royston, and Williams were the
landscape architects. Garrett Eckbo became an important
name in landscape architecture--maybe he was then. How did
you happen to get involved with him?
ALEXANDER: Well, I had gotten to know him in the heady
public housing days. He was about as patriotic and radical
as I was. Before establishing my office in that little
building on South La Brea at the end of Baldwin Hills
Village, I told Ray Knisley, the head of the Baldwin
estate, who was also the head of Baldwin Hills Village,
that I did need office space and did he have any
suggestions. And he said that right across the street was
the Sunset Fields Golf Course, and part of the installation
was a little nineteenth hole where they had sandwiches and
coffee and some drinks and so forth.
LASKEY: This is across La Brea?
ALEXANDER: Across La Brea. And next to this little
nineteenth hole was a breakfast club that had not been used
since before the war. It was a great big lamella-roofed
warehouse- type building. I could have had two hundred
draftsmen in there. He said, "You can use the whole darned
thing, or part of it, free of charge. We're going to tear
it down one of these days." They tore it down when the
shopping center on Crenshaw Boulevard was built by A.
[Albert] C. Martin [Jr.]. Well, anyway, there was a great
big window looking out over the golf course right next to
the little building that had the food in it. So I put some
plywood partitions across, sixteen feet from the wall, and
this wonderful wide window. And I had myself and the
drafting board in there and--
LASKEY: That was it?
ALEXANDER: That was it. Well, I had some big drafting
board tables that I bought from Lockheed [Aircraft],
surplus postwar stuff. One day, after I had been
commissioned by the church at Baldwin Hills Village to
design a church for them at the corner of La Brea and
Coliseum [Street], Garrett Eckbo walked in and said, "We've
decided to start a southern branch of Eckbo, Royston, and
Williams, and my wife and I are down here to start it."
LASKEY: He'd been operating in the [San Francisco] Bay
ALEXANDER: Yes, oh yes, and I knew him pretty well and
liked him very much. So I said, "Okay. You have an
office?" He said, "No." I said, "You're welcome to use
the space. And I have my first job for you, which is this
church." So he designed the landscaping for the church,
and before he put up a shop elsewhere he had drafting
space. And that's how I knew him. He did all of my
landscape work until I got a major project for the air
force to design family housing, and he refused to do any
work for any military establishment. I took the position
that it was for the poor bastards and their families who
were in it, but he took the position that it was still for
the military and he would have none of it. So I went to
Bettler [C] Baldwin for a few projects. Eventually I went
back to Garrett's firm, so that he's done almost all the
[landscaping] work for me during my entire career. And I
see him frequently now.
LASKEY: I was going to ask you if you see him now.
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. Good friend.
LASKEY: Well, when you got the contract for Orange Coast
College, which was just two years after the church, how
large was your office then? Was it still just you?
ALEXANDER: No. By the time the commercial project at the
end of Baldwin Hills Village was a contract, I could move
my office right down there where the action was. So then I
had an office. It was mostly Bobs: Robert Pierce, who was
with me forever, almost forever, and Robert Hindinger and
Robert [A.] Kennard.
LASKEY: Oh, good grief. Was it requisite that they be
ALEXANDER: No. But it turned out that way.
LASKEY: What did you call each other?
ALEXANDER: Bob. Just say Bob.
LASKEY: Just say Bob and everybody looked up.
ALEXANDER: By that time, Walter Graydon was with me. So
we had the Baldwin Hills shops (I started one building),
the master plan, and a building at Orange Coast College.
LASKEY: Now, in the process, at the same time, you had
become involved with UCLA.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I was going to mention that next, yeah.
That was an amusing thing. A list of projects was in the
paper on the building program for UCLA, and it was an
ambitious, big program. I could see that I didn't stand a
prayer of a big job, but I would take a look at anything I
could get. I took a look at one of them; it was the UCLA
elementary demonstration school [UES] , which was a very
small project compared to the others. So I asked Carl [C]
McElvy, whom I had known when he was in charge of a private
group working on a beach plan for Southern California
beaches. I was on the planning commission and he was in
charge of this office set up by P. [Percy] G. Winnett. He
had become the head of the architectural engineering office
of the campus at UCLA. So I knew him, and I called him and
I said, "How do you get a job there?" He said, "Well, the
consulting architect is Dave [David C] Allison. If he
gives the green light you're pretty sure to be recommended.
and you'll probably get it if it's not overly contested by
a lot of other people." So I said, "Oh, yeah, I know Dave,
but he doesn't know anything I can do. I mean, I don't
know him well. He doesn't know my architectural ability."
But Dave had an art studio. He had retired from the
office, and he painted in a little studio out in the [San
Fernando] Valley somewhere--I forget where. So I called
him and made an appointment to see him. My school
experience had been in designing new elements and
remodeling and so forth for a Los Angeles city school. I
forget which one right now, Manchester Avenue or
something. Anyway, I was not proud of the results. So
when Dave asked me, "What schools have you designed?" I
said, "None." He said, "Well, you may be just the guy for
the job. You know, this UCLA outfit is crazy. They're not
like a normal school." He said, "How would you go about
it?" I said, "Not knowing them at all, I would attend
classes, I would see what they're doing, I would ask
questions, I would try to find out what their requirements
are." And he said, "That sounds good." He said, "I think
I'll recommend you, as long as you haven't done another
So that was the first prestige job that I got because
I hadn't designed anything like it, or said I hadn't. This
resulted in a very satisfying relationship with the
faculty, and Bob Pierce was my mainstay and at my side at
all times. I conducted meeting after meeting, hundreds of
meetings, I guess, with the faculty. I even sent my two
kids there to summer school to see how it was from a
worm's-eye view, and I attended classes when it was over in
the neighboring-- Was it Nelson Street? Corinne [A.] Seeds
conducted a demonstration school in a nearby public school.
LASKEY: Oh, I didn't know that.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, did you know about Corinne Seeds? She
founded that teaching school when UCLA's predecessor was
the [State] Normal School on the site of the library.
ALEXANDER: Then it was [for] the library that people put
up $400,000 in gold coin to buy the site from the state,
[which] gave the state the ability to set up a school on
Vermont [Avenue] . And from there it went to UCLA. She
followed it all the way from the library site out to
UCLA. She had studied under [John] Dewey and [William H.]
Kilpatrick and espoused the Dewey system of learning by
doing. And I found it fascinating. The first elements
that we designed and built at that time were influenced by
the fact that they said 50 percent of their instruction
would probably take place outdoors. And it takes a half an
hour for your eyes to adjust from indoors to outdoors,
usually. So I put in skylights, which had advantages for
that, but they [the faculty] also wanted to be able to show
slides. Then that resulted in an ugly contrast between the
wonderful light. But we had to devise shades. I mean, we
didn't know anything about mechanical shutters or anything
like that. But I thoroughly enjoyed working with every
project that they had for all six grades and kindergarten,
and devising a place for a log cabin in the middle of a
grove of redwood trees that had been planted twenty-two
LASKEY: You might describe the site.
ALEXANDER: The site is at the end of Stone Canyon,
parallel to Sunset Boulevard, adjacent to the north
entrance to the campus. And since it was not really part
of the campus as [George B.] Allison conceived of it, he
said it did not have to conform to the Etruscan or
LASKEY: Northern Italian Renaissance.
ALEXANDER: Right. So I was freed by him from conforming
to style. And everything derived from observations and
discussions with the faculty and students. One of their
projects-- Each year there was a theme [for each class]
that ran through, sometimes only half a year, that had been
developed by some graduate student and tried out and found
out to be the most successful for engaging the interest in
that age group. Included [in the plan] was something
called the museum, which contained artifacts which would be
brought out at the beginning of a term of instruction and
would provide an exhibit for each grade which would pique
their interest in a subject. So from then on, their entire
course of study was motivated by their questions and
curiosity aroused by these artifacts. For instance, one
course of study would be built around the theme of the
westward movement in America, and as a part of that
exercise there would be a log cabin--or it wasn't a log, it
was actually a board and bat cabin — rustic, out in the
redwood grove, and unknown to the building inspector. Not
that it was unsafe or anything like that, but it wasn't a
part of the official plans. There would be a waterwheel
for the sixth graders to see how power was made, in this
stream that flowed through the property.
I was told at the very beginning by McElvy, "You're
going to have to put that stream in a culvert." And I
said, "Are you sure?" So we had a major contest in which
the city brought in experts from the health department to
show how it [the stream] was going to cause all kinds of
diseases to the poor students: "They are going to fall in
and get wet, mosquitoes are going to breed and sting them
to death, and there is a hotel upstream and you don't know
what they might put in the water." And I stuck by my guns
and got the wholehearted backing of not only the students
and the faculty, but the parents. And the final clincher
was that it was going to cost $300,000 to put it in the
LASKEY: That's always the final clincher.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, Anyway, they built a replica of Los
Angeles harbor into which they could divert stream water.
The Spanish heritage in Southern California was for-- I
forget which grade, but they built an adobe oven outdoors,
outside of the classroom, for baked bread and stuff like
that. And in the process, I found that they learned simple
arithmetic naturally, as a by-product of living and of
studying these various things. What do you call it? A
LASKEY: What were the classrooms like, aside from the
skylights? Did you make special adjustments for the
ALEXANDER: Well, the inside-outside teaching was simply
sliding glass doors and skylights. But this was a
demonstration school, and that meant graduate students
would come in to observe how teaching was taught. And I
originally thought, well, we're going to have to provide
long slits of one-way mirror, one-way vision glass. Not at
all. I was told that that would result in curiosity on the
part of the kids. They'd find out soon, and then they'd be
anxious about what was going on back there. So in visiting
many classes, I found that the kids didn't pay any
attention. The older students, the graduate students,
would take their places in the classroom in a segregated
area. The kids by that time were so excited about what
they were doing they could care less, and they got used to
it. Maybe the first time that happened, that wasn't true,
but I saw that it didn't make any difference. So that was
a lesson well learned. We did position certain outdoor
activities related to certain classes, classrooms.
And one thing about this means of teaching that few
people realize until they try to do it is that it takes
more work on the part of the staff and teachers than
teaching by rote and doing what the school board tells you
to do. A setup was devised in which two classrooms were
joined at one end by a teachers' preparation room. There
would be a student teacher in each of the classrooms and a
master teacher overseeing both of them. And behind the
scenes, in this big teacher's preparation room, they did
all the things that made the system work. It was just
difficult and more exciting, and the children learned more
and better. Every year or so there would be an uprising of
concerned parents: "Johnny hasn't even learned such and
such a table. He doesn't know the table of the sixes or
the sevens." Well, they didn't teach it by rote until the
fifth or sixth grade, whereas in the elementary school or
in the public school system, they start out day one with
these tables until it becomes like brushing your teeth.
Anyway, it was found in several studies that the kids who
went to Emerson Junior High [School] from UC UES
[University Elementary School, UCLA] had a better
preparation for arithmetic than those who came from public
elementary schools. Well, that was very exciting, and I
enjoyed it thoroughly.
And it was many years later when McElvy, still at
UCLA, called me and said, "They're going to have an
addition for kindergarten and nursery school, and our
policy, normally, is to go to the original architect.
Would you like to continue it?" And I said, "You bet." So
that's the way Neutra and Alexander are credited with the
addition for the kindergarten and nursery school.
There was a funny thing that happened on the way to
the elementary school. The entrance was planned in such a
way that there was an enormous sycamore tree right next to
the entrance to the administration building and hence to
the whole classroom complex.
LASKEY: Right near the Sunset--
ALEXANDER: On the Sunset side. There's parking along
there in the strip. It was a sort of a sentimental
relationship between this enormous sycamore tree and the
entrance to the school. Two weeks before construction was
to start, the tree fell down right on top of where the
school was going to be. And it turned out that everything
had looked solid on the outside and the inside was all
hollow, eaten out by insects, termites. Just luck.
LASKEY: Absolute luck.
ALEXANDER: The site was so beautiful. When I first saw
it, I saw a pair of fawn and their nursing mother on the
far bank of the little stream. I saw raccoons. It was
just a delightful little dell.
LASKEY: It still is.
ALEXANDER: Well, it's been spoiled to some extent. They
put a school for the deaf or blind or somebody.
LASKEY: Oh, the [Grace M.] Fernald School, that sort of--
ALEXANDER: Whatever it is.
LASKEY: Sort of at the end.
ALEXANDER: They did put the stream in a pipe there. But
that took a piece of the site. That was too bad, anyway,
LASKEY: It still functions well.
ALEXANDER: I enjoyed meeting with the parents, who were an
intelligent lot and gave me a lot of support when it came
to questions about this strange-looking edifice. It was
very strange looking.
LASKEY: Because of the skylights, the configurations of
ALEXANDER: Well, it curved along the stream bank. It had
a jagged roofline with the skylights facing north. Before
this happened, I had thought a lot, philosophically, about
what I should do as a typical approach to a building. One
thing was to engage the fine arts in some way at the
beginning, so that from the very start something would
become part of the building and not something stuck onto
it. So I had interviews with sculptors. Pigot Waring was
one and Tony Rosenthal was another. I selected Tony, and
then I told Carl McElvy that my plan was to have sculpture
as part of the thing. He said, "You can't get that by the
regents." I said, "Well, if it's within the budget?" He
said, "Well, maybe, but you won't know that until you get
So I refused to lead the guy [Rosenthal] on to spend a
lot of time on what he was going to do until we got to a
point of having everything designed and we took bids. And
of course at that point it's too late to really make it a
part of the building. But there was money left over, and
McElvy said, "What if you forgot something?" I said, "I
don't think we forgot very much." "Well," he said, "there
is money, so you go ahead and do what you can do." So I
talked with Tony, who talked to the faculty and some of the
students, and we found that they would like a theme symbol
for the school. The symbol, as Tony conceived it, would
consist of a pylon supporting a bronze platform on which
there would be three animals representing the three great
land masses of the earth, and it would represent "one
world." The other thing was just outside the library in
the little court, what I call the reading court, there
would be a fountain or something like that. Well, they
didn't want any water that people would drop books in.
They didn't want a pool, but it might be okay if we had a
spray pool. So Tony devised some fish on stilts with
Well, Welton Becket by then was the consulting
architect--Allison had resigned--and Welton called me into
his office to demand to know what's this about sculpture.
And I told him enthusiastically. He said, "One world--
that's Henry Wallace, isn't it?" I said, "No, it's Wendell
Willkie." He said, "Oh. Well, you better be careful about
those fish. Someone's going to fall and put his eye out in
those." I said, "Well, if I get the permission of the
parents, what do you think?"
TAPE NUMBER: VII, SIDE TWO
OCTOBER 4, 1986
LASKEY: I noticed that you won a distinguished award from
the Southern California chapter of the American Institute
of Architects for that building.
ALEXANDER: That was the Southern California chapter
award. There was no national award program at that time.
Southern California led the nation in having that event.
Actually, to explain that honestly, I had-- As soon as the
war ended, I had certain objectives that I had made up. I
mentioned the one about involving fine arts in any
project. I also thought I would try to obtain projects in
the very highly scientific field of health services,
hospitals, and that sort of thing. And to counterbalance
that in the opposite end of the spectrum, as I saw it, I
would try to get religious-related works, where emotion and
spirit were the main considerations. And in the process I
became involved in the Baldwin Hills [Community] Church and
Well, another part of what I decided to do, and
carried out, was to join the AIA, go to every convention.
Over a period of fifteen years I went to every one, maybe
more than that. This had a background of having been asked
by Dave [David J.] Witmer--was that prewar?--when there was
going to be a convention in Los Angeles. That was
prewar. Dave Witmer was the chairman of a committee of the
Southern California chapter to host the convention, and he
said nobody on his committee had the time to put in and
would I agree to put in full time for a modest salary. And
I jumped at the chance because it gave me an opportunity to
get to know people. Among other things, I searched for a
principal speaker, keynote speaker for the convention, and
got to know Wally [John E. Wallace] Sterling, later
Stanford University president, but at the time head of the
[Henry E.] Huntington Library and Art Gallery, I should
say. And he had become well-known by giving foreign-events
commentary on the radio, and I found him to be a very
exciting, charming character. So this humdrum legwork for
the AIA proved very interesting and rewarding. As a result
of that effort I joined the AIA, the Southern California
chapter, and figured at the end of the war I would become
as active as possible in the organization and also that I
must get nationwide publicity. So I went out of my way and
sacrificed to make trips to the East Coast, stopped in New
York every occasion I could, got to know the editors of the
three main architectural magazines, and that, again, over a
period of time paid off. Well, this is background to talk
about that award for the elementary school.
LASKEY: What did you see as the function and goals of the
ALEXANDER: Well, getting to know architects in other parts
of the country on a noncompetitive basis. I mean, getting
to know architects in the Los Angeles region was getting to
know your enemies, [or] whatever you want to call them. In
some cases they acted that way. But there was a vast
difference between somebody like Herb Powell, who looked
upon a colleague not so much as a competitor but as someone
who could be helped by sharing experience, and on the other
hand, a prominent member of the AIA Southern California
chapter. When I called to ask him if I could see his
working drawing plan for a student center at a community
college, he said, "Why, that's unprofessional." I said,
"What do you mean it's unprofessional? I'm not going to
copy the darn thing. It's not unprofessional." Well, he
insisted that it's unprofessional. I said, "Well, I don't
need to see your drawings. I'll go around and see the
building, anyway. I've been asked to do that by my client,
and I'm going to do it. You can't stop me from seeing
it." But there are two diametrically opposed viewpoints.
One is highly competitive and secretive and the other wants
to share everything that he does and knows.
Well, okay. I wanted to say something about awards.
It didn't occur to me at the time, but it has since. What
happened at the time that the UES got the distinguished
honor award, at the same award ceremony I received awards
for-- Let's see, were there three? They were not
distinguished awards, but they were honor awards for three
buildings at Orange Coast College and a special award for
the feeding shed at Orange Coast College. Well, the story
behind that, as I look at it now, is that number one, my
classmate from Cornell [University], Larry [Lawrence B,]
Perkins of Perkins and Will [Partnership], was on the
jury. And whereas I think his partner Phil [Philip] Will
[Jr.] wouldn't be swayed by friendship and so forth, a
thing like this, Larry was the kind, if he knew or thought
that I had been involved with something, he'd probably be
inclined to favor it. But the main thing was that Bill
[William W.] Wurster was a member of the jury, and at a
previous convention, a national convention, I was one of a
few upstart young squirts who objected to the trend in
selecting officers of the AIA nationally, which seemed to
confine those elected to a rather small group of eastern
architects who we looked upon as very stuffy and not very
damn good designers and so on and so forth. So we put on a
minicampaign at this convention to get Wurster elected as
president of the AIA. We did not succeed, but Wurster, I
think, was swayed by that in my favor. This is the way I'm
looking at it now. You see, at the time I thought, good
god, am I not something! I had five honor awards in one
Well, be that as it may, the designs had something to
do with it, I'm sure. Of course Larry Perkins, especially
with schools-- At that time the firm Perkins and Will did
nothing but schools, and the UES design was an absolutely
radically different design. It had a lot of thought behind
it, had a lot of faculty and student involvement, and so
forth. And he recognized that.
LASKEY: It was also your first published work, wasn't it?
ALEXANDER: It could very well be.
LASKEY: I think it was in John Entenza ' s Arts and
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah, but before that-- Maybe that was the
first one, I'm not sure. Anyway, there was a marvelous
editor of the [Architectural] Forum--I forget his name now--
prior to Haskell. What was his name? [P. J. Prentice]
Anyway, there was a really great architectural editor of
the Forum magazine before Doug [Douglas] Haskell, who saw
me, I guess, just as I was working on UES. And he said,
"You know, the people around the country would be
interested in this. This is a good one. I'd like to have
it published in the Forum." So I said, "How does one go
about things like this?" He said, "Well, the best way to
do is to offer your work to one publisher. Don't broadcast
it. And if the publisher or the editor says, 'Okay, we're
interested,' stick by that and don't dilute your efforts."
So I did that.
And at the next convention of the architects, [the
AIA] national convention, I met Doug Haskell, and he had
been the editor of the Architectural Record. I remember we
were in a hotel room. Doug was getting chummy with me and
he said, "How about the UES? Is that ready for publication
yet?" I said, "Yes, but I promised it to the Architectural
Forvim. " He said, "Well, I'm the new editor of the
Forum." So he was a wonderful guy, just great.
Well, that's about that. Where are we?
LASKEY: Well, we were talking about the AIA and UES. Then
at the same time you were doing UES, you were doing the
Baldwin Hills Elementary School.
ALEXANDER: Well, there's really no connection there,
except that I wanted to design the school where my kids
would go. I think you should understand- -anyone should
understand--the system in an enormous public school system
like that of Los Angeles. In order to keep peace in the
family and keep people quiet, the people in charge of
passing out school work seem to have a rotary index file,
which they turn in such a way that they pass the work
around. They'd be so highly criticized by concentrating on
one superb firm dealing in nothing but schools, so they
attempt to spread the work. So if you get your turn, then
you don't get another turn for a while. And since I lived
in Baldwin Hills Village, I called on the school board [Los
Angeles Unified School District Board of Education] to get
work. They knew I was on the planning commission, which
sometimes has school matters brought before it. I was
accused by one of using my supposed influence in order to
get work, but that was not my intent, at least. Anyway, it
was just logical that I get the Baldwin Hills school.
At that time-- Here I go. It is hard to remember
names when you haven't dealt with them for fifty years or
something. But the main representative of the state
division of school planning was a very exciting guy whose
main push was excellent day lighting for schools. And
being interested in things like natural day lighting, I
figured where the sun rises and where it sets and what time
schools open and when are the most important periods of the
day to-- Well, for instance, in the Baldwin Hills area,
when do you want to keep the direct sunlight off your
desk? This resulted in finding out that, sure enough, in
the summertime, the sun sets pretty far north of west and
rises pretty far north of east, and that the sun was
welcome early in the morning when the kids first go to
school, but late in the afternoon, especially in Southern
California, it's hotter than hell and the glare's
terrible. So this resulted in orienting the school
classrooms to the southeast. [tape recorder off]
LASKEY: Okay, before we go on, I think I should correct
something that I said, which was that your first published
project was actually the Baldwin Hills church, and that was
published by John Entenza in [Arts and] Architecture
magazine in 1946. So the UES was published in the Forum,
am I right?
ALEXANDER: That is correct. And I don't know what the
date of that was.
What was it you suggested we get into? Oh, the Schmoo
House. Oh, that was an amusing incident. Through my
efforts on behalf of public housing, I found that my main
official enemy was the American Association of Home
Builders, and I was simply flabbergasted when they
officially asked me to design a postwar house for the
returning veteran. I figured that the returning veteran
was someone who, typically, was just forming a family and
he didn't have the money to start with to support the size
of house that he ultimately might need, and yet he might
like to stay in the same place if he could. So one
objective of the design was to have something that was
expandable. Another objective, of course, was economically
to make it as inexpensive as we could and still offer
amenities that were not customary at the time in housing
that was available to them. I figured that just as a
matter of principle, a square plan is less costly than a
long, thin, rectangular plan and that a two-story cube
should be the most economical plan of all. So I designed a
two-story cube with the adaptability of adding rooms to it,
and the concept of this adding rooms indefinitely reminded
me of the cartoons regarding the Schmoos. Now, who was the
author of those cartoons? Do you recall?
LASKEY: Al Capp.
ALEXANDER: Oh yeah, Al Capp.
LASKEY: Part of the "L'il Abner" strip, wasn't it?
ALEXANDER: So I wrote Al Capp asking permission to call
this design the Schmoo House. He responded graciously,
giving me permission and pointing out that he had never
given permission to anyone before to use the Schmoo, except
in his own cartoons.
LASKEY: What were the Schmoos?
ALEXANDER: The Schmoos? They were little animals who
could grow and grow and grow or reproduce and reproduce and
reproduce and expand at will. The main concept was their
expandability at will.
LASKEY: Didn't they also gratify everybody's wishes?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes.
LASKEY: They were sort of altruistic little creatures.
ALEXANDER: That's right, that's right. They'd do anything
to make you happy. Yep. Okay, well, we made cost
estimates and proved the economy of the darned thing and
that it could be made attractive in appearance. But the
two-storyness was anathema to the Southern California home
builder, who figured the public wasn't ready for that
yet. So it went over like a lead balloon and was never
LASKEY: You had a similar situation with Donald [W.]
Douglas [ Jr . ] .
ALEXANDER: At the end of the war, I was still working at
Lockheed [Aircraft] or some period after V-J Day. My main
chore there at the time was to reduce the number of
indirect workers--that is, workers that were not actually
working on the assembly line building something that was
necessary to be built. It's easy enough when you have so
much to build and so many rivets to place and you can see
how many men you need, or women, and you can reduce the
manpower easily in proportion to the work that has to be
done. In the case of indirect workers, those who are not
right on the assembly line but who are necessary to perform
some function, it's very difficult to get a handle on their
need or usefulness. Yet you know darn well if you're
trying to run the company that you ' re going to have to
reduce that area in proportion to the workers. So that was
quite a chore.
Anyway, it was a time, this brief period at the end of
the war was a time when every big airframe manufacturer in
the country was scratching his head: What am I going to do
with this plant and with all these employees? Almost
universally they came to the conclusion that the biggest
postwar need that had not been met all during the past five
years was housing for the returning veteran, and that they
could get into prefabricated housing, which became the
great dream. It had been a prewar dream, for that
matter. But this was going to be the great opportunity:
they had the plant, the equipment, the people, the need,
and they were going to meet the demand. Well, Bucky [R.
Buckminster] Fuller designed a house along the lines of an
airframe, aluminum. Everything came rolled in a big roll
of aluminum, all the parts for the house, and it was made
in Wichita, Kansas. I forget the name of the aircraft. Is
LASKEY: I'll check it. [Beech Aircraft Company]
ALEXANDER: Also, of course, Donald Douglas [of Douglas
Aircraft Company] had several plants around the country--
and there was talk of it at Lockheed. I was approached one
time by the representative of United Auto Workers [UAW] to
head their task force on housing, including prefab
housing. Shortly after I left Lockheed, Howard [L.]
Holtzendorff called me. He was the director of the housing
authority and told me that he had been asked by Douglas to
work on their dream, on Douglas's dream of prefab
housing. The reason he was called in was that he had
developed a very good rapport with organized labor, both
from a standpoint of their sympathy with the cause of
housing poor people and from the standpoint of good labor
relations being required to get public housing built. He
had been quite successful in working with organized labor,
and this appealed, of course, in the building trades, about
which Donald Douglas knew nothing. (He wanted this
protection from the beginning. )
Howard asked me in on the design of the house as a
consultant and told me that Douglas had a crew of some
sixty engineers working on getting the bugs out of using
the Lincoln panel as a basic building material. The
Lincoln panel was a sandwich of anything, such as aluminum
or hardboard or flitches of plywood, on two sides of a
honeycomb. And in this case the honeycomb was made of
craft paper, and it was similar in design or in principle
to the Christmas bells which come all folded up, and which
you open as if they were a butterfly and they turn into a
three-dimensional Christmas bell. These come in at all
sizes. They consist of paper that is pasted together at
intervals, so that when they open there is revealed a sort
of a honeycomb of air surrounded by these paper things.
Well, this had been developed by a man named Lincoln
as a concept, and it was a great concept, especially if it
worked perfectly, if the gluing was just right. Because
very often what would happen would be the uneven
application of the glue in such a way that when prongs are
put on two sides of this wedged paper block, which when
expanded is supposed to become a honeycomb-- [It] would be
pulled apart, hopefully to become a honeycomb, except that
it would be great big egg crates in one location, little
teeny-weeny close together ones in another. And it was a
very uneven process. So one thing that Douglas engineers
did was to design a machine that succeeded in gluing the
craft paper uniformly, so that unerringly it would expand
evenly when pulled apart. And the craft paper then became
the vehicle for plastic, which was sprayed on it, and this
liquid plastic would harden the paper. This plastic
honeycomb then would hold the two sheets of whatever you
used on the outside, would hold them apart, and also become
Well, this Lincoln panel has become widely used in
such things as inexpensive doors, interior doors. And with
aluminum on both sides it becomes used on things like
panels in aircraft construction. If you want to put a
floor in above the baggage compartment, it's the lightest
weight for its strength of any such material. And, in any
event, that was the basic thought behind the prefab. The
problem with any kind of prefab concept is that it's a
cinch to work out something that will build the shell, but
that's overlooking the fact that we've become used to
having indoor plumbing and wiring all over the place, and
people have become used to having a plug wherever they need
it. And it's rather difficult to make things work in
panels that can go together and also have all these
advantages. In any event, we had worked up a plan for a
typical house--I should say for a model house. This was
going to be used in arctic regions, because these
sandwiches did have an excellent heat insulation value,
considering their weight and construction and so forth.
Anyway, we had a full-size mock-up, or a full-size
model, of the house built and erected in the parking lot of
the Douglas "blackout plant, " which was the Douglas plant
down in Lakewood, or maybe it's called Long Beach now.
It's just on the border of Lakewood and Long Beach, and it
was then the "blackout plant." So the great day came when
we were to make our presentation. An engineer described
the manufacture of the thing, I described the plan, Howard
Holtzendorff described the labor, and so on and so forth.
And at the end of my pitch I said, "And in order to reach
the widest market, of course, we have to get the cost down
to a reasonable extent. We therefore propose that the
profit be not more than 10 percent." And Mr. [Donald W. ]
Douglas, Sr., rose in righteous indignation and said, "Ten
percent, forget it." And that was the end of the Douglas
dream of prefab housing.
Actually, what happened in history, when any
specialized organization such as an airframe manufacturer
gets into a bind in his own field and figures, well, he'll
use his plant and equipment for something else, he becomes
enthusiastic about that about as long as his regular
business is in the depths of depression. And the minute
somebody puts in an order for an airframe, he just forgets
about the other thing. It takes tenth place in his
dream. So it just hasn't worked that way.
LASKEY: Well, prefabricated housing certainly was the
dream of a lot of architects, particularly after the war
because of advances in technology and concern, like
yourself, with social housing. Is it the lack of
spectacular returns that kept it from ever being
implemented on a large scale? Because the need was
ALEXANDER: I don't know. There are so many factors.
Fingers have been pointed at the building laws and at
labor, and I just really don't know the reason that it has
been so far completely unsuccessful. I know that where
people have claimed prefabrication--they have factory-built
parts and so forth--and they claim these great objectives
of speed in erection and so forth, they have not come very
close to the rate of housing production that we reached at
Lakewood City. I know that the costs have not reached the
low cost of pounding things together with nails in the
field. But tremendous economies can be developed along the
Lakewood City lines--that ' s traditional methods,
traditional framing, and so forth. Public acceptance, of
course, of the appearance has been a big factor, a claimed
factor, anyway. I've just noticed quite recently, and not
until recently, that some of the housing that is the
nearest thing we have to real prefabricated housing-- I
just passed a lot the other day with houses [mobile homes]
that begin to look like attractive housing. I just don't
know. I think the relative cost is quite a bit cheaper
than housing that's built by traditional methods today. I
still think there's hope for it.
LASKEY: Do you really?
LASKEY: After all this time. Are you involved with it at
ALEXANDER: No, but I just noticed on our trip up to
Sonora, we passed a big lot full of, not trailers, but
they're houses that they put on wheels and take to a site
and they never move.
LASKEY: That's true.
ALEXANDER: I didn't price them, but I believe they're very
much less expensive than houses that are being built by
traditional methods today.
LASKEY: In many ways, they are about the only houses that
are available to lower- or middle-income people who cannot
possibly afford the cost of a new house.
LASKEY: I wanted to ask you before we move on to the next
section, did your political stand, especially in the late
forties, hurt you particularly in your private practice?
ALEXANDER: Well, it probably did. But people forget about
that. In any event, I got along, and that's all I wanted
to. I mean, I wanted to do what I wanted to do by myself.
LASKEY: Well, you had made the statement-- I think this is
1945, when you had decided to return to architecture after
leaving Lockheed. You said you had determined to turn down
any commission in which a predetermined form or style was
demanded. Why did you come to that conclusion?
ALEXANDER: Well, I wasn't--at least I don't think I was--
trying to be a Howard Roark, but that ideal of
individualism did affect me. I think I talked before about
Ayn Rand, didn't I?
LASKEY: No, but I was just about to say, speaking of
Howard Roark, you might talk about your meeting with Frank
Lloyd Wright and with Ayn Rand.
ALEXANDER: Well, I believe The Fountainhead must have come
out about 1936 or '8, somewhere in there. I was back in
New York in 1938 working on Parkchester at a time when it
was on the newsstands and when The Fountainhead was in
drugstores and office girls would buy it, principally for
the rape scene, I understood. Well, I came back here to
California and was living in Baldwin Hills Village during
LASKEY: Let's see, '49 is when you ran into Frank Lloyd
ALEXANDER: Yeah, but I was thinking about-- I saw Rand
first. I heard that Rand lived in Los Angeles and found
out that she lived on Tampa Boulevard. It turned out that
she lived in a house designed by [Richard J.] Neutra for
Sternberg, [Josef] von Sternberg. Did I talk about this
ALEXANDER: Well, I called her on the telephone, cold
turkey, no introduction, just said I wanted to see her.
LASKEY: Had you read The Fountainhead?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes.
LASKEY: And did you know her politics?
ALEXANDER: Well, if you call it politics. Her philosophy.
LASKEY: Her philosophy.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I didn't connect it as much with
politics. But I knew that the book had caused in me a real
disturbance; that is, I was trying to make up my mind at
that time, partly as a result of reading that book. I
admired the concept of The Fountainhead : that
individualism was one of my ideals. I also could not abide
the thought of the anarchy in Howard Roark, in having
designed a housing project, having it changed in design
without his consent, and then blowing it up. She was
obviously opposed to any social action to solve problems
and in favor of individual actions only. And I was torn
between the two in making my own philosophy. That's the
reason I looked her up. I went to her house several times
and had her to dinner at Baldwin Hills Village a couple of
times. She became very interested in me and in trying to
get me to make up my mind on her side, you see. We'd have
arguments late into the night. One of them, the final
argument, she was talking about how a private post would
handle the mail much better than a public post and private
fire companies like the volunteer fire company that
Benjamin Franklin established would do the job better than
a public one.
TAPE NUMBER: VIII, SIDE ONE
OCTOBER 4, 1986
ALEXANDER: A private organization might very well do a
better job on most of the things she was mentioning, but
when she said all roads should be private, she lost me.
[She said] every road should be a toll road. Well, I had
been to India, where there were toll stations in between
several separate states (most of those separate states are
collected now into larger states), but it was a ridiculous
concept and I didn't want any part of it. And then I also
found that her solutions for pressing social and economic
problems that I could see really would not solve those
problems, as I saw it. So I came down on the side of her
Much later-- That was during the war. And then about,
I think it was 1949, there was a national convention of the
AIA [American Institute of Architects] in Houston. I was
one of the delegates, and before the delegates left we were
treated to a preview of the movie The Fountainhead at
Hancock Hall at USC [University of Southern California] .
We all, I think the very next day, hopped on a train and
went to Houston by train--that was the thing to do in those
days--past the Chocolate Mountains and so forth. And this
happened to be the convention at which Frank Lloyd Wright
was to get the gold medal. That was the reason for having
given us the preview of The Fountainhead.
Well, I met him on several occasions during the
convention. I was with a group of Texans whom I had met
for the first time--three of them became very good friends
of mine over a period of time after that. We were standing
at a cocktail party when Frank came in. He had his usual
cloak and was being introduced to people. Several times he
was asked, "May I get you a cocktail, Mr. Wright?" And he
would say, "No, I was born intoxicated and I do not need
alcohol." And nevertheless, he did have human
characteristics, which I soon found when a young Texan came
rushing back from the men's room and he said, "You know
what happened, I peed right next to Frank Lloyd Wright."
Well, anyway, Wright's address was electrifying. I
mean, I enjoyed it and liked his plain speaking and his
references to "Houston there and the Shamrock" --that was
the hotel-- "here, and in between the streets and on the
streets the gutters and in the gutters the people." And
his discussion, as usual-- Not only his discussion of the
brick. I'd heard that one before. He spoke at USC once
and I heard him, and I'd thought, "Well, this guy's a poet,
he's not an architect." I learned later he was an
architect for sure.
LASKEY: And a poet.
ALEXANDER: Well, on the way home on the train I was
sitting next to John Rex, and John said, "You know, Frank
Lloyd Wright got on the train, the same train." I said,
"Well, let's see if we can get an interview." So we sent a
card by a porter asking Mr. Wright if he would see us. The
news came back, surprisingly, "Why sure. Come on down."
So we went through the rocking train to Frank's place. We
sat across from him, and he talked scathingly about this
[Richard J.] Neutra in California. Well, I had actually
worked with Neutra by 1949, so evidently, I guess that was
for my benefit.
LASKEY: He knew you were working with Neutra.
ALEXANDER: He must have, yeah.
LASKEY: Well, Frank Lloyd Wright was not a great admirer
ALEXANDER: Oh, no.
LASKEY: --the modern movement.
ALEXANDER: That's right.
LASKEY: He didn't like Le Corbusier.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, Wright said, "And as for Corbusier,
Corbusier is to an architect as the human heart is to a
pump . "
Well, anyway, he made his usual caustic remarks, this,
that, and the other. It was a lot of fun. And we
mentioned that just before we left we saw the movie The
Fountainhead in a preview. He said, "That reminds me of a
funny story. When they were working up their nerve to make
the picture, people kept trying to get in touch with me.
They'd go the most roundabout ways to get somebody who knew
somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew me to
get me to contact them. I just waited until finally a
young man came from the movie studios to knock on my
door. He came in--"
[Wright] said, "Delighted to see you. What's going
"Well, we're making that movie The Fountainhead, and
Ayn Rand says you were her hero" --she told me the same
thing--"and we'd like to have you design the sets."
And Frank said, "Well, that sounds like an interesting
"Well, Mr. Wright, what would your fee be?"
Mr. Wright said, "Everybody knows my fee is 10
percent." And he [Wright] said, "I could see the young man
calculating, 'Let's see. Those sets are going to cost
maybe $150,000, $300,000, and 10 percent of that--'"
"Oh, Mr. Wright, that sounds great."
Mr. Wright said, "Maybe you didn't understand me.
It's always, in the case of movies, 10 percent of the
take." He said, "I never saw the young man again."
LASKEY: That's too bad. It's sort of a missed
opportunity, Frank Lloyd Wright not having designed the
sets for The Fountainhead .
ALEXANDER: Maybe he didn't want his building blown up.
LASKEY: That's a real possibility. Did he ever admit in
your conversations to being a model for Howard Roark?
ALEXANDER: Well, I think he knew it, oh sure, sure. Well,
he said Ayn Rand had told him that. But I don't think he
knew anything about it before. She had not met him until
she sent him a copy of the book and he sent it back
autographed with a note in front. She showed me the
book. She had not been in direct contact with him before
LASKEY: When she was writing the book, she wasn't in touch
ALEXANDER: She had been born in Saint Petersburg Square
and saw the Kerensky rebellion, the victims in their
coffins being carried in front of her house in a torchlight
parade, and then she escaped from Russia. She had gone to
college and became a visitor guide for the USSR. She
became disgusted with the way socialism was working there
and got out of the country and came to Long Island and
decided that she had to write a book explaining her point
of view and explaining socialism and its terrible
consequences. And she consciously selected architecture as
being the profession which is intimately tied with the
economy and society of its time, unlike the writing of a
book or the writing of music as a composer or painting a
painting or developing a sculpture. The architect had a
client; he was bound by economics and so forth. So she
consciously picked the subject of architecture to
illustrate her points. In order to get the lingo of the
architectural profession, even though she had no training
in architecture at all, she got a job in an architect's
office in Manhattan. I think it was [Cyrus L.] Eidlitz.
I'm not sure. But in any event, she got a job in an
architect's office. It was not as a typist, or maybe it
was. Well, she did odd jobs in the office, and it made it
possible for her to write about the profession with some
credibility, as if she knew what she was talking about.
But she was a terrible witch. She wore the pants in the
family. She had married a pansy of a-- Well, I call him a
pansy, a very effeminate actor, who when he came to dinner
wore a blue sort of sailor jacket with gold buttons. Well,
it looked like an unlikely match.
LASKEY: I'm sure it was. When you met her at the [Josef]
von Sternberg House, you weren't involved with Neutra
then. This was--
ALEXANDER: No, this was during the war.
LASKEY: What was your reaction to the house? It was a
very modern house. It's sort of a streamlined modern.
ALEXANDER: I don't like that much austerity. It had an
aluminum wall around the swimming pool with a curve at the
end, as I recall it. It was very mechanical, and it had
what looked like an automobile headlight at the foot of the
stairs. It was a solid banister railing and plaster, and
in the plaster there was this thing like an automobile
headlight. It was a thirties, Neutra, International-style
house. Well, it was certainly typical of its kind. A good
LASKEY: It was very typical of what the modernists were
doing here in the thirties.
Well, you were president of the [Los Angeles] City
Planning Commission in 1948. Were you still president at
the time that you left?
ALEXANDER: No, not when I resigned.
LASKEY: And you resigned to go to India. How did you get
involved in India?
ALEXANDER: Okay, a Marie Buck had, twenty- three years
before, married a Mr. Buck who had just graduated from the
Springfield YMCA [Young Men's Christian Association]
college, and his dream was to go to India to represent the
YMCA in setting up recreation facilities, especially for
the young men of India. His name was Crow Buck. She had
been born in Derby, Kansas, incidentally. She had gone to
India with him on their honeymoon expecting to come back
within a year. But he got over there and became so
fascinated that he wrote a letter back to the YMCA
headquarters asking for support for his dream to stay there
and work out these vast programs for the Indian youth, and
he was turned down. He found that there had been athletic
events sponsored by the British, for which they had put up
silver cups and gold cups and god knows what, and all of
these awards had been placed in vaults in various banks.
And he asked these groups of young men who, as
organizations, owned these things, "If we get them out and
sell them and I make you wooden replicas, carved wooden
replicas of these things, which we wouldn't have to put in
the vault, we could start a college here. Wouldn't you
like to do that?" So they all agreed to do that, and this
was the beginning of an effort to establish a YMCA college
in Madras, India. And that's where the Bucks stayed the
rest of their lives.
Crow Buck died, either immediately at the conclusion
of the war or prior to the end of the war. Marie Buck was
a little gal with the greatest energy I ever ran into in a
little person--she was probably not more than five feet
tall. A wonderful, exciting individual. A group of
companies that they knew very well asked her to head a
welfare effort on their behalf for their employees. Now,
this group of companies, called Simpson's-- No, the group
of companies was called Amalgamations, Ltd. You can
imagine-- I mean, it was a conglomeration. But it had
started as Simpson's, a company that had built carriages
for the young British sports who came to India in the
earliest days. Clive and Calcutta and all over India.
They built these sport carriages and eventually built
wagons and trucks, and they got into transportation. Then
they bought a book publishing company. They printed little
inexpensive books to be sold in the newsstands of all the
railroad stations in British railways in India. When they
found that they needed a lot of paint for the wagons and so
forth, they had developed a paint company. And then they
were interested in automobiles--! guess it was the Morris
car--and then they imported the parts and assembled them
there. The new Indian liberated government had a policy to
work out the manufacture so that one by one this company,
which got started simply assembling the Morris car, would,
part by part, develop the facilities to manufacture the
entire thing eventually. But at first it was simply piston
rings, and then they'd manufacture piston rings until they
didn't have to import any more, and then they would have
piston rings for other manufacturers, and so forth. And
their long-range goal was to develop automobile manufacture
in India completely.
Then Marie started by setting up a clinic. The clinic
took care of cuts and bruises and god knows what, the
sicknesses of the men. And the objective, from the company
standpoint, was to keep the men healthy and keep them on
the job and as productive as possible. She had a family
day once a week when they could have their ladies come in
with all kinds of-- Childbirth and god knows what
problems. So then finally Marie came to the conclusion
that there was no way she could improve the health and
well-being of these people without treating their entire
lives, and this would mean--the way she saw it--
establishing an entirely new life-style.
At that time there were over four thousand villages in
the state of Madras, which is a lot of little pepper
villages, little teeny-weeny, sort of joint family, ten
families, that sort of thing. And they were losing faith
in the agriculture in their little villages, which were
falling apart, and they were attracted by the reports of
wages and so forth in the city. So this was coming in out
of a civilization over thousands of years old--where the
support system had been built into this society--into an
entirely new environment, socially, economically, and
physically, where it was just disastrous. They might only
be living in a grass shack in the country, but that was
better than being crowded three families to a room in some
slum in the city. And also, in the little village
everybody in the family had something to do. The women and
the little kids worked in the rice paddy, or whatever. In
the city they were removed from that and they had no social
security, which they had in the little village, a built-in
So she convinced the owners of Amalgamations, Ltd. , to
develop a welfare fund, putting 6 percent of their
earnings--I don't know what it was, a percentage of their
earnings--into a welfare fund that would start-- The first
thing was to buy land adjacent to Madras and make that a
place for these employees to live and where they could grow
some vegetables and improve their housing and food. So as
part of the effort, they started to buy land, and they had
their eyes on a vast area that extended ten or twelve miles
south of the city along the Buckingham Canal, which every
monsoon had tidal bores coming up the canal and inundating
this area. Therefore it had never been used very much
because it was subject to flooding. She expected there was
a way to stop that and to reclaim the land. And of course
because of their inheritance rules, every piece of land in
this area would be owned by maybe thirteen families
scattered from hell to breakfast.
Nevertheless, they had been doing a magnificent job in
assembling the ownership to this marsh called Pallikkaranai
swamp. It was called Pallikkaranai because that means "the
place where the Paliva kings had their heads cut off." The
place was overrun by Mohammedans for six hundred years, and
then the British came in for two hundred years and it was a
semblance of its former self. I had maps that showed the
remains of sort of catchment basins that had been at one
time tended by every little village to retain the water
that came with the monsoon. These had all been let go to
pot, because under the British administration, everything
was centralized, and you were to look to the public works
administration, an Indian public works administration, but
this is not the same as the village being responsible. So
the whole system had fallen apart, and she visualized
putting it back together again somehow.
She came to the United States looking for an expert in
planning who might help them plan this demonstration; it
had assumed some national importance. You couldn't get a
rupee out of the country. Therefore she had to get outside
help, to get someone to come in. She had an idea that
maybe she could get UN [United Nations] help on something
like this. Okay, so she came over and she interviewed
Neutra and various other people. She had a niece who lived
in Baldwin Hills Village. She went to visit her niece and
she looked around and said, "Oh, my goodness, what's this?"
and came to see me. And she soon decided that I was the
person she wanted, and we went together to the UN, which
was out on Long Island at Flushing, it was at Lake
Success. We met with the appropriate people in the
cultural-- What do you call it? The social and economic
division of the UN and also the agricultural division,
because we had to get one other expert, she figured, who
was an expert in land reclamation, and we got their
support. They wouldn't recommend approval of this project;
they would simply provide traveling money. So there was no
great gain in this thing. And they approved my
engagement. I got to know the architects there at the time
LASKEY: At the UN?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, they would have been--
LASKEY: [Oscar] Niemeyer?
ALEXANDER: No, no. That's another story. These were the
young characters from Massachusetts who were in the social
and economic division interested in state planning and
architecture and design and so on.
Well, anyway, I then went with her in search of the
agricultural expert, and we found him on Swan Island
outside of Seattle, Carl Kohler, who was an expert in soil
reclamation. We arranged everything so that he preceded
me. He found a strain of long-grained rice that would
thrive in brackish water. He was an engineer and figured
ways to avoid this annual flood and ways to drain the
swamp, which would be necessary. And then I was to follow
him. I had works in progress at Orange Coast College, and
I left Bob [Robert] Pierce in charge of the office. I
asked Mayor [Fletcher] Bowron about the planning
commission. He said, "Well, I'd like to have you stay on,
but the city charter provides that if a commissioner is
absent from the city for more than a month, he has to get
permission from the city council to retain his position.
So why don't you go to the city council." Of course, when
I went to the city council they cheered my leaving.
So in January of 1951 I left and stopped at-- Well,
this was at a time when the Boeing Stratocruisers were used
by Pan Am, and they flew twice a week across the Pacific.
One could stay at any place three days without a visa. So
every time they stopped I stayed for three days to see the
place. I saw Hawaii for the first time, and I had
introductions wherever I went. An Indian named Wattamul
had founded a departnjent store and then a series of
branches, the Wattamul Department Store, I think it was, in
Hawaii. He had married a Vassar [College] gal who was
interested in the welfare of India and the relationship
between India and the United States. She persuaded him to
set up the Wattamul Foundation, which supported an exchange
of students and this, that, and the other. I had
introductions to that crew. I went out to see the
University [of Hawaii] library, where they had received a
shipment from China of rare volumes from Peking, just
escaping the revolution. I went on to Japan--this was
1951--where I saw my classmates. At the time I was at
Cornell [University] in architecture, there were no less
than six architectural students from Tokyo. Three or four
of them were still surviving. Two of them were very close
friends of mine [whom] I've seen many times since.
LASKEY: Wasn't that unusual?
LASKEY: In 1925.
ALEXANDER: Well, in 1923 there was one hell of an
earthquake in Tokyo. I mean, there was a devastating
earthquake. It just leveled the city. At that point the
father of my best friend there sent him to the United
States, first to go to prep school, where he could learn
the English language, and then to Cornell, where he could
study architecture. I don't know the intimate stories of
the others going there, but his going there was on account
of the earthquake.
LASKEY: That's interesting, because I think in 1924
restricted immigration legislation was put into effect in
this country specifically to keep Asians out. So that must
have been a very touchy time.
ALEXANDER: Could be.
LASKEY: Probably very difficult for the students
themselves. Anyway, that's very interesting.
ALEXANDER: Well, that was a very exciting three days
there. Just before I left, one night they had taken me to
a new nightclub to show how their society and customs had
been degraded by the war. And then the final night they
took me to, in contrast, an old-style geisha house, where
we danced country dances and where I played one of their
little phony guitars and we sang Cornell songs and had a
hell of a good time.
LASKEY: In Japanese?
ALEXANDER: No. We tried to teach [the songs to] the
gals. Well, anyway, as I was getting in the cab on the way
to the airport, my friend Shigeo came and said, "You must
see our classmate in Bangkok when you get there." I said,
"Well, you better put [his name] down here." So he wrote
it down in my little notebook.
Well, we came into Okinawa, one of the two places on
earth forbidden on our passports--the reason being that
Okinawa was being used as the base for our B-17 bombers in
the Korean War. We lost an engine on the way into the
airport, and the nearest engine in the world to replace it
was in Hong Kong harbor on a ship. And it was a Sunday, so
we were going to have to be there for three days or so. I
don't think I should tell you the whole story. But let's
go on--just this one about getting to Bangkok. We then
went to Hong Kong and had some adventures there and went on
to Bangkok. And at the Oriental Hotel, I spoke to the
young man at the desk, who spoke some broken English, and I
explained that I wanted to see this man. Since I had it in
writing, I showed him the name, and he said, "Yes, I know
that man. I will get you a meeting with him tomorrow
morning . "
So he arranged a meeting. We got a taxicab and we
went barreling out along these clongs and into the slums
and turned a corner, and all of a sudden we came to a
great, enormous palisade fence of teak, great ponderous
teak doors, the gates to this place. And the taximan
honked the horn, the doors groaned open, we went up under a
porte cochere. I asked the taximan to wait. I knocked at
the door, the door opened, a little Siamese girl had a
little china tray for me to put my card on. I had had
cards made for the UN mission to India. She closed the
door and then opened it again and invited me to come in and
wait for my host. Pretty soon I saw my host coming down
the stairs--there was an open balustrade, so I could see.
He was wearing something like pantaloons, that is to say a
purple sarong, and when he came down further, I saw he had
this white and gold embroidered vest with cloisonn6
buttons, and he was obviously not one of my classmates.
So he came over and I said, "I made a mistake."
And he said, "That's okay. What are you doing?"
I told him.
"Have you seen the palace?"
I said, "No, I just got here last night."
He said, "You must see the palace, and I'd like to
show you through. "
I said, "Don't bother with that. I'm just a
He said, "That's okay. My office is down there. I'd
be glad to show you through."
I said, "Okay, if your office is there." So I asked
what time and I made arrangements, and I said, "By the way,
I'm on my way to India, as I told you. And today, I
understand, is India Home Rule Day, and I have been invited
by the Indian embassy to come to their reception."
He said, "That's fine. My wife and I will be there
too. I'll see you there."
So I then went to an appointment I had for lunch with
a newspaper publisher, the most prominent publisher in
Bangkok. And I noted that the couch in which I sat had
several pillows, and each pillow had symbolic five
umbrellas, stacked one above the other, as if it were a
tree. I remarked about it, and my host was very proud to
say, "I'll tell you what that means. Because the kings in
the past have had so many concubines, they've had so many
offspring that almost everybody in Thailand is a prince, so
they have to make some distinction. Actually, nine
umbrellas is only used on one occasion. That is the
coronation of a new king. The king is entitled to
seven." He identified each one down to five. He said,
"Five, that's pretty darn high, you know." So I was very
proud to go to the Indian reception with these people after
lunch, my five-umbrella friends.
So we're standing in the reception line, waiting to be
received, and I noticed my friend from the morning up at
the head of the line. So I said, "Excuse me just a
moment." I went up and said, "Hi, glad to see you. You
said you'd be here and that I'd see you."
I came back and my hostess said, "My god, where did
you meet him?"
I said, "Oh, I met him by mistake this morning. I was
at his house and we did this and that." I said, "He said
he's going to take me through the palace tomorrow. He said
his office is down there."
She said, "Do you know who he is?"
I said, "No. He just said his office is in the
palace, and I'm going to meet him tomorrow morning."
She said, "He's the king regent. The king is sixteen
years old and he's in Switzerland at school, and his uncle
is acting king. And he's the guy-- Of course his office is
at the palace." [laughter]
LASKEY: The palace is his office.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, right.
LASKEY: Well, how did your friend give you his name?
ALEXANDER: Well, it was a mistake on the part of the desk
clerk at the hotel. The names were very, very similar. As
soon as I told the king regent the next morning the mistake
and how it happened, he said, "Oh yes, I know that guy. He
went to Cornell and he's an entomologist, and he's very
important to our agriculture here. I'll get you in touch
with him." So he put me in touch with the guy, and I went
to a play that night with these two characters.
LASKEY: Did you get the tour of the palace?
ALEXANDER: Oh, sure. Another thing, the palace is really
a large compound containing many buildings, several
temples, and that sort of thing. The king regent had
explained to me that he was going to have to include
another couple besides me and he hoped I wouldn't mind. I
said, "Not at all. Who are they?" He said, "The president
of the Sydney, Australia, Rotary Club is here with his
wife, and I'm taking them through. You know," he said,
"I'm president of the Bangkok Rotary Club." [laughter]
LASKEY: Do they have Tuesday morning meetings?
ALEXANDER: I don't know.
LASKEY: Did you get to see the famous Thailand shadow
ALEXANDER: Oh, no. I couldn't explain myself properly.
What I saw was probably something I'll never see again,
which was a series of skits or plays that were not the kind
I had expected that you're talking about. But I did go to
a dance in which I danced with these lissome maidens whose
hands-- They can fold their fingers back so they can almost
touch their wrists. The dance was called the ramwon. It
was sort of a country dance. It was fun. I also went to--
Well, this has nothing to do with architecture--the hell
with it. But to get on to India. I stopped in Calcutta,
where I landed in India, and proceeded to--
TAPE NUMBER: VIII, SIDE TWO
OCTOBER 4, 1986
ALEXANDER: I mentioned arriving at Calcutta simply to
contrast it with south India. Calcutta, as was the case in
Hong Kong, had been invaded by millions of refugees after
the war. In this case they were from Bangladesh. And so
the entire so-called infrastructure, the sewers and water
supply and so forth, were strained way beyond their
capacity. The population had doubled overnight, and people
were dying on the sidewalks and sleeping overnight all over
the place. It was a miserable place. Everything was gray,
colorless, and dull. There were some exciting monuments,
of course, of the old days of Clive, but in general it was
a sick city. I flew from there to Madras in south India,
where suddenly everything was gay and delightful and
colorful: every bullock would have one horn painted
vermilion and the other green and would sport a bell that
was jingling along. And every time I'd turn a corner I'd
hear a flute, somebody playing inside of a window. The
sounds and the color and the laughter, in spite of misery,
was in stark contrast to north India. And I was to be
there three months.
The very first thing that happened was that I was
taken to the office of the president of Amalgamations,
Ltd., who had already ordered a tailor to be there, who
measured me. I was amazed, because I'd brought clothing.
I soon found out why. The next morning I had six pair of
white ducks and six shirts, and from then on I could walk
anyplace in the city without fear of being accosted by
urchins begging or by beggars in general. I was assumed to
be just simply-- I couldn't see the difference in the cut
of the clothes. There was a difference, and it was
discernible, and I was suddenly a native. I'd obviously
been there years, and it was fruitless to try to attack
me. Whereas if I'd worn my regular clothing, I would have
been tagged as a European immediately and would have been
deluged (and I saw people just being hounded to death).
If I were going there today for a similar mission, I
would have found a way to live in Indian style with-- Well,
today I could stay with my friend Sarma, an Indian
architect, who was the one I selected to work with me. I
had interviews with several who were British. This was the
only Indian-trained and Indian architect who had stars in
his eyes for everything American, starting with the
Revolutionary War and on. This was at a time when the
United States could have been hero to the world, and we
proceeded to squander our values right and left. For
instance, as I went through Bangkok I found that I would
not be permitted to see Angkor Wat--which I would like to
have seen--because of the war there. I then found that
while the United States had just given $2 million to the
UN, we had given $2 billion to France to support their
colonial control over Indochina, including Vietnam. We
were the heroes of the world because of our revolutionary
past, and we threw this position away, ever since then.
Well, anyway, where were we back at the ranch?
LASKEY: You're in Madras, You have just arrived.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I got proper clothing, I selected an
architect-- Oh, I was going to say that today I would try
to live with people. However uncomfortable, I would like
to sort of participate in their lives--instead of which, it
had been prearranged that I would have the maximum comfort
and protection. In other words, I was to live in a mansion
that was leased by an American oil company. The head
representative of this oil company had it as his
residence. It had been built by the East India Company as
a summer residence for their employees. It was an enormous
masonry house surrounded by a great big compound, high
walls, great flowering trees.
To protect my health, every single morning I received
two large bottles of spring water that Marie Buck would
bring around, guaranteed to be safe. Otherwise, I was said
to be subject to all types of diseases from unboiled
water. I had contracted something that put me in the
hospital at Calcutta, presumably from eating six-inch-
diameter shrimp in Bangkok. But I never did find out what
that was. I had a recurrence on my way home. Anyway, it
was a disease that the doctors at the clinic could not
Well, Marie was quite an institution. She had gotten
the company to buy a farm, quite a bit outside of town,
that had gone to pot. And she was developing this into a
place to raise seed for the future dream that she had--it
was a seed farm. It had lacked sufficient water, so that
she had found an ancient well. A well in that part of
India was usually a cylindrical hole in the ground, thirty
or forty feet across. And this thing had a stone lining
and stones cantilevered out to form steps from the bottom
to the top.
LASKEY: Of the well?
ALEXANDER; Of the well. It was dry, but she was working
on making it productive. So she had gone to the library
and gotten a book on Welsh coal mining that described how
you blast rock. She had bought dynamite. She would carry
these crates of dynamite down to the farm by putting them
in her jeep. She'd sit on the dynamite on this bumpy road
on the way down to the farm. [laughter] What a gall And
then nobody else would dare touch the stuff--I guess she
wouldn't let them light it. She would set the stuff the
way that the book had said, and she'd set the fuse and
light it and come running up these stairs. Everyone was to
lie down on the ground behind some barrier, and she would
join you, and then it would go off with a great crash.
Rocks would fly in the air. It was wild. She managed to
get more water out of it, though it wasn't really
Among other things, I noticed that she was a nut on
green-manure farming. None of this chemical fertilizer
business. That is, you raise something--in this country it
would be something like vetch, or something like that--
which you would plow under when it grew. You wouldn't use
it for itself, you'd use it for enriching the soil. And
she showed me one stand--I suppose it was not more than an
acre--of the most luxurious stuff. It looked more or less
like a field of corn very closely grown together. I didn't
recognize what it was. It was six to eight feet tall,
luxuriant. I said, "What's that?" She said, "That's green
manure. We're going to plow it under." She told me what
it was. It was san hemp. And only thirty, forty years
later did I discover that san hemp was one of the finest
marijuana plants you could get.
LASKEY: I see.
ALEXANDER: So that was the green manure there.
Well, anyway, I purposely spent a lot of time soaking
up the culture. Every village around the city would have
its sort of patron saint, its little temple, and a
particular weekend when they would have their fiesta, you
might call it. So there was a fiesta going on any weekend,
if you knew where the village was that was having one.
Marie would tip me off where to go, and I'd be rushing
off. She had, of course, engaged for me a driver, and his
name was Ganesha. In other words, he was named after the
elephant god that removes all obstacles, and this would be
good for our enterprise. She had all of the rigmarole of
fortunate days, auspicious days, auspicious hours. She'd
say, "Oh, look, it's twelve o'clock," and something just
happened. "This is the day for so and so, " and it would
She had also engaged for me a bearer. I said, "Marie,
what the hell am I going to do with a bearer?" "Well, he's
going to hold your hands." I said, "I don't want him."
She said, "It will be misunderstood. If you don't hire as
many people as you can put to work, you're a very mean
man. It's the custom for you to have at least a bearer and
a driver." That's what I had. She'd call in the morning
and say, "Such and such a temple is taking their gods down
to the sea in a ceremony this morning. Go down to the
beach." So I kept my driver, and we barreled down to the
beach. And I got to know a lot about what was going on.
Then Marie and I took a long drive with our driver, a
trip through Bangalore, the Nilgiris, and the mountains far
to the west, the Eastern Gahts, I guess they call them, and
to the south almost to Travancore, then to Pondicherry, and
so forth. She had listed just about every place where we
could find workers being housed in large groups, such as
the Carnatic Mills, fabric mills in Bangalore, and the
Kolar gold mines and a place where a big dam was being
built. Any place where we could find housing for workers,
to see what was actually being done and what was considered
disgusting by ourselves or the workers or whatever, or
what's popular with them. And as we went, I made little
sketches of the plans.
When we got back, I told Sarma, the Indian architect
with whom I was working, that I wanted to have models made
of all of these little houses or dwellings. He had several
employees, at least a dozen. He had a puja [place for
worship offerings to Hindu deities] in the office. Every
morning they bowed before this little alcove and in effect
prayed for good fortune and for an auspicious day. And I
said, "Let's distribute these [plans] to the employees and
have them work on making little models. They can make them
out of cardboard." And Sarma said, "I'm sorry, but that
won't work." And I said, "Why won't it work?" And he
said, "Well, see, I'm a Brahman and every one of my
employees is a Brahman. One of the few professions or one
of the few occupations that is available to a Brahman is
architecture. Any kind of clerical work is perfectly all
right, but you don't infringe on somebody else's occupation
that is available to him. And for a Brahman to draw a
house is all right--that ' s clerical. But to make a model,
that is labor. That really belongs to another caste."
And he said, "I'll tell you what we'll do." He said,
"You and I will start making models of the house, and we
won't say anything to the employees, but they will see what
we're doing, and we'll see what happens. We'll leave the
plans around." So the next morning they brought these
little models in that they had made. They couldn't do it
in front of another Brahman. They could do it in the
privacy of their own bedroom. They could produce this
thing and they wouldn't have to say who had made it or
anything like that--there it was. I used these little
models to conduct a series of meetings with workers who
were brought together by the union to get some reaction.
Meantime, for the first two months I didn't do any
real planning of what the concept would be. I was just
trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, all of a
sudden, I was galvanized to action by I don't know what. I
just came to a point where I felt I had an idea that would
make a real contribution in concept. And that was instead
of having a suburb of Madras, which Marie had visualized, a
suburb of 50,000, which I figured would get us right back
into the same old slot as the city-- This was to be a
suburb of 50,000 and a place for them to go and engage in
agricultural work to the extent that they were not employed
in the factories, the members of the family that were
not. So instead, I devised a system of ten villages, each
starting out at 2,500 population, eventually expanding
possibly to 5,000, and they would be separated by
agricultural land to grow rice. Each village would have a
role in the total complex so the total complex might work
as a city. A central village in this complex of ten would
be designated the assembly plant, we'll say, from a
manufacturing standpoint, whereas each of the other nine
would have its little sub-assembly contribution to make to
the total. Another different one would have its high
school and eventually a college, whereas each of the other
nine would have its elementary school. There would be also
a central health village. Each of the villages would have
a clinic visited, perhaps daily, by a nurse in a jeep from
the central area, where there ' d be a hospital. There
wouldn't be twelve hospitals or ten hospitals, there 'd just
LASKEY: Well, how large was the area on which these ten
villages would be placed? How big an area are we talking
ALEXANDER: I don't recall the acreage and that sort of
thing, but it's big enough so that not too dense a village
would be separated by more than a mile from the center of
the next village. Villages would be more than a mile on
center and would have agricultural land in between them.
And each village would be 2,500 population to start, 5,000
maximum. Each cottage or each dwelling accommodation would
have a little private garden next to it for their personal
use and a communal place to go to raise rice, which would
be for everybody. So that each village would have its
little bazaar, or a place where you go to shop, but once a
week you go to the tandy, which is the central village
where you get an exchange. It's not only commercial, it's
social. Everybody wants to go. They go trekking in their
bullock carts, take the things to exchange for other
things, things to sell or buy, but mainly to gossip. So I
called this the rural city, looking at the thing as a whole
as a city. It was to be a staging area between the people
who were living in their little villages out in the sticks
who were then coming into this teeming city. Between those
two stages there would be this stage where you were half-
country and half-city.
So we had to get into materials and that sort of
thing. On the way over I had read a UN publication
regarding the use of a machine that had been developed in
Rhodesia with which one could make cement blocks. It
looked like a foolproof thing. It was useful in a
primitive area. So I asked about this the minute I got
there, if we could get one of these things. Well, they
didn't know: it's kind of hard to go to Rhodesia to get
it, and so on and so forth. It wasn't until I was almost
all ready to leave when I saw an ad for one of these things
in the paper, and the companies for which I was working
were selling them. Well, I just used the wrong
nomenclature. I think I called it a cement block machine,
you know, an earth-cement block machine, and I used "block"
instead of "brick" or something like that. Anyway, they
got one out of the warehouse right away and got it out to
the site. So we started to make these things, and Sarma,
this Brahman who wasn't supposed to get his pinkies wet,
got right into the mud with me. He was really terrific--he
still is really terrific.
LASKEY: Is he still in India?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, he had three daughters, each of whom
married an Indian who had aspirations to go to the United
States--they ' re all living in the United States now. His
wife's brother [Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar] is a famous
Nobel Prize winner in astronomy at the University of
Chicago. He's just retired. He has a room named after him
and so on. They're whizzes, you know.
Well, so we went out to the site and we made blocks.
This is soil cement, as it's called, with a small amount of
cement and laterite soil, which was on the site.
LASKEY: What is that?
ALEXANDER: Well, it ' s a soil that results from-- I
couldn't tell you what it is, to tell you the truth. I
mean, I've forgotten. But it results from having had a
tropical forest on the land and having leached something
out of it. I had seen pictures of laterite soil, and there
are a lot of hard nodules that are on the surface of the
land. I noticed these, and then I got into dealing with
what it was and found somebody at the university who knew
what it was. Sure enough, it was what they had used in
Rhodesia to mix with a small amount of cement, instead of
cement and gravel. It made stable blocks. I had them
tested, and they're not very strong--but they're a hell of
a lot better than plain old mud.
LASKEY: What is the climate of Madras? Is it relatively
like Los Angeies?
ALEXANDER: Well, once a year, if they have a successful
monsoon, what we call the summertime is unbearable. An
enormous amount of water. Of course, when I was there the
monsoon had failed three years in succession, causing a
drought and causing widespread hunger and some starvation,
mainly because of the lack of a distribution system. I
mean, in the city itself I saw no signs of hunger; I'd go
outside the city into a little hamlet, and it was
pitiful. The United States was sending vast quantities of
grain over there for a price. You know, we hear about our
magnanimous gestures in saving these starving people just
for money. But they were buying large quantities of grain
from the U.S., larger quantities from Thailand and Burma.
There was a Russian ship that came into the harbor one
day. Our Senate was debating whether to let them have any
grain or not, and a Russian ship came in with rice that
they were very proud of. They showed the long grains, and
the quality of the stuff was high. And it was a gift, not
what you buy. Well, anyway, of course they have an idea in
India that when a senator makes headlines, it must be the
policy of the United States, but we know damn well it's
just a senator popping off.
LASKEY: Making headlines.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Another strange thing about their own
situation there: For two hundred years, they would
identify a need and somebody would write back to London,
and if it were pressing enough the need would be
answered. So they had this two hundred years of history of
getting up and making a speech in their parliament and
having something happen. And, at least when I was there--
and I think a lot of it still exists--somebody would get up
in the parliament and make a speech about a new aluminum
factory. And then they would all brush their hands and
say, "Well, that's done now. What will we do next?" And
nothing would happen. This change from the traditional
individual village responsibility to keep the road in shape
and keep the little catchment basins in shape, to the
centralized authority where they depended on the public
works department to do this, that, and the other--that had
converted this place partly into swamp, this Pallikkaranai
swamp. Incidentally, that was right in the shadow of Saint
Thomas Mount, where Saint Thomas the Apostle is buried.
And when I went through Pondicherry, they had just had a
flood that had revealed Roman wine jars and coins of the
time of Christ--Roman trade with Pondicherry in the south
LASKEY: That was exciting.
LASKEY: Well, given this kind of horrendous weather, would
the bricks you were making withstand erosion?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, well, compared to adobe and that sort of
So we built a sample model house and I made plans in
general. I planned one village as a sample and had the
total overall plan. [I] got approvals from various
ministries [and] from the company. And then there was an
organizational plan. The whole idea was that this would be
built by this group of companies over a period of time and
that it was for their employees. If somebody left their
employ, what are they going to do? Are they going to turn
them out or what? And who's going to run the villages?
Who is going to determine the policy? Well, we devised the
theory of a plan in which the administration would start
out completely company owned and company run, and in
prescribed periods of time the management and ownership and
operation of the whole thing would be converted to a
largely occupant-owned-and-run operation. Yet there was a
provision--I forget just how it worked--that would keep
occupancy available to families with at least one person
working in one of the companies. Otherwise, it would
become like everything else in India, all squalid.
Well, we started out with these experimental or
demonstration houses, demonstration rice crop, and so on.
The plan was shown to the board of public works, and they
said, "That's fine. You build it and we'll own it." And
the company said, "No, that's not the idea." And the
department of agriculture wanted their cooperation. They
said, "That's a great idea. You build it and we'll own
it." The labor unions said the same thing. This went
on. Nobody got together on how it was going to be owned
and operated. So finally the company said, "To hell with
it. We just can't handle it. We can't get any
agreement. If the government is going to take it over,
forget it." I didn't hear about it again until years later
when I was speaking to some people in Great Britain about
it, and, yes, they had heard of it and it had some
influence on how housing was being treated there and in
other parts of the country. But it never came about as a
full-blown experiment, as I had hoped, for demonstration,
LASKEY: That's very sad. But it's rather amazing that the
company hadn't attended to that or hadn't realized in
advance that this was going to happen.
ALEXANDER: Well, this was entirely new of course.
LASKEY: Was this the expectation in India? That anything
that was built would automatically be taken over by the
ALEXANDER: Well, everything was new. I mean, 1947 was
home rule I think, wasn't it?
LASKEY: I don't know.
ALEXANDER: I think so.
LASKEY: So they weren't used to governing at all?
ALEXANDER: Well, there was a transition. This was four
years after independence. Where were we four years after
our independence? Nowhere at all. It took twelve years to
get anywhere with the constitution.
The country was being run by the ICS men, that is to
say, Indians who had been trained in the Indian civil
service. They were brilliant individuals, and they've all
died by now, I believe. But nobody had any experience of
what to expect, and so nothing happened. Except I was told
it was influential later--I don't know.
LASKEY: How long were you there?
ALEXANDER: Three months there, and then I spent another
month traveling around the world. I found that it cost ten
dollars less to go around the world than to go there and
back over the Pacific.
LASKEY: How did you do that? Just the plane fare works
out that way?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. The round-trip to Madras, in either
direction, was ten dollars more than the round-trip around
the world. So I came back through Bombay and Egypt and
LASKEY: When you came back, did you regret at all having
severed your ties with the planning commission?
ALEXANDER: Oh no, I don't think so. No, I didn't. That
was six years, really. That's enough. Almost six years.
LASKEY: So when you came back, about that same time you
were involved in Guam.
ALEXANDER: No, shortly after that.
LASKEY: Oh, shortly after that.
ALEXANDER: Yes. Having been to India for the UN actually
was instrumental in the first place in hearing anything
about the Guam situation and then in being selected.
LASKEY: That was another frustrating experience.
TAPE NUMBER: IX, SIDE ONE
OCTOBER 4, 1986
LASKEY: Shortly before your trip to India, and while you
were still with the [Los Angeles] City Planning Commission,
you had your first engagement with Richard [J.] Neutra.
ALEXANDER: Right. I think it was 1948. One evening when
I was at home I received a call from him. I'd never known
him well at all. I had not particularly liked his
architectural results. I could see how they were
innovative and new and exciting, but my own bent was not in
the same formal direction. He called me at home and said
that he had just had a call that day from the planning
director of the city of Sacramento, who was interested in
having a study made of the old Sutter subdivision in the
central part of Sacramento, which included skid row and
areas that were dilapidated and needed to be redeveloped.
And the objective of the study would be to demonstrate the
need for a redevelopment agency and a need for the city to
carry out the purposes of the [Community] Redevelopment
Act. He had just returned from Puerto Rico, where he had
had a great experience, I think, in designing schools and
so forth for Rexford [G.] Tugwell.
LASKEY: Oh, [Franklin D.] Roosevelt's person.
ALEXANDER: And he had also had a heart attack while he was
LASKEY: In Puerto Rico?
ALEXANDER: Yes. And he said to me on the telephone when
he called that night, "You know, I've had a heart attack
and I don't think I can handle it. Would you be
interested?" I said, "Why, certainly I would." And he
said, "Well, here's the name of the director of planning
and here's his telephone number, and he will expect a call
from you . "
So the next day when I went to the office I called the
guy, and he said, "Sure, I know you're interested in
planning, and I know your former position. How soon can
you come up to visit with us in Sacramento?" I said, "Next
Friday's free. I'll be up then." He said, "Fine." I made
arrangements. And in fact, I called the airline and made a
That night Neutra called me again at home, and said,
"How did it go? Did you call him?" "Yeah," I said, "sure,
I called him." "Well, what happened?" "Well, I'm going up
there. I'm flying up on Friday to have a first meeting."
He said, "Well, you know, my doctor says I can't fly." And
I said, "For heaven's sake, I thought you said you weren't
interested and couldn't handle it." He said, "Well, I
would like to be involved if you would like to handle
it." I said, "Okay." He said, "But you know I can't
fly." I said, "Okay, I suppose we can go by train. I
haven't traveled in a train in twenty years, but we can
take a crack at it."
So I got an upper and a lower--an upper for me, of
course--and we went up by train. And we were met at the
train by a couple of young fellows from the planning
department of Sacramento. They put us in the car and said,
"Well, let's first go to the city hall, and we'll see some
maps of the area that we're talking about." Instead of
which, as we were passing through skid row on the way to
city hall, Neutra said, "Stop the car!" So he stopped the
car. He said, "May we get out?" "Surely." So he and I
got out, and he said, "Let's see what this place is
So we went to a flophouse, on the side of which was a
sign: "Cots forty cents a night, mats twenty cents." And
there was a sort of marquee at the entrance, as if it had
been a movie house, with a guy in there who was in charge
of seeing people going in and coming out. When we asked,
he said, "Surely you can go up and see what it is like."
These wide stairs, at least six feet wide, had signs on a
couple of risers to the steps saying, "No girls upstairs,
please." So we went up and took a look around, and each
space for a cot or a mat was separated from another space
by an orange crate on end, which, in other words, meant
that the man had three shelves, one at the floor, one at
midrange, and one at the top, where he kept his belongings--
nothing could be locked up. There was central plumbing and
And then we went over and we found a cheap apartment
for a single family. We walked around and we found a place
where one could check his suitcase or any kind of a bundle
he had for five cents a night. We found a barbershop which
was a "barber college, " of course in quotes, where you
could get a haircut for ten cents. The whole thing was
designed to take care of what we had heard about and what
the people that took us there in the automobile, the
employees of the department, said were migrant
farmworkers. We had heard of it through Carey McWilliams's
writings, and we expected to find migrant farmworkers,
instead of which, on inquiry, we found that virtually all
of the "bums" in the flophouse were old-age pensioners.
The entire complexion of the place had changed to permanent
residence, for the most part. Not migrant farmworkers, but
a place that offered very cheap rent and the very least
cost of living for people who had fixed and very low
Well, the whole attitude that Neutra showed on that
occasion grabbed me--that is, the idea of not looking at
maps first, but looking at the people. I later came to the
conclusion that he had done this consciously. In any
event, I also, at a very much later date, came to believe
that one factor in his calling me to get me engaged in this
thing with him was that when he had been at Puerto Rico and
the war was just over, several young firebrands, including
me, had been interested in getting some entirely different
leadership for the AIA [American Institute of Architects]
chapter. As usually happens, most of the people interested
in running for office over a period of years--and I think
it's true--are not generally the most vital forces in
architectural design. We had our little meeting, Whit
[Whitney R. ] Smith and Sy [Simon] Eisner and I don't know
who else. Several of us young squirts were interested in
changing this, and we came to the conclusion that we would
nominate Neutra, even though he was not there. We would
guarantee in our nomination to perform the chores necessary
for the office, but we wanted a leader of the organization
who would command respect and renown in the community and
way beyond the community. And Neutra was the best one we
could think of who was a member of the chapter. And I
think possibly my advocacy and nomination of him at that
time may have had something to do with his turning to me.
But it wasn't until many years later that that occurred to
me, in fact long after I had become disassociated with him.
LASKEY: You hadn't worked with him prior to this in any
ALEXANDER: No. Not in any capacity. In fact, on one
occasion when he was a speaker at a small meeting in
Pasadena, I had taken exception to his point of view
regarding architecture and had somewhat of a minidebate
with him. Perfectly friendly, but opposing the sparse--
The lack of design decoration, you might say, and that sort
LASKEY: How would you have described your architecture at
ALEXANDER: Oh, in the forties. Well, I was just trying to
make up my mind. I had developed certain objectives during
the war when I was not actively engaged. I think it was to
put people first, people who were going to occupy and use
the architecture, to make things useful for them, make
things work, you might say. And I mentioned before wanting
to become engaged in spiritual architecture and also high-
tech architecture and wanting to involve fine arts directly
in architecture and not as something you buy and stick on
it. Well, I wanted the form of architecture, to the extent
that I was interested in form, to be sensual and not dry
and inert. I appreciated the decorative forms that I had
seen in my three months in Europe in the summer of 1930.
And I did not want to lose that grace. I'd like a few
curves to go along with the straight lines, in other words.
LASKEY: So the functional sparseness of the International
style was not one you would have chosen for yourself.
ALEXANDER: Right, and also I would say that I ccrsidered
architecture, from my standpoint, not to be an object to be
looked at as the most important thing. It was not an
object. It was spaces to be experienced, to uplift a
person's spirit, to make him feel better about his
surroundings from within.
Well, anyway, we found that Harold [F.] Wise had been
selected by the city council to work on the nonarchi-
tectural parts, demonstrating the need for redevelopment of
this area. And I had gotten to know him pretty well when
he was just mustered out of the marines after World War II
and was living in the Quonset huts that the city put up in
part of Griffith Park.
LASKEY: Griffith Park?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, in the flatland at the base of Griffith
Park. This was a temporary thing. And he had worked along
with me on statewide housing. Proposition 14. It was
probably he who suggested to the planning director getting
in touch with Neutra. Then Neutra brought me into it, and
the three of us were finally under contract to develop this
plan on what to do about the central Sutter subdivision.
So we got to know the city pretty well by walking that
area, which was not too big to conceive. It was easy to
walk around and see the charming streets of Victorian
houses, three stories high, with the ground floor, once
used as servants' quarters, now used for low-rent housing--
the main floor of every house being a full-story height
above the land that was annually flooded at one time,
before the levees went in. The Sacramento River annually
overflowed its banks and made the ground floor
uninhabitable. That was a typical physical scene.
The demographic scene was studied in a survey that
Wise made and showed that every block was multiracial,
every block in this Sutter subdivision. It was not
homogeneous black or Chicano. We found within the area the
only mosque in North America at that time; a Buddhist
temple, which was still serving its original population,
quite a few members of which had become well-off and had
moved away from the center of the city, but still came
there for services; a Philippine mission; and in fact
something that catered to every wave of low-cost workers
that had come into the San Joaquin Valley to help the
farmers raise crops, including railroad building and so
on. There was a Japanese element, a Chinese element, but
they weren't sectioned off. There were these institutions
that were designed, but you would find the people mixed
together in every block, according to this demographic
We found that the layout of the Sutter subdivision was
very uneconomical from the standpoint of percentage of land
devoted to streets, and we showed that by combining blocks
we could recover a great deal of useful land. We
recommended a great many things, such as the redevelopment
of the riverfront--which has still not taken place as we
envisioned it. But many of the things we have recommended
have taken place twenty, thirty years later. And this is
one trouble that I found with my attempts at city planning
(which constituted perhaps about 10 percent of my
practice): that things that we found and would recommend
doing to improve the city life, in whatever little town it
might be, didn't happen for a generation after we
recommended them. They might eventually come through, but
I didn't want to wait that long for satisfaction.
Well, in any event, we published a report looking
ahead ten years, making recommendations by inference. It
included many illustrations of the reasons or the signs
that would show that this area, for the most part, was
subject to redevelopment legally. It would qualify as a
blighted area. And this was used to convince the council,
and the council appointed themselves a redevelopment
agency. Of course we were no longer involved, and we were
several hundred miles removed from the scene while the
redevelopment took place. Then after they had a
redevelopment agency and a staff, a couple of years later I
think, Joe [Joseph T.] Bill--who later came to Los Angeles
in redevelopment--was the redevelopment agency director.
And he engaged us to come back a second time and make
additional studies. Neutra looked on this, especially the
second go-around, as an opportunity to revive his "Rush
City Reformed. "
LASKEY: Oh, okay.
ALEXANDER: Which he had envisioned years before. So we
got in a lot of sketches of high-rise things that I think
were inappropriate for the place, but nevertheless it was
fun to work in. Well, I thought after finishing our little
report, in which I used the technique of Looking Backward
to write the report--
LASKEY: The technique of the [Edward] Bellamy book?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. That is, I wrote a letter dated ten
years ahead. I wrote it to "Dear Richard" about what I
found in Sacramento ten years later. I wanted something
that would be read and would be for popular reading in
Sacramento, rather than a thick, dry report. And this
worked. Well, I thought after I finished the report that
was the last I would see of Mr. Neutra, except I would see
him at meetings occasionally and so on. Instead of which,
to my amazement and that of everybody else in the local
chapter, [Harry S.] Truman's housing bill was passed by
Congress. They didn't think it was possible. All of a
sudden, here was a whole wad of public housing that was
going to be built all around the country, with 10,000 units
allocated to Los Angeles.
Recalling the previous FDR housing days, when one
objective was to spread the work among architects-- The
federal government had required three or more architects to
group together for each project, so that they would employ
as many as possible. And rather than seek a big project,
where such a thing would be mandatory, when [Howard L. ]
Holtzendorff asked me what I would like-- And obviously I
was in line, having supported the program and having stood
out as about the only architect who had spoken in favor of
It. He was quite friendly to my being employed. I told
him, having looked at the series of projects that was laid
out, "I just want that little one out there at Pacoima to
house the Chicano population in the area of the olive
groves. I think it's small enough so I can do it myself,
and that's what I would rather do, [rather] than be
involved in a big job with a lot of other architects."
He chewed on that for some time and then called me one
day and asked me to come to the Jonathan Club, and at lunch
he said, "The apple of my eye is the Chavez Ravine
And I said, "Well, that's a great big job."
He said, "Just so you know, I want you to handle it.
but you've got to have an architect collaborate with you
who has more prestige than you have nationally and
I said, "Well, I have a pretty good name
He said, "Well, you've got to get a big name."
I said, "I don't want that big a job in the first
He said, "Well, I want you to do it. I don't trust it
with anybody else. And I like what you've done with
Baldwin Hills Village, " and so on and so on and so on.
Okay. So he said, "Come on down to the office."
And in the boardroom there was a table loaded with
brochures from architects. I had not submitted one, but
just practically every architect in the chapter had put in
a brochure. So I waded through these things. When it came
to Neutra, I said, "Well, I have worked with this guy and
he has prestige."
And he said, "Oh, yeah, that's a good one. That would
probably sell. I could sell you and Neutra to the
So I called Neutra and asked him if he would work with
me on it. He said, "Oh, I'd be delighted." So we were
selected to handle this thing in Chavez Ravine, which
started out ambitious enough. Then they increased the
number of units until there were 3,350 units, about a third
of the total 10,000-unit program on this site, which was an
interesting site. But my god, when you get that many,
you've got to get into high rises, unless you're going to
have a rabbit warren. In any event, we signed a contract
on this thing. It took some time to get it going, to get
input from Washington, part of which was this increase in
the numbers, the density. People in Washington, in the
housing game, were inclined to think in terms of New York
and Philadelphia and Boston, instead of Los Angeles; they
still couldn't conceive of what Los Angeles was about. So
we were given a project which inherently could have been a
disaster when and if built, and I'm glad personally that it
never was built. What we developed, I think, could have
been as great a disaster as [Pruitt] Igoe.
LASKEY: Pruitt Igoe in Saint Louis.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Maybe not. It was out in the country.
But in order to accommodate this mass of units, we had to
include nineteen thirteen-story buildings.
LASKEY: What was the site like? You might talk about what
Chavez Ravine was in 1950.
ALEXANDER: Well, it was a ravine and a series of
subsidiary canyons that came into the ravine. It was a
high-class slum area. That is, if you were from Brooklyn
or Manhattan you might not conceive of it as a slum,
because it was all one-story shacks, but it was packing
cases, people living in old chicken coops. It was squalor
of the worst kind. But, you know, children growing up in
that area must have had an enchanted life, in a way. I
mean, they were surrounded by Elysian Park. Their ravine
itself had not very many trees in it, but it was country
living, as if it were a little place in Mexico. It wasn't
all that bad from the standpoint of living conditions.
From the standpoint of sanitation and so on, not too hot.
The housing was not the greatest. There was no toilet or
bathtub in every unit, you know. The housing criteria
devised by the census bureau to define whether the housing
was safe and sanitary, as they say, don't tell the whole
story. In a way it was an idyllic situation, in spite of
LASKEY: The people who lived there were a rather close-
ALEXANDER: That's right. There was nothing they could do
with this steamroller of a federal program.
LASKEY: Well, who determined that it should be developed
in the first place? Why was that area picked?
ALEXANDER: Well, after all, Drayton Bryant and I picked it
in our illustration of what redevelopment could do.
LASKEY: So your book Rebuilding the City: [A Study of
Redevelopment Problems in Los Angeles] predated this
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. We had no idea that we would be
involved in any way in it. We were looking at the
redevelopment of Bunker Hill as being desirable. But what
do you do with those poor people? Well, we looked at a
nearby--walking distance--area of Chavez Ravine, which had
relatively low density, very few people living there
compared to the acreage, and figured, "Well, that's a good
place to take the poor people on Bunker Hill and put them
with additional poor people in better-quality housing."
LASKEY: Oh, I see. I hadn't realized that Bunker Hill and
Chavez Ravine had originally been part of a whole.
ALEXANDER: Well, in our minds. They were so close
together. And we didn't think in terms of what actually
happened. Most of the people from Bunker Hill voluntarily
moved out to MacArthur Park. They call it now--
LASKEY: Westlake Park?
ALEXANDER: Westlake Park.
Well, anyway, we were stuck with a program which we
tried to resist, but you know, there's no way to get around
the federal government. And, in fact, even with the
initial program, there were too many people that were to be
put on that site. And as I say, the final design was, in a
way, brutal. In order to accommodate this many people on
that extremely hilly site, with the modern, contemporary
concept that you have to have vehicular access to every
dwelling-- You have to get a fire truck there for one
LASKEY: Of course.
ALEXANDER: And you have automobiles, which influence
street grades and so on. In the first place, it called for
very high density in portions of the plan; that is to say,
I think it was nineteen thirteen-story buildings, and then
the rest two-story. And in order to accommodate this on
that site, it meant a massive grading program. That meant
creating a synthetic desert before you started to put in
the utilities, the streets, the sidewalks, the landscaping,
and so forth. Then eventually it would be quite a
community. From one standpoint, it was a marvelous
opportunity to attempt to build what has been called, since
then, a "new town in town." That is, this was to be
virtually a self-contained establishment with housing and a
shopping center, a major one, and church facilities and so
on. Everything but employment. Of course that's where it
falls down, compared to the Ebenezer Howard ideal.
LASKEY: Of course, being in the city itself, employment is
ALEXANDER: Yes. And of course a bus. You'd have to
contemplate buses to take people to their places of
employment. Well, anyway, this was exciting, and it wasn't
evident to me during our work on it for a period of two
years what a disaster it might have been. It is Just in
looking back on it now that I believe it would have been a
LASKEY: You mean humanwise, the dislocation of all those
people and taking -^ em from essentially a rustic community--
ALEXANDER: And putting them in thirteen--
LASKEY: Putting them in thirteen-story high rises.
ALEXANDER: Thirteen-story buildings, yeah. Compared to
that, what we had recommended-- Well, that plan in the
expanded book, a portion of which was not published, shows
the type of living accommodations that we were able to
devise at that time with a lower density. And it's still a
pretty high density--I forget what it was. But we
developed, oh, three- to five-story buildings, which in
effect were low-rise. That is, you'd have a street access
to a center floor, which would have single-family
apartments on that first floor. Then you'd walk up one
floor above that to a first floor of a two-story unit, with
the living room at that second floor and the bedrooms on
the third-floor level. And then you'd walk down one floor
to a living room level of another two-story unit. So it
was on a hillside with access to it in the center of this
five-story unit. If you were an occupant, you'd never have
to walk up or down more than one floor to your living room.
LASKEY: Well, that's an interesting concept.
ALEXANDER: Then, beyond that, you had a bedroom above or
below you, depending on where you were in the five-story
building. That kind of thing I had already worked out in
this plan, but when it came to trying to get the density
that they were talking about into it and to work with
Neutra ' s concept, well, it turned out to be impossible. It
was not a humanistic plan that we developed finally.
LASKEY: Now, Neutra was still working in the International
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes.
LASKEY: How did the city or the state plan to deal with
the people who were already living in Chavez Ravine,
particularly those who were living in the small shacks that
were indeed their homes? Would they have been able to even
afford living in these buildings had they wanted to, or
were they essentially being displaced?
ALEXANDER: Well, I don't recall now. I know that
Holtzendorf f , the director of the public housing authority
[Los Angeles City Housing Authority], was still on the board
of the [Los Angeles City Community] Redevelopment Agency,
and his agency was responsible for housing these people if
they could not afford the housing that would be developed
there. My recollection is that we had affordable housing
for the people living on the site, through cooperation with
the housing authority. But, ideally, it would follow the
recommendations in this little book. What do you call it?
LASKEY: Rebuilding the City.
ALEXANDER: Rebuilding the City. In which you would have a
wide range of economic groups living in the same site.
Some of it would be subsidized public housing and some of
it would not. The objective would not be to build Bunker
Hill-type housing. I mean current Bunker Hill-type
housing. The objective would be to house the people on the
site, people from other sites too, and a variety of
economic classes. I don't know how it would have worked,
but I know that was the objective.
Okay, while in the process, before we knew what was
going on, of course the real estate lobby labeled the whole
program communist, and they finally succeeded in getting
two out of something like ten projects eliminated from the
program. One was ours and one was Rose Hills, and those
two together made up about five thousand units out of the
ten thousand. There were still five thousand units that
were actually built under that program and have been
successful public housing projects.
LASKEY: Where were they built? Were those the ones down
in East L.A.?
ALEXANDER: The entire Chavez Ravine project would be
public housing, sure.
LASKEY: When you were working on Bunker Hill redevel-
opment, would that also have been public housing?
LASKEY: That was not public housing.
ALEXANDER: No, no, no.
LASKEY: I know that when it was developed, it was not
developed that way. So your original concept for the
redevelopment of Bunker Hill was not that it would have
been a public housing program, that it would have developed
essentially the way it has developed, as a combination of
things. But Elysian Park--
ALEXANDER: That was a public housing project. I forgot
that--got so wound up here. [laughter] So it became the
most prominent project in the public housing program in Los
Angeles and, therefore, the most desirable from our
enemies' standpoint to knock out. And they knocked out
ours and Rose Hills. Their clinching victory came when
[William F.] Knowland and [Richard M.] Nixon, senators at
the time, put a rider on some appropriation bill that gave
the city council the funds to purchase the site from the
housing authority, both the Rose Hills site and the Elysian
Park site. And that's what they did, and then of course
the next step was to convert it into [Walter] O'Malley
land. And they now had this great site right near the
center of town, and Roz-- What's her name?
LASKEY: Oh, Roz [Rosalind] and Victor Wyman?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, she was the pet of the Dodgers, as I
LASKEY: Roz Wyman was?
ALEXANDER: Wasn't she?
LASKEY: Oh, I don't remember. I was just new to the area
ALEXANDER: There was this lady on the city council-- I
have nothing against her, and I don't resent whoever it was
on the council. They were part of the movement of the
time. They had this land now, and what were they going to
do with it? They want the Dodgers; the Dodgers want Los
Angeles (they wanted out of Brooklyn). Anyway, O'Malley
got the site, and the regrading was fabulous. They knocked
down the hills and filled in the valleys and made this
great big place to park, enough cars to handle 50,000
people in the ballpark. That was the end of a two-year
effort on our part. Most of our attention went into it.
We had such people as Sy Eisner, who had been an
architectural employee of the [Los Angeles] City Planning
Department and before that, I believe, the [Los Angeles]
County Regional Planning Commission. He was one of our
employees. And my office staff came over. Bob [Robert]
Kennard and other Bobs.
LASKEY: The Bobs. [laughter]
ALEXANDER: And Garrett Eckbo. We started out in Neutra's
two-car garage behind his Silver Lake house. In the
meantime, he was finishing work on what was to have been a
real estate investment for him, which was something
designed for a couple of shops on Glendale Boulevard, just
half a block away from his Silver Lake house. This became
a nightmare for me to try to run my office over at La Brea
[Avenue] and supervise what was going on behind Silver
Lake, and finally I said, "I'll just break up my spot
here." This was at a time when I had just come back from a
Guam trip and got hepatitis and found that I also had the
eviction notice. I had spotted a piece of property on
Mount Washington that was inexpensive and looked straight
across the valley at Mount Wilson. It had this wonderful
view and this rural atmosphere, and yet it was six miles
from either the Pasadena or Los Angeles city hall. So I
said, "Okay, I'll move the office over here." So he
offered this storefront building as our joint office, and
when that was finished we moved in there. It was plenty
big, too big for just an architectural office, so we tried
an integrated office of architects and structural
engineers, [Arthur] Parker and [Jack] Zhender; and a
mechanical engineer, Boris Lemos; and an electrical
engineer, Swickert. And I don't think we got the landscape
architects in there, but we had room for them.
In any event, we had room to spread out and have an
integrated force. Even though we did not employ these
people, we had an arrangement that they could do work for
any other architect, but they were not to go into a
brochure with anyone but us, that is, as a joint force.
And I had come to a point in the Orange Coast College work
where I was notified that they were going to interview
other architects as well as myself, the first time in
several years of work from the very beginning. So on one
occasion I asked Neutra how he'd like to go into that on a
joint venture with me.
TAPE NUMBER: IX, SIDE TWO
OCTOBER 4, 1986
ALEXANDER: Well, as a result of my question regarding
Orange Coast College, we were then in two joint ventures at
the time. We sort of drifted into a partnership. I don't
know how many times over a period of ten years I would try
to work out a partnership agreement and would always be
frustrated in some way by Neutra ' s Germanic style of
thinking, as I think of it. It was just impossible to come
to an agreement with him which was simple and not so
complicated that I could understand the darn thing. And I
kept thinking, "What the hell. We're getting along all
right now without a written partnership agreement. Let's
not worry about it." Well, we went ahead with an unwritten
The number one understanding was that he insisted that
all of his single-family residential work would be his
alone and carried out in his "studio," in quotes. In other
words, in his residence. And that any other type of work
we would do jointly. Well, he didn't stick to that, and
over a period of time there were several instances where I
was really disgusted to find that, without saying anything
to me, he had broken this agreement, which was, I admit, an
oral agreement, but nevertheless I considered it a real
agreement. That was one bone of contention. In any event,
we went on from essentially 1948 to 1958 on what was really
a joint-venture basis, but we each signed any contract with
a client. Do you want to discuss any other projects in
LASKEY: Yeah, because I think a number of things that you
did with Neutra were particularly noteworthy. You talked
about Orange Coast College, the auditorium that you came up
ALEXANDER: That was the first Orange Coast College project
we did in common, and from then on, any Orange Coast
College project we did together. In fact, anything that I
did from then on up to 1958, I did in connection with
him. There may be some exception toward the end, where I
did some consulting. I know there was for some consulting
work, but as far as an architectural project was concerned,
that was it. The speech arts building at Orange Coast
College was the first one, and that was the one where they
were going to interview other architects. But when they
interviewed me on that occasion, I had Neutra with me, and
that changed their idea that they were going to seek other
architects. In the design of that he pulled out all the
stops that he had been dreaming about, I guess for years,
of staging affairs. In many ways and on many occasions, he
was a joy to work with, as long as he was what I could call
himself, as long as he was not putting on an act. He found
it irresistible when a six-year-old came into the room--he
just had to put on an act for that six-year-old, let alone
a ninety-year-old general of the army.
On one occasion on the way to Guam in the airplane, we
had nineteen hours to spare, so what the hell, we might as
well talk, and that was always fascinating. But on the way
to Guam on our first trip there, he said, "When we get
there, I want you to act as the business person and I'll
act as the artist." I said, "What the hell do you mean?
I'm going to act as myself." He couldn't understand me and
I couldn't understand him on this subject, and this
happened time after time where he wanted to put on an
act. I found that to be phony, and in many cases it was
perceived as phony by the potential client. But the
stories that he told about his experiences in the First
World War on the Dalmatian Coast-- His old-world habits or
ways-- For instance, we're walking along the street, each
of us with his wife, and due to the old American custom,
coming from pioneer days, we know that the street's going
to be muddy and there are carriages splashing along there
and the clopping hooves of horses are going to splash mud
on our lady's garment, so we always go on the street
side. He always goes on the right side, because that's the
side on which he carried his sword, or maybe the left side--
LASKEY: Left side.
ALEXANDER: That's right. He always walks on the left
side, wherever the hell the street is. Well, I heard a
great deal about the early days in Vienna. I did not hear
about what I've heard since. I did not hear what must have
been heartbreaking for him, and that was the discrimination
against Jews in Vienna. He described, of course from his
own standpoint, his working with [Erich] Mendelsohn, going
to his office, and then corresponding with-- What's his
name, in Southern California?
LASKEY: [Rudolph] Schindler.
ALEXANDER: Schindler. And coming to America, going to
Chicago, and stopping there. And his admiration for Frank
Lloyd Wright, and especially the way Wright had succeeded
in getting international publicity. Well, I soon found
that Neutra had, in effect, five females working for him
around the clock to make him internationally famous. I
mean, he had his wife, who was a marvelous character, Dione
[Niedermann Neutra] ; and her sister, [Regula Niedermann]
Thorston [Fybel]; and three hired secretaries. Literally,
he would sleep most of the time. He would take long
naps. When he woke up in the morning--it might be ten
o'clock or something like that--Mrs. Neutra would, in as
near thunderous tones as possible, say for everybody in the
studio, "Mr. Neutra is awake." And then all the little
apprentices would take their little boards of drawings up
to him while he was lying in his bed for him to make his
written comments and marks on them,
LASKEY: Was this because of the heart attack or because--?
ALEXANDER: Well, he used that heart attack all the time I
knew him, for ten years. He used it blatantly and
consciously. One day when we were designing the [Los
Angeles County] Hall of Records, we found that-- Well, in
the first place, I think I ought to talk about the Hall of
Records. That's an important thing we did together.
LASKEY: Together, okay.
ALEXANDER: He was on a trip to the East somewhere, while I
was guarding the store at home. We had, before he left,
gone into a letter of intent with Pereira and Luckman to
joint venture this hall of records job and sent our joint
letter of interest and our credentials into the [Los
Angeles County] Board of Supervisors, requesting that we be
considered for that job, that specific job. And [William]
Pereira had gotten the cooperation of Booz, Allen, and
Hamilton from Chicago, a management consulting firm, as
part of our team. I was watching the papers and listening
to what was going to happen. We had gone down and we had
seen our favorite supervisor, who, of course, was John
Anson Ford--great guy. And suddenly one day, quite
unexpectedly (I was told about how it happened afterwards).
one of the supervisors said, "I think it is time for us to
choose architects for the hall of records. It's a big
prestige job, and I appoint so-and-so." The next
supervisor said the same thing, appointing somebody else;
the next one said the same; and this went down until the
fifth supervisor, Kenny [Kenneth] Hahn. Kenny Hahn said,
"I appoint--" And they said, "Wait a minute, Kenny. You've
had the last three jobs," or two jobs or whatever it was.
"You don't get anybody in on this one." So here were four
supervisors appointing four guys who hadn't talked to each
other, knocking our heads together. Well, I called Bill
Pereira right away and said, "I didn't do it, we didn't do
it. We didn't know anything about this." And he said, "We
know this. It's just too bad. I'm sorry for you guys."
LASKEY: Just to ask you a question here, were Pereira and
[Charles] Luckman together at this point?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes.
LASKEY: I knew that they were at one time, but I didn't
ALEXANDER: Well, Luckman couldn't have been together with
anybody. I mean, he'd have to be together with somebody as
an architect to start out. He had an architectural degree,
but he had never practiced and he was new to the Southern
California scene. So he came out and went to his old
classmate Pereira, and he had enough business contacts to
make it attractive.
Anyway, Bill was very understo..ding . Neutra came back
with a great glow of excitement. Well, the only people
that we knew in these three other characters were [Douglas]
Honnold and [John] Rex, and I knew Honnold intimately and I
knew Rex very well. This was fine. The other two-- Herman
Light, I don't know whether I had ever heard of him. But
we didn't know him. And [James R.] Friend of Long Beach
was of course appointed by the Long Beach representative on
LASKEY: Were these essentially political appointments?
ALEXANDER: Oh, yes, of course. And incidentally, at that
time there was no question that the board of supervisors
customarily took bribes from architects for jobs, and this
is not unusual. John Anson Ford is probably the only
exception in history who did not. Well, I don't know about
LASKEY: Kenny Hahn?
ALEXANDER: Well, Kenny Hahn is a slick friend of mine. I
worked for him when he first became a councilman. I went
out and rang a few doorbells for him. 1 was on the
planning commission. I liked his cut, and he was a young,
Well, anyway, the architects selected got together and
decided we couldn't function on every aspect of the job
together. So the others agreed that we should be in charge
of design. Both Neutra and I had made a name at that time
in the design field, they agreed. Honnold and Rex were
assigned to program the job. That is, the county didn't
hand us the program. They said, "Here you have to go to
the staff that's going to use the building and find out
what they need."
LASKEY: So you had to even create your own program?
ALEXANDER: Right. These days we'd have to charge for it,
but this was part of the game at the time. Herman Light
took great pride in his specification writing and working
drawings too. And [to] Friend, whom none of us knew, we
said, "Well, maybe you can handle the construction
services . "
Well, it took a long time to get started on this,
because I kept urging Neutra, "For god's sake, this is the
greatest opportunity in your career for a big building, so
design the thing, lay it out." Nothing would happen. And
I remember one night coming back from Orange Coast College,
after a board meeting down there with our engineers Parker
and Zhender-- I found that they were wondering what's
happening here. I said, "I'm waiting for Neutra to come up
with the design." They said, "Well, you know it's been a
couple of months. What's going on?" I said, "This is his
greatest opportunity. I'll get my opportunities like that
later." Finally I got fed up myself and I went down to the
office on a weekend, and in two days I worked out what
became the layout and plan of the thing. It was not,
naturally, the whole working plan, but it was a plan based
on the needs that had been identified by Honnold and Rex.
We called a meeting of our group, and I had a series of
sketches to show the genesis of this plan and the way it
was developed. And they all approved. I got a letter from
Honnold: "Thank god somebody's taking charge of getting
this under way." Of course Neutra, in the process of
developing the design and working drawings, got some of his
trademarks on the thing in the way of colors and what he
called spider legs and louvers and so on. Although the
tall louvers on the southwest side were my idea. He was
flabbergasted at the daring of the 120-foot high louvers
that would operate.
LASKEY: They were controlled by the sun? The louvers?
ALEXANDER: They were controlled by an astronomic time
clock that would, through the period of the year as the sun
changed, change as to when it would be open. It was also
controlled by an electric eye on the roof that would turn
the louvers until they were straight out, perpendicular, in
case it became a cloudy day. I mean not just one cloud
passing over, but if it became a series of clouds passing
over, a cloudy day, they would stand straight out. And
another occasion in which they would stand straight out
from the wall was in the danger of high wind. Anytime the
wind exceeded certain knots or miles per hour, the
whirligig or anemometer on the roof would tell it to come
out to its vertical position, which was its most strong.
Otherwise it might fly away. We got an engineer who had
designed a lot of Disneyland gimmicks to work with us on
making this work, and we had a creative structural
engineer, much to the disgust of the structural engineers
that had worked for me during my entire career-this was, I
think, the one occasion when they didn't. We had to make
accommodations; we had four architectural groups to talk
with. so we had some of our men and some of our people and
some of their people.
well, at some point pretty soon, we found that within
our group of four we had a competing design going on. This
guy Friend, in Long Beach, had gone down to the county
architectural and engineering staff with a design that he
had cooked up himself. It was not our agreed-upon design.
LASKEY: This was when you were in the process, when you
had decided among you that you and Neutra would be in
charge of the design. And while you're creating this
design, he's created an alternate design.
ALEXANDER: Right, right. And without telling us. And he
had gone down there to sell it to the staff. Well, this
was really too much. It was only some time after that I
looked up the guy's self -written biography in a book of
architects' biographies, and I found that he was a
disappointed designer from the start. He had never done
anything that was truly noteworthy, but it was obvious from
the things that he mentioned about his career that he
considered himself an outstanding designer. That was all
right, but this was a crazy thing to do.
So we requested a meeting with Art [Arthur J.] Will,
who was the CAO [chief administrative officer] of the
county. And in Will's office, we showed Will what we had
proposed, and we told him about the competing design coming
in from one of our members. In the midst of describing
this thing, Neutra put on a heart attack. Well, Art Will
had had a heart attack himself fairly recently, and here
goes Neutra on this heart attack, which I thought was real,
but afterwards he said, "Did I do all right?" And it was
not infrequent that he would use that heart problem to his
advantage or refuse to go to a certain place or demand, "I
must have my nurse with me." And "my nurse" turned out to
be his wife. Which I understand, and that was great. She
acted as his ambulatory secretary and she just went through
hell, but she would call it wonderful. Although she very
often would say to me, "Isn't he a terrible man?"--
laughing. But I had to agree. Well, let's see--
ALEXANDER: The Guam thing. Well, it was shortly after I
came back from India that I went to Washington to a
national housing convention. The National Housing and
Planning Association, I think it was, of which I was a
member. I met lots of colleagues there, guys that I had
known in the AIA or met at these meetings. I had gotten to
know very well the top leaders in the public housing game
nationally, the ones who were in at the very beginning. I
had been appointed by the national AIA to be the West Coast
member of a five-member committee on housing and
planning. The chairman for maybe five years or several
years in which I was on it was Louis Justement of
Washington, D.C., who had written a seminal book called New
Cities for Old. And [Henry] Churchill of Philadelphia was
on it and Albert Mayer of New York, let's see, and Jerry
[Jerrold] Loebl of Chicago--those were the five. Jerry
Loebl was not on the entire five or seven years or whatever
when I was, but he was succeeded by someone, I forget who
it was. Anyway, I knew the people in office, the
appointees in the bureaucracy of housing and planning.
LASKEY: Was this as a result of your India experience, or
was this a result of your AIA experience?
ALEXANDER: No. It was a combination of AIA and Chavez
Ravine. This was a prominent project nationwide. It was
the only what you might call comprehensive, "new town in
town" experiment. So the people in Washington were very
conscious of that.
Okay, one of the people at the conference, a friend,
said, "By the way, you should stand a chance of getting the
Guam job." Guam had just become a territory. For fifty
years it had been similar to a battleship run by the navy,
ever since the Spanish-American War. Finally, at the end
of the war the Guamanians were demanding some home rule.
In view of the fact that they had been stalwart, valiant
defenders of the United States and democracy during the
invasion and recapture of the island. Congress had given
them territorial status. So Truman had just appointed a
governor; his name was Carlton Skinner. He had been Wall
Street Journal representative in Washington, D.C. I became
very interested. This was up my alley. It was an
opportunity that I could see would be fascinating to
develop a plan. The scuttlebutt was that Carlton Skinner
had stars in his eyes about regional planning for the
island and needed some architectural work and so on. I
then found from somebody who knew the inside situation that
a very close friend of Carlton Skinner was none other than
LASKEY: Martin Agronsky?
ALEXANDER: Martin Agronsky. So I got to see Martin
Agronsky; I became a pest to Martin Agronsky. He was a
very dear man, very likable. Very decent to a young,
stupid whippersnapper like me. And as I say, over a period
of time going back and forth to Washington, I called on him
many times. But in any event, he gave me an inside view as
to what Carlton was like and how to approach him, and maybe
he even gave him some of my line that I had given him about
Neutra and myself. Well, it turned out that Carlton
Skinner was very much enamored of Neutra ' s publications and
his books and so forth, and that he was very much
interested in my background in planning in India and so on
in connection with the UN [United Nations] . So we had a
long telephone conversation, ten dollars a minute or
whatever it was, in Guam, and we went over together. I
think it was twenty- three hours from Los Angeles, stopping
in Honolulu, getting to Guam at that time. And of course
there was a date change just before you get there.
LASKEY: This is about 1952?
ALEXANDER: Yes, that was the start of it. Nineteen fifty-
two and '53, I think, were the main years. Well, Skinner
was very enthusiastic about this opportunity. He had in
mind that over a period of his tenure there that he would
change the economy from a beer and tin can and cigarette
economy to a viable long-term civilian economy. That is,
everything up to that time, as I say, had been just run as
a battleship by the navy. And they had the utmost scorn
for Guamanians. They said, "The guys won't work, so we
have to import the Filipinos to do our jobs."
As far as not working goes, I found, for instance, on
one occasion when I stepped off the plane into a puddle of
water waiting to greet people, some person getting off the
plane was my bank manager from the Bank of America, the
branch near Baldwin Hills Village. "What are you doing
here?" "Well, I'm opening a new Bank of America branch
here." I said, "How's it going?" Well, I got to know his
operation. He said, "Why, these employees are the best,
hardworking employees I've had in my experience at ten
different branches." It turned out that these guys had
been treated like dirt by the navy, and they had found all
different ways to frustrate the navy, like speaking
Chamorro. They were soldiering on purpose, as far as the
navy was concerned. But when it came to a job where they
could have some money and respect, they were just
Furthermore, all the construction work on the island,
of which there was a tremendous amount-- Like $30 million a
month, was it? Anyway, it was big. I forget, it's been so
many years. I've lost track of the cost index and
everything else. But it was a tremendous continuing
contract. Everything was being done on a change order.
Brown Pacific Maxon, BPM, which was a joint venture of big
construction firms from the United States, had originally
had a contract with the navy to do construction work on
Guam. Towards the end of that specific contract, there was
more work to be done, so they said, "Let's make it
simpler. Let's make it a change order." Everything was
being done on cost plus a percentage (the percentage being
the profit), and the more it cost, the higher the
percentage. I mean, the same percentage would bring in
more dollars if it was 10 percent of a million. The thing
that might have cost a million, they made cost two
million. Then on the next job they'd get that kind of a--
I think it was not cost plus percentage, it was cost plus a
fixed fee. But the fixed fee was based on their previous
experience of percentage. Do you get the idea in general?
LASKEY: I got the idea, yeah.
ALEXANDER: Okay, so we found that they would be building
barracks, we'll say, of reinforced concrete, superb
construction. No question about that. No question that it
was going to fall down or anything like that. But to make
it cost more, they would get a whole crew of Philippine
workmen to holystone the whole building, to polish the
outside concrete until it was just like marble. I mean, it
was a wonderful way to increase the cost.
LASKEY: What did you call that? Holystone?
ALEXANDER: Well, you know what a holystone is on a ship.
That is a pumice stone or whatever they use, a big piece of
stone with which you scrub the decks.
Well, in addition to making a master plan of the
territory, or regional plan, we had the contracts to design
a house for the governor, which would be called the Palasyo
after the original governor's house, which had been
destroyed by the retaking of the island by the navy.
They'd just sat off in their ships and bombarded the hell
out of Agaha, the capital city, until it was leveled. The
Marine Corps general in charge after the landing had
bulldozers push the rubble into a long peninsula that you
can still see there.
Well, anyway, that was one project. Then we were to
design an elementary school for Agana, something like
thirty classrooms, and two or three other schools. So we
were interested in the construction cost. What can we say
about it? I mean, here we are in the middle of nowhere,
and we've got to get contractors, we've got to get
materials, and so on. What do things cost here? Well, we
found-- I don't know what it was now. Maybe it was $30 a
square foot. This seemed outrageous to us. Nevertheless,
we were apprehensive. What would we find if we actually
put something out to bid? So we put this thirty-room
school, Agana Elementary School, out to bid, and we got
bids of $12.50 a square foot, like a third or something
like that of what the navy was advising us would be the
minimum cost. Well, I must admit, it wasn't up to navy
standards as a building. But they were flabbergasted and
embarrassed, and we were dirt. We were persona non grata
on the island.
LASKEY: Because you blew their cover, so to speak?
ALEXANDER: Well, we got out bids. That's something that
showed up there. I don't know. There were some navy
people that were that way and others were not. But
certainly Brown Pacific Maxim wanted to get us the hell out
before anything blew up.
LASKEY: It hasn't changed much today, has it?
ALEXANDER: I started to say that Carlton Skinner-- Yes, it
has changed a great deal. But Carlton Skinner dreamed of
turning this economy around, so part of our mission, as he
described it over a period of our working with him, would
be a social and economic one to change the economy to a
viable native economy. So, for instance, I had meetings
with Del Monte cannery people to see if they would be
interested if we got fisheries going. I got into what kind
of fishing can you do here to get tuna, and I found that
the Japanese long-line method has been most successful in
the area. "Where could we get fishermen to do this? Would
they come from Japan, which is close, only fifteen hundred
miles away, or from San Diego, which is thousands of miles
from there?" And "What will we do? We can't sell the tuna
here. We have to can it and sell it. Would you be
interested in setting up a cannery for tuna in Agafia
harbor? What about pineapples? The sweetest pineapples
I've ever tasted are here. Aren't you interested?" "Well,
no. The thing of it is that we have found that we must
have a pineapple that is tart and is about can size, so
that our machine can take the core out and not lose too
much pineapple when it cores the thing and skins it at the
same time, and then we slice it and so on. And those sweet
pineapples I know are delicious, but the public won't go
for it, you see. We found that." [laughter]
Well, anyway, our mission was to try to get things
like that started, trying to get some real economy based on
the natural resoL^rces there. I had several frustrating
meetings back here with people, specific people invited,
like the best economist I knew and the best sociologist and
this, that, and the other. I tried to round up a team that
would work on this problem with us. The first frustration
was that Neutra would talk a big deal on this line, but he
did not want any limelight taken away from him, I found
out. Another thing, the real clincher was that it pretty
soon became evident that the navy didn't want any part of
this kind of activity, so they had Carlton Skinner called
back on the carpet to Washington, D.C., and told him to lay
off: "The navy does not want anymore additional civilian
activity than they already have. So just forget it.
They're doing fine just the way it is. Just lay off." So
Carlton had to tell us, "Well, forget about that part of
the program. We won't get any support on it, and we can't
Anyway, we did get the Agana school built, the Palasyo
built, a little school down at Umatec right in front of the
beach where Magellan landed (he was the first European to
discover the island) and one other school, Interajan,
something like that. Well, meantime we started to develop
a regional plan. They had stars in their eyes about a
major high school. And in preparation for that, we started
to work on elements of an educational institution, in view
of the fact that the island would be a focal point where
people would come to high-school-level education from
islands all over the Pacific, the trust territories.
And we also had a change of administration. Truman
didn't last forever, and [Dwight D.] Eisenhower came in.
And as is the case in many cases we ran into, Guam was
looked upon as a sort of Siberia to which you send people
to which you have an obligation, but to get them out of the
way more or less. One obligation [Dwight D.] Eisenhower
had was to a lawyer in Seattle whose name I shall forget.
I may have written it down.
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah. The governor's house had been
completed, and here's a new guy coming in who had nothing
to do with the programming and with the thinking that went
into the house, coming in to occupy it.
LASKEY: Now, the house was rather a departure for a
residence of that kind, wasn't it?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, the problems that the governor of Guam
would have-- We found firsthand on one occasion when we
were there-- There was suddenly a telegram saying that Vice
President [Alben W.] Barkley will land in Guam tomorrow or
the next day, whenever it was, quite unexpected. The vice
president of the United States suddenly comes. Another
thing, we were there for Liberation Day. On Liberation
Day, that's a big celebration, and at least two thousand
Guamanians expect to be invited to the governor ' s house for
a bash. And what are you going to do with things like
that? in the first place, we could see that we had to have
sort of hotel accommodations. There was no hotel
whatsoever on the island (a Quonset hut was where we
stayed). There was nothing. So what are you going to do
when the president of the United States comes here? You
have to have a place to put him. What are you going to do
when you have two thousand people to entertain at one
sitting? In effect, we had to divide the program for the
Palasyo into two things. One would be a thing for these
state functions, and the other would be a modest, American,
three-bedroom house for the governor. So the Palasyo was
looked upon by some critics as being outlandishly
extravagant--those were the people who did not understand
about the state functions--but when you took a look at what
the governor was to live in, it was very modest.
Now, Skinner was there long enough to appreciate the
fact that the climate on Guam, during seven months of the
year at least, is quite delightful due to the trade wind.
And if you can simply arrange things to capture that and to
provide shade for your dwelling-- There are no insects to
speak of. Lots of little lizards that have suction cups on
their feet run around on the ceiling and catch what insects
come in. The living there could be quite delightful, at
least for a large part of the year, without air-
conditioning. In fact, they had some air-conditioning in
some places, like some attempts in some restaurants, which
at that time were quite primitive. They'd have a navy-type
air conditioner right outside that roared, and you go in
and there would be a 20-degree drop in temperature. And
changing from one to the other was really not healthy and
was enervating. So Skinner said, "No air-conditioning.
We're going to have louvers to get the shade properly
oriented, and we're going to capture the trade winds, make
life as pleasant as it can be. And when the really muggy
tropical weather sets in, we'll endure it, the way
everybody's done it here for centuries." That wasn't
Eldridge's idea at all. He wanted everything glassed in.