by Michael Lee, AIA
My grandparents bought their property in North Manhattan Beach in 1952 for $900. That was big money in the 1950s, but the lot they purchased was in a sweet location, with an ocean view, on one of the new “walk streets,” a couple of blocks from the beach. My grandfather, an engineering draftsman at Pacific Iron and Steel, drew up plans for a 1,200 square foot, two-bedroom, one-bathroom home. He hired a local contractor, The Becking Brothers, to build the new house at a cost of $12,000. It had a nice brick fireplace and a large picture window with a great view of the waves down 32nd Street.
I’m not sure how they afforded to build the home in 1953, because they were not wealthy, but somehow they pulled it off. Rumor has it, Grandma Hazel was a pretty shrewd investor.
The house is still there. The kitchen and bathroom have been remodeled, the patio enlarged, and the roof re-done, but otherwise it is unchanged from the original. The wood floors still look great, the picture window still has a view of the surf (although not as good a view as in 1952), and the original wood shingles on the outside will probably last another season or two. My grandfather died in 1959, but our family enjoyed many holiday gatherings at the beach in front of that brick fireplace in the house that he designed.
Somewhere along the line, my specialty as an architect became tearing down houses like my grandparents’ and building bigger homes, sometimes much bigger homes, on the same size property. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Often the old house that we tear down is tired and worn out and the new owner wants something more comfortable for his or her family. Property values have gone up, times have changed, and our grandparents’ 1,200 square foot two-bedroom one-bathroom home is now a 3,000 square foot, five-bedroom, three-story-over-full-basement home with an elevator, a wine cellar, a home theater and a mechanical/telco room that looks like it came out of a nuclear submarine.
I am usually excited about the start of a new project, but occasionally I feel a pang of remorse when the bulldozer shows up. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, maybe I’m sentimental, or maybe sometimes the little old house is better in some way than the new house I’ve designed. I don’t know. The one thing I do know is that some of the smaller homes have a spirit and character to them that is difficult to replicate in a larger home on the same size property.
This bitter sweetness is something that I have come to accept as part of my chosen profession. I’m not complaining, I love what I do and I consider myself lucky to be able to design and build homes, and in the SouthBay there aren’t many vacant lots left. So to build new, one must first tear down. And if you pay a gazillion dollars for a postage-stamp-sized lot, of course you’re going to put as much square footage on it as you can. My job is to make that square footage work well and look good. Hopefully someday my clients’ neighbors will feel that same sense of fondness and nostalgia toward my buildings. Time will tell.
The ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s were a golden era at the beach. Many of the homes built back then had a modesty and lack of pretense that made them very charming. These homes seemed to last longer as well. But something bad happened in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. A lot of ugly, cheap, boxy behemoths were built throughout the L.A.Basin, and many of them ended up in the SouthBay. Square footage and bedroom count were the mantra of the ’80s developers. A typical spec-built 4,000 square foot home in the Tree Section of Manhattan Beach had a 10-foot rear yard with barely room for a BBQ and a dog house. One infamous quote from a builder of that era was, “I don’t need to spend any money on construction quality or design, I can sell anything in 90266.”
Thank goodness things have changed. Grandma and grandpa may not be able to afford the beach any more, but new buyers are coming in expecting quality design, usable outdoor spaces, and energy efficient buildings, built with environmentally conscientious materials and methods. Manhattan Beach now requires that new homes exceed the minimum state requirements for energy usage by 15 percent. The city has also enacted laws limiting bulk and increasing open space. Many of my clients want solar panels on their homes now, and a place to plug in their future electric car. (I had dinner with a client recently who somewhat gleefully told me about his $.77 electric bill for the month.) What took us so long to figure out that getting energy from the sun was a good idea?
So the scale of homes in the beach cities has changed, it’s not the ’20s or ’30s or ’40s anymore, but at least we’re not in the awkward adolescence of the 70s and the 80s either. Square footage is no longer the most important consideration. Some neighborhoods have gone a bit more upscale, but this is a natural consequence of living in such a beautiful place. Everyone wants to live here, home prices have gone up, and let’s face it, my grandparents couldn’t afford to buy and build a home in Manhattan Beach today. The funky and bohemian vibe of the beach cities will always remain, but it’s a little more grown up now, not so laid back, and is more concerned about the future. The mantra has changed too… “more is better” has become “better is better.”
Michael Lee is an architect in Manhattan Beach.