Where the duplex is king

March 17, 2023

UNLESS you’re a keen observer of small details or already in the know, you’d swear these two-story structures were Hancock Park spillovers, capacious homes that simply announce themselves in a more demure fashion than the grander estates a few blocks east.

But hold on a second. Why are there two sets of numbers on either side of the doorways, on the stones of the front stoops, over the arched entries? 255, 257 ... 121, 123. What’s the deal with that?

Here, along 10 blocks of two sycamore-shaded streets -- Mansfield Avenue and Orange Drive -- is a dense concentration of a largely overlooked or willfully ignored type of Los Angeles architecture: the duplex apartment.

Nearly 400 units cleverly masquerade as 200 houses in this neighborhood just west of Highland Avenue and north of 3rd Street that Realtors have saddled with a clunk of a name, Hancock Park Adjacent. “I call it Hancock Park Almost,” says Bill Stern, executive director of the Museum of California Design and a 15-year resident of a duplex on Orange Drive.

“It’s absolutely the premier duplex area in L.A.,” says recording mixer Rick Ash, who has lived on Mansfield for five years. “These houses were built in the ‘20s and ‘30s by several contractors rather than one developer, using top-quality materials and incorporating many of the same architectural elements you find in big Hancock Park houses.”

By that he means barrel ceilings, 9- to 15-foot ceilings, inlaid hardwood floors, peg and groove hardwood floors, stained and leaded glass windows, double-hung windows, French windows, arched windows, arched doorways, wrought iron balconies, built-in bureaus, Batchelder tiles: You never know exactly what to expect when you enter the interiors, but they won’t be run-of-the-mill. Nor will anything about them be shabby. So well-constructed are they, they’ve withstood every earthquake in L.A.

Because individual contractors built on lots that were not contiguous, says Stern, there is a marked absence of cookie-cutter monotony. On the other hand, they had an overriding concept of how buildings should look.

“And something else interesting -- Stefanos Polyzoides, the architect for the residential section of the original Playa Vista urban development plan, told me he molded his medium-density housing streets after Orange Drive,” Stern says. “The entrance level is seven to 10 steps higher than street level. The reason for that is you have to look up, and it makes them seem more important.”

Typically, there is one exterior door opening to an interior staircase that leads to the upstairs unit. If there are two doors -- particularly true when the units are side by side, each occupying half of the upper and lower floors -- one is usually at a 90-degree angle to the street

Red-tiled roofs proliferate and so do stucco exteriors of buff, putty and bleached pastels, but -- in classic Los Angeles mode -- styles cut a swath, from Spanish Revival to Mediterranean Revival to English Tudor. Yet their subdued tones and similar scale, along with the unifying splendor of heroic allees of sycamores, create the overall effect of a calculated harmony, a visual order not left to whim or chance.

The uncanny resemblance to fine single-family houses is no happy accident either. They look that way for a particular reason: to blend in. It was a conscious design strategy by city planners aimed at maintaining property values by giving the area a consistent countenance.

In high-end areas, the invasion of multifamily housing was considered by uptight residents to be a menace and a blight, and it was easier to get permits and ward off resistance from neighboring property owners by making them apartments in disguise.

Aside from their true identity, the bigger surprise is the size of these duplexes: on average, each unit is around 2,400 square feet spread over six to nine rooms. Could this be L.A.’s best-kept real estate secret?

“Duplexes have definitely been understudied,” says architect Todd Gish, a doctoral candidate in urban planning at USC who is writing his dissertation on apartment housing in the first third of the 20th century in L.A.

Los Angeles is “a city long characterized as having little else but single family housing on suburban lots,” Gish says. “I didn’t find much research on multifamily housing at all. Most history has focused on the exceptional aspects of L.A. as a kind of paradise: movies, industry, sunshine, palm trees, lots of single family housing -- as if that’s all there was.”

In fact, duplexes and four-flats were built in large numbers in the 1920s, the boom decade of growth. (According to the California Department of Finance, the population of Los Angeles in 1920 was roughly 576,000. In 1930, it was 1,238,000.) Apartments cropped up all over the city: Echo Park, Silver Lake, West Hollywood, East L.A., North Adams, Leimert Park. Out of an estimated 328,000 dwellings in the mid-’20s, 31,000 were duplexes -- home, in other words, to almost 10% of the population. “It might not sound like it, but that’s a lot,” says Gish. “Huge, really.”

Promoting L.A. in the 1920s and ‘30s as a garden idyll of private homes was “a purposeful myth” perpetuated by entrepreneurs and the Chamber of Commerce to set it apart from congested industrial cities such as Philadelphia or Chicago, says Greg Hise, an associate professor in USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development and Gish’s faculty advisor. “It just wouldn’t sell to say we’re a city of apartments.”

But with the influx of newcomers, there was a precipitous rise in property values, and single family houses became too pricey for many people. Apartment houses were the obvious solution, and duplexes were the obvious best compromise. The finest of them were, in effect, like being in your own well-designed maisonette, with all the amenities of a bigger house, including outdoor features such as patios, terraces and backyards.

“There’s nothing radically different about urban life then than now,” says Sam Watters, who teaches in USC’s School of Architecture and is writing a book on Los Angeles houses. “You always have a transient population and you always have a need for transient housing. Duplexes could be built in upscale residential areas like Hancock Park and give apartment dwellers the feeling that they were living in a space equal in stature to a house they couldn’t afford.”

The trajectory of well-heeled L.A. has been a steady one toward the west -- from Bunker Hill to West Adams to Hancock Park and onward. The Mansfield-Orange duplex area was simply an extension of Hancock Park.

Daphne Brogdon, a stand-up comic, and her husband, Mark Peel, owner of the restaurant Campanile on nearby La Brea Avenue, recently moved into an upper-floor rental on Mansfield that seems permanently saturated with sunlight. “I really like how well-built it is,” says Brogdon. “It’s a very handsome structure, and it makes me proud to say, ‘Oh, yes, this is my house.’ ”

Their landlady, Carol Leahy, lives below them in a unit that opens onto an indoor atrium. She has kept the upstairs regularly rented out, mostly to movie industry people: Just before Brogdon and Peel moved in, William J. Macdonald, an executive producer of the HBO series “Rome,” moved out.

The area’s convenience to major studios has long made it a desirable way station for actors, writers and producers: Across the street from Leahy, Larry Manzanaras and Leon Illerbrun have lived for 27 years in a duplex designed for Lon Chaney.

Twenty years ago, Leahy and her late husband sold their big house in Hancock Park and bought the duplex. Even now, she says, “I wake up every morning liking where I am.”

So does her 96-year-old neighbor Rosella Kanarik, a former college math teacher and widow of an architect: She has lived in her duplex for 59 years. One of her tenants occupied the upstairs-downstairs unit next to her for 47 years.

Longtime residents are no rarity in the neighborhood. Once they discovered it, they’ll tell you in one way or another, they knew they were onto a good thing -- and they were there to stay. “The trees are beautiful, it’s so well located, and the properties have never lost their charm,” says Kanarik.

Since 1963, June Sapiro has owned the largest duplex in the area, an 8,000-square-foot Tudor-style on Orange built by the J.C. Penney family that has a full tennis court on an adjoining lot. Her own space is 5,000 square feet, and she rents out the bottom portion.

“I like the neighborhood feeling,” she says. “Everything is so convenient: Ralphs, Trader Joe’s, the cleaners, the country club” (“a great meeting place for us old ladies,” says her friend Leahy). “And I like the idea of somebody else living here.”

Living in the same house with another person or family is one of the benefits owners and tenants like to point out. “There’s a friendly networking among duplex dwellers,” say Janet Watts, who recently sold her Wilshire Boulevard penthouse to move to Mansfield with her husband. “It’s kind of like everybody looks after one another.”

Before Ash bought his duplex on Mansfield, two sisters and their families lived there. “Duplexes are perfect for extended families,” he says. “Doors were open between these two floors all the time and the kids would play back and forth. I’ve sort of followed suit in the way I use the place now. The downstairs is furnished with my things, and I rent to people who need short-term places to stay. They become like my own extended family. My housekeeper takes care of them, we collect each other’s mail, let in repairmen when the other is at work.”

Novelist David Israel, author of the romantic comedy “Behind Everyman” and a former music composer who created ballets for Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and the New York City Ballet, says one of the reasons he and his wife, Jamie Heitner, rented their duplex two months ago when they moved here from New York was Kanarik, their landlady.

“We really liked Rose,” says Israel. “And we knew she wouldn’t be having any wild parties.”

There were, of course, a slew of other allurements, as there always have been for buyers and renters on Mansfield and Orange: urbanity, centrality, quiet, beauty, the rich aroma of history. “We’re both so detail oriented,” says Heitner, an architectural designer. “The minute we walked in, we were happy. The house is gorgeous. There’s crown molding, hardwood floors, incredible storage, a great layout, lots of natural light, an office space for David. If we open our windows downstairs, a breeze comes in. Every day, we’re happier.”

And every day they miss New York less, says Israel. At a rent that they guess is about one-half or one-third what they’d pay there for the equivalent space, they might well forget about it altogether. And one day, they might well become just two more old-timers in this neighborhood of fine duplexes, still astonished at their good fortune.

Barbara King can be reached at [email protected]

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