Italian-derived architecture in the Los Angeles area can be attributed to the broad enthusiasm for Mediterranean culture that still inspired the educated and well-to-do a century ago. As had Jefferson at Monticello, so too did the scions of Victorian Industry continue to dream of Italy. Boosters were convinced that coastal California would become America’s Riviera, truly Our Italy, as Charles D. Warner entitled his 1891 enticing descriptions.
While few evocations of Italy may quite rival Abbot Kinney’s 1904 Venetian folly (in Venice Beach, CA), domestic builders made much use of the loggia and the portico—amenities as expressive of this mild Mediterranean place as the olive and the vine. Longstanding admiration for Italy also converged seamlessly with the simultaneous resuscitation of the Hispanic Missions. Such was the California Mediterranean fusion that only an architectural historian rambling through, say, Palos Verdes, can alert us that Wallace Neff ’s villas are often “more Italian than Spanish,” or that the porticoed Malaga Cove piazza features a replica Fontana del Nettuno, from a 1563 Bolognese original, as its centerpiece. While some sites were generically inspired by the Italian Renaissance or even or by its Romanesque (St. Andrew Church, Pasadena, its bell tower and façade patterned after Santa Maria Cosmedin in Rome, or Powell Library, UCLA), others replicate specific Italian sites: San Secondo Asti Church, built by vintner, Secondo Guasti, replicates the parish church of his Piedmontese birthplace; Royce Hall, UCLA recalls Sant’Ambrogio in Milan; while Alverno Convent, Villa del Sol d’Oro (Sierra Madre), is based on the design of Villa Colazzi (Florence).
Further, wherever Italians have settled, they have brought their artisan skills for working in stone, marble, intarsia, mosaics, ceramic tile, gesso, decorative plaster, no less than faux marble and other trompe l’oeil. Of course, Italian artists continued the grand mural and fresco tradition, and their works still may be found in the Biltmore Hotel, the Jonathan Club (by Giovanni Battista Smeraldi), Frary Hall, Pomona College (by Rico Le Brun), the churches of Holy Family, South Pasadena; St. Ignatius, Highland Park; and Saint Monica’s, Santa Monica (by Ettore Serbaroli), or murals with a folk art sensibility in Leo Politi’s “Blessing of the Animals” (Biscailuz Bldg.). But Italian master craftsmen have also continued to be very active in the building trades (e.g., the Pozzo Construction Co., builders of the Italian Hall in El Pueblo).The artisan folk art tradition even finds its monumental expression in, e.g., the Watts Towers—likely inspired by Italy’s “dancing towers,” the Gigli di Nola. Many Italian or Italian-inspired sites in Los Angeles have been designated Historic Cultural Monuments, e.g., Guasti Villa, St. John’s Episcopal Church, William Andrews Clark Library, Giannini/Bank of America, the Watts Towers, Greenacres (Former Harold Lloyd Estate), Venice Center (Venice Beach).*
The Wheel of Fashion continues to turn: by the early Sixties, two Princetonians, stirred by their Italian sojourns, militated for a return to complexity and Italian allusions. Both Robert Venturi’s radical Historicist recoveries (1966) and Michael Grave’s chromatic evocations returned to Italy as architectural inspiration. The affluent 1980’s saw a new, post-modern wave of Californians eagerly (re-)discovering Italian wine, cuisine, and design.
Architecturally, Los Angeles renewed Italophilia is manifest in wide use of materials such as terracotta, marble, and tile, as well as in structural recoveries such as arcades, courtyards, spaces focused around fountains. New sites vaguely evoking Italian urban landscapes continue to rise (e.g., the hilltop Getty Museum, the grander malls such as the Grove, or the Beverly Hills Connection).
Edward F. Tuttle (UCLA) and Luisa Del Giudice
* See: Gloria Ricci Lothrop, “Italian Public Art & Architecture in Greater Los Angeles: Historical Survey” (www.ItalianLosAngeles.org)