Elkgrove Circle, the main green space at Lincoln Place
Preservation Magazine, Winter 2016

California Dream: Lincoln Place Apartments

The dedicated residents of a midcentury apartment complex in Los Angeles achieve their aim of saving their longtime home.

A cluster of three palm trees rises high above the sidewalks and pastel two-story buildings at Lincoln Place, an expansive, 38-acre apartment complex in Los Angeles’ Venice neighborhood. If you stand at just the right spot in the street and look up, you’ll see the tops of the trees come together to form a bushy, green heart.

A shared courtyard at Lincoln Place

Each building wraps around a shared courtyard.

Ingrid Mueller, a septuagenarian and animated storyteller, pauses under these trees. She points to the yellow building across the lawn. “That’s where Frieda lived,” she says, remembering longtime friend and former Lincoln Place tenant Frieda Marlin. “She loved Lincoln Place.”

Mueller has a lot of memories of this complex and its many tenants; she’s lived here since 1988. There’s the ficus tree she and fellow residents planted more than 15 years ago in honor of a former treasurer of the Lincoln Place Tenants Association. And then there’s the spot where another former neighbor once stood with her paintbrush and canvas to capture the sun shining on a winding path between apartment buildings. That painting now hangs in Mueller’s kitchen. There’s also the building where an old friend, an anthropology professor at nearby University of California, Los Angeles, once lived, and a small courtyard where Mueller and her neighbors have hosted countless birthday parties and picnics.

She looks back up at the heart shape in the palm trees. “And here is where Frieda and I celebrated our first victory at City Hall back in 1995, when a demolition plan for this place was denied,” she says. “We celebrated right here under this heart.”

Looking around, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to demolish Lincoln Place, a collection of 1950s buildings with bold geometric forms and wide-open spaces just a mile and a half from the beach. Dogs chase each other through the grass. Friends barbecue together and toss footballs across the lawn. Jazz music floats out of an open window, providing a soundtrack for tenants reclining against thick tree trunks with their books and laptops.

“This is paradise,” Mueller says, pausing to take in the scent of jasmine from a trellised bush.

And when trouble began brewing in this paradise more than two decades ago—in the form of eviction notices and demolition threats—Mueller, many other Lincoln Place tenants, and residents of Venice and greater Los Angeles rallied, never stopping until the property’s new owners joined them in their vision of saving the midcentury complex.

“We fought like tigers to save this place,” Mueller says. “But it was worth it. I mean, look at it.”

“We fought like tigers to save this place.”

Ingrid Mueller

When the first tenants moved into Lincoln Place back in 1951, they were promised not just coveted amenities, such as garbage disposals and built-in television outlets, but also a different way of life—one that promoted better living through good design.

That was the guiding principle behind garden apartments, which have their roots in the Garden City Movement, an urban planning method dating from 19th-century Europe. It’s a bit of a utopian vision for housing that blends indoors and outdoors using low-density buildings, lots of green space, and, most notably, a layout that encourages a strong sense of community. It’s an approach to apartment design that puts people first.

Los Angeles has one of the largest collections of these multifamily complexes, owing in part to the booming post–World War II aeronautical industry, which brought new workers and their families to the region. And of the area’s many garden apartment communities, Lincoln Place, originally containing 795 units in 52 buildings, stands as one of the biggest. Designed by architect Heth Wharton and pioneering African-American designer Ralph Vaughn, it showcases all the primary principles of the garden apartment concept: simple, minimalist building designs; large landscaped expanses; building entrances that open onto common courtyards, rather than streets; parking hidden behind the buildings; curved pedestrian walkways; and a promotion of social life through shared outdoor spaces. The buildings are staggered to maximize natural light and airflow, while giving residents a sense of privacy from their neighbors.

“It’s a design that fosters community in a way that a lot of apartment developments before and since haven’t done,” says Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy, which launched its L.A. Garden Apartment Network in 2011 to bring attention to these historic assets.

That spirit of community is what drew Ingrid Mueller to the complex: “I love my neighbors knocking on my door,” she says. And, in the end, it’s what saved Lincoln Place from the wrecking ball.

Man walking his dog in Elkgrove Circle at Lincoln Place

The main green space, Elkgrove Circle (also shown on opening image), is a popular dog-walking spot.

The first few eviction notices to tenants at Lincoln Place were served in 1987. In the following years, residents slowly learned of the then-owner’s plan to eventually demolish the property and build high-rise condos on the site.

“At that time, people were not recognizing Lincoln Place or other garden apartments as historic or worthy of preservation,” Fine says. Indeed, the low-density buildings and expansive green spaces that make the community so attractive to tenants are the very features that also made it attractive to developers, who saw the potential for increased density—and increased profits.

The Lincoln Place tenants sprang into action. They mobilized the Lincoln Place Tenants Association, led for many years by high school teacher and resident Sheila Bernard. They held regular meetings at a nearby park, where they trained themselves to become effective community organizers. They attended city council meetings. “School buses full of us would show up at city council chambers,” Mueller recalls. They hung “Preserve Lincoln Place” signs in their windows, the bright yellow paper eventually bleached white by the sun.

Online Extra: The Fight to Save Wyvernwood

Opened in 1939, Wyvernwood was the first large-scale garden apartment built in Los Angeles. And like so many garden apartments in the city today, its future is threatened.

“This was home. We didn’t own it, but it was ours. We loved it, and we took care of it,” says Alejandra Tejeda, who moved to Lincoln Place in 1992. As a member of the Latin Families group there, she served as a translator, helping Spanish-speaking tenants to stay informed and empowered.

But even the tenants association’s big victory in 1995—that demolition denial celebrated by Mueller and Marlin under the three palm trees that form a heart—was short-lived. There was still no promise to save the complex.

Then, in 2000, an entertainment lawyer named Amanda Seward attended a meeting of the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee and learned of the threats to Lincoln Place from a resident asking about securing historic status.

Seward knew all about that process. She had worked with her neighbors to get historic district status for the 1948 Gregory Ain–designed Mar Vista Tract, where she lives with her husband just a mile and a half from Lincoln Place.

“At first, I tried not to get too involved in the tenant issues at Lincoln Place,” Seward says. “I didn’t want to be overwhelmed, and I was approaching this from an architectural point of view. That’s what my interest was.”

She wrote the nomination to get Lincoln Place on the National Register of Historic Places, using research compiled by film editor and tenant Laura Burns. But as Seward learned more about the community’s history and the tenants’ years-long battle to keep their roofs over their heads, she knew she couldn’t turn back. “When this kind of architecture is successful—and it was successful in the Gregory Ain tract, and it was successful at Lincoln Place—it creates communities,” she says. “The people who live there feel really tied to their home and to their neighbors. And seeing these close-knit tenants who refused to leave, who wanted to save their homes, was a living testament to the power of that architecture.”

She soon found herself representing the tenants facing eviction, many of whom were elderly or disabled.

Lawyer and Lincoln Place advocate Amanda Seward

Lawyer and Lincoln Place advocate Amanda Seward.

Longtime Lincoln Place tenants Alejandra Tejeda and Robert Bass with former tenant Jan Book

Longtime tenants Alejandra Tejeda (left) and Robert Bass (center) with former tenant Jan Book.

“[Tenant law] was completely new territory for me. And it was humbling,” she says. “I was researching in the law library like I was back in law school. But it reminded me why I went to law school in the first place: to fight for justice.”

And fight she did, alongside other lawyers, including Lincoln Place tenant Jan Book. There were numerous trials, hearings, and mediations, with delays and appeals along the way. In the meantime, the Lincoln Place Tenants Association and a strong coalition of local activists continued to combine their considerable talents to draw attention to the issue. Sympathetic filmmakers produced a short documentary about the evictions; designers who lived at Lincoln Place created a website and posters. The community hosted fundraisers, rallies, vigils, music festivals, site tours, and discussion groups.

Together they watched, heartbroken, as the owner—a local real estate development company—tore down seven Lincoln Place buildings in 2003. (The demolition was later deemed illegal.) And they watched, heartbroken all over again, as the sheriff’s department arrived one day in December 2005 to evict 52 households, in what was the largest lockout in a single day in Los Angeles history.

Doug Ertman, a nonprofit worker who moved to Lincoln Place with his wife in 1997, looks back at this time with the weariness of someone who fought long and hard. “It looked bad for us because we kept losing,” he says. “Nothing about it was easy.” Many of the tenants eventually bowed out, taking a settlement and moving. But a small, determined group stayed put.

Says Ingrid Mueller, “For many years, we just had to trust that we were on the right path.”

“This is the best example of how good design was brought to the masses.”

Amanda Seward

In 2010, the tide finally turned. That year, Denver-based Apartment Investment and Management Company, or Aimco, which had purchased the property in full in 2004, reached a settlement agreement that called for rehabilitating the remaining buildings.

“It was clear the Venice community had a very special place in their hearts for Lincoln Place,” says Aimco’s Senior Vice President Patti Shwayder. “And I think it’s fair to say we didn’t always appreciate the historic nature of the property.”

But over time, she says, Aimco began to see the benefits of rehabilitation over demolition. And after the economy collapsed in 2008, keeping the buildings became the most economically feasible option.

“We took a second, third, and fourth look to see what we could do with the existing property,” Shwayder says. “And when we did that, we found retro buildings that we could turn retro-chic. We found natural hardwood floors that could be refinished and were really quite spectacular. We found each building had amazing windows and cross-ventilation and low-density features that were attractive. So we began working on how we could move into an existing historic fabric with all these character-defining features and add modern conveniences that would make this a showpiece.”

The $200 million rehabilitation began in 2012. Aimco worked with the Los Angeles Conservancy, preservation consultants Historic Resources Group, and the California Office of Historic Preservation, among others, to follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties to the letter.

They built 13 brand-new buildings with 99 apartment units to replace what had been demolished. Dark gray paint and shiny metal features give a contemporary flair to these buildings, which were designed to be consistent with the complex’s original architecture, but not identical.

A sunny living room at Lincoln Place

Ingrid Mueller’s sunny living room.

A Lincoln Place kitchen in the 1950s

photo by: Korsbaek Family Photo Collection

A Lincoln Place kitchen in the 1950s.

Ingrid Mueller in her restored Lincoln Place kitchen

Mueller in her restored kitchen.

Aimco then restored the exteriors of all 45 of the remaining buildings. The work continued inside, as well. One structure that had been incompatibly altered in the 1990s was rehabilitated, and 39 others received new interiors. In these units, the floor plans stayed the same, but the bathrooms, kitchens, and appliances were entirely modernized.

The interiors of the remaining five buildings, with 65 units among them, were meticulously restored to their 1950s appearance. The kitchens have their original cabinetry, countertops, and tiles. Any damaged tiles in the kitchens and baths were replaced with materials salvaged from the updated units. Only the plumbing and electrical wiring are new.

These units were offered to the 50 remaining households, who, as part of the settlement agreement, were guaranteed lifetime tenancy. “We’re sort of a living museum here,” Doug Ertman says. “Our apartments are as close as possible to the way they were when Lincoln Place opened in the ’50s.”

But step outside those apartments and you’re back in the 21st century. Electric-vehicle charging stations and overflowing bike racks abound. Stainless steel grills and picnic tables accent the newly landscaped Elkgrove Circle, the complex’s central green space. And the new structures have a saltwater pool with underwater speakers, poolside cabanas, and fire pits, as well as a two-story fitness center with a roof deck above showcasing 360-degree views of the neighborhood and the Santa Monica Mountains beyond.

The rehabilitated complex, containing 795 total units, celebrated with a ribbon cutting on August 14, 2014. Several months later, the Los Angeles Conservancy named Lincoln Place a recipient of one of its prestigious Preservation Awards for 2015.

“There was a marriage of old and new with this project,” Fine says. “It showed that these buildings could be updated and modernized, while still respecting the character of what a garden apartment housing development is about.”

Amanda Seward agrees. “When they finally did it, boy, they did it right,” she says. “This is the best example of how good design was brought to the masses, and it’s now preserved.”
Children playing at Lincoln Place circa 1958

photo by: Korsbaek Family Photo Collection

Children playing at Lincoln Place circa 1958.

Young residents play in a courtyard at Lincoln Place

Young residents play in the courtyard behind their building.

A short drive away from Lincoln Place, so-called Silicon Beach is growing and transforming Los Angeles’ Westside, as tenants such as Google, Snapchat, and dozens of tech start-ups move into storefronts and warehouse-type buildings not far from the sand. And 15 miles east, downtown Los Angeles is a tangle of cranes and steel beams as new high-rise condominiums and mixed-use developments begin to reshape the skyline. One of these, the 73-story Wilshire Grand Center, is set to become the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

But back at Lincoln Place, it feels as if the world is on pause. The community is an oasis in the middle of an enormous, changing city, and in Ingrid Mueller’s small, second-floor apartment, the only sound you hear is from the wind chimes on her balcony. The sun begins to set outside her west-facing windows, but she leaves her shades up. “I live in the trees,” she says. “Who needs curtains when you live in the trees?”

She takes out a pitcher of freshly pressed carrot-orange juice and sets it on her tiled kitchen counter. As she pours the juice into two ceramic cups, she talks about how, looking back on everything she and the other tenants went through, she isn’t sure if she would have signed her lease way back in 1988. But she’s glad she did.

“I’m never leaving Lincoln Place,” she says. She settles into her seat at her kitchen table and adjusts the trinkets on the windowsill next to her. She is home.

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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