The Jardinette Apartments: Will They Return from the Dead?

Nathan Marsak

Nathan Marsak

· 10 min read

Today we talk about the Jardinette Apartments; relatedly, C. C. de Vere of Empty Los Angeles wrote an excellent and important piece published today on the very subject, which I direct you to read here.

There’s something to be said for neglect; it lends a certain charm, does it not? Heck, I wrote a whole book about a Los Angeles neighborhood that had fallen into cinematic disrepair. At my old house in New Orleans—“The City that Care Forgot”—I carefully cultivated an air of genteel dereliction. And while I admire French gardens for their order and symmetry, my own gardens are lush and rambling, on the English model—forlorn affairs, though fastidiously maintained to remain so, mind you.

Genuine neglect, though, means death. My house, at 115 years old, takes constant upkeep. ALL structures require constant upkeep. Mother Nature wages a continuing battle against the world of man to reclaim her planet. Vast swaths of urban Detroit, for example, have been reclaimed by the earth. Give Los Angeles one generation of indifferent stewards and it'll return to scrub brush chaparral before you know it.

Neglect, of course, can be a useful tool. It is oft used by developers who cry “but this property has deteriorated beyond reclamation!” and the City, fearful of lawsuits, rubberstamps APPROVED on the demo permit. Property owners will insist repairs to a property would be impossible: when Meshulam Riklis bought Pickfair, his wife Pia Zadora tore it down, because it had termites. And everyone said Pia, you can use the billion dollars in your checking account to fix termite damage. When told this she said “oh, did I say termites? I meant ghosts.”

Because the fact is—one thing I have learned in my 40-some years of obsessively looking at old buildings—there’s no such thing as a property that can’t be brought back.

Most importantly, when you set out to bring a property back, make certain you are going to do it well, and begin with enough money to accomplish said task. Otherwise, no, you are not allowed to purchase a historic property.

That sounds awfully obvious, but, common sense, not so common. All that said, let’s address our topic at hand: the Jardinette Apartments.

The Jardinette Apartments, at 5128 Marathon Street, contain 43 units of RSO housing, which, amid Los Angeles’s acute housing crisis, were emptied about seven years ago, and the structure has sat empty and rotting. This is bad enough from a housing crisis standpoint, but:

The Jardinette Apartments are of unusual importance to architectural history. They are a remarkable monument to the story of Modernism in every way, shape, and form, one of the most important structures in Los Angeles, and (not that I’m biased, but) Los Angeles being the greatest architecture city in the world, the Jardinette Apartments are therefore of undeniable significance to and of extraordinary magnitude within our built environment. The Jardinette is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; it’s registered with the State Office of Historic Preservation; it’s Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #390.

Therefore, it has being treated extra-shittily by bad actors for decades and no-one seems to care.

It’s the 1920s. Apartment blocks are sprouting up all over Los Angeles—designed most often in serene Spanish Colonial or elegant Beaux-Arts, though the most eye-catching are the French castles that dot the landscape. One fellow, an ambitious developer named Joseph H. Miller, said nope, we’re going modern. We’re going to build something that looks like it came from the Dessau Bauhaus! Like it belongs in the Weißenhofsiedlung! We’re going to put Los Angeles on the Modern map, dammit.

And he did. Miller hires a young vanguard named Richard Neutra. Strictly speaking, Miller hired the firm “Architectural Group for Industry and Commerce,” a partnership of Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. Neutra, though, is generally credited with the production of the Jardinette; it was his first U.S. commission, and it was so modern, it was Modern with a capital M.

The Jardinette was unlike anything else in Los Angeles, with its flat roof, long planes of cool, unornamented concrete forms, and ribbon windows of steel-frame casements. This Neutra designed around a garden court; the garden court and trailing vines from the cantilevered balconies helped solidify the name, Jardinette, meaning little garden. Inside, individual flats were carefully designed for modern living and maximum light (Murphy beds, walls of translucent glass) and the structure was replete with modernist built-ins.

When people think of 1920s International Modern in Los Angeles, first to come to mind is Schindler’s Lovell Health House, which has eclipsed Neutra’s Jardinette in its fame. It is important to note, however, how absolutely important and influential the Jardinette was, not only in the United States but abroad. Here for example, its appearance in Sigfried Giedion’s manifesto Befreites Wohnen:

The Jardinette was featured in Johnson-Hitchcock’s all-important 1932 MOMA show “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition”, wherein Neutra was the only west coast architect included—its page from the catalogue:

The Jardinette was well-published frequently, e.g. The Architectural Record, The Christian Science Monitor, in seminal book The Modern Flat, many a newspaper article, etc.

The Jardinette, as groundbreaking and important as it was, began a slow decay in the postwar years. Things began to go south when the property was purchased in 1945 by one Roza Mambor. On her death and probate in 1960, it is transferred to William and Rose Rabinovitz.

In the early 1980s, as the neighborhood went into precipitous economic decline, the property was sold to an LLC called “Berendo Marathon Property” and from there it went through a series of random owners, mostly LLCs, who acted as slumlords and performed little or no maintenance. Shots of the property from the 1980s (when it achieved monument status) show it replete with graffiti, inside and out:

Flash forward to 2016, when the Jardinette is purchased by one Robert Wade Clippinger. He’s going to restore the heck out of the thing! That man's got all sorts of grand plans. Clippinger boots out all the tenants and gets to work. He is awarded a Mills Act contract, which reduces his property taxes on the assumption those savings will be put back into the care, maintenance, renovation and restoration of the property. But for whatever reasons—maybe the cost of restoring the Jardinette got out of hand (ironic, since the cost of building the Jardinette got out of hand for developer Miller, who skipped out on his creditors in 1930), or for reasons unrelated involving financial flubs, Clippinger goes Chapter 11 in October 2020.

Couple months later, the Jardinette is picked up by Cameron Hassid, founder and president of Beverly Hills-based Apollo Capital. It is Mr. Hassid’s intention, and contention, that like Clippinger before him, he will be the one to restore the heck out of the thing!

It’s been three years since then, and I’ll cut him some slack, since for two of the last three years the world did much of nothing. Work begins at the Jardinette—or does it?—and it becomes and even greater mess, a blighted, deteriorated property, and the neighbors are less than happy, and contend the property is in violation of its Historical Property Contract. But Hassid says worry not, it’s gonna be amazing.

Like Mulder with his UFOs, I want to believe. I want to believe Hassid will pull off an amazing restoration. Take a look at the proposal he presented to the Cultural Heritage Commission—it says all the right things. If he comes through on the whole shebang, I’ll put up a damn statue in his honor.

Because fact is, we’re most usually taken down the same road every time, yep, the one to hell paved with good intentions. Everyone comes in with grand plans and fancy presentations, and then corners are cut (or folks go bankrupt), and we're one step forward, 92 steps back.

I've made this a post in RIPLosAngeles because sometimes it's not demolition permits we need to look out for, it's fire and flood and plagues of locusts and demolition-by-neglect...

I’m going to be watching this one very closely and, if I may be so bold as to ask something of you, dear RIPster, please join me in the endeavor. It's up to all of us to keep a close eye on this shared treasure. In a perfect world a couple years from now we’ll all be laughing and drinking around the corner from the Jardinette at the Edmon and exclaiming “why to think, we had nothing to be worried about!” while we raise a glass in Hassid’s honor.

But again, until that day…

Image #2, Mott Collection/California State Library ; #s3, 4 & 7 Richard and Dion Neutra Papers, UCLA; #s8 & 10 Getty/Shulman.

Nathan Marsak

About Nathan Marsak

NATHAN MARSAK says: “I came to praise Los Angeles, not to bury her. And yet developers, City Hall and social reformers work in concert to effect wholesale demolition, removing the human scale of my town, tossing its charm into a landfill. The least I can do is memorialize in real time those places worth noting, as they slide inexorably into memory. In college I studied under Banham. I learned to love Los Angeles via Reyner’s teachings (and came to abjure Mike Davis and his lurid, fanciful, laughably-researched assertions). In grad school I focused on visionary urbanism and technological utopianism—so while some may find the premise of preserving communities so much ill-considered reactionary twaddle, at least I have a background in the other side. Anyway, I moved to Los Angeles, and began to document. I drove about shooting neon signs. I put endless miles across the Plains of Id on the old Packard as part of the 1947project; when Kim Cooper blogged about some bad lunch meat in Compton, I drove down to there to check on the scene of the crime (never via freeway—you can’t really learn Los Angeles unless you study her from the surface streets). But in short order one landmark after another disappeared. Few demolitions are as contentious or high profile as the Ambassador or Parker Center; rather, it is all the little houses and commercial buildings the social engineers are desperate to destroy in the name of the Greater Good. The fabric of our city is woven together by communities and neighborhoods who no longer have a say in their zoning or planning so it’s important to shine a light on these vanishing treasures, now, before the remarkable character of our city is wiped away like a stain from a countertop. (But Nathan, you say, it’s just this one house—no, it isn’t. Principiis obsta, finem respice.) And who knows, one might even be saved. Excelsior!””
Nathan’s blogs are: Bunker Hill Los Angeles, RIP Los Angeles & On Bunker Hill.

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