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When 'The New' Was New

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The other day I sat in on a discussion at the Architecture and Design Museum. The conversation was both lively and intense. The subject was "unbuilt Los Angeles" - the 100 years of good ideas to build a more perfect place that never got built. One of the participants was a representative of A. C. Martin Partners.

Albert C. Martin, the son of a noted Los Angeles architect, became one of the leading architects and planners of the post-war boom. Along with many iconic structures in the city, the Martin company also designed Lakewood Center, in some estimations the second or third "regional shopping mall" in America.

Not everything that the A. C. Martin company designed for Lakewood Center was built. Vision often outruns both the courage and the credit of builders, no more so than for the developers of Lakewood Center in 1950, who had so many unknowns ahead of them when they began.

The new was very new then, including the idea of suburbs and big shopping centers for working-class families. Levittown on Long Island was hardly three years old. Lakewood Center was even more speculative, since no model in California existed for the kind of shopping mall it aspired to be in Martin's design sketches.

So uncertain were the center's prospects that the County Planning Commission required the developers to dedicate public streets through the 265 acres of the shopping center in order to permit individual lots to be sold should the concept of a mall under single management fail.

Joe Eichenbaum (far left); Albert C. Martin (with glasses); Walter Brunmark, a May Company executive; and Tom May (far right), one of the company's owners, breaking ground for the May Company building in 1950.

The elements that the Martin company designed for Lakewood Center were both grand and modest. At one end of row of single story shops was the 330,000-square-foot May Company building, a plain white box on a black pedestal suppoprted by wide pillars and pierced by entrances on each side and a few (rather small) show windows. At the other end was the two-story Butler Brothers department store - a buff colored box. In between was a row of shoe stores, dress shops, and a Woolworths.

The Martin company gave a muscular, direct modernism to their Lakewood Center buildings. Because the mall was behind 300-foot setbacks and oriented to two busy boulevards, most of the free-standing buildings also had to be impressive sign boards.

Of these, only the May Company building (now Macy's) remains largely intact, although now part of a covered mall.

Unbuilt Los Angeles is full of cautionary lessons about getting what you wish for. So is built Los Angeles. But the making of Lakewood Center - an enterprise of considerable risk in 1950 - remains a striking example of the convergence of design and optimism that characterized much of the post-war city.

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