The Dingbat: LA’s Iconic Apartment Building

Things to Do — By Noah Albert on March 28, 2011 at 12:02 am

This type of smaller stucco box apartment building was a staple of 50s and 60s Los Angeles architecture; the name refers to the typographic symbols often used as a decorative marks on the front of the buildings. As a commercial vernacular form, this style of apartment has its roots in both modernism and expediency. Small investors wanted the most efficient and cheap housing built on their land to provide rental income and the stucco box easily met this bill.

At the same time, the simple forms and minimal styling were easy to reconcile with the modern architecture styles of the day. The principle of modernism that form and function be forged into a unified style was not totally met in this case. Instead, the form was designed to cut costs and the design elements were more often than not superficially laid onto the front of the building.

The decoration and layout of these apartments strongly resonated with the lifestyles and mores of the time; I would even propose that the design of these buildings communicates mid-century values like faith in technology, stable social values, and upward mobility. The 50s and 60s commercial vernacular styles of Southern California can be viewed as a form of popular modernism on equal footing with high art architectural modernism, rather than as some diluted offshoot of the high art forms.

Below are some examples of these buildings found in Los Angeles on Oxford Avenue and Rampart Boulevard (between Beverly Boulevard and Third Street).

In this last picture there is no stucco box apartment! This is just a teaser for one of my next projects. . . . a search for the Googie style here in Los Angeles. The cool sign pictured here is a classic example of the Googie style that was used for so many coffee shops and store signs designs during the late 50s and early 60s.

Some of the clues to the identification of a dingbat are the aluminum frame windows flush with the surface of the simple stucco building, as well as the number of traffic spaces associated with the building (in 1960 the law changed and no new back-out parking spots were allowed, then in 1968 the city raised the number parking spots that had to be provide on site per bedroom). The article by John Beach and John Chase in Part 2 of the Field Guide (download link on this site) is a great text that really brings this stucco box architecture to life. (Part 1 of the Field Guide is good too). Some more pictures of these buildings can be found here, this forum, and this dingbat blog and elsewhere.

Also, thank you Michael Dooley for these links: Some Los Angeles Apartments by Ed Ruscha (from 1965!), a recreation (of Ruscha’s book) by Eric Doeringer, and Pretty Vacant by Clive Piercy.

[Photos courtesy of Noah Albert]



Tags: 1950s, 1960s, Architecture, Commercial Vernacular, Historic Los Angeles, Moderne, Offbeat L.A., Roadside architecture

    1 Comment

  • barbara albert says:

    WOW, These buildings were new when I was Young. I never dreamed that they had a name.


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