Bakersfield was at an interesting architectural intersection in the late 1950s and early 1960s that resulted in a legacy of high quality mid-century homes and buildings.
The Ablin Residence, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is perhaps the most famous, but other hidden gems are scattered around town, from West High School to private residences in Oleander and the Bakersfield Country Club neighborhoods.
These structures and the architects behind them will be celebrated this fall with Bakersfield Built: Architecture of the 1960s, a series of events including a symposium, lectures, a house tour, and a downtown walking tour.
“A lot was rebuilt in the 1960s and there was a time when we expanded east and we had the opportunity to build really modern structures,” said Rachel Magnus, curator of the Bakersfield Museum of Art, one of the partners the project. The accompanying exhibition of the museum, which opens on September 12, shows photos, design plans, furniture and other artifacts of the era in an accompanying exhibition until January. The Kern County Museum, Cal State Bakersfield, and the Southern California Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians are also involved in the events.
The design aesthetic of the era spoke for an exciting time in Bakersfield and beyond.
World War II was over and post-war optimism was in the air. Cities expanded and people dreamed of a better way of life. The standard of living rose and families wanted a home with a backyard to raise their children in, away from the city center but with minimal commuting.
On site, the Crosstown freeway had just been completed, opening the east side of Bakersfield for development. The city was still being rebuilt after the 1952 earthquake that damaged an estimated 300 buildings in the city center.
“World War II changed many things,” said Sian Winship, president of the Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians in Southern California. “There was talk of better ways of living and greater national recognition for what it is like to live in California and what to do with the outdoors.”
And there happened to be a sufficient supply of well-trained architects to meet the sudden demand for new buildings.
A group of students who had received early training from the renowned local architect Clarence Cullimore at Kern County Union High School and then attended the USC School of Architecture had now graduated and were returning to Bakersfield. And they brought fresh design trends with them, especially post and beam construction, which was ideal for open floor plans, a significant change from the building practices of the past.
In terms of design, this resulted in homes and buildings that highlighted geometric shapes, angular features, large windows that bring the outdoors inside, and an overall modern, even futuristic, feel.
“Because you have this dozen talented people at USC, the overall level of mid-century architecture in Bakersfield is higher than anywhere else,” said Winship. “You have all these people who really know what they’re doing.”
Journey home a highlight of the project
One of the main events is a symposium and a trip home on September 21st.
The symposium will feature an eclectic array of speakers and moderators, including former Cullimore students, the current president of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Arizona School of Architecture, a curator from the Getty Research Institute, and at least one architect practicing on site at the time.
Later that day, mid-century fans can tour five local residences – including the Ablin Residence – for a self-guided tour. The following houses will be featured on the tour:
Perhaps the most famous building in Bakersfield, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house as his final commission for the George and Millie Ablin couple.
“One of my favorite stories while he is designing the house is that Millie gets pregnant with another child and Frank is unhappy because it affects the way the house is designed,” said Winship.
Winship describes the house as “hexagonal-usonic” which is typically a single story building with a flat roof, and the basic design unit is the equilateral triangle.
The most visually striking feature is an explosion of light and space from a dramatic 16 foot high, 48 foot glass expanse that overlooks the mountains and golf course.
Architect Whitney Biggar was a huge fan of Wright and his design of this oleander house reflects that. The house has similarities to the Abliner House, mainly an expressive, pointed structure at the front of the house, similar to the ship-like bow of the Abliner House.
Eddy was part of the pipeline of Cullimore students who graduated from USC and this was his personal residence. Winship said it was a great example of post and beam style construction. Eddy became a Fellow of the American Institute of Architecture, a prestigious title bestowed on him for his work on the earthquake codes and building standards he rebuilt after the Bakersfield earthquake.
“I always think that the architect’s house has a special place in the architect’s work,” said Winship. “You can experiment. It’s a real opportunity to let your design juices flow.”
The house was built in the Bakersfield Country Club area and designed by architect Jack Hayslett for Lowell and Phyllis Dabbs, who were professors at Bakersfield College. The couple lived there for more than 50 years.
The house is characterized by oversized windows that bring lots of light into the living room and the use of an architectural design where the roof appears to be floating above the structure.
The home of architect Dave Cross, also in the Bakersfield Country Club area, has a hexagonal symmetry that is a hallmark of mid-century architecture. For his Japanese garden, he was awarded a landscape design award in 1964, which represents the important role nature played in mid-century home design.
Stacey Shepard can be reached at 661-395-7368.