Q&A: New book celebrates Greystone Mansion architect Gordon B. Kaufmann

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As muse and source of inspiration, Los Angeles continues to be eternally generous. Just about every month, it seems, a new book concerning our fair metropolis is published, and we now invite you to join us as we sift through the most interesting ones and meet their authors. Kicking off our book club is Gordon B. Kaufmann(Angel City Press).

The premiere volume of Angel City Press’s new Master Architects of Southern California series, the 208-page hardcover examines the life and career of the architect whose projects include Greystone Mansion, CalTech’s Atheneaum, the Santa Anita Racetrack, and Hoover Dam. Illustrated with stunning photos commissioned for early issues of Art & Architecture, the book was a collaborative effort between Marc Appleton, Bret Parsons, and Steve Vaught, all three of whom will be participating in a discussion and signing this evening at Hennessey + Ingalls’ Arts District store.

In honor of the book’s publication, Curbed spoke with co-authors Bret Parsons, a real estate agent and author whose previous work includes the Gerard Colcord book Colcord Home, and Steve Vaught, the author of several books on Palm Springs as well as creator of celebrated Southern California history blog Paradise Leased. Our interview is below the photos.

  • The Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills The Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills Lili Rahmati | Flickr creative commons
  • The Los Angeles Times building The Los Angeles Times building Wikimedia commons
  • Hoover Dam Hoover Dam Ralph Arvesen | Flickr creative commons
  • Athenaeum at Caltech Athenaeum at Caltech albedo20 | Flickr creative commons
  • Santa Anita Park Santa Anita Park Ken Lund | Flickr creative commons

Curbed: Why isn’t Kaufmann better known?

Steve Vaught: People know his buildings but not who he is, which is sad, but also gave us more incentive to do the book. Part of the fun of the kind of writing we do is bringing people who’ve been forgotten back into view.

Bret Parsons: By the time we’re done with him he’ll be very well known! I mean really: Greystone Mansion, the Los Angeles Times Building, and Hoover Dam? The man was a genius. He died in 1949, which is probably why he was forgotten. Architects of Kaufmann’s era were relatively modest regarding publicity. It’s not like today when many show up to the opening of an envelope in order to promote themselves.

SV: He was a bit of a mystery man. He was most reticent, he hardly ever gave interviews. After the book was published, we got an email from one of his grandsons. When I saw who it was from, I got really excited, thinking he might have some inside information for us. But he said he found out more about him from reading our book than from his own family. I’m hoping that this book is the start of the conversation. There’s a lot more to Gordon Kaufmann than we wrote about, it’s like peeling back the layers of an onion.

Curbed: What distinguishes Kaufmann’s work?

BP: Kaufmann’s trademark was perfect pitch when it came to scale and proportion. Mastering that is an art few design practitioners succeed at. That skill also creates a feeling in that rooms inherently “feel” right when in them. Our brains are wired to seek balance and harmony. While moving through Kaufmann’s rooms, big or small, a sense of calm permeates our being whether we’re consciously aware of that dynamic or not.

Curbed: Which of Kaufmann’s homes is your personal favorite?

SV: Ooh, that’s tough, but if I had to make a Sophie’s Choice, it would be his own house, on Carolwood Drive in Holmby Hills. I’m always fascinated by houses architects build for themselves.

BP: I’ve been a house whore since I was five years old. My favorite house is whichever one I’m in at the moment. Do you have any idea how many social blunders that comment has saved me from?

Curbed: Did you learn anything while putting the book together that surprised you?

SV: Finding out about his religious background. There’s an assumption he was Jewish, but when we started looking, there was no evidence. He was quite a sociable person, and belonged to a lot of clubs, which you would need to do for business reasons. One of these was the California Club, and one of my editors saw that and asked, “How could he be a member of the California Club if he was Jewish?”

BP: My biggest book-writing surprise actually happened with Colcord Home. I interviewed a 90-year-old lady in her Colcord. During the tour, she walked me over to the bay window in her living room. There, she began pointing to neighboring homes along the street, and in great detail, informed me which female residents her gardener had “serviced” through the years, and she didn’t mean cutting their lawns. Regarding Kaufmann it was his circuitous route—from England to Canada to Fresno, California, then finally to Los Angeles, where his genius finally blossomed. That confirmed to me how everyone is literally on his or her own trajectory.

Gordon B. Kaufmann is available for purchase online via Angel City Press and in select bookstores.

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