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24 San Diego Uptown News | Sept. 30–Oct.13, 2011


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The Craig Ellwood Story What To Do When Your Architect is an Enigma


HouseCalls Michael Good


Be careful when you restore an old house—you might find yourself communing with the dead. Sometimes that conversa- tion takes on a creepy, is-it-Hal- loween-already flavor with things going bump in the night and cosmic messages from beyond telling you to paint the dining room green. Jade green. Other times, the communication may be a little more subtle, as you ponder the lives of all those who have gone before you—the builders, architects, carpenters and owners who made your house what it is today. What were they thinking? Did that fireplace tile really have to be so orange? What does it all mean?


Before Keith York called me for help with the stain colors on his historic, 1953 mid-century modern house, he had already done some communing with the architect, Craig Ellwood. “Ap- parently, he was kind of a jerk,” Keith says as we walk through the low-slung, redwood-sided, post-and-beam house. Ellwood wrote his children out of his will, and his employees claimed he took credit for their work. Keith had already done a lot of research on his house. He’d


his name to Craig Ellwood. Ellwood never went to school to become an architect. He learned on the job—as a cost estimator for a construction company that built many of the modern classics in mid-century Los Angeles, including the John Entenza house, which was designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. Entenza was the editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, which sponsored the seminal Case Study houses. When Ellwood opened his own office, Entenza offered him the opportunity to design a Case Study house. He eventually did three, and those houses were published more than 20 times in the magazine.


Ellwood was the first rock and The Bobertz residence as it looks today, with original stained trim painted. (Photo by Paul Body)


interviewed Gerry Bobertz, one of the original owners, and he’d


talked to the owners of similar Ellwood houses in Los Ange- les. He’d read the literature on Ellwood. And he’d won a preser- vation award for the sensitive way he’d restored his house. But he hadn’t yet cracked the mystery of the stain. Keith led me out to the garage, to show me what he thought might be the original finish.


I climbed a ladder and looked at the tongue and groove ceiling and the four by 10 beam that ran across it. What I saw looked like a whitewash of gray paint and some kind of thick, oily black finish, both applied in a somewhat cava- lier fashion, perhaps with a rag. I asked Keith what it looked like to him. “Well, I’m color blind,” he said. I could see this was going to be harder than I thought. After a trip to the public


library, I began my investigation. The first thing I discovered about Craig Ellwood was that he wasn’t really an architect. And he wasn’t really Craig Ellwood, either. As


his biographer Neil Jackson explains, “Craig Ellwood…was a construct.” James Tyler, an ar- chitect who worked in his office from 1965 to 1977 is even more blunt: “Craig Ellwood, the great architectural designer...in point of fact, and in truth, didn’t exist.” Craig Ellwood was the invention of a one-man mar- keting department named Johnnie Burke. After graduat- ing from high school (he was senior class president), Burke joined the army with the rest of America’s young men, and when the war ended started a construction company with his brother and a couple friends. They decided to call them- selves Craig Ellwood Incorpo- rated, because a liquor store in the neighborhood was called Lords and Elwood (they added the extra “l” because it looked “swankier”). As for “Craig,” it just sounded cool. The com- pany didn’t last, but the name stuck. In 1951, Burke changed


roll architect, the first to promote himself like a Hollywood star. He had been an assistant publicist at the Hollywood Bowl and a print model, appearing in ads even after he had some success as an architect. He hired models and photographers and styled the photo shoots of his completed houses, and he marketed those photos and descriptive copy to magazines and newspapers around the world. He understood Hollywood—his wife, Gloria, was a studio actress. After their three children were born, Gloria went back to work in television, play- ing the mother in the Dennis the Menace series.


After the Bobertz house was built, Ellwood designed some similar post-and-beam residences, then moved on to steel framing and, eventually, large commercial projects. By the 1970s he was driving a Fer- rari, sponsoring a racecar in the Long Beach Grand Prix and de- signing some of LA’s most icon- ic buildings. But reading about Ellwood, it’s hard to shake the impression that everyone close to him thought he was a fraud. His family, his wives, the draftsmen and architects he employed…they all seem a little too ready to claim responsibility for his success. Looking for the real Craig Ellwood can be like watching a slow drawing back of the curtain, revealing not the Wizard of Oz but some phony


see Ellwood page 25 October 14th


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