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House by Modernist Architect Gregory Ain Discovered

By Keith York

A long-forgotten design by important Los Angeles modernist architect Gregory Ain has been discovered in Vista. The Anselem A. Ernst Residence was confirmed this month by SOHO Modernism Committee member Keith York in conjunction with Ain scholars.

Designed in 1962 and built in 1963 and one of the last designs by the world-renowned architect, the Ernst residence was the second design and likely the retirement home for the client. Ernst, who in 1937 commissioned Ain to build his first hillside house, was "a young radical in the 30s and had 'mellowed' by the 60s," said Ain scholar Tony Denzer. While the house is an important addition to San Diego's post-WW2 modernism inventory, some fans of Ain's early work may be disappointed that the Ernst residence lacks some of the spirit of his earlier, more widely published houses. Perhaps this is why the Ernst residence in Vista was written off to history for so long.

Ain is most widely known for his post-Neutra design such as the Dunsmuir Flats (Los Angeles 1936), his 1950 Exhibition House at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and his prolific tract housing designs in Mar Vista (circa 1948). An Ain design in our backyard represents yet another example of important post-WW2 modernism in San Diego and is a cultural resource worth preserving.

The Pittsburgh-born Ain built his first house in 1936, following a stint in Richard Neutra's office alongside Harwell Hamilton Harris (whose designs are also strangely absent from Arts & Architecture's Case Study House Program). Ain contributed a great number of thought-provoking commercial and residential designs to the Los Angeles landscape throughout the 1960s. His early designs during the late 1930s reflect influences of Viennese Émigrés Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler. Ain's later works, like the Ernst residence, are less cubist and more open to the elements because wood and glass reach into the landscape (and vice versa), reflecting the indoor-outdoor aesthetic of Southern California's post-WW2 modernist architecture.

The discovery of the Ernst Residence began with the reprint of The Architecture of Gregory Ain: The Play Between the Rational and High Art by Hennessey & Ingalls. The re-circulation of this program designed for a UC Santa Barbara Art Museum exhibition included a mere footnote on the house. Without an address, and confusion over whether the house was a project or a confirmed built-structure, I communicated with Ain scholars and staff at the UCSB Art Museum, where the blueprints to the Ernst residence reside. Following a rough sketch drawn by UCLA graduate student Tony Denzer, the hunt began through the early-60s neighborhood of Phil Mar Heights in Vista.

Denzer suggested based on his scan of the blueprints that I should look for "a broad house with a prominent prow-like piece of roof coming forward on the left and a large deck or patio across most of the building to the right of the prow-like piece. The driveway is to the right." The description and sketch matched the facade of the house at 1425 Phillips Street.

While the house is in desperate need of restoration, a project of this magnitude may be well beyond the scope of the 18-month current resident. Already seeking permits from Vista officials, the resident hopes to add on to the house to take better advantage of its large lot and valley view. While he appreciates its design, the owner described the house as small at a mere 1800 sq ft and noted that much of the wood and stucco structure is in poor condition. Education and encouragement of the current owner, perhaps supported by books and drawings, is the next phase in keeping this design as part of the San Diego cultural landscape.

For more on Gregory Ain's career, seek out Esther McCoy's The Second Generation and Gebhard, Breton & Weiss' The Architecture of Gregory Ain.


Editor's note: Both books can be purchased at the SOHO Museum Shop.

2005 - Volume 36, Issue 3

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