‘Stories Untold’: Modernism Week plans to share, learn about Southern California’s Black modernists

Black designers, builders, and developers helped shape Palm Springs and Southern California for over a century. Modernism Week hosts a three-part symposium on this legacy.

By Matt King

After going virtual in 2021, Modernism Week is slated to return with a full 11-day slate of events from Feb. 17-27—and Black modernists will be the focus of one of the week’s key happenings.

The three-part symposium Stories Untold: Black Modernists in Southern California will take place at 1:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 21, at the CAMP Theater. The event will both pay tribute to African-American architects in Southern California—and look toward the future as well.

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“Modernism Week has already shone a spotlight through various tools and talks on architects of color, so it’s not completely new for us to be doing this,” said Frances Anderton, a Modernism Week board member who is overseeing the Stories Untold symposium. “Modernism Week already had planned to do something to coincide with Black History Month (in 2021), and then because of the pandemic, it got postponed.”

Shortly after joining the Modernism Week board in early 2021, Anderton agreed to help organize the symposium. The name Stories Untold came about when she and her fellow board members realized how many individuals’ stories had yet to be told as part of Modernism Week; they plan on using it as an umbrella name to tell untold stories moving forward.

“This year, it’s dovetailing very closely with Black History Month, with the tours already put on for many years by the Palm Springs Black History Committee,” Anderton said.

Anderton is working with Jarvis Crawford and Dieter Crawford of the Palm Springs Black History Committee to tell the hidden stories regarding the valley’s architecture. The discussion will make up much of the symposium’s first portion and include information about Lawrence Crossley, developer of the Crossley Tract who also assisted in the development of the El Mirador Hotel (now Desert Regional Medical Center) and Palm Springs’ first 18-hole golf course, the El Mirador Golf Course.

“The profession of architecture is aware that it is very under-represented by Black architects, and there are efforts under way at diversity, equity and inclusion to try to redress that,” Anderton said. “A part of that process is building up histories—untold histories. In architecture, what that involves is finding photographs, finding drawings, finding records, finding letters and finding people who knew people who lived in such buildings. It’s quite a process to build up a story like that.

“That’s actually why Jarvis and Dieter are so great: They are in Palm Springs, and they come from several generations of Palm Springs residents. … The process of unearthing these stories is an ongoing one, and I hope that the conversations that take place at this symposium will contribute to that process.”

Anderton is also working closely with the Southern California chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA).

“Not everybody who will be discussed at the symposium is going to be a Palm Springs-based architect; we are making it sort of Southland-focused,” Anderton said.

One of the architects who will be discussed heavily during the symposium’s second portion is Paul Williams (1894-1980), the trailblazing Black architect who lived in Los Angeles and designed the Palm Springs Tennis Club with A. Quincy Jones.

“What’s really amazing is how there are quite a lot of excellent Black architects, some of whom were contemporaries of Paul Williams, or were successors to Paul Williams, or even worked for him or knew him socially,” Anderton said. “Their names are so little-known relative to his. The people at SoCal NOMA were already working on building histories on some of the elders in the profession. … I am deferring any intelligence I bring to the table to the research being done by members of SoCal NOMA.”

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Anderson said it makes sense to expand the discussion to Los Angeles architects for several reasons.

“Midcentury modern architecture spread across the Southland, and you get very, very fine examples in Palm Springs, and very, very fine examples in L.A.,” she said. “Some of those examples are designed by the same architect, like Richard Neutra, who built in L.A. and built in Palm Springs, and Paul Williams, who built in L.A. and built in Palm Springs. … There is a kind of regional language that emerges at that time period, and, to an extent, there’s a difference. The Palm Springs version is more of a resort, leisure quality than perhaps you might find in L.A., as well as more adaptation to the sun, and concrete decorative screens to filter the light and to keep out the heat. But generally, they all hewed to the same language.

“The Black architects who were building in the Southland … were building in a language that you would find both in Palm Springs and in L.A. I have to say in all candor that there aren’t a huge number of architects who are active in Palm Springs, which is why we do think it’s appropriate to extend our reach. People in Palm Springs go back and forth to L.A., and people in L.A. go back and forth to Palm Springs, so the regions are connected. People interested in midcentury architecture will be as happy learning about a house for the Rat Pack in Palm Springs as they will be about learning about a yacht club in Long Beach.”

Anderton said showcasing stories that have been so hidden has proven to be “the primary challenge.”

“There have been two or three people, including myself and Alan (Hess, a fellow board member), who have been trying to assemble material on a particular architect of the midcentury, a Black architect named James Garrott,” Anderton said. “James Garrott worked for a while with Gregory Ain, who built mainly in L.A. and was an active socialist who really believed in the progressive ideals of modernism, as well as its architectural form. It’s incredibly hard to find material about James Garrott. … I believe there was some accident that resulted in Garrott’s drawings disappearing. Like many other architects, so many of these architects had their buildings torn down over time. They sometimes were not the principal of their own firm, so they were just working for a bigger firm. Obviously, with some of the architects of color, they did not have the access or were not reached out to by, say, the architectural press in the way that someone like Richard Neutra managed to. There are a whole bunch of factors that contribute to this lack of materials.

“People who come to the symposium should come ready to be interactive, because we are in an ongoing process of mutually supportive research. What would be so wonderful is if there will be people in the audience who’d say, ‘Oh, I know that guy’s work, and as it happens I have a relative who lived in one of his buildings who happens to have a photo.’”

Los Angeles’ Destination Crenshaw is being designed by architecture firm Perkins&Will.

During the third portion of the symposium, Drake Dillard, of architecture firm Perkins&Will, will offer a peek into Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3 mile outdoor museum, open-air art gallery and park that is set to feature more than 100 works of “unapologetically Black” art on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles.

“It is a very excellent urban approach to a community that is being impacted by growth, transportation and shifting population,” Dillard said during a recent phone interview. “A Metro line, which has been proposed down Crenshaw, divides the community in half, like most Metro lines, and most trains in general. Historically, particularly in Black communities, train lines and freeways and transportation have a history of destroying neighborhoods and dividing them. Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a (Los Angeles City Council member), decided on how we can make this something positive, and he always used the analogy of lemonade out of lemons. He came up with an idea of this outdoor museum along the Metro line that will be dedicated to the history and culture in the community. This will become a teaching element for visitors as they ride up and down the Metro line on Crenshaw. They hired us for this, and we have a team of individuals coming out to help them with making the vision a reality. We have worked on this for almost three years now.”

Dillard is determined to make Destination Crenshaw a place where history, community, nature and economy meet.

“We came up with about 10 pocket parks,” he said. “Each pocket park is separate, and they tell individual stories about how African and Black Latinos have impacted L.A. and also the world. The other component of it … is that it’s about art, but it’s also about supporting economic development. We were hoping that this would stimulate some of the commercial aspects of the community, where people would want to come, because they have something to see. It ties to not just art, but also back to the economy of the community as well.”

Dillard harkened back to the idea of “Stories Untold” when he discussed the history being presented at Destination Crenshaw.

“I consider myself a pretty involved person in the community, but I learned so much from this project in terms of stories that I didn’t know about,” said Dillard. “We have a curation team; we have a historian, and all of these stories that they came up with for this project are absolutely unbelievable, particularly in terms of what African Americans have done locally, and the impact they have on the world.”

The goal is for Destination Crenshaw to open by the fall of 2022. Dillard is eager to showcase how the community is helping unearth history … literally.

“We’re going to show a lot of great illustrations, and some of the pocket parks, and we’ll talk about the process, and how the design elements are expressed in community participation,” said Dillard. “There’s a lot of history, even in our approach to the design, in terms of how we sit down with a community of hundreds of people and talk about their likes and dislikes as a very proud, unapologetically Back community. There’s a very strong link with Africa, with slavery, and with freedoms, and we use those elements in our design to create a unifying element as you go down Destination Crenshaw.

“We start in Africa, on a boat, and there’s grass that was used as bedding on the ship for the enslaved people. This grass is like Bermuda grass, as it grows in both directions, and if you pull it out of the ground, you can replant it. It has a very strong root system, and this root system is very symbolic, and we use that in our design. We took the grass, and we converted those into elements to create shade at one of the pocket parks, and then the root system is used in the pavement. We have pavement which goes up and down the sidewalk, and it takes a certain pattern like the root system out of this grass. These are unifying elements that, because of research and because of the meetings, are symbolic in our design and expression in Destination Crenshaw.”

More information: Stories Untold: Black Modernists in Southern California will take place at 1:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 21, at the CAMP Theater, 285 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Admission is $15. For tickets, more information and a complete schedule of activities during Modernism Week (taking place Thursday, Feb. 17, through Sunday, Feb. 27), visit modernismweek.com.

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. 

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