The maverick modernism of James Walter - Architecture - Domus
The maverick modernism of James Walter
 

The maverick modernism of James Walter

James Allen Walter cared less about fame than about retaining control over the buildings he designed. His legacy: 32 singular residences dotted around California.

 

Architecture / Katya Tylevich

There is no Wikipedia entry for James Allen Walter. No Google search yields any information about the man. For now, the legacy left by James Walter resides in the homes he designed and built across Southern and Northern California—at least 32, that I know of—and the owners who live in them. When I talk to those owners today, they call Walter names: Howard Roark (everyone says that one), Buckminster Fuller, a raw talent, brilliant, versatile, uncompromising and stubborn. They tell me about Walter coming over for dinner and discussing his philosophies, describing his struggles to build according to his vision. Jaime and Dana Rummerfield, who live in a 1965 Walter home on Nolden Avenue in the Eagle Rock neighbourhood of East L.A., remember Walter pointing to the top of their property and saying "That's where I argued with the inspector. Right there." They met Walter in 2003, just after they had purchased the home. He knocked on their door and said, "The name on the listing is wrong." (And it was.) "I just want to make this very clear: I designed this house." Dana invited him in, immediately.

The Via Del Rey House
was built in 1971 in South
Pasadena; the inside is just
over 510 m2. Ernest
A. Vargas, the original client
who still lives in the home
today, recounts: “Jim was
not the kind of guy to follow
tradition for the sake of
tradition. He thought: ‘Why
have a Lamborghini in your
garage if you could have it in
your living room?’”

The Via Del Rey House was built in 1971 in South Pasadena; the inside is just over 510 m2. Ernest A. Vargas, the original client who still lives in the home today, recounts: “Jim was not the kind of guy to follow tradition for the sake of tradition. He thought: ‘Why have a Lamborghini in your garage if you could have it in your living room?’”

Though temporarily baby-proofed for their sevenmonth- old son, Jaime and Dana's split-level postand- beam home has few barriers; even their two bathrooms are divided by only a bathtub with clear sliding dividers. The "back" wall is a dramatic 12-foot-high window to the canyon and city beyond; no other windows pock the sidewalls (a point of contention between Walter and 1960s' building codes, apparently). Walter designed this home with something of the voyeur in mind, says Jaime. "I think he liked no privacy inside the home. Wild abandon." At the same time, the home is hard to penetrate from the outdoors—as with other Walter homes I've seen, the main entrance is not clearly marked, purposefully difficult to find. The interiors are made that much more striking by humble exteriors and entryways that build anticipation.

James Walter in
front of the portable toilet he
designed for the construction
sites of his buildings. Photo courtesy of Laura Walter

James Walter in front of the portable toilet he designed for the construction sites of his buildings. Photo courtesy of Laura Walter

This space, like others by Walter, marks a tension between the concept of home as "haven" and "open stage". It also plays to Walter's particular talent for riding difficult hillside topography. The Nolden Home is sited on an extremely challenging slope that twists like a helix. As Dana put it: "This wasn't a home being built for a turn; this was a problem being solved. It is perfectly indigenous to the place and time in which it was built."

 
I don’t use the word ‘easy’. Nothing I’ve ever done has been easy. I march to the beat of my own drummer
 
Via del Rey House

Via del Rey House

"It's a piece of art that keeps evolving," adds Jaime. I had the pleasure of speaking with James Walter in October 2009, when I called him to arrange a meeting. I would be back in Los Angeles in two weeks, I told him, and would like to discuss his works and design philosophies when I returned. We spent close to an hour talking about his varied career. He was an industrial designer by training, he told me, a writer and a natural-born storyteller. "Architecture is a form of telling stories," he said. Walter apologised for being unable to speak more freely at that moment—I had caught him in a "very bad place". I later found out from his daughter Laura that that place was a hospital. He was ill, though he never let on. Before hanging up, I told Walter I looked forward to continuing our conversation. By the time I returned to Los Angeles, however, he had passed away, at the age of 78. "I don't use the word 'easy'," Walter told me before we parted that day. "Nothing I've ever done has been easy. I march to the beat of my own drummer."

Built in 1967 in South
Pasadena for Doreen
and Geoffrey Siodmak,
La Fremontia House has
a floor area of 204 m2 and
a garden of 65 m2. In 1969
the house appeared in the Los
Angeles Times Home Magazine
with pictures by Leland
Y. Lee and an article by Barbara
Lenox, who described it
as “an open residential plan
with exceptional privacy”

Built in 1967 in South Pasadena for Doreen and Geoffrey Siodmak, La Fremontia House has a floor area of 204 m2 and a garden of 65 m2. In 1969 the house appeared in the Los Angeles Times Home Magazine with pictures by Leland Y. Lee and an article by Barbara Lenox, who described it as “an open residential plan with exceptional privacy”

Walter and I spoke mostly of his A-Frame House on Killarney Avenue, located on the southern slope of Mount Washington in East L.A. Walter had originally designed the home for a famous dancer and her partner in 1964. In the late '90s he came across the property again, finding it in foreclosure and, as he put it, "disarray". Walter bought the home back from the bank and completely redesigned it. "Sometimes when you work with clients, you have to do what you don't want to do," he told me. "Well, when I came across the home that second time, I was at a different point in my evolution of design: 'I do what I want, when I want to do it, how I want to do it.'" Walter replaced everything but the roof and floor planes, and sandblasted all wood ceiling surfaces and beams to a honey brown tone. Like the Nolden Home, the redesigned A-Frame is open in every sense of the word: no doors, not even on rooms conventionally deemed intimate; no railings on the steps. The street-side wall is motorised, opening to become an outdoor deck, revealing the bath, toilet and sink inside. As in the Nolden Home, the city views from the hillside wall of windows are breathtaking, and the lines between indoor and outdoor blur.

A-Frame House. Photo Marvin Rand

A-Frame House. Photo Marvin Rand

"A-Frames are very difficult to develop because they don't fit traditional ways of doing things," Walter told me. "But since I have a background in industrial design, I had the insight to see how to best do that. It is a very unusual structure." The Italiano-Thomas couple, who purchased the A-Frame in 2005, would agree with that. As Graciela Italiano-Thomas tells me: "Culturally, this house does not fit the traditional American mentality. Most people want a master bedroom, large closets, marble and state of the art. But we understand and like the elegance of something this simple. We are not looking for outlandish comfort. We would prefer to be how we are here— perfectly integrated with our environment."

A-Frame House. Photo Marvin Rand

A-Frame House. Photo Marvin Rand

Indeed, the house was not for "most people": it took 18 months on the market for the right owners to find it. In that time, the real-estate agent Robert Bacon—a former architect for the likes of Craig Ellwood, now a broker for the architecture realty Crosby Doe Associates—developed a friendship with Walter, who sat in on the open houses upon Bacon's invitation. Bacon first met Walter through the Nolden home. "That space just floored me," the broker recalls over coffee in West L.A. "I thought, 'I have to meet this guy.'" He did. And with that, he met many more of his homes. In reference to Walter, Bacon says: "To me, what most identifies something as really great architecture is what Louis Sullivan referred to as 'the clarity of simplicity', where the soul of the house is immediately apparent. You don't have to stop to think about it or analyse it; you just feel it immediately."

La Fremontia House

La Fremontia House

Of course, in his prolific career, Walter did build homes that had doors and closets, and more "conventional" elements. No less experimental or modern than Nolden and A-Frame, these homes (like the 1967 home of Doreen Siodmak, and the 1971 home of Ernest Vargas, both of whom were the original clients and still live in the homes) illustrate the scope of what Walter could do. They exude the "clarity of simplicity" and "soul" to which Bacon refers. As Bacon tells me: "Everything Jim did reeked of creativity—not frivolous creativity, but hardcore. He could have been much bigger, but he elected not to be, in order to retain his ability to do exactly what he wanted." When selling the A-Frame, Bacon asked Walter for a written bio, to better explain his background and design approach. Walter gave him a statement that raises more questions than it answers. So if one day Walter is given the recognition and Wikipedia entry he's due, it might read something like this:

Situated on a lush hillside,
the Nolden Home was built
in 1965. The loft-style interior
measuring 103 m2 offers
a panoramic view over the
terrace through a 3.6-m-high
glazed wall

Situated on a lush hillside, the Nolden Home was built in 1965. The loft-style interior measuring 103 m2 offers a panoramic view over the terrace through a 3.6-m-high glazed wall

James Allen Walter
Graduate, Art Center School of Design, Los Angeles Industrial designer, architectural designer, builder, inventor-artist, writer, philosopher, photographer, furniture designer, graphics designer, designer of exotic clothing, automobile collector, illustrator, master craftsman, circus acrobat and aspiring helicopter pilot.
James Allen Walter discovered an interest in architecture while growing up in Ohio on a farm. Rearranging bales of hay up in the loft of the old tobacco barn, he created magic castles with hidden rooms and secret tunnels. This early imprint on his vivid imagination has inspired a wonderful sense of adventure into many of the various disciplines that still guide him into unchartered territories of exciting opportunity today.

“You might need a
telescope, but the Nolden
Home does have an ocean
view,” gripped Walter with
the owners Jaime and Dana
Rummerfield

“You might need a telescope, but the Nolden Home does have an ocean view,” gripped Walter with the owners Jaime and Dana Rummerfield

the
Grandview property, James
Walter’s final project, was the
house that he designed and
built for himself. Work on site
began in 1987 and was still in
progress when Walter moved
into the house, remaining
incomplete even at the time of
his death in 2009, at the age
of 78.

the Grandview property, James Walter’s final project, was the house that he designed and built for himself. Work on site began in 1987 and was still in progress when Walter moved into the house, remaining incomplete even at the time of his death in 2009, at the age of 78.