Chairside with the Father of L.A. Structure Los Angeles Journal
The architectural historian Robert Winter welcomes you politely and spruce-shaped in a blue checked shirt and (almost) matching fleece and welcomes you in the living room of his house. The Southern California History Guru who leans on a walker is 92 years old. Old friends who haven’t seen him in years will cautiously ask if Bob Winter is “all there” and he is. As in the city that once became his muse, he only has a minor problem with mobility.
Back when “Los Angeles History” was a hoax and not a major, Winter and his late friend David Gebhard scuffed up several white walls to research their softcover gazetteer, the immortal A Guide to Architecture from 1965 in Southern California. Since then, the book has proven to be an indispensable reference for anyone looking for all of the architectural gems that bejewel the crumpled topography of LA. With the help of local stair walker Robert Inman, who is literally his Legman, Winter is working on the first online edition of the guide these days and is campaigning with publishers for a sixth print version.
His house earned its own entry in the book decades ago. Lamplit, burnished, deep wood brown inside, this unpareil Craftsman bungalow sits enthroned opposite the Arroyo in Pasadena, where the great tile manufacturer Ernest Batchelder designed and built it for his family in 1910. Winter recently curated a smart exhibition of Batchelder’s work for the Pasadena Museum of History that runs through March 12th. However, exhibition A in the incomparable legacy of the craftsman remains this house. Stepping into it is like stepping into warm chocolate.
Winter’s love of Los Angeles architecture didn’t go away with the gloomy days of Old Pasadena. “I’m a modernist,” he explains – unsurprisingly from someone whose respect for “clean lines” extends beyond favorites like Craig Ellwood’s Kubly House to his own clean, planned prose. For winter, modernism simply means an unwavering interest in the new. If he could visit a building in LA that only saw him in pictures due to his age-related complaints, it would be Grand Arts High School, an elegant, silver mess across from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown with that spiral slide around it its bell tower. “It’s wild,” he says. “I would like to see that! It’s the right place. It’s awesome.”
Born in Elkhart, Indiana, Winter first rolled through southern California on a troop train during World War II. He thought LA was a huge, “awful place”. A few years later, after studying Herman Melville in Dartmouth, he tested the academic job market in intellectual history (“We don’t mention ‘intellectual’ anymore. It’s ‘cultural’ now,” he says) and picked up at UCLA. I feel like a missionary to the Gentiles. One professor told him, “It will take two years and you will become a cultural addict for Los Angeles.” Winter takes a break, still the accomplished lecturer. “I used four.”
Eventually he became a native and discovered in LA “a feeling of freedom so different from the tightness of the East”. Winter joined the Occidental Faculty, where he oversaw a generation of indispensable Los Angelists including LA Times columnist Patt Morrison and Esotouric’s Richard Schave. Winter and Gebhard began researching what was formerly known as Vade Mecum – their “Go with Me” book, which became the constant vehicle companion for half of the jerky drivers who inexplicably have ever stopped and started before you. LA Mavens now use Waze and Google Maps instead of the Thomas Guide to locate their attractions, but they still get the addresses from Winter’s permanent gift to us. When asked what he would advise all those students who work in institutes in Los Angeles, their spiritual godfather has only one extremely sensible instruction: “Use the manual.”