How the ‘50s Communist Scare Stopped a
Lower-priced Housing Vision in Silver Lake –
and Branded Its Creator “The Most Dangerous Architect in America”
Architect Gregory Ain’s visionary design for affordable, cooperative housing in Silver Lake effectively ended his career. In 2019, a unit with Ain’s signature glazed glass and sliding partitions listed for $925,000. (Photo by Curbed LA)
Article by Scott Plante
The Avenel Cooperative Housing project is one of Silver Lake’s architectural landmarks. Designed by visionary architect Gregory Ain, the 10-unit cooperatively-owned complex at 2839 Avenel Street was designed in 1947 and funded by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) in an effort to increase the post-war supply of housing. However, the 1950s Red Scare took a toll on Avenel and its architect, and Avenel was considered a “Communist” housing project for its communal design. J. Edgar Hoover branded Ain “the most dangerous architect in America” due to his progressive thinking, and he was under surveillance by the FBI.
Although today a unit in this once affordable housing project was listed for $925,000 in 2019, the project still has historic significance. Avenel is considered unique as it was cooperatively owned – distinct from the common post-war practice of FHA single family homes.
Southern California was a leader in rethinking the house immediately after World War II, and the demand in housing allowed design thinking to progress. Small house design and the suburban way of life were heavily promoted and popular in a booming post-war economy. Replication and multiplication, as seen in war production efforts, gained traction in housing to quickly house an increased population.
Ain was a progressive mid-century architect who worked in Los Angeles. Primarily focused on housing, he brought modern design to lower and mid-priced housing. Esther McCoy, a well-regarded historian who promoted California modernism to the world, described Ain as “an idealist who gave the better part of ten years to combatting outmoded planning and building codes, and hoary real estate practices."
The Avenel complex is composed of 10 identical three-bedroom units of less than 1,000 square feet, on a gently sloping site. Each unit has their own entrance and private patio, configured in a sawtooth planning pattern. The sawtooth pattern allows the units to maximize light and open the inside to the landscape, creating a more open feeling. Inside, sliding walls between the bedrooms and between the master bedroom and living room allowed for flexibility.
Avenel was designed for a very progressive residential community. The ten World War II veterans formed a cooperative, and pooled their finances to create the community: each couple contributed $11,000 to the project. Serrill Gerber was one of the original residents, and in 2002 told the Los Angeles Times:
“We'd seen these modern houses in magazines, and we liked the idea of having a living space that is both indoors and outdoors. We liked the idea of doing something really modern, and we liked Greg. He was a radical person in his thinking, because he wanted to put his ideas in the service of regular people. That was his mission, really.”
The 1950s Red Scare took a toll on Avenel and its architect. Four of the original ten residents were blacklisted or questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Avenel was considered a “Communist” housing project for its’ communal design. Ain was branded by J. Edgar Hoover as “the most dangerous architect in America” due to his progressive thinking, and he was under surveillance by the FBI. As a result, his career suffered. Noted is that in the last 35 years of his life, he only built three more houses.
Avenel converted to condominium ownership in 1991, and are rarely available for sale. The project was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
Published November 25, 2020