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Viewpoint: New in Town: The California Garden Apartment in the 1960s
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Viewpoint: New in Town
The California Garden Apartment in the 1960s

When I asked architect George Swallow about the garden apartments he designed in the 1960s, he exclaimed, “Which one? We were doing one a week!”1 The eight-unit dwelling at 1062 Kains Avenue in the East Bay suburb of Albany, California, is a typical example (Figure 1). A wood-framed box clad in plywood and stucco sits on a concrete-block foundation. Steel-pipe columns straddle a street-level garage, and an open-riser staircase ascends to outdoor corridors that run the length of the building and lead to individual unit entrances. A screen of perforated basalt blocks frames the stairwell and provides a degree of visual privacy from the street. The front and rear units have sliding glass doors that open to small balconies. Next to the driveway, a patch of earth has been landscaped, and the now mature plantings shield the aluminum-framed windows from the street.

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Figure 1.

1062 Kains Avenue, Albany, California, designed by George Swallow and built by John Carter and Paul Rago, 1961. The project provides a typical design for an eight-unit California garden apartment. Photograph by Elihu Rubin, 2013.

In a flurry of activity during the early 1960s, [End Page 1]

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Figure 2.

A sample of 1960s California Garden Apartments in Albany and El Cerrito, California. This map contains every Scott Bonds project of this type and, according to the author’s field survey, many of the garden apartments designed by George Swallow. Also included is a garden apartment, The Donal, built by Marvin Collins. Map by Kimberly A. Salyers.

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Swallow designed at least nine garden apartment complexes just like the one described, along with several slightly larger apartment buildings, in a narrow corridor adjacent to San Pablo Avenue in Albany (Figure 2). After a generation of dormancy, investment in multifamily rental housing surged in the United States in the 1960s. In temperate climates designers like Swallow deployed a suite of architectural features that characterized a widespread regional expression of this national building trend. The traits that distinguished the California garden apartment included low-rise construction, exterior circulation, individual unit entrances that opened directly to the outdoors, abundant car parking, and conspicuous (if sometimes minimal) landscaping.

Not confined to California, examples are found in college towns and metropolitan areas across the Sunbelt, from Miami to Las Vegas, and along the Pacific Coast, from San Diego to Seattle—all places where California garden apartments continue to function as a significant portion of the rental housing stock. Targeting a growing demographic of apartment seekers, real estate developers produced numerous variations of this housing type to satisfy a range of price points, lifestyle aspirations, and site conditions. The smallest and least expensive of these were minimal boxes mounted on posts with carports beneath. In these instances parking often overwhelmed the garden, which receded to a small landscaped patch. Designers of larger and more luxurious garden apartments commonly arrayed units in a courtyard plan, with cantilevered breezeways that overlooked a shared patio and swimming pool.

On the whole, the California garden apartments of the 1960s were designed for easy access to the outdoors and projected at least the symbols of a patio lifestyle from behind concrete-block screens. In the laterally sprawling regions of the Sunbelt and the Pacific Coast, this common dwelling type marked an important countercurrent to the single-family house pattern of postwar metropolitan development. The result was a motor-age multiunit that emphasized the attraction of an indoor–outdoor lifestyle and the convenience of apartment living without sacrificing the amenities associated with a fully equipped suburban house and its neighborhood environs.

In this essay I draw from the experiences of two prolific builders who worked in neighboring East Bay suburbs in the 1960s. The goal is to set forth a research agenda for rental housing in postwar American suburbs—one that uses the California garden apartment to suggest important questions rather than to answer all of them. This housing typology, the fabled “dingbat,” needs attention from historians who are expert...