On the Work of Ladd & Kelsey, Architects

by Pierluigi Serraino

Midcentury modern in California came to age due to the phenomenal plethora of talented architects. Of that in- spired group, the Pasadena-based partnership of Thornton Ladd (1924-2010) and John Kelsey (1925-2012) occupies a particular place.The story of that firm, operational from 1959 till 1982, is especially fascinating both for the level of its design achievements and for its puzzling invisibility in the burgeoning literature about California Modernism. Despite its lack of recognition today, even among the many experts of the period, the Ladd & Kelsey name is tied to some of the iconic buildings of Los Angeles modern architecture. The Pasadena Art Museum, today called Norton Simon Museum and completed in 1969, is one of their most notable projects.

This strong-willed duo left few written traces of their stance about architecture.Those occasional pronouncements resurfacing from unpublished material retrieved through archival research, however, betray deep-seated convictions about the relationship between Architecture and society. “The success of a culture is measured by history in terms of the civilization’s architectural and artistic achievement.” This closing statement found in an unpublished letter Ladd & Kelsey send to newly elected President Richard Nixon, pleading for his intervention to avert an imminent national crisis in the building industry, summarizes the philosophical underpinning of a practice unusually quiet about its position on matters of architecture.

About Thornton Ladd, there is a thin trail of publications, but the lack of critical assessment concerning his contribution to California architecture is disconcerting, just as in Kelsey’s case. A Portland native, he grew up in a large Victorian home that occupied a square block in downtown Portland. He came from a family of wealth (William Ladd, co-founder of the Ladd-Tilton Bank in Oregon was Thornton’s grandfather), and exhibited acute musical talent early on, becoming an accomplished pianist. Love for music ran in the family. Mary Andrews Ladd, Thornton’s mother, was a highly talented pianist and teacher.

She was also an art collector, with an extensive collection of Japanese prints, she often shared with her son.These prints were later purchased from her by her sister-in-law, Meta Babbott Ladd of New York, and were eventually donated to the Portland Art Museum in their name. Susan Dworski,Thornton Ladd’s niece, reminisced, “I believe he came by his modernism most importantly via his immersion in Asian art, in particular Japanese woodcuts, paintings, sculpture, and their manicured temple gardens. He told me that one of his fondest memories as a child was sitting beside his mother on a rainy day in Portland when she would open the folios of Hiroshige woodcuts the family had collected from an old chest, and reveren- tially untie the ribbons, commencing to go through each print hand by hand, talking to him about the art and the artist.”This world of understated, esthetic order was an emotional environment he remained true to for his entire life.

Ladd played the piano at a very early age and continued into his college years at the University of Southern California (USC.) At 22, however, he abandoned his professional aspirations in music to delve into architecture. He graduated Cum Laude from USC with a Bachelor of Architecture in June, 1953. Among his classmates were Robert Marquis, Pierre Koenig, Don Hensman, Conrad Buff, and John Reed. Gregory Ain was one of his instructors. Furthermore, he spent a year studying landscape architecture and won first prize in the City of Monterey, California Park Design and Layout. He apprenticed at a general contractor and later at Pereira and Luckman before establishing Thornton Ladd & Associates in 1954.

Already in Ladd’s early residential work, the design language shared with his future partner Kelsey was present. In the design for his mother’s house and his own studio, located slightly down the hill on the same property, Ladd master-minded a private Acropolis, a contemplative architectural totality based on a rectangular and square geometry. He devised a circuit of linked experiences that brought the relationship between topography and vistas to unparalleled poetic peaks.The whole gamut of outdoor structures – a pool, a pavilion, sleeping porches, gardens, a peristyle – is blended seamlessly in the uber-design of the entire complex, and is an excellent insight into Ladd’s approach to residential architecture, uniquely flavored with a pervasive, urbane harmony. In that estate Ms. Ladd kept two grand pianos where mother and son could nurture their abiding passion for music. Even at this early stage, the tall ceiling was an arresting feature, and would become a distinguishing architectural element in many future Ladd & Kelsey buildings.

Award-winning architects from the start, Ladd & Kelsey located their first office in Pasadena because Ladd’s relatives were there. They won sought-after commissions early on. Although Ladd’s family connections proved to be advantageous in securing high profile jobs, it was their combined talent that earned the confidence of an influential, institutional client base.Total design control, orderly articulation of space, and meticulous care in the solution of individual problems were the three basic principles informing their entire body of work.The practice was generalist in scope and they undertook a wide variety of building projects.

Business-minded, artistically endowed, and undeniably very well-connected, Ladd & Kelsey designed banks, housing developments, academic buildings, offices, churches, gardens, museums, shopping malls, hospitals, and corporate headquarters at a vertiginous pace. ”Architecture is a profession demanding the same degree of experience, skill, and personal attention as medicine or the law” their firm’s profile reads.These snippets of declaration found in scattered printed material prove in no uncertain terms that the two design principals had a very top-down approach to architecture.

They retained rigid design control of every project that came out of the office, explaining the consistency of their output over the years. In that same firm’s profile, Ladd adds, “The successful execution of a project from conception to completion depends directly upon the caliber of the architect in charge, and this responsibility should rest only with a principal of the firm.”They purposely employed a small staff of ten, and avoided the leap into the corporate structure in order for the two founders to maintain close proximity to each commission.

In an effort to explain and communicate their architectural vision to clients as clearly as possible, they made use of large-scale study and presentation models. Already in the late 1950s celebrated American Finnish architect Eero Saarinen had pioneered the use of this technique to study architecture ideas, achieving greater clarity in communicating design intent between his office and its clients. Ladd & Kelsey created a California version of that method.Their goal was to eradicate from the design process the guesswork of sketches to offer a committed rendition of the proposed options. Both as instruments of design evaluation and as presentation tools, these exact scale models, some more than 40 feet in length, allowed their clients, aided with a special periscope, to fully understand what they were paying for.

Together, Ladd & Kelsey designed a number of landmarks of California Modernism.They were the consulting architects for the iconic design of the Department of Water and Power in downtown Los Angeles. The Steering Committee in charge of the project procurement referred Ladd & Kelsey to the reputable A.C. Martin & Associates, architect of record, because of their design skills.They designed the First Methodist Church Chapel in La Verne that was featured in the closing scene of 1967 movie “The Graduate,” where a young Dustin Hoffman is desperately trying to interrupt the wedding of his former girlfriend.They authored the Herrick Memorial Chapel at Occidental College completed in 1965, built in poured-in-place concrete. It was the first use of slip form concrete construction in Southern California.They turned an abandoned industrial area in the San Fernando Valley into Busch Gardens amusement park, which included a monorail tour through the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Van Nuys. This tropical setting was open to the public from 1966 until 1979 – a dreamy landscape dotted with lakes, lagoons, pavilions, islands, cliffs, waterfalls, tropical birds, and flowers.Tackling a completely different commercial project, they conceived the Stuft Shirt Restaurant at Port Orange, Newport Beach, which has been recently renovated. This refined structure is a classic midcentury period piece consisting of thin-shell concrete domes, and explores with refined sensitivity the expressive range of this plastic material, beautifully utilized in a resort setting with commanding views of the harbor.

Walt Disney, however, was without doubt the most high profile client of Ladd & Kelsey. Ladd’s family connections led to that relationship, making Thornton, then barely 40 years old, the principal-in-charge responsible for the design of the Master Plan and the buildings of the Cal Arts campus in Valencia. Also for Disney, they designed the unbuilt Mineral King Ski Resort and year-round recreational facility in the High Sierra.The Norton Simon Museum is possibly the most prominent project still standing created by this architectural duo. Even in its Gehry- modified version, it retains its distinctive continuous ribbon of Heath designed and fabricated ceramic tiles cladding the walls enveloping a cluster of exhibit chambers, classrooms, and 400-seat auditorium in the 7.5 acre Carmelita Park. In this scheme the rounding of the corners became their signature design device to embody the fluidity of the spatial experience, a stratagem they would utilize in many subsequent designs. In this particular design, noted architectural historian Robert Winter detected an echo of the Streamline Moderne style of the 1930s imbued with “a formal classic quality.”

Ladd’s early retirement from architecture brought the Ladd & Kelsey practice to a close. He delved into the study of the works of C.G Jung, with the intent of compiling a comprehensive, digitized index to the psychoanalyst’s works to be made available to scholars worldwide. Kelsey, instead continued working in the field, practicing architecture solo, assisted by his third wife Catherine, and until the end of his life he designed custom homes, many of them located in Montecito, Palm Desert and Santa Fe NM, work closely with each client. Much to our dismay, the archive of Ladd & Kelsey was not put in storage, but simply disposed of. Ladd’s niece commented on the issue, “Thornton was enormously sensitive, but also enormously unsentimental about stuff like this. He had a strong ego, yet he was very self-effacing when it came to pushing himself into the public eye, unlike many architects today.” According to family members, John Kelsey shared similar inner traits.

A few biographical notes will position the career of John Field Kelsey, an Angeleno, in the local history of Los Angeles. His father, Van Frank Kelsey, a real estate businessman who handled transactions tied to the land where the famous Hollywood sign is now standing, died of influenza in 1932, leaving behind three boys of very young age. John was the youngest and grew up in a house located close to USC. At 14 he contracted a mastoid infection which lasted for months. During his sickness he started making drawings and models showing the extent of his artistic bent for the first time. His brother Richard recalls his facility in using his hands to make sculptural forms, something he stayed true to for his entire life. In World War II he became an air cadet, although by the time he graduated the war was over. Like many of his generation, he took advantage of the 1944 GI bill to enroll in architecture school at the University of Southern California. He started college in his early twenties and met there a young Frank Gehry, who remained lifelong friend ever since. Most importantly, he was there where he befriended Thornton Ladd, a year his senior, with whom he will develop a very successful practice some time later. In those formative school years, he worked for noted architectural office A.C. Martin and was a member of Tau Sigma Delta, Honorary Scholastic Architectural Fraternity, and Scarab, the Honorary Architectural Design Fraternity. Kelsey earned his Bachelor of Architecture degree with a focus on comprehensive environmental and landscaping design.

Residential jobs represent both the point of departure and the bulk of the later phase of Kelsey’s career. One outstanding early accomplishment was the realization of his own house on 1160 Chateau Road, Pasadena. Conceived for his family of five during his first marriage, this project stands as a manifesto of his distinct design sensibility. An unapologetic fan of Mies Van der Rohe, Kelsey was sold on the universality of that master’s discipline. His brother, Richard Kelsey, remarked about Ladd & Kelsey’s architectural references: “Greene & Greene was not their thing.” On Chateau Road he combines skillfully planning rigor of Germanic descent with openness to the site’s lush landscape, a hallmark of modern architecture in Southern California. Rather than rigid implementation of dogmatic principles, the residence showcases personal touches signaling a relaxed participation to the Miesian creed.The residence was completed in 1962, a time of turbulent reassessment of architectural history.Two groundbreaking essays – Rudolf Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism of 1949 and Colin Rowe’s The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa of 1947 – re-admitted in the debate the legitimacy of geometric formalism rooted in the architecture of Renaissance master Andrea Palladio.Together they re-established the supremacy of the plan as both generative and conclusive in the making of architecture. Later internationally celebrated architects Edward Durrell Stone and MinoruYamasaki extended the modernist vocabulary to include design elements of decisively historical origins, such screens, lattice, up-dated versions of ornamentation, and fine grained detailing . The aesthetic abstraction of architecture based on mass-production ideals was under attack.

National and international architectural magazines, of which Kelsey was an avid reader, reflected this change in taste and published a substantial number of projects structured around formal principles grounded in a renewed interest in classicism. The architecture that came out of this period was called ‘Neo- Palladian’, of which the nine-square-grid diagram is possibly the most momentous image affecting much architectural production of the day. Kelsey was well-informed about the conversation taking place in the journals of the English-speaking world. He was aware that his design was in consonance with what was being produced at that time and also intrinsically personal in the development of those design themes. Whether or not he ever read those essays, in his own residence he gave his version of the nine-square-grid spatial organization.

The controlled organization of the natural scene was something he felt invested in from the early days, thus becoming a constant to be found in many of the designs he signed: “He wanted to have the last word about the planting”, his brother Richard recalls. His own residence demonstrates his mastery in choreographing the enmeshment of architecture and nature into one spatial entity. The baronial proportions of the house are apparent from the street, from the generous entrance court to the long stretch of a windowless white wall. Its mute assertiveness commands attention, cuing visitors to some anticipated rewards upon entering its majestic threshold. Vegetation already takes center stage in this entry experience where variegated foliage creates an organic counterpoint to the serene horizontality of the floating flat roofs.

Two full height teak gates mark the access to a courtyard, acting both as an open room and as a patio within the precinct. Once inside, a procession of white surfaces along a main axis punctuates a series of discrete, yet interconnected micro architectural experiences. Maybe an enclosed garden with multiple areas open to the sky, maybe a container of hardscape and landscape, it is this very ambiguity of reading that makes this project filled with compelling interpretative possibilities.

The squared patio, carefully sized and scripted in its ground articulation, is an outdoor prelude offering deep sightlines into the crevices of this scheme. It is the ordering axis along the 66-foot long pool, however, that brings cohesiveness to the plan layout. The influence of noted Mexican architect Luis Barragán is apparent, but consistent with the adaptation of a Miesian language to regional conditions. There is abundant reason to state that the pool stands to the Southern California House as the fireplace stands to residences in the North East. Rather than an amenity appended to the house design, the pool functions as its hearth, creating the perfect setting for the rituals of the Southern California lifestyle. In the Kelsey House, both sleeping quarters and the public areas have some visual relationship with the elongated stretch of water, thus becoming the dominant architectural image of the interiors. While certainly belonging to the modernist lineage, this house is a grand mansion contained within precisely staked out boundaries. It is designed to be an open plan, while being at the same time a calibrated addition of individual self-contained spaces.

Each room has very precise edges, but afford views of adjacent areas.To the individuation of every single part of the house, the same flat roof and continuous redwood fascias, where the vertical and horizontal surfaces meet, stitch all these functionally-specific areas into one common space. Within them the richness of the in- door-outdoor theme, a classic of the period, is imaginatively staged.

What is a unique episode in this project, in view of the formal repertoire of California Modernism, is the dining room, revelatory of future trends in architecture.The sweeping wooded surfaces of the Tugendhat house’s dining room in Brno by Mies Van der Rohe appear to be Kelsey’s homage to his symbolic mentor. But the amount of poche’ visible in the drawing betrays historical quotations latching to the Baroque heritage rather than the contemporary world, something virtually none of his contemporaries would have ever dared to connect to in 1962. In plan, it could be read as a chapel, or a miniature villa, almost a folly for someone so committed to modern forms.Yet the room’s bilateral symmetry is oddly in sync with the overall parti of the house for it remains seamless in its connectivity to the rest. Only the organic niches bridging the curvilinear and rectilinear walls, a favorite hiding places for his three young children because of their scale, do signal that a whole new geometry is grafted on a strictly modular plan. More than an infatua- tion, Kelsey’s fascination for the organic curvilinear reappears in the large-scale work, and consistently handled with design command.

Few modifications to the original design of the house have been made over time. Gone is the red brick floor framed in a black, polished concrete border that marked atrium.

The two sculptures (skull and horn) by Jack Zajak positioned at the vanishing point of the pool have been removed. In that same area, the grand freestanding wall has been painted red and the children’s shallow-water section between the tall wall and the sculpture has been modified to become a Jacuzzi-type tub. Furthermore, an accessory structure (the Lyman Ennis addition) was built in 1973 – 74, to include room for the children of Mrs. Kelsey second husband, accessible from the kitchen, but detached from the main house. In the main, however, the Kelsey House remains intact and majestic as when it was first built.

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