Robert Winter: The Man Who Saw the ‘There’ There

Historian Robert Winter put Los Angeles on the map.

Historian Robert Winter
Historian Robert Winter

Angelenos are so ridiculously housed, complained novelist Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust, that only dynamite would suffice to clean up the city’s cockeyed architecture. Robert Winter thought otherwise. With fellow historian David Gebhard, Winter parsed the ways Los Angeles shelters itself and found most of them good. In An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, Gebhard and Winter drew an opinionated and quirky mid-1960s map for finding a sense of place in a city presumed by its critics to be placeless. The first, thin guidebook, listing mostly well-known architects and their buildings, evolved into “The Bible” of Los Angeles architecture, becoming a mirror for what Angelenos have made and what the city has made of them. A sixth revision, completed with the assistance of writer Robert Inman, includes more than 2,300 entries. It was published by Angel City Press in late 2018, only a few months before Winter’s death at 94.

Winter, an Indianan with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, arrived in the city in 1956 to teach social history at UCLA. He expected to be disappointed by Los Angeles. Instead, he was surprised and then beguiled. Winter spent the next 40 years engaged in fascinated, motorized flânerie, documenting the many ecologies of Southern California’s architecture. He passionately adopted one of them, the turn-of-the-century bohemian culture of Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco—becoming its exponent, sustaining a revival of its Arts and Crafts heritage, and eventually owning the Craftsman bungalow that master tile maker Ernest Batchelder had built for himself in 1909.

Winter shared his enthusiasms for the built environment, California culture, and the idea of Los Angeles with three decades of students at Occidental College in Eagle Rock before his retirement in 1994. Author and Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison, one of Winter’s students, found in his example a way to imaginatively inhabit Los Angeles as “a place whose unique standards and tastes were worthy and admirable and, yes, beautiful.” In his books, essays, and monographs, Winter materialized a city that continually threatens to dissolve into its dreams. He made a life’s work of preservation that historian (and Alta contributor) William Deverell calls “biographical recovery.” Winter, he said, built up an interpretive framework for making Los Angeles legible, “something to lean against, agree with or disagree with, but something that could be encountered.”

The latest edition of Robert Winter's [em]An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles.[/em]
The latest edition of Robert Winter’s An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles.


I encountered Los Angeles reading Gebhard and Winter’s guidebooks, and in the spirit of their reconnaissances, I drove Los Angeles with painter and photographer Michael Ward looking for architectural survivors and the lesser histories of the city. On side streets and in marginalized neighborhoods, conserved by neglect in the easy climate and too-bright sunlight, were the sheet metal gas stations, shingled or stuccoed houses, and Googie-style diners of L.A.’s democratic commonplace—the mismatched architecture that binds the city, however loosely, together. Winter made room for this ordinariness and its intimacy. “Bob was not a snob,” Morrison said, “and embraced Los Angeles not in spite of but because of its multiple aesthetics, its ebullience and confidence.” Winter took the city on its own terms, even as he examined its architecture for signs, not just of its utopian aspirations but also of the prejudices that settled Angelenos in their separate enclaves. Housing insecurity and homelessness are in the new guidebook along with Richard Neutra and Frank Gehry.

By revealing the architectural heritage of Los Angeles, Winter inspired Angelenos to keep it. He helped draft Pasadena’s historic preservation ordinance, received the Chair’s Award from the Los Angeles Conservancy “for exceptional contributions,” aided in designing a formal survey of Los Angeles architecture, and served on California’s State Historical Resources Commission and L.A.’s Cultural Heritage Board, where well-thumbed editions of the Gebhard-Winter guidebook were the starting place for discussion. “Is it in the guide?” Winter remembered board members asking, as he recounted to David Ulin on the release of the 2018 revision. He told them that the book was just the personal feelings of “two guys” and not more than that. But it was more. As Nathan Masters notes in his foreword to the new edition, “inclusion has saved more than one building from demolition. Omission has also doomed some works of architecture.” The opinions of “two guys” have a cost, including incitements to nostalgia and gentrification.

Too many Angelenos, however long their residence, remain wary sojourners. Robert Winter fully inhabited the city, knowing its breadth, its romance, and its freedom. He heard the conversation that buildings have among themselves and wanted us to hear it, too. He wanted Angelenos to fall in love with where they are.

D. J. Waldie is a memoirist and essayist whose subject is Southern California. He is best known for Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, and his most recent book, in collaboration with photographer Michael Kolster, is L.A. River.

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