Grad student unearths architect’s drawings for Getty exhibition

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Grad student unearths architect’s drawings for Getty exhibition

June 05, 2013

Claud Beelman, an American architect best known for the Art Deco turquoise terra cotta Eastern Columbia Building in downtown Los Angeles, almost didn’t make it into Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940-1990, the J. Paul Getty Museum’s comprehensive exhibition on the city’s architecture.


As prolific as Beelman was over four decades, and as notable and enduring as his Los Angeles buildings are, his architectural sketches and drawings were nowhere to be found. Exhibition curators Wim de Wit and Christopher Alexander had tried to find them for years and finally gave up when exhibition deadlines loomed.


The tale of how they were unearthed involves a bit of serendipity and a USC architecture student who did his master’s thesis on Beelman.


Here’s the story: George Credle MA ’12 worked at the Getty Villa as a security officer while completing his master’s in the USC School of Architecture’s historic conservation program. Several years ago, Credle was on duty, chatting with guests, when he met Rosemary Silvey, who had worked on the design of the villa’s interiors. Credle mentioned that he was working on a thesis on Beelman, who used to be in partnership with the founders of the architectural firm that designed the Getty Villa. Silvey later introduced Credle to Judith “Pebble” Wilkins, who had worked for that architectural firm, Langdon Wilson International, which was founded by two School of Architecture grads, Robert Langdon Jr. ’44 and Ernest Wilson ’48.


Credle asked Wilkins if she knew what happened to Beelman’s architectural drawings. Wilkins told him that after Beelman’s death in 1963, his widow had planned to discard his drawings, but they were purchased and saved by Brandow & Johnston, the structural engineering firm that collaborated on many Beelman projects. Wilkins put Credle in touch with Gregg Brandow ’67, son of the company’s founder and a part-time professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Brandow confirmed that the firm did indeed have Beelman’s drawings.


Credle then contacted the Getty curators, who were thrilled to discover that the drawings existed. Credle and Overdrive co-curator Alexander went to Brandow & Johnston’s downtown offices, “and we had a wonderful time in a hot and musty storage area looking at drawings that hadn’t been disturbed for years,” Credle said.


Brandow said his father, having worked with Beelman, felt a responsibility to preserve the drawings. He estimated that the firm has drawings for 30 to 40 buildings. For each building, there are dozens of sketches, studies and supporting drawings, he said.


“It is a wonderful experience to open a roll and find wonderful sketches as well as the building plans, many never opened since Beelman put them in storage,” Brandow said.


Beelman’s drawings included historic Los Angeles buildings from 1922 through 1962. In the city’s building boom of the 1920s, Beelman and his then partner William Curlett designed no fewer than 22 structures, including four on West 7th Street: the Foreman & Clark building at 404 W. 7th St., the Barker Bros. Building at 818 W. 7th St., the Union Oil Building at 617 S. 7th St. and the Roosevelt Building at 727 W. 7th St.


Another significant building constructed at the end of this era, following the dissolution of Beelman’s partnership with Curlett, was the 1930 Cedars of Lebanon Hospital — now a Scientology building — at 4833 Fountain Ave. During the rest of that decade, Beelman designed the Eastern Columbia Building, an addition to the late, lamented Ambassador Hotel, the MGM executive offices in Culver City, the Hollywood Post Office (with another architecture firm), as well as smaller projects and major renovations of existing structures.


From the 1940s to the1960s, Beelman’s style gradually evolved from Art Deco and Art Moderne to a reductive style devoid of ornamentation. Notable examples from the ’50s and ’60s include the 1955 Superior Oil Building at 550 S. Flower St. (now The Standard Hotel), which is recorded on the National Register of Historic Buildings, the 1958 California Bank at 600 S. Spring St. (now converted into condos) and the 1962 Kirkeby/Occidental Building at 10889 Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood, which was acquired by business manager Armand Hammer as headquarters for Occidental Petroleum.


Credle, who hopes to turn his thesis into a book on Beelman, said that the architect’s later style, which he dubbed “Corporate Moderne,” gave business leaders of Southern California “buildings which were contemporary, yet not radical, efficient and often used rich materials to project their corporations’ importance and their personal success.”


The Getty chose two Beelman drawings of the Getty Union Building at 3800 Wilshire Blvd. for the first major museum exhibition to survey Los Angeles’ built environment. Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990 will be on display until July 21.


In addition to Credle’s discovery, several USC professors provided key contributions to the exhibition. School of Architecture Assistant Professor Ken Breisch was on the exhibition committee and wrote a chapter, “Training the Next Generation of Architects in Los Angeles,” for the 301-page hardcover catalog. Adjunct Professor and landscape architect Mia Lehrer collaborated with USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences professor Phil Ethington and others to create an astounding animation forOverdrive showing the patterns of development in Los Angeles from its earliest settlements. Ethington also wrote a chapter for the catalog, “The Deep Historical Morphology of the Los Angeles Metropolis.”


Another USC Dornsife historian, William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, contributed the chapter “Dreams Deferred: Parks and Open Space.” And Vanessa Schwartz, professor of history, art history and film at USC Dornsife, wrote “Designing for the Jet Age,” a chapter on Los Angeles International Airport.


USC Libraries also supplied two architectural drawings for the exhibition: Edward Fickett’s 1954 drawing of a South Pasadena apartment building and Sidney Eisenshtat’s 1959 drawing of the Sinai Temple in Westwood.


By Allison Engel

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Claud Beelman's drawing of the Getty Union Building, completed in 1963 (Image/Courtesy of Brandow & Johnston)