Watching L.A. grow

Times Staff Writer

HER gray hair is piled primly atop her head. She wears a simple print dress, clutches a basket of avocados and demurely casts her eyes away from the camera as if she doesn't know what to do with the attention.

The headline explains why: "The fascinating, true story of Mrs. Jennie Gano, erstwhile seamstress, who found success with a little ranch and five dollars."

It's Aug. 30, 1936, and Mrs. Gano has just made her debut in the Los Angeles Times. She appears in Southland Homes and Gardens magazine, where we learn that she once lugged a suitcase full of avocados to sell them to Los Angeles markets and hotels because wholesalers wouldn't handle the new fruit. Twenty years later, she has 350 trees, an avocado patent and a measure of local renown.

Mrs. Gano, avocado entrepreneur, is one of the hundreds of people to be featured in the Sunday supplements of The Times. Starting in 1919, the newspaper printed weekly sections that focused on life at home, beginning with Farm and Tractor magazine, which in 1925 became Farm and Orchard, then in 1929 Farm and Garden, in 1934 Southland Homes and Gardens, and in 1940 Home magazine.

As the titles changed, so did the stories, which marched in step with the evolution of Southern California — from an idyll of chaparral and oak to a sprawling postwar metropolis. The pages of these sections today are yellowed and tattered, and original copies are rare, but in them we find a celebration of our mountains and ocean, the domestic scene and the ever-present connection between house and garden.

Early rotogravure images are captivating. There's the black-and-white of a young man sitting beneath a giant oak, book in hand. Photographer Roy Hunter captured the contemplative mood for the July 14, 1927, cover of Farm and Orchard. The headline is simply, "As We'd Like It." Might this be some latter-day Forest of Arden?

Inside, there is no explanation. Instead, we find a series of photo essays that look at experimental crop operations in Mesa, Ariz., date palms being transported across the Coachella Valley and poultry farmers in Fontana. The page on Thomas H. Shedden's Monrovia orchard looks at if it could be from his family album. Amid snapshots of his avocado trees and fruit, there is a photograph of the former San Francisco hotel man sitting smartly on a waist-high wall of boulders at the entrance of his property. There's another photo of his mother, Mrs. Elizabeth T. MacArthur, in her floor-length black dress and white shawl. And another of Shedden dressed in an overcoat and standing next to a woman fashionably attired in a hat and fur-trimmed coat.

During the Depression, The Times continued to publish Farm and Garden. Fortunes may have been lost, but farmers toiled on. But something different was afoot. With the rising swell of city dwellers, growing things had become an avocation rather than a living. Alfred Tennyson, an Alhambra resident who worked for The Times, grabbed a headline in the Aug. 2, 1931, issue with photos of his children's playground, a homemade arbor and patio.

For those not inclined to garden, there's a surprisingly lyrical and poetic celebration of palm trees. The lush green of the stately Washingtonia filifera on a Beverly Hills street is juxtaposed with shots of palms amid pink sky, pink rooftops and pink clusters of "blooms," according to the caption.

In 1934, Farm and Garden becomes Southland Homes and Gardens and is combined with the Los Angeles Time Magazine to save costs. In a 1935 issue, amid drumbeats of war, we read three simple rules for landscape planning. One, never put a plant, pool, pond, rockery or other feature in the center of a lawn. ("Merely have a simple stretch of grass, for only with simplicity do we gain dignity.") Two, plant many things of the same kind. ("One of the crimes in California gardening is the unrestricted use of bright-colored, variegated-leaved shrubs. Nature does not make them.") Three, avoid straight lines. ("Nature makes no straight lines.")

As houses and decorating become more of a preoccupation among increasingly prosperous Angelenos, Home, "A Magazine for the House and Garden," premieres in December 1940.

The new publication attracts a loyal audience from the burgeoning ranks of the middle class for nearly 45 years, promising the California good life in a stylish, single-family home.

And amid images of Monterey-style homes and California Colonials, a new aesthetic emerges. Home begins to showcase the Modernist style — the spare lines, large planes of glass and unusual hillside sitings of houses designed by R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra and Harwell Hamilton Harris. In 1941, Arthur Millier, art critic for The Times, writes, "ours is veritably a new age in history and the kind of building style we call 'modern' is the architecture that is being born in our age."

By the next decade, the magazine has a distinctly sophisticated tone that would probably have surprised Mrs. Gano. Southern California has come of age. Architecture critic Esther McCoy explores the notion of living small through a compact one-bedroom house on Beverly Glen Boulevard. There are eight photos by architectural photographer Julius Shulman that detail the use of glass with plentiful natural light and built-ins. "The test of a small house is not how much space you can get for your money but how many conveniences can be concentrated into the smallest number of square feet," John Love, a UCLA design instructor, told McCoy.

Home makeovers are also popular. A color spread on "Regency Under Wraps" shows a dramatic transformation of "a house that started out as a carpenter's shack and 30 years had done little to change its condition." While its ramshackle exterior is left remarkably unchanged, the Hollywood home's interior "has an air of elegance worthy of a Regency drawing room." The owner wallpapered, carpeted and even painted a mural on one wall — an intriguing trompe l'oeil that makes the room appear much larger. He has turned scraps of plywood, glued tortoise-shell paper and salvaged window glass into a Regency console table. Above the console, a baroque mirror frame (rescued from a trash pile and gilded) is on vertical tracks so it can be raised to view a TV recessed into the wall.

By the late 1950s, the good life has extended to the patio, and swimming pools had become popular, no longer just rectangular or reserved for summer use. By the 1960s, Home is full of advertisements from pool companies such as Swan, Royal, Anthony, Paddock, Blue Haven, Fiesta, Sunset and Catalina.

Throughout the 1970s and until the mid-1980s, Home magazine continued to reflect life and living in Los Angeles. Since then, the paper has embraced these subjects in various weekly sections through which we see continuing changes in the region's landscape, homes and lifestyle. But there's a sense of rediscovery too.

Today, what's old is new — native plants, Modernist homes and meatloaf are all the rage again. Avocados are still popular (Mrs. Gano would be proud), and personal, geographical and political transformations continue in Southern California.

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