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Sketching Brentwood

Sullivan Canyon…A World Apart
By DELORES MCKINNEY

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World was hard to get to. Explorers had to climb an impossibly-high and difficult plateau. It’s much easier to get to Brentwood’s lost world, Sullivan Canyon. You just turn off the Sunset Boulevard raceway and you’ve arrived. Huge and stately oak, sycamore, and eucalyptus trees shade low, elegantly simple ranch-style homes and fenced corrals. Horses (not dinosaurs, though equally unexpected in urban Los Angeles) stand easy, thinking equine thoughts, or look out and nicker curiously, asking “Did you bring me a snack?†Homes are hidden amongst the greenery, discreetly private, not ostentatiously declaring their place and price. It is definitely very un-Southern-California. Larry Watts is working with many of his neighbors to preserve this unique bit of Brentwood.

Local legend attributes the Canyon name to an early “squatter†on Santa Monica Land and Water’s property, a Civil War veteran named Sullivan. Robert Gillis, principal owner of SMLW, built the first home in the Canyon, a “hunting lodge/vacation retreat†, circa 1906, that’s still a treasured home.

Perhaps it should be called May’s Canyon. In 1939, Cliff May, the renown architect and builder who is credited with originating the “California Ranch-Style†home, subdivided the Canyon, called it Riviera Ranch and began to build homes. Among the hundred or so homes in Sullivan, only a handful are not designed by May or his associates.

He fitted his homes into the landscape instead of carving the landscape to fit his homes. The Canyon is a tribute to his mastery of architectural design and his love of Southern California’s lush and mild climate. May’s homes are vibrant with light, every room opened with extensive glass to the natural and special light that is a Southern California blessing. They are low and elegantly spare and timeless. And they look perfectly at ease with paddocks and open stalls arrayed around them. Over 100 horses call Sullivan their home.

Larry and Happy Watts have been Sullivan Canyon residents for over 35 years. Though born in Los Angeles, Larry grew up in Anaheim. He graduated from Claremont-McKenna College and took his law degree from UCLA. He was finishing his degree when he and Happy were house-hunting one weekend in Rustic Canyon. On the way back to Westwood, they saw an “open house†sign at Riviera Ranch Road and stopped to look. They promptly lost their hearts to Sullivan Canyon’s unique charm.

Watts is a partner with Seyfarth Shaw LLP, an international law firm, where he specializes in business litigation. He is also an active Brentwood community member. He serves as pro bono legal advisor to the Brentwood Community Council and works with the Brentwood Green Committee to build community support for our local Magnet School and provide improved facilities for both the school and the neighborhood. But perhaps his most important role is as a consensus-builder in Sullivan Canyon, working with other interested residents to establish Brentwood’s first Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.

The City of Los Angeles works with residents of neighborhoods that have structures, landscaping, natural features, or historic elements that make their neighborhood unique. One way to preserve those special qualities is to create an HPOZ. It is a long process and requires approval by the full City Council as well as an intensive survey of properties involved but it helps to protect a neighborhood, once established, from being materially changed externally by building or development out of character with the HPOZ’s documented qualities and goals.

Sullivan Canyon homeowners began to explore the preservation zone alternative many years ago. But building support and understanding is a slow process. Properly understood, an HPOZ is a useful tool for maintaining and even enhancing a neighborhood’s special value. It helps avoid inappropriate and often irreversible changes that endanger the threads that knit a unique area together. So the Canyon residents move slowly toward the protection and benefits of an HPOZ, while making sure that individual property rights are respected. The zone would help preserve the unusually rich treasure of May and May-influenced homes. Material change to the zone’s external appearance would have to go before the HPOZ Board. And it would help preserve the enchanting quality of leaving ultra-urban Los Angeles and being miraculously transported to a place that seems like West Virginia or the Carolinas. Do they call them “canyons†in the East?

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