HISTORY OF MANOLA COURT

Designed between 1926 and 1939 by R.M. Schindler (1887–1953), one of the forefathers of Modern architecture, Manola Court (aka the Sachs Apartments) is a sixteen-unit apartment property on a street-to-street downward sloping lot in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The architect, R.M. Schindler, was born and educated in Vienna. He moved to the United States in 1914, working briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright before starting his own Los Angeles-based practice. Schindler designed dozens of private and public spaces in Southern California—including single family homes, apartments, commercial spaces, and even one church—many of which featured attention to the seamless transition from indoors to outdoors and the extensive use of glass and wood, characteristics of the Modernist style with which he is usually associated. His use of a plaster skin as an affordable approach to residential projects broke the trend toward steel-and-concrete construction favored by his cohort: the Manola Court complex is an excellent example of an early plaster skin design. Designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, the complex is nonetheless one of the lesser known of Schindler’s designs, having fallen into disrepair prior to its sale in 2013.

Schindler’s client for the Manola Court project was his friend Herman Sachs (1883–1940), a Romanian-born muralist and decorator known for his work on the Bullocks Wilshire Building, Union Station, and City Hall. Following his death in 1940, architect and Schindler collaborator Alexander “Brandy” Brandner and his wife Betty Katz bought Sachs’s apartment building and lived in the owner’s unit for three years until their new “Brandy” designed house at the end of the street was complete. In the 1950s, tenants on the property, the Woodburys and the Dahlstons, purchased the complex together. In 2013, the property changed hands to the current owner, Paul Finegold.

Manola Court was designed in three phases. As Sachs obtained more money, adjacent lots were purchased. Three of the five freestanding buildings were designed from the ground up by Schindler, while two of the five were pre-existing buildings that Schindler modified. During the early 1930s, Schindler converted the basements of three of the buildings into apartments. The hilly topography of Silver Lake presented engineering and design challenges but also offered the opportunity for spectacular views from all of the units.

Sachs was known for using his studio loft workspace (the Music Room) as a gathering space. There, he hosted dinners and concerts for his coterie of bohemian friends. The current owner, Paul Finegold, has restored Sach’s studio loft with Sachs’ original intent for the space in mind and is engaged in discussions with local presenters about ways to make the Music Room live up to its name once again.

RESTORATION OF MANOLA COURT

In 2013, Woodbury University (Burbank, CA) and David Dahlston, then co-owners of Manola Court, listed it for sale. The sellers had inherited the property from two couples, the Woodburys and the Dahlstons, former Manola Court tenants who had purchased the complex together in the 1950s: all four were centenarians before the property changed hands. The property was purchased by Paul Finegold, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles specializing in the rehabilitation of residential properties, and his wife, Gitu Bhavnani.

Photo of the central building at Manola Court, taken by Julius Shulman in 1938. Photo courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.

The central building at Manola Court, post restoration, in 2019.

Paul Finegold is a Los Angeles native. A graduate of UCLA, he later became a certified public accountant. In his early thirties, Paul met and married Gitu Bhavnani, an occupational therapist who was born and raised in Mumbai, India. After working many years in the family business, selling clothes in multiple southern California swap meets, in 2001, Paul began buying distressed residential rental properties in the Angelino Heights Historical Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ) near the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. After twelve successful years of property renovation in Angelino Heights, Paul was notified of the upcoming sale of the Sachs Apartments. For Paul and Gitu, the opportunity to acquire the property represented an exciting new challenge: at sixteen units, it would be the most expensive purchase and project they had undertaken. If successful, the restoration of the property would allow them to improve their hometown of Los Angeles by restoring an architecturally significant property. Sadly, Gitu passed away in 2017, before she was able to live on the property and see their vision realized. She remains the animating spirit of the work.

Restoration of Manola Court began in Spring of 2015. Finegold selected his long-time architects and friends, Scott Strumwasser A.I.A. and Tash Rahbar A.I.A., a husband and wife team and founders of Enclosures Architects, to handle the architectural design. The goal of the restoration was to honor Schindler’s original design and intent while updating each space for how we live today. The question that the team asked was, “what would Schindler have done with the resources and materials we have now?” The team was confident that Schindler would have welcomed the modern plumbing, appliances, HVAC, and network cabling; at the same time, the original cabinetry, finishes, and Schindler-designed furniture were carefully researched and, wherever possible, restored or re-created. Since the beginning of the restoration, Diane Estelle Vicari, a multi award-winning filmmaker, has captured moving image footage in preparation for a future documentary film

The architects, contractors, and designers discovered quickly that each apartment presented its own set of unique challenges. The units, some built more than a decade apart, had different floorplans, square footages, and Schindler design elements. Every attempt was made to maintain architectural integrity while qualifying for the necessary permits and complying with building code, all of which was complicated by the complex’s Historic-Cultural Monument status.

The restoration of the first five units was completed in 2018. Phase One consisted of three apartments in the 1926 building originally occupied by Sachs (the Penthouse, the Music Room, and the Maid’s Room), and two units in a building from the 1930s expansion. The apartments are all fully furnished in a style appropriate to Schindler’s vision. Two serve as the personal residences of Paul Finegold and his niece Hannah, the project manager; two house rental tenants. The fifth apartment is rented to overnight guests for the benefit of a charity foundation (see LIVE TO GIVE LA). Sarah Brady, founder and creative director of Platform Home, Inc., and her partner, Becky Golino, designed the interiors and decor for these five apartments and in doing so created impeccable spaces that would have made Schindler proud.The second phase, currently scheduled to begin in June 2019, will consist of the restoration of three apartments (two one-bedroom units and one two-bedroom apartment); the schedule for restoration of the remaining eight apartments is uncertain.

A priority for Finegold and the restoration team was making design choices to emphasize the idea of community throughout the property. It is said that Schindler likened this hillside residential complexe to European hillside communities as might be found in Greece. The landscape design, developed and carried out by the California landscape architecture firm Terremoto, was one important aspect of the effort. Though Schindler was keenly interested in the relationship of the outdoor spaces to the interior design of his buildings, the archival photos do not suggest that the Manola Court property was graced with a purposeful plan for the outdoor landscaping. As a consequence, the team from Terremoto was asked to conceptualize a space based on what is known of Schindler’s philosophy of gardens and the outdoors. The courtyard plantings are lush, and native and drought-resistant plants are maximized. Herman Sach’s dream for the property to be a gathering place for arts and entertainment is accomplished by placing discreet seating areas in each courtyard.

A final key to making the complex a hub for the creative community has been the design of the soaring studio loft (the Music Room), originally Sach’s workspace. Once used as a gathering space for the community’s artistic minds, it was—by the time Finegold and his wife, Gitu, visited as prospective buyers—a poorly maintained, overcrowded studio. But Paul and Gitu saw the potential of the space to be reinvented as a contemporary event space. Today, the Music Room has been fully equipped with a 7.1 surround-sound speaker system, a high-end projector, a hanging art installation system, and professional-grade kitchen to be used for events such as concerts and performances, dinner parties, exhibitions, pop up events, and test kitchens. The furniture in the space—tables, couch, hexagon seater, and stools—has been selected for easy breakdown or reconfiguration, making the room an ideal setting for a multitude of events.

To see additional photos of the property and restoration, go to the Manola Court website.