Bakersfield found itself at an interesting architectural intersection in the late 1950s and early 1960s that resulted in a legacy of high-quality, midcentury homes and buildings.

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Ablin residence is perhaps the most well-known but other hidden gems are scattered about the city, from West High School to private residences in Oleander and the Bakersfield Country Club neighborhoods.

These structures and the architects behind them will be celebrated this fall with Bakersfield Built: Architecture of the 1960s, a series of events including a symposium, lectures, a home tour and a downtown walking tour.

"A lot was being rebuilt during the 1960s and there was a period where we were expanding east, and we had the opportunity to build really modern structures," said Rachel Magnus, curator of the Bakersfield Museum of Art, one of the partners in the project. The museum's accompanying exhibit, opening Sept. 12, will feature photos, design plans, furniture and other artifacts of the era in an accompanying on display through January. The Kern County Museum, Cal State Bakersfield and the Society of Architectural Historians Southern California Chapter are also involved in the events.

'Post-war optimism'

The design aesthetic of the era spoke to an exciting time in Bakersfield and beyond. 

World War II had ended and post-war optimism was in the air. Cities were expanding, and people began to dream of a better way to live. Living standards were rising and families desired a home with a backyard where they could raise their children, away from the city center but with a minimal commute.

Locally, the crosstown freeway had just been finished, opening up the eastern side of Bakersfield to development. And the city was also still rebuilding from the 1952 earthquake, which damaged an estimated 300 buildings in the downtown area.

"World War II changed a lot of things," said Sian Winship, president of the Society of Architectural Historians Southern California Chapter. "There was talk of better ways to live, and greater recognition nationally of what it was like to live in California and what you could do with outdoor living."

And there happened to be a ready supply of well-trained architects to meet the sudden demand for new construction.

A group of students who received early training under renowned local architect Clarence Cullimore at Kern County Union High School, then gone onto USC School of Architecture had now graduated and were coming back to Bakersfield. And they brought fresh design trends with them, primarily post and beam construction, which lent itself to open floor plans, a major shift from the construction practices of the past.

Design-wise, this translated to homes and buildings that emphasized geometrical forms, angular features, large windows to help bring the outdoors inside and an overall modern, even futuristic, flair.

"Because you have this dozen or so talented guys from USC, the overall level of midcentury architecture in Bakersfield is higher than you find in other places," Winship said. "You’ve got all these guys who really know what they’re doing."

Home tour a highlight of the project

One of the headline events is a symposium and home tour on Sept. 21.

The symposium will feature an eclectic lineup of speakers and moderators, including former students of Cullimore's, the current president of Frank Lloyd Wright's school of architecture in Arizona, a Getty Research Institute curator and at least one architect who was practicing locally at the time.

Later that day, midcentury buffs can tour five local residences — including the Ablin residence — for a self-guided tour. The following homes will be featured on the tour:

Ablin Residence 

Perhaps the most famous architectural structure in Bakersfield, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the home as his last commission for local couple George and Millie Ablin.

"One of my favorite stories is while he’s designing the house, Millie gets pregnant with another child and Frank is not pleased because this impacts the design of the house," Winship said. 

Winship describes the home as "hexagonal-Usonian," which typically featured a single-story with a flat roof, and the fundamental unit of design is the equilateral triangle.

Its most visually striking feature is an explosion of light and space from a dramatic 16-foot high, 48-foot expanse of glass, which provide views of the mountains and golf course.

Sudarksky Residence

Architect Whitney Biggar was a big fan of Wright and his design of this Oleander home reflects it. The home shares similarities with the Ablin house, primarily an expressive, pointed structure at the front of the house, similar to the ship-like prow on the Ablin home. 

Robert Eddy Residence

Eddy was part of the pipeline of Cullimore students who graduated from USC and this was his personal residence. Winship said it provides a great example of post and beam style construction. Eddy went on to became a fellow in the American Institute of Architecture, a distinguished title bestowed upon him for his work in the area of earthquake codes and building standards due to rebuilding in the aftermath of the Bakersfield earthquake. 

"I always think the architect’s own home occupies a special place in the architect's work," Winship said. "You can experiment. It's a real opportunity to let your design juices flow."

Selby-Dabbs Residence

The home was built in the Bakersfield Country Club area and designed by architect Jack Hayslett for Lowell and Phyllis Dabbs who were professors at Bakersfield College. The couple lived there for more than 50 years.

The home is notable for the oversized windows that bring copious light into the living room and the use of an architectural design that has the effect of the roof appearing as though it's floating above the structure.

Earl Elliott Residence

The home, by architect Dave Cross, also in the Bakersfield Country Club area, employs hexagonal symmetry, which is a trademark of midcentury architecture. It also won a landscape design award in 1964 for its Japanese garden, representative of the important role of the outdoors in midcentury home design. 

Stacey Shepard can be reached at 661-395-7368.

(3) comments


Django: The event this story refers to features modern architecture of a specific period of time that does not include significant work of the 1930s. The Frank Davis house on 21st St., designed by Richard Neutra, built in 1937, is well recognized by architectural historians for its important design significance but, interestingly enough, is not on the city's local historic buildings register. it is one of two houses here in the city designed by Neutra.

In fact, in 2008 the California Preservation Foundation hosted a reception there. Now it is my understanding that the owner is working on getting that building the national recognition it clearly deserves.

Bakersfield is fortunate to have several signature works of architecture by nationally and world renown architects and we would do well to recognize them as the important cultural assets they are, if for nothing else, as a point of local pride and self respect.

For more information on the Frank Davis house, see the American Institute of Architecture Golden Empire Chapter's newsletter, AX•is, June 2008, that features this house. Particularly note the outstanding photography by Larry Aronat, AIA, of this great house.


Why is the Richard Neutra house on 21st Street ignored?

It was built in 1937 and is considered a treasure by many,


Ah the 60's. I was so lucky to be a 60's kid. What a decade!

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