Remembering John Chase, the king of public space

deLab listening party shot by monica orozco 6-26-2010

Yesterday, I received word that my fellow design writer, sidewalk devotee and Los Angeles advocate John Chase died early Friday morning. It was sudden, and shocking, and immediately obvious just how large of a hole his absence would tear in LA’s urban fabric. John was a tremendously outspoken voice in planning and politics, a larger-than-life fixture at architecture events, and honorary cheerleader for an entire generation of young writers and designers. At his day job, as West Hollywood’s urban designer, John was responsible for the design of some of Los Angeles’s most colorful and exuberant public spaces. But it was his colorful and exuberant parading through that public space—and his winking, knowing performances in the public eye—which made him an unforgettable Los Angeles presence. John, in so very many ways, was out there.

“Is West Hollywood urban designer John Chase the most flamboyant practitioner of California architecture?” I once asked breathlessly in my gossip column for The Architect’s Newspaper (a column, mind you, for which John would routinely slip me salacious tidbits, as well as links to other extremely NSFW information for my own “entertainment”). But John was also one of architecture’s most impassioned practitioners, fighting for world-class cutting-edge buildings with the same gusto that he carved out much-needed pocket parks. And he was an equal-opportunity rabble-rouser. Once he professed to me his outrage at his own city after a dismal Parking Day, when West Hollywood had ousted some activist groups converting parking spots into temporary parks. I wrote a piece on the debacle and the moment it was published John proudly sent word that he had used it as ammunition:  He copied and distributed it to his office with a flourish in the hopes it would change their policies (it did).

John Chase at home, on the day of the first City ListeningJohn, photographed by his husband Jonathan on his front porch, just before the first City Listening. John sent me this photo the day after the event.

In addition to his duties in WeHo—a job from which he was about to retire—John wrote a series of books and many articles celebrating LA’s unique brand of urbanism. But I was always amazed at the rate at which he seemed to read, comment on and forward everyone else’s work as well. As I look through the hundreds (and hundreds) of emails John sent to me over the years, it reads like one long, running urban commentary. Some are sweet notes in response to something I wrote, dashed off like little love haikus. [Update: As Tim Culvahouse just reminded me via email, "In most of the emails I received from him, the message was all in the Subject line; he tweeted before there was Twitter." So true!] Some are joyous invitations to his many (many) speaking appearances, cced to 125 of the city’s biggest architectural names. Many are ranty diatribes on city planning decisions or otherwise unfortunate events, all chunky paragraphs, often angry, ALL CAPS, lots of exclamation marks!!! and One. Word. Sentences. All of it, every word, infused with the same urgency that was John’s insistent message to the local writing community:  We can use our words to make LA a better place. And we will.

But it was not until the first City Listening event held at GOOD that I realized the power of John’s public persona. John strolled in wearing a pimp-tastic purple suit, orange shirt, and matching tie, topped off with an orange—orange!—fedora. All that was missing was a jewel-encrusted chalice—in fact, for the sake of this story, let’s say he had a jewel-encrusted chalice. A few sentences into his story “Sleeping with the Homeless”—a version of which can reportedly be read in his book Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving—the crowd had collapsed into the aisles, roaring with each detail of his racy (again, NSFW!) urban encounter. Like all of John’s stunts, he hooked the crowd with ribald humor, but there was a lesson here. “That’s why I love this story, it’s about public space!” He screeched over the laughter. “It’s about public space and having an interaction with people on the street!” And he was right, I thought, tears streaming down my cheeks. He was totally right.

At his double wedding celebration, with best friend Frances Anderton, John expressed his love to husband Jonathan Cowan (they called themselves The JCs) who was also dressed in a seersucker suit with matching Converse sneakers.

At an event that same year which was, I think, ostensibly about museums purchasing midcentury houses or something, I’m not even sure John was a panelist, but he delivered the night’s most rousing speech. Talking like he wrote, in those one-word sentence emails, with lots of exclamation marks!!!, John begged the crowd to produce braver LA design critics. “Where are they?” he cried. “Where are the passionate voices in architecture and design who can help make changes in this city?”  As his words washed over me I was suddenly so energized I felt like leaping out of my chair and charging out into the street, going on a Reyner Banham rampage through the darkness of Culver City’s downtown. I told him this later, and that I thought I could do it, that I could be one of those passionate voices. “But Alissa,” he said to me with that knowing grin, lately framed with those woolly sideburns. “You already are.” That one comment alone was enough to fuel my freelance career for the next six months.

John was a very unique mentor in that he encouraged me just as much in my walking as he did in my writing. He walked to work most days, and we’d often compare stories about crosswalk etiquette or commiserate about which bus route needed to fix its potholes. He instructed me to create a pen name (A. Walker) and to write about my LA walking and public transit experiences, annotating them with photos. And so I did. I remember silently passing him once while both in our preferred modes of navigating LA, me on the 2 bus high above the street, he below, walking down Sunset Boulevard. He was impeccably dressed in a sharp suit on a swelteringly sunny day—and that hat, always that hat—looking more like he was headed for the Santa Anita horsetrack. In 1952. I remember thinking that he was a walking advertisement for his most famous book. As he wrote, as in practice, The Everyday Urbanist.

Best dressed at A+D goes to John ChaseThis past spring, at the grand opening of the A+D Museum, where John espoused spring, summer and the entire collection of Lilly Pulitzer in a single outfit.

From the moment a group of us started co-hosting small events called de LaB to connect the design community, John was also incredibly supportive—and outrageously excited—about what we were doing, freely offering advice and contacts. Many people probably saw John for the last time a few weeks ago in one of his most triumphant performances, where in a single day he appeared on two panels at the Dwell conference and then delivered the stirring finale at our City Listening II event, with the entirety of his facial hair dyed royal blue. But what most people don’t know is that John graciously purchased VIP tickets to our event for himself and his lovely husband, Jonathan Cowan (even after we told him these tickets were comped), then went on to purchase four more tickets for friends, and donated a private tour of West Hollywood to our silent auction. He was as generous with his wit and wisdom as he was with his time.

The last time I saw John was only last Friday, just one week ago. We drank wine together on the lawn of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, a place I saw him regularly these last two summers. It was, in many ways, John’s most ideal environment:  glasses of fine rosé, held by civic-minded folk, in the glow of the city’s greatest architecture, and yes, in what is probably the very best use of LA’s public space. For some reason, after he came over to our blanket to say hi, I watched him for a long time as he walked away, his summery blue button-down fluttering in a cool evening wind as he bounced into conversations and bumped into old friends, soaking up every bit of energy in one of Los Angeles’ finest moments.

Other writers and architects claim to design for public space or understand street life or see their work within a larger urban context. John simply lived it. He epitomized it. Good luck naming a bench or a park in his honor, since he was responsible for so many of them already. Might I suggest this more worthy dedication: The John Leighton Chase Memorial City of West Hollywood.

We will miss you so much, John. I’ll never be able to fill your dapper, eternally-shined shoes. But I will do my very best to follow in your footsteps.

Me & John Chase love pink

If you’ve written a story about John, please post the link in the comments or drop me an email (alissa AT gelatobaby.com).  Update: Thanks to everyone for your comments and links. I’ve posted many stories about John over at the DnA website, where Frances Anderton devoted most of today’s show to honoring his legacy. A memorial is scheduled for Tuesday, August 24 from 4pm to 7pm at Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood. The invitation suggests to “dress as if John picked out your outfit.” Hope I gave you at least a few tips!

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  • jamesrojas

    He was one of the few urban designers who took in an interested in Latino urbanism. We did a tour and wrote an article on Latino store signs. He was very supportive of my research.

    James Rojas

  • http://www.trousdale-overthetop.com Trousdalebookproject

    Alissa — we've chatted a bit before in the Curbed comments section; I'm a great admirer of your intellect and passion and the FUN you have writing. This tribute helped me so much; I have posted it as THE one to read for those who want to know why I adored this man…who I never met (heartbreaking, because we were due to talk soon — I'm doing a book on Trousdale Estates and he had an informed and ribald take on it I was looking forward to hearing). THANK YOU, for this.

  • Steven Price

    YIKES! Forgive me, that heartfelt “thank you” was supposed to be personal, not a plug for my book! Many apologies — Steven Price

  • Bill from MAKE

    Great tribute to such an inspiring man. From an Architects perspective, he was such an absolute pleasure to work with and stood out as one of the shining lights of the LA Architecture community.

  • sharon

    What a beautiful tribute to a man I never knew of, but feel that I should have known of for years. I'm sorry to hear of his sudden passing, and my heart goes out to all who have been touched by him and his work.

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  • Jack Skelley

    I loved his book, Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving. Way ahead its time. And I'll never look a dingbat apartment the same way again.

  • Jamie Wolf

    If there can be any consolation at all in something as outrageously unfair and untimely and upside down as this (John died, and yet Dick Cheney still lives on), I think it’s true that John was someone of whom you could say that almost nothing in this life was wasted….he relished so many things, so thoroughly, with such fervor, that he was the very example of living each moment fully, and so when you think of his dying you think—at least I do—not of his being dissatisfied, but of his making the transition into the spirit world with as much vigor and grace as it’s given any human being to do, and of his being alive in it as vividly as he was in this one–just, sadly, slightly less accessible to us.

  • angela locke

    Alissa, Thank you for a wonderful tribute to one of my favorite people. I am not an architect; I'm not a Los Angelena; I'm not a design critic. But I am a fellow lover-of-John, having met and fallen madly for him in 1976 LA, when he visited his sister at an LA communal household where I also lived. He has brought such joy and laughter to me over the years, much of it at the old Astro on the corner of Glendale and Fletcher. (Is it still there?) Thank you for being inspired by him, and for sharing some of that inspiration with the rest of us.
    Angela Locke

  • Wmenking

    Alissa-Wonderful remembrance!

  • Emma

    This is lovely Alissa. I am so sorry for both you and Frances and everyone else who loved him.

  • Margaret

    I met John about 30 years ago, after I had done some illustrations for Wet Magazine and John was putting together a project that eventually became Exterior Decoration. He was looking for someone to do some drawings for the project, and it turned out we both shared a fascination for the West Hollywood bungalows that had been glammified in the 1960s with poured concrete artichokes, glitter cottage cheese stucco, lava rock and Mansard roofs that only edged the street-facing wall.

    He had me drive him on a tour of WeHo's most gloriously egregious examples, and, afterwards, on to Beverly Hills to view the grand inspiration for the midget versions. And I felt a chill of appalled excitement as he had me turn onto a street I was familiar with, because I just knew he was about to point out a house belonging to close friends of my parents, a palace full of glossy marble and hideous statuary and the ubiquitous Mansard crown.

    And, seeing that someone was home, I was able to get him a tour of the inside, both of us trying to keep from giggling like idiot children, as our gracious hostess showed him around.

    Very sorry to hear he's gone.

  • Ms. Dale Davidson

    I met John back in the 1970's in Santa Cruz while he was writing “A Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture” in 1975 and he was a student at UCSC. I helped him by reader-printering articles from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

    At that time John was struggling with his new-found homosexuality and I am soooo glad he came to terms with that so he could move past the pain that gay folk used to feel. I'd like to think I helped him get over the “stigma” by cracking jokes, discussing guys we both thought were cute and going to local Santa Cruz gay bars together. Meanwhile he regaled me with amusing stories of the characters who inhabited the Santa Cruz Historical Society and the lovely folks at the UCSC Library.

    His sister Laura was a great source of emotional support and inspiration and, happily, his parents loaned him the money to do the book. Unfortunately I never met his husband Jonathan nor his nephew Alec who lived with him at the time of his early demise.

    I will always remember John as a dedicated architectural historian and a sweet, humble and passionate person. Thanks to everyone who helped him from being a scared gay boy to becoming an outspoken proud humorous community activist.

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  • Mokyrk

    John will be dearly misses by all his former class mates at UCLA specially the class of 1979 where I have some very fond memories of the studio classes and “critiques” we experienced together. A really wonderful person and humanist.

    Marti O Kyrk
    Santa Fe, NM

  • Lesley Marlene Siegel

    John and I met in 1995, and I am so lucky to say that John was my friend.
    We were introduced by a mutual colleague, and I’ll never forget her words to me after seeing my art work documenting apartment building names when she said distinctly “You Must Meet John Chase!”
    How grateful I was for this fateful introduction to such a special person; together we shared a love of landscape, and an immediate bond was created.
    At the time we met, I was working on a book project and John so generously offered to write an essay as the introduction.
    What an honor and compliment it was – and remains to this day – that John felt strongly enough about my work to become a part of it by way of his incredible writing.
    John Chase – A gentle soul, fierce wit, fierce talent, supportive, caring friend and cheerleader, unique to this world.
    – Lesley Marlene Siegel

  • O Kramsch

    Hi James — long time no hear… I'm living in Germany now, working in Netherlands teaching geography to Dutch kids. Came across John's passing through mutual UCLA friend. Hope life's treating you well.
    ciao,
    Olivier Kramsch

  • Laura Chase

    Hi Dale – Seeing your name brought back good memories from many years ago – I seem to remember visiting you about 30 years ago in Boston or similar after you moved away from the West Coast? You would have enjoyed seeing John in the full flowering of his later years, made possible by the love of his husband Jonathan. Warm regards, Laura

  • Milford

    I had the fortune of meeting and working with John in mid 1990. John had his studio on Silverlake and Sunset Blvd. in Silverlake, in the former Jerde building. It was a small practice and he later moved his practice to Marina Del Rey along with his UCLA alumni Dan and Katie – which coincidentally was just after the Northridge earthquake.

    Johns' personality, design sensibilities, and passion for architecture made his studio fun and made for a great working environment. Many of the projects were small residences that were both remodels and some new construction. I really enjoyed working with him, and the other colleagues in his small studio such as Steve and Barbara, and the approach to design – that sometimes could be somewhat of a chaotic process…yet vibrant and full of energy. It was a great experience to have worked with him during that time for about three years.

    Later in 2001, I had the opportunity to accidentally meet up with him at the City of West Hollywood. I was working for the executive architect's office for the West Hollywood Gateway project and had the great pleasure to see and work briefly with him again – since I then left that firm shortly thereafter. I never did see him again since, but to remember his charming personality, wit, and sometimes boyish, mischevious humor and the laughter that commonly accompanied his frequent repartee, and his humanity…are definite wonderful memories.

    Milford

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