Pre­serv­ing L.A.’s home his­tory

Real­tor ex­plores city’s ar­chi­tec­tural le­gacy in a se­ries of books. It’s a la­bor of love.

Los Angeles Times - - WORK LIFE - By Neal J. Leit­ereg neal.leit­ereg@la­times.com

Bret Par­sons is a real es­tate agent and di­rec­tor of the ar­chi­tec­tural di­vi­sion at Cold­well Banker Bev­erly Hills North. The of­fice is the high­est-gross­ing res­i­den­tial real es­tate of­fice in the coun­try.

A decade ear­lier, as a res­i­den­tial loan agent, Par­sons wrote mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of res­i­den­tial mort­gages.

In ad­di­tion to sell­ing homes, the 54-year-old is tak­ing on a new chal­lenge: doc­u­ment­ing the ar­chi­tec­tural le­gacy of Los An­ge­les in a se­ries of books. Two have al­ready been pub­lished, with 11 more vol­umes on the way. Hooked at an early age: Born in Mon­terey County to a fa­ther who owned a John Deere trac­tor deal­er­ship and a mother who was a county plan­ning com­mis­sioner, Par­sons had a love of homes at an early age.

In kinder­garten, when his class­mates were col­or­ing stick fig­ures, he was draw­ing homes in three di­men­sions, much to the amaze­ment of his teacher, he said.

An ap­pre­ci­a­tion for ar­chi­tec­ture was also a fam­ily af­fair.

“I had very in­dul­gent par­ents and grand­par­ents who took me on ev­ery sin­gle house tour when I was younger,” Par­sons said. “I just couldn’t get enough.”

One of those trips was to a pub­li­cized Eich­ler-de­signed res­i­dence that was owned by fam­ily friends. Par­sons was mes­mer­ized by the home’s hand­some fea­tures such as its red­wood doors and walls of glass. Ex­tra credit: A self-con­fessed “ter­ri­ble stu­dent,” Par­sons be­gan stay­ing af­ter class to help his English teacher de­sign her new house when he was a high school sopho­more. He had hoped the af­ter-school work would re­sult in a bet­ter grade, but he barely man­aged a C.

“I didn’t learn any English from her, but I helped her de­sign a great house,” he said. Get a job, son: Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from San Jose State Univer­sity, Par­sons moved to Los An­ge­les in 1986 to do post­grad­u­ate work on ar­chi­tec­ture and ac­count­ing at UCLA.

Amazed at the wealth of ar­chi­tec­ture in the city, he spent his time ex­plor­ing neigh­bor­hoods and look­ing at ev­ery home he could — un­til his dad called one day yelling at him to find gain­ful em­ploy­ment.

“It was quite funny be­cause my dad never swore,” he said. “But des­per­ate times called for des­per­ate mea­sures.”

Par­sons got a job as the mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor for the Pa­cific De­sign Cen­ter in West Hol­ly­wood. There he worked with top de­sign­ers, ar­chi­tects, con­trac­tors, land­scap­ers and ven­dors.

“I didn’t know what next step to take at the time,” he said. “But look­ing back­ward now, ev­ery­thing con­nected to­gether.”

A trea­sure trove: The first book Par­sons wrote was a happy ac­ci­dent. “I had lunch with ar­chi­tect Ward Jewell and he asked me who my fa­vorite ar­chi­tect was, and I told him Ger­ard Col­cord,” said Par­sons, who was work­ing as a mort­gage bro­ker at the time.

As fate would have it, Jewell had just ren­o­vated two Col­cords and of­fered to put him in touch with the own­ers, who then re­ferred him to Col­cord’s long­time as­sis­tant, Ger­man ar­chi­tect Lisa Kent.

The two met at Kent’s San Diego home, where she al­lowed Par­sons to look around in her garage.

There he un­cov­ered a trea­sure trove: ev­ery draw­ing and blue­print of Col­cord’s filed away in steel draw­ers with “Ger­man pre­ci­sion,” he said. “I was like a kid in a candy store.”

Af­ter lunch with Kent, Par­sons made the two-hour drive back to Los An­ge­les. He never in­tended to write a book on Col­cord, but by the time he ar­rived home, he had it out­lined in his head.

Two years later, “Col­cord: Home” was pub­lished. What fol­lowed was a rev­e­la­tion: It was time to get out of the mort­gage in­dus­try and be­come a real es­tate agent.

“I did 300 in­ter­views for my book, and af­ter it was pub­lished, peo­ple be­gan call­ing me to sell their homes think­ing I was a Real­tor,” he said. “So I thought I might as well make it of­fi­cial.” The next chap­ter: Af­ter pub­lish­ing the Col­cord book, Par­sons wanted to con­tinue pre­serv­ing the ar­chi­tec­tural le­gacy of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He teamed up with Marc Ap­ple­ton and Steve Vaught, who will be his coau­thors on the re­main­ing books.

“We re­al­ized the bull­dozer is prob­a­bly go­ing to win, but we wanted to memo­ri­al­ize all the great ar­chi­tec­ture that was here,” Par­sons said.

Be­tween the three of them, they had ev­ery edi­tion of Ar­chi­tec­tural Digest from the late 1910s through World War II.

“We took all the old is­sues and knew there was a se­ries high­light­ing the great­est res­i­den­tial ar­chi­tects in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia,” he said. A star on ev­ery cor­ner: Manag­ing a list­ing and a client, par­tic­u­larly in L.A., isn’t so dif­fer­ent from pack­ag­ing a movie, Par­sons says. It’s a job that of­ten in­volves wear­ing many hats.

“I have to be a Real­tor, a lawyer, a cin­e­matog­ra­pher, a pho­tog­ra­pher, a ref­eree,” he said. “When the fight de­vel­ops, I’m a ne­go­tia­tor and more im­por­tantly a psy­chol­o­gist.” See­ing the po­ten­tial: Par­sons, who lives in Han­cock Park, con­sid­ers Los An­ge­les to be the great­est home­build­ing re­gion in the world be­cause of its weather, econ­omy and to­pog­ra­phy.

De­spite reach­ing new sales heights in the last year, the area is still un­der­val­ued com­pared with other ma­jor cities around the world, he said.

“Los An­ge­les is the only place where you can have a beach house, a moun­tain house, a hill house, a canyon house, a val­ley house, a desert house and a ski house all within two hours’ driv­ing dis­tance of one an­other,” he said.

“Cus­tom, ar­chi­tect-de­signed homes that are also fully equipped by lead­ing de­sign prac­ti­tion­ers — that’s what’s next.”

Marco Franchina

BRET PAR­SONS of Cold­well Banker Bev­erly Hills North moved to Los An­ge­les in 1986 to do post­grad­u­ate work on ar­chi­tec­ture and ac­count­ing at UCLA. He spent much of his time look­ing at ev­ery home he could.

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