Webster Wiley – CV’s Legacy to Great Architecture
I noted the passing of local architect and developer Webster Wiley in July, and was saddened to see that it received little news coverage. For anyone who grew up here in the ’60s, Wiley’s Westerner Homes was a familiar development company, and the distinctive look of Wiley’s homes are still iconic to this day. Wiley built almost 1,000 homes here, but his biggest development was the Pinecrest development at the top of La Crescenta Avenue. Today he is recognized as a minor celebrity in the increasingly popular architectural style of “Mid-Century Modern.” It refers to a style of building that features flat or low-sloping roofs and clean geometric lines, and a lack of separation between the interior of the house and the outside world by the use of open ceilings, skylights and floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Wiley’s signature feature was the atrium entrance, in which the front door opened into an open atrium, and then to the interior via sliding glass. Although Mid-Century Modern was a style popular in the ’50s and ’60s, that styling today is extremely sought after by a younger generation of architectural aficionados.
I was able to get more details on Webster Wiley’s life story from his daughter Annette Wiley, herself an extremely accomplished architect with her own firm, Wiley Architects in Corona Del Mar.
Webster grew up in Glendale in the ’20s and ’30s, attending Glendale High and Glendale College. After serving in WWII, he was somewhat directionless, selling Yellow Pages advertising for a living. In the course of this work he had a chance meeting with the famed Los Angeles architect Paul Williams, which forever changed his life. The talented black architect lit a flame in young Wiley that ignited a lifelong passion for building and design. Wiley, with no formal training in building, built a small house on Honolulu Avenue using a do-it-yourself manual. Completely self-taught, he began successfully designing and building homes in the Whiting Woods tract in the ’50s. From his offices in Sparr Heights, he developed several successful major tracts in CV, mostly in the upper reaches of the valley against the San Gabriel Mountains. His kids all attended school locally, he became a skillful private pilot, and he was active in building trade organizations. He eventually retired to Apple Valley.
I spoke to my friend Chuck Weiss who currently lives in a small Wiley tract on Shields to the west of Briggs Avenue. Chuck, who works in the entertainment industry, actively sought out a Wiley home several years ago. The Wiley homes reminded him of the homes of Joseph Eichler, another Mid-Century Modern builder much admired in architectural circles. Although he first looked in Pinecrest, he and his partner, an accomplished female artist, found this one to be almost completely unchanged from its original design, and purchased it, intending to do a restoration. The house is a single story ranch-style home, with the requisite atrium entrance. The roof is relatively flat, and covered with a layer of decomposed granite, with hidden recessed rain gutters. Chuck and his partner find the design of the house to be particularly conducive to displaying her art, creative assemblages of cast-off objects she finds on walks. They like the open, airy feel of the house and the natural light that streams in from the many windows and glass doors. Chuck notes that all exterior doors are sliding glass.
He was able to get the original plans and found the house had been built in 1963 and had sold for $24,000. The pool was added in ’65 for $3,600. Since buying the house they have replaced windows with replica period aluminum windows, and rebuilt the open-slat cover over the atrium. Next on his to-do list is to find and re-install a period intercom system and re-landscape in a 1960s style, but drought-tolerant.
It’s amazing that this architectural style that I took for granted in my younger years has become popular once again. We have so many beautiful examples of Mid-Century Modern homes locally thanks to Webster Wiley. He has left CV a legacy of great architecture.