Editor’s note: This story has been updated. The architectural style is of 6700 Olympic Boulevard is more accurately described as French Revival. Thanks to local retired architect and Carthay Square resident Peter Merlin for this insightful article on the work of Edith Mortensen Northman (1893-1956) and French Revival style architecture.
During the Renaissance in the French Loire River Valley, courtesans gathered on the rooftop of the chateau at Chambord to walk among the turrets and pinnacles done over as a village, meeting their friends, and socializing in a stylized promenade. They were pretending to be flaneurs on a Sunday afternoon.
Today in the Carthay Neighborhood, pedestrians can walk the real walk along the 6300 block toward La Cienega on the south side of Olympic Boulevard, masked, but this time of course, against COVID, to experience the French Rival and Chateauesque architecture of our courtyard housing; It’s not necessary to dress up as a courtesan, come as you are.
This is the architecture of Edith Mortensen Northman, who ironically was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1893, the daughter of a Danish father and Swedish mother. She immigrated with her family to Utah at the age of seventeen, i.e., Edith Mortensen Northman was a Dreamer.
How did a Danish Dreamer become an expert in the French Revival style of period revival architecture in California? More importantly, how did one of the first licensed female architects in Los Angeles become the designer of fifty gas stations for Union Oil Company in the heyday of the automobile?
Architecture was a man’s profession and, one would think, so were gas stations. She originally came to Los Angeles for her health and soon found work for other architects as a draftsman. The city was expanding along the routes of the red-line streetcar on San Vicente Boulevard west of where it crossed Country Club Drive, later renamed as Olympic Boulevard. The corner of Fairfax and Wilshire in those early days had been an airport. In the 1930s an empty bean field stood at the site of Northman’s building site in what is now called South Carthay.
It was the time of the City Beautiful, ideas that were being promoted by many architects. Carthay Center, now known as Carthay Circle, was laid out in 1922 and would become one of the first planned communities in America, including a church, a public school, the Carthay Circle Theatre (now destroyed), independently designed single family housing and multifamily housing. Utilities were located underground. Concrete pedestrian walkways led up between the houses and connected them to shopping on Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile. McCarthy’s project preceded the more well-known planned community of Radburn in New Jersey by 6 years or so. It was landmark architecture. Thus, California became virgin territory where a budding architect such as Edith Northman could find work. Other architects designed houses here as well including Irving Gill, S. Charles Lee, and Paul Williams.
Like Paul Williams, Edith Northman obtained an architectural degree from University of Southern California (USC) . She did hundreds of projects in Los Angeles and Fresno, including churches, a synagogue, and the gas stations. Her residential work was single family, duplex and multifamily in a variety of picturesque styles such as Danish Farmhouse, French Eclectic, and the Chateauesque. Unlike Chambord, which was a residence for kings, her designs were built around a garden court and were low-cost multifamily. She designed a mansion in Beverly Hills for Danish-origin film star Jean Hersholt.
Chateauesque is characterized by towers and turrets, pinnacles, dormer windows and steep-pitched shingle roofs. Often there are decorative quoins stepping up at the corners of the building as well as ornate decorative entry surrounds.
One example of Northman’s work is here in the Historical Preservation Overlay Neighborhood of South Carthay. It stands on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Alfred Street at 6700 Olympic Boulevard. Here one sees a two-story French Revival multifamily residence. There are separate entries leading to individual units on both street facades. The Olympic side has a common balcony tying the upstairs apartments together with a decorative wrought-iron railing. French doors lead to each apartment. The doors are flanked by wooden shutters painted black. Below these at the ground floor are shuttered wood-casement windows with cornices above them. One might imagine this sort of architecture in the French Quarter of New Orleans. But here in a neighborhood of so many diverse styles and cultures it fits just fine.
This building was sensitively restored by its current owner with the help of the Office of Historic Resources in the City Planning Department and the local Historic Preservation Review Board, (HPOZ), in 2019. Originally designed by Edith Northman, it is a special place to live.
Author’s note: In writing this article I found that there was very little information available about Edith Northman. Below are several resources that I know of. The First American Women Architects, only seems to be available on Reserve at the L.A. Public Library downtown. Can She Design…or What? Skyline artistry of California Female Architects, only available from the UC Berkeley Library. It has only a page and a half on Edith Northman. There are photographs somewhere of the synagogue Northman designed in Los Angeles. Then there’s a Danish Lutheran Church. There are the 50 gas stations she did for Union Oil Company. Maybe Union Oil Co. has pictures in their archives. If anyone has more information about this architect, I would appreciate hearing from you: Please contact me at [email protected].
One more editor’s note: Thanks to Peter, we are seeing French Revival elements everywhere we look. In my own house whose architectural style seemed to defy classification, I think I can declare it French Revival or least incorporating many of these delightful features.
3 thoughts on “Edith Mortensen Northman French Revival Style Architect”
I always loved that house. I remember when I lived in L.A., I would occasionally ride by and say to myself “wow, I wish I had enough money to buy it”…lol. Thanks for your article.
Which synagogue did she design?
Unfortunately we don’t know, but we’d love to find out!