This article was originally published in the Anaheim Historical Society’s January 2010 newsletter. I have been in touch with the author and we have shared much information on Ross Cortese, who developed and built four very distinctive tracts of single-family residential homes, before going on to even more success as the developer of the Leisure World senior communities. Cortese’s first tract in this area was the Lakewood Rancho Estates in Long Beach, northeast of the corner of Studebaker & Spring. He built these using a prefab design by Cliff May and Chris Choate. Cortese basically used these same plans for his Frematic Homes in Anaheim, but it appears May was not involved. In the 1954-55 years May was very involved with builder George Holstein in five tracts in the Anaheim-Orange areas. For the Frematic Homes, architectural credit is given to Design Studies, Inc., which seems to be a Choate operation. One of the designs earned an award and additional credit was then given to Robert G. Jones and Benjamin Urmston, two architects fresh out of USC. For his much bigger development of Rossmoor, Cortese seems to have originally parted ways with May and Choate, but still used many of their ideas in his collaboration with architect Earle Kaltenbach, [who is sometimes credited with having just finished designing Tomorrowland for the brand new Disneyland — but we can’t locate first-hand sources for this.] Kaltenbach’s work with Cortese seems to have borrowed much of the May-Choate post and beam but wrapped the front in a storybook/Cinderella style — which was quite the rage from 1955-1958. After that, it seemed to slow down so Cortese again joined forces with Choate for the newer very popular more contemporary designs. Jones was also involved with these, but it is definitely Choate’s company that gets the credit.
By Dave Bell
In the mid-1950s, Ross W. Cortese (RWC) built 2 Anaheim “Frematic” tracts. After over half a century, these continue to be among the very few truly modern tract houses ever built. The houses that still possess most or all of the original styling features have great architectural significance.
In 1954 Ross W. Cortese built the Long Beach “Rancho” tract of about 619 modern homes at Spring & Studebaker. Cliff May was the architect. [Actually, May was only the designer — his longtime business partner, Chris Choate, was the architect.] After building our modern LaPalma-Brookhurst & Gilbert-Broadway tracts in Anaheim, RWC then built another tract in Rossmoor. After that, he stopped building tracts and instead built 8 active-adult/senior communities with a total capacity of about 60,000 people: two were Leisure World in Seal Beach & Laguna Woods. RWC accomplished all this starting as a fruit peddler (to help support his family in Glendale) with a 10th-grade education. He died Oct 31, 1991 at age 74 in Orange, CA. [Technically, Leisure Worlds are also tracts — they just cater to seniors, as opposed to all adults. And Cortese did build some New World tracts which sold to all, when sales of seniors communities was a little over-saturated.]
The LaPalma-Brookhurst tract has 156 modern houses, built mostly in 1955 on lots varying from 6,000 to 7,000 sq. ft. There are 4 basic models: High-roof & low-roof with1,480 sq. ft. and high-roof & low-roof with 1,240 sq. ft. The 11 non-modern houses at the south end of Lotus apparently were built in 1962 & NOT by RWC.
The Gilbert-Broadway tract has 216 modern houses built mostly in 1956. About a third have 6,000 sq. ft. lots and the rest vary up to 10,000 sq. ft.
- High-roof & low-roof 1480 sq. ft. models same as the La P.-B. tract . . .
- But the Gilbert tract has a higher percentage of the highroof 1,480 sq. ft. houses than La P.-B.
- High-roof & low-roof 1,336 sq. ft. models have a back door & inside laundry area.
- 4 non-modern houses at the east end of Transit are believed to be RWC’s first display models for the City of Rossmoor, under construction in 1957.
CONSTRUCTION & STYLING
RWC’s houses have a “post & beam” skeleton. This is completely different from the “platform framing” concept (or its predecessor, “balloon framing”) used to build many “postwar” tract houses. One advantage of the post & beam construction in our houses is that windows & doors can be relocated in four-foot increments without worrying about load-bearing walls.
The 2 key styling features are the “indoor-outdoor” concept and the ultra-low profile. Both of these give the illusion of larger houses on larger lots, as viewed from the inside and from the outside. The floor-to-roof glass blurs the boundary of the house. When you’re out in the typical 15’ deep back yard, it seems bigger because your field of vision extends into the house instead of stopping at a tall, solid wall. The panels of textured glass admit diffused natural sunlight and make what you view through them fade, as if looking off into a much greater distance. The houses really are lower than traditional ranch houses. The house is on a slab, end walls are 7’ high instead of 8’, the roof rises at only about 9 degrees, and the 4’ overhangs further keep the modest-sized houses from looking small & boxy (“low & sleek” has been the hallmark style of sports cars over many decades). Inside, the open-beam ceilings give a spacious feel, but the “shelves” positioned just
above door top level create intimate areas and provide a perfect location to install indirect lighting or recessed down-lights. If you reduce the glass area, install window coverings, cut off the extended beams and rafters or cover the ceiling rafters with drywall, this will definitely make the houses look, well… small, boxy & dark.
Please feel free to contact us or come by to see our house (weekends are best).
Dave and Sandie Bell
Home phone 714.776.6564
Home email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: Dave Bell is a Mechanical Engineer by profession; and a Member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation