The key to Roger Brown's Spartan Royal Mansion Trailer

The key to Roger Brown's Spartan Royal Mansion Trailer

‘…a few things to help you understand the trailer…’

In the Spartan archive there is a letter to Roger Brown from the previous owner of the trailer and land, Mrs. Mary Mac Neil, number 820 in the La Conchita database. The text is as follows:

(Recto) Dear Mr. Brown, A few things to help you understand the trailer: The plug to the refrigerator is in the first closet. The switch on the right side of the sink was for the electric hot water heater which we took out and replaced with a gas heater which is in the carport shed. The plug is operable.

There are three nice big drawers under the double bed. The front fence is in sections and can be separated to take out when you build. Mr Jim Moffett built it. He lives on Carpenteria street in a mobile home. I left odds and ends of silver and dishes and bedclothes, so you won’t have to go out and buy them until you decide what you want.

(Verso) I left a little trailer information in the left hand dresser drawer in the middle bedroom. The keys for the storage room and back fence are in the top drawer in the kitchen – also the key to the electric box on the pole. The tool (a drawing is inserted here) in the top kitchen drawer is for opening the vent skylight in the living room. When you start garbage the company delivers a can.

Mr. Henderson mowed the lawn on March 9th – should be O.K for about 2 weeks. I would have liked to clean better but I ran out of time. Enjoy the trailer as much as we have in the last 26 years. Hope you will be happy here.

Mary (orances?) MacNeil

P.S. Enjoy the “Liberty Magazine” in the small table drawer + the antique shops in the lower drawer.

Item number 820 in the La Conchita database.

For Roger Brown the conceptual beginnings of his home in the West were very humble and his impulsive purchase of the property was certainly based on the appeal of the Spartan “Royal Mansion” aircraft trailer, mass produced from 1945 to 1962 by the J. Paul Getty Aircraft construction company in Tulsa OK between 1945 and 1962. The physical qualities of the trailer must have made Roger Brown feel very comfortable. Having stayed in the trailer in March 2010 I can confirm that the high quality handcrafted wood interior gives it a warm and very homely feeling. It is likely that its high quality hand crafted finish appealed very strongly to Brown confirming his decision to acquire it. It is likely also that the silhouette key fob depicted above, which closely resembles the silhouetted figures in many of Roger Brown’s paintings, additionally confirmed for him the appropriateness of the trailer as the kernel of his home studio and garden in California.

Brown’s initial plan was to live in the trailer and then to build a studio next to it. We know from his notes now held in the Roger Brown Study Collection archive that his first instincts for this structure came directly from the form and construction of his New Buffalo, MI home, designed by his partner George Veronda and completed in 1979. When first in California Brown lived in the trailer for only a year or so until 1988 or 1989 when he began discussing the plans for his home in La Conchita with the Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman. The planning approval process proved to be laborious and the house was finally completed in the summer of 1993.

The Spartan Royal Mansion

The Spartan Royal Mansion at La Conchita before 1998, photographed by Roger Brown.

The La Conchita Temple of Painting

Like his other houses the la Conchita construction included expansive white walls, ideal for showing the art and craft objects that Roger Brown collected. The interior organization of Roger Browns La Conchita home and studio displayed a distinct symmetry. The space can be understood as divided into roughly four areas along two axis. The first axis running length of the building south to north, and the second across its width, runs east to west. A large living-room and studio occupied the south side of the building, with close access to the garden at the rear. Then to the north, closest to the street are four smaller areas, the den and Kitchen on the west side of the building, with bedroom and the bathroom on the east, the bathroom being the only fully enclosed room with a door.

At the south facing end of the main room are two double French-windows, proportionally occupying half of the buildings face at the lower level. A rich desert garden organized and planted by Roger Brown thrives to this day on this side of the house. Perpendicular to the doors in the living room Roger had placed twin sofa’s to face each other across a mid century, glass topped, wooden based asymmetrical coffee table. The two sofa’s are upholstered in south western shades, the one on the west is a powdery green reminiscent of agave, its opposite is colored a soft earth pink. On the table a group of suitably chosen and carefully arranged objects might invite investigation. Objects made of ceramics and glass of both mass produced and hand-made bearing, Printed matter and two sets of 10 inch gramophone disk recordings and a dried gourd. Chosen and placed here for their particular mid century qualities. Three nestling hors d’oevre plates, an amoeba shaped, green and black candy dish. A blown glass whale, a set of  Elvis Presley themed playing cards, circa 1975, were placed in a square powder blue ash tray, circa 1965, and positioned next to a small sand brown saucer, a souvenir object that bears the inscription Pousada De Elvas.

Living room Coffee Table Arrangement at La Conchita, photographed by Maryanne Redding in 1998

Living room Coffee Table Arrangement at La Conchita, photographed by Maryanne Redding in 1998

The clear glass table-top is kidney or bean shaped and rests on a wooden base made up of two wooden forms that have been shaped to slot together in an irregular ‘T’ shape, like the wings of an airplane or a cross. The shapes of the table resonate with the amoeba form of the candy dish that rests at one end of the glass surface.

The symmetry continues throughout. Positioned on either side of the south windows against each wall are two glass door topped hutches. Each has an enclosed lower closet. On the left (east side) the woodwork is painted in soft pink and pale bluish green shades. While the shelf edges are tipped in bright red. These shades call to mind desert plants in full spring bloom. Opposite on the right, the ocean side of the building, the hutch is a rich deep aeonium green that resonates again with the tones of the sofa and the succulent plants in the garden just outside.

The building has a total of six sets of double doors that face each other across the building, and two single doors set diametrically opposite each other in the east and west walls, towards the front of the building. In its outer form the house when viewed from the north and south sides resembles an early renaissance basilica, which its roof pitched from the outer walls leading upwards to a clerestory of windows that run the length of the east and west faces. The east and west sides are twice as long as the south and north faces, when viewed in plan it is as if two regular squares have been joined together to form another symmetry. Brown organized his collection at La Conchita as a series of punctuations that mirrored each other across the building. Two silent butler flamingo’s, two majolica planters with saucers to match, two side tables – one in the entry way on the west side, the other on the east, and the Croxley television circa late 1950’s placed in the center of the house facing south, with its pair of chairs and pair of slip cast leaf shaped vases, All these things are arranged along a central axis that runs from the front, street side on the north, to the garden on the south.

The Chicago architect Stanly Tigerman, who is most well known for his domestic and urban structures draws much of his inspiration from Midwestern farming architecture, and indeed Brown’s La Conchita, California home bares a very strong resemblances to one of Tigerman’s own out of town homes in New Buffalo, Michigan. One of the strong features of Tigermans designs are the use of structural elements to give visual form. The square and the rectangle, and derivations of these are employed as two of the strongest visual and structural aspects in many of his buildings. The diagonal cross brace and multiple subdivision of the square as a basic element forms a strong decorative aspects that Tigerman embraces so effectively in this building.

Tigerman’s design for Roger Brown’s California home is a compact and functional solution to Brown’s needs. Roger Brown always had a strong preference to work where he lived. It’s not clear exactly when Roger Brown first visited La Conchita but when he purchased the property in 1988 it was the Spartan, Royal Mansion trailer that initially caught his eye. Brown by reputation was a clear-headed shopper, renowned amongst his colleagues for spotting and acquiring the best that was on offer, from flea markets to thrift stores this instinctive sensibility extended also to his purchase of property and land. And here, true to form, as soon as he saw the trailer strong indications are that he had to have it.

A hand drawn card depicting the La Conchita house from an unknown sender but intended specifically for Roger Brown.

The Spartan Royal Mansion

For a time Brown lived in the trailer enjoying the benefits offered by such accommodation. This location is connected so very strongly to the open air and the ocean. For a time also he rented studio space in nearby Carpenteria but at some point in 1988 he began discussions with Stanley Tigerman about a new home and studio on the lot at La Conchita.

Its not clear when or how Stanley Tigerman became involved but its clear from notes that Brown’s first impulse was to create a building that incorporated the trailer. This alone suggests a certain primacy of the trailer as an object in its own right. Sketches from around that time show two distinct ideas. The first one depicts a structure that resembles the modernist pavilion built by his partner George Veronda in New Buffalo MI. Another drawing depicts a series of related ideas that clearly shows the Spartan trailer flanked on each side by two basilica style structures a larger studio building and a garage.

A drawing by Roger Brown depicting the triler and two clerestory buildings. Circa late 1980's.

A drawing by Roger Brown depicting the Spartan trailer and two clerestory buildings. Circa late 1980's.

It appears that the idea Roger Brown was pursuing here was that he would continue to live in the Spartan as his main accommodation. He replaced the seating cushions in the trailer with custom made upholstery, in a manner that resemble those which George Veronda had included in his design for their New Buffalo home. Were it not for the restrictions placed upon the property by the Ventura County Planning Commission Brown may have done as he wished. Details from the planning commission hearings indicate that objections were voiced based upon the industrial appearance of the initial scheme and at some point in 1989 the function of the large building was designated as a main living space which presumably placated the commission who finally approved the plans in 1991. The trailer was not included in the approved plans but never-the-less once the house was built Brown positioned the trailer adjacent to the house on the south west corner where it took on the role of guest accommodation. Though not to every ones taste as a place to stay those that stayed there really loved it, and if asked will happily talk about their nights in the Spartan.

Brown developed a collection for the trailer also, specifically enhancing its place in the larger scheme of home, studio and garden. To this day the trailer houses a fine Russel Wright ‘American Modern’ dinner service in Glacier Blue. And there are the much talked about toy cast plastic dinosaurs, made in Hong Kong circa 1980’s. The Spartan Royal Mansion had its own set of garden arrangements too. Featuring around fifty ceramic plant holders, purposed with a number of bonsai trees, cacti and succulent plants these were organized in groups along the east facing side of the trailer adjacent to the garden on the south side of the house.

The photographs taken by Roger Brown and later by Mary Anne Redding in 1998 show the trailer nestling into a richly grown garden.  This is typical of gardens along this stretch of the California coastline, the only place in North America to successfully nurture a banana plantation which though now sadly closed the gardens and roadside verges still contain many types of banana. A dense and robust agave plant sat firmly in the ground at the south end of the trailer, a forest of ocotillo stands guard on the west side, while the south-eastern corner received the benefit of morning shade from an extremely large yucca.

The trailer was moved from the property when the house was sold in 1998 and it now resides alongside one of its smaller cousins the Spartanette. Preserved and loved by our colleagues at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City CA, its life continues as guest accommodation for artists and scholars who work at the museum. The association of the trailer with Roger Brown is actively cultivated through a guest accessible travel-case archive which includes details of the Roger Brown Estate and the Study Collection at 1926 North Halsted Street, in Chicago.

Through the development of the exhibition Roger Brown: Calif. U.S.A. our understanding of the materials in the La Conchita collection has been advanced significantly. One of my projects last year (2010/11) has been to develop a conversation with colleagues at the Museum of Jurassic Technology which explores the context of the trailer and the collection that is associated with it. My plan this year (2011/12) is to develop displays in the form of a series of miniatures that depict aspects of Roger Browns collection and the artworks he made at the La Conchita Temple of Painting and in California.

For information about the Roger Brown Study Collection – information about Roger Brown in La Conchita – ‘Roger Brown Calif USA’, The Roger Brown Study Collection (Christine Atha, Dana Boutin, Nicholas Lowe, Lisa Stone.) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago USA, 2010. ISBN:978-09828798-0-1