Editorial Introduction: Midway through volume 100 in its present ordering, Merry Ovnick has overseen tillers of California’s historical terrain as Editor of Southern California Quarterly for fourteen years, curating regional historical scholarship for readers eager to learn the shared history of this remarkable place. Published first in 1884 and running for 134 years as the scholarly publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, SCQ explores “the history of Southern California, California as a whole, and the American West.” Ovnick’s own expertise, though, is Los Angeles; specifically L.A.’s residential architectural history. Boom Editor Jason Sexton and SCQ Book Reviews Editor Allison Varzally sat down with Ovnick earlier this summer in a residential setting on L.A.’s Westside—not far from where Merry grew up—to conduct this interview.
Boom: It’s always good for Californians to come back to their roots. And having this conversation here is probably special because this is where you grew up, about two blocks from here. What is it like coming back to the old hood?
Ovnick: Well, I don’t come very often, and it was quite different during those days. We started school at Short Avenue Elementary, just around the corner, and we were its pioneer kindergarten class. At the end of this block was all fields—agricultural land, where beans and celery and things like that were farmed. They’d been Japanese farms before the relocation and in my earliest memory they were Mexican farms. This is home.
Boom: This is home, but now you are in the San Fernando Valley both living and teaching. But going back to your growing up years, what was it like growing up in L.A.? Were your parents from Los Angeles?
Ovnick: I don’t know what to compare it with, but it worked out. My parents came from Kansas and migrated during the Depression, and my dad worked at Douglas Aircraft during the war.
Boom: Now you are a historian interested in regional history, and have been editing Southern California Quarterly for fourteen years. When did you begin to think about California as a place? And specifically, to think of Los Angeles as a place?
Ovnick: I don’t think as a kid you think of such things. It’s just home. That’s what you know. You may travel, but then you come home and home is normal. Unless you’re a child whose parents moved around a lot so that you can understand how different a culture or lifestyle might be in different places, I don’t think you think comparatively. At least, I didn’t. We moved to Santa Monica when I was ten, but that was still local. And we did some camping things. Every so often we trekked to Kansas to visit my grandmother. But that was it.
Boom: What were your preferred hobbies or pastimes as a kid? Were you reading a lot? Nonfiction? Were you interested in history from the beginning? Or were you studying space?
Ovnick: Oh yes, I was a terrible bookworm. We went to the Venice Library, which was an Arts and Crafts style building at the time. By fourth grade I had read every book that I could in the children’s section. So the librarian—whose name was Faye—kindly said that I could use adult books as long as she or my mother approved of the books. I would get historical fiction things, and then the main character would snuggle up to somebody (graphically described) and I’d wonder, “Why would they be doing that?” But I knew better than to ask my mother. She would never let me read again. So I had to grow into with this mentality of, “Oh, now I understand the things that I had read.”
Boom: What led you down the career path into becoming a professional historian?
Ovnick: Well, I decided when I was thirteen that when I grew up I wanted to be a history professor. Mainly, in those days, history meant princesses and castles and that sort of thing. But I had understood that history professors got to teach what their favorite subjects are and they got to do research on those subjects and they could just dwell on this world that I had come to enjoy. The “history of what” changed as I grew older and a little more perceptive, outside of the princess mold.
Boom: Did you have inspiring history teachers?
Ovnick: No, it was books. And so public libraries meant a lot.
Boom: So what led you to become, then, not just interested in history but specifically a scholar of Los Angeles?
Ovnick: Well, I have an interest in architecture. I’m not sure exactly how that started, but I’m interested in buildings. The other was that as an undergraduate, at Santa Barbara then at UCLA, my field was Japanese history. That was my interest. I decided that to do graduate work I would need language and would have to go to Japan to do research. So, when I was proposed to I originally said “no,” causing a big flap. Then I said “okay,” but here’s the condition: I would get to do graduate work in Japan. My husband said “yes,” and we got married. Then he said he lied and I could never go. So I had to think about what I wanted to do when I eventually took up graduate studies in the U.S.
Boom: Was there a gap there at all? When you discovered you weren’t able to go to Japan to study where and what you wanted?
Ovnick: It was quite a crisis, and lasted a long time. I’ve now since been to Japan and enjoyed it very much. But at the time I figured California history has the Asian-American component, which was the next best thing.
Boom: Southern California Quarterly is more than Southern California history and more than California history. It includes the Far West, the American West, and the Pacific.
Ovnick: I’ve had articles on Hawaii, and there’s one in our Fall 2018 issue about British Columbia. But that article does mention there’s a parallel with what’s happening further down the coast.
Boom: But taking you back to 2005, when you took the helm as editor of the journal, why did you volunteer to take it up?
Ovnick: It was because I had done the book review editing at first. Clark Davis had been groomed to be the successor to Doyce Nunis (who was the editor for forty-three years), and started by becoming book review editor. The journal had fallen into trying times, with grammar errors, typos, and other things that the editor had missed. That was painful for Clark, who was quite the diplomat, to work on the book reviews when the journal was in such sorry shape. So we talked about it and I was the intern coordinator for the history program at CSUN. So, I said how about I get interns who are dual English/History majors and set them up under Doyce as copy editors? Doyce, who was missing teaching, would love to have the tutelary role and there would be an extra pair of eyes without Clark having to say something.
So, we did that for a while and that worked out well. He loved handling the interns. He had two interns and they both went on to Ph.D.s later. Then Clark died very suddenly at age thirty-seven—a tragedy for all who knew him. That then left a gap. That’s why I was moved in to be book review editor, and Doyce later retired as editor two years later.
Boom: Among the many exceptional articles you’ve published in SCQ, do you have a favorite?
Ovnick: No—usually the one that is latest is my favorite.
Boom: So you didn’t have any doubts about assuming the editorship? Because it’s one thing to be book review editor, but a much grander responsibility to be the editor. What was the transition like? Can you describe what you see your role as editor being?
Ovnick: I work approximately twenty hours a week on the journal. At first it was very, very difficult and it was also just as I was starting to turn my dissertation into a book. So that got put on the back burner and it never got done because I do this instead.
The role of editor is a dual role and there’s a conflict between the two. One, the editor is the conduit for the author. The author has done the research, the analysis, the writing, and this is how the work gets out to the public. It also builds her CV and helps her survive “publish or perish.” So, the conduit role is one where the editor just helps the author shape things, getting them to publication.
The other role is to serve as the guardian of the history discipline’s standards. You’re the one who decides what the public should read and what kind of integrity it should have. So the conflict is, if you really need articles for the next issue and you have a poor article but you really need an article, do you relax the guardian role? One of the safeguards is the peer review process which we rigorously enforce. But even so, there’s that pressure from the two sides.
Boom: And at certain times has it been harder to secure potential articles?
Ovnick: I’m in one of those situations right now. I have one article that has to be totally revised and the author is incapable of doing so. I’ve worked on him for two years to get this wonderful research into publication shape and he can’t do it. I’m going to just shepherd this along. But that’s only one article out of the three that make up an issue, so I’m in one of those desperate spots.
I have actually had several times where I’ve needed to step in. Doyce admitted that many times he solved this “not having an article ahead” in one of two ways. Either he wrote an article himself and published it and admitted that he had not sent things out for review for several years because he thought he was capable of reviewing everything himself. The other way he solved it was to just not produce that issue. Instead of volume or issue one, two, three, and four for the year, he’d have one and two, then a combined three and four, which he got complaints about from people who were paying for a subscription. They got this type of reaction fairly frequently. During my tenure, though, we’ve never missed an issue, and we’ve never been late in fourteen years.
Boom: Obviously “quarterly” is embedded in the name of the Southern California Quarterly, but have you thought about—given the pressures of producing in such a regular fashion—producing less frequently? Like maybe once a year, or even twice a year?
Ovnick: In the early years of the journal, it was an annual publication in the very beginning. But that hasn’t come up with the historical society. If it does, we could do that. So far it hasn’t.
Boom: And is there significant direction that comes from the historical society?
Ovnick: Well, the money comes from them, and this is their most costly item. So, it’s a crisis for them, they’ve been doing a big fundraising job just to support the journal. We recently received a bequest.
Boom: That’s reassuring. Can you say anything about that?
Ovnick: As a bequest, it’s a will, and becomes active upon the passing of the donor, which is hopefully a long time from now.
Boom: We did spend some time going through the various issues you’ve produced as editor, and noticed a couple of innovations, like “The Historian’s Eye.” Can you tell us about that?
Ovnick: I did a number of those with the help from others. One of them was someone from the Auto Club, and one was from his wife, who is the historian or archivist at City of Hope. They asked to do them, and I have another author who suggested that we do little bio sketches. His first suggestion was Mira Hershey, you know, of Hershey Hall at UCLA, an early feminist who had money.
Boom: One of the images depicted folks getting into a street car and you brought up the theme “chivalry.” How do you choose images? And what are you looking for?
Ovnick: Just something interesting. I have to be careful to ensure it’s not just some image I like. I did this in the classroom, things like that chivalry one when you notice what the ladies are wearing, they have to step up fairly high to get off the dirt street and there’s that white dress dragging on the dirt street. Various little things like that.
Boom: In some decisions you’ve made of what to publish in Southern California Quarterly, what you’re highlighting isn’t your area of research, it’s rather a curatorial area of interest. I’ve noticed that during your tenure. I [Jason] remember the previous editor of Boom, Jon Christensen, with an issue of Boom we were working on where I said I didn’t want to strong-arm things related to my interests and views, to which he responded that I’m allowed to do some of that. But I noticed you haven’t really. You’ve focused mostly on racial, international, socio-political history, and social histories.
Ovnick: Yes, I admit that there’s probably more architectural articles early on because somebody would know me from my architectural interests and submit an article here rather than somewhere else. Likewise then for Japanese-American history, which I’ve probably done more than is quite even-handed. I have another one coming up in the next issue.
Boom: So, let’s bring us back into the areas you’ve published on, especially in L.A., and California, as these things also reflect some of Boom’s concerns related to the future of California. How do we curate this place and what’s here? From your work on residential architectural history, does Southern California have a best style of architecture, one most fitting for this place?
Ovnick: Well, the Spanish Colonial, which was deemed to be appropriate because of a romanticized version of a Spanish past. But I’ve seen Spanish Colonial houses in Utah and Wyoming where somebody just liked that style I guess and there it was. So that’s one we’ve appropriated.
Also, the California Bungalow, which was my dissertation topic. I have a particular soft spot for that. The Craftsman magazine, which was published in the East, after 1908 had a crisis where they let their entire art department go. There were drawings of ideal interiors that sold their style of furniture, but they had to fire their art department. They then became reliant on people near and far to send them photographs to use as illustrations. A great share of the ones that came during that period came from Los Angeles with photographs of small to large houses in the Arts and Crafts mode. But they were redone for California, with lightweight material, not the winter roofs or snow-shedding roofs or insulated walls. They featured the indoor-outdoor life with sweeping porches and cross-ventilation, and on-site trees intertwined with the house, that were indigenous to California.
It became The Craftsman look because of their lack of an art department. I later tracked down some of those houses and found them by looking through Ancestry.com and finding out where that architect’s address was. There is something about the appropriateness of that style for California.
Boom: Why do you have this kind of affection for the Bungalow style?
Ovnick: It just looks very cozy and comfortable. I wouldn’t mind living in one.
Boom: Does your own house reflect your architectural passions?
Ovnick: No, which of course destroys the entire premise of my first book.
Boom: Your book and one issue of Southern California Quarterly noted the cross-pollination of East and West characteristic of Southern California architecture, which has also been characterized by experimentation and reinvention. Isn’t that a luxury, perhaps one that we’re not going to be able to afford much longer?
Ovnick: Oh yes, and the single-family residence is an albatross.
Boom: Okay, well that brings me to another question. Is a house an investment?
Ovnick: Absolutely. When you look at the early advertisements, they promised that when you buy a tract house in the 1920s it will double in value in a number of years. It is an investment and you could buy the empty lot next door and hold onto it, because the value of that land and that tract is bound to go up.
Boom: We can probably safely conclude that for twenty miles of coastal California, but what about the interior? The Central Valley, the Inland Empire?
Ovnick: Inland Empire has its own background because of the citrus boom and the railroads coming in there and other things. It might be special. For the Central Valley, Bakersfield and Fresno have taken the prize recently of being California’s fastest growing cities. I’m glad though that I don’t live in the Central Valley. It’s hot enough in the San Fernando Valley.
Boom: In some of your research you’ve shown that some developments here have been borrowed from elsewhere, especially from the American East. But have we and could we be developing ideas for residential housing from the Far East more then we have? Like Japan?
Ovnick: Well, the indoor-outdoor house with sliding panels is the Japanese aesthetic of simplicity. Those have influenced our architecture.
Boom: I [Allison] was also wondering how we might incorporate the density of Japanese cities, where they seem to be able to house a lot of people in very little space. I don’t know what that means if you don’t have the single-family home that has defined Los Angeles, but if we move toward that model of densification and more clustered living….
Ovnick: It could be, but you know what works in Japan is partly because of a cultural thing about privacy. You may have people very close together, but you’re very quiet and you don’t air your arguments because it just would not do. There’s a whole cultural thing that has to happen. You can’t just import the buildings from another culture and have any luck.
Boom: Of course, residential architecture relates very much in the title of your ’94 book, somewhat hidden in there is an echo of the California Dream. How that relates to the “working man,” buying a home in the post-war world. But how does the California Dream manifest in Los Angeles residential architecture?
Ovnick: In that case, how do you distinguish the California Dream from the American Dream? Success and being ahead of your parents’ generation was it, and the expectation that each generation would do that. Even if there’s a ceiling now that makes it not so likely. All those people who moved out here weren’t California-bred people to begin with, they came from Iowa or wherever and had an American Dream that they could realize in California.
Boom: I think a single-family detached house was part of that dream, so maybe that dream is changing as it becomes impossible to attain.
Ovnick: It needs to. Otherwise it becomes a disappointment. I think that’s a good thing to discuss in Boom particularly. In the world of Internet and Facebook and other things, that dream may be very real. There are all kinds of savvy people who can expect to make hay while the sun shines. But as a general thing, and when you have a classroom full of elementary school students, do you hold out that dream for them? For everyone, of every color, of every part of town or immigrant background, or in whatever economic situation? There needs to be some readjustments.
I was talking to somebody in Paris about this recently, who was in awe that I came from Los Angeles, and asked, “What is Los Angeles like?” I said, “Well, we have 55,000 homeless that live on the streets,” and he was aghast. He asked what is being done about that? And what can we answer?
Boom: You’ve written on post-war Los Angeles, a long seventy-year moment that might be coming to a terminus soon, reflective of what we’re discussing. Could you thematize what’s happening in Southern California during those decades?
Ovnick: I think it was a turning point for gender issues, for one thing. Men had gone off to war and being macho was very much a part of it. Women might be Rosie the Riveter and they might have been capable during the war, except when you look at the ads. The Office of War Information monitored advertisement, and I have a small collection of ads from wartime popular magazines; they had the young woman with the stylish hat and her pocket book asking, “I earned it, why can’t I spend it?” Then, the stern response that she ought to save it for the home front and postwar when the boys come back from oversees and make new starts. The patriotic thing to do is to save your money, buy war bonds. There was this sense of women doing their part for the home front as just part of being the little woman helping the man. It reinforced a gender ideal that had been moderated in the ’20s and ’30s that has been reinforced as a macho thing.
The final chapter of my book where I deal with this happens to be my favorite chapter, but because nobody had done primary research on World War II at that time, I had no secondary sources. Everything had to be primary. Looking at the expectations for housing after the war, you know, “When I get home from this war I’m going to build a house and have hot running water and I’m going to have…,” and so on. They spun big dreams during the war about the house that they and Rosie the Riveter were going to move into at the end. Then the building trades and architects and building material suppliers and others were all busy gearing up for postwar, how they were going to change from making war items to making things for a housing boom that fed that dream or would make it come true for people.
There was such uniformity in the news that you also couldn’t show a picture of the coastline because a Japanese submarine might notice that a little notch there, which might lead directly to a war plant. With all those cautionary holds on what could be published, it’s no wonder that my parents and Archie Bunker and many others had such black-and-white, good-and-bad views that fit the Cold War. It was good guys and bad guys, and we were the good guys. It was just so sharp and clear—that generation spent their youth not seeing anything except black-and-white.
Boom: But the ’60s and ’70s started to challenge that.
Ovnick: Absolutely. It was their kids in the ’60s who saw grey and objected to Archie Bunker’s views—generational conflict as of about 1964, when the war babies grew into teenagers.
Boom: And how is that shaping the residential architecture? Thinking of young people living outdoors. Breaking free of their parents’ homes.
Ovnick: They turned their tie dye stuff into boutiques and joined the middle class.
Boom: And after the wave of white Buddhists moving to Japan and coming back….
Ovnick: That’s actually what this upcoming article is about—a person whose last name was Goldwater, who was the second cousin of Barry Goldwater, and who was a Buddhist priest during the war.
Boom: So the religious architecture in Southern California—especially Los Angeles churches, temples, mosques—especially if said communities are moving around a Buddhist temple, for example, how did religious architecture shape Los Angeles during this time, and is it having any influence on residential architecture?
Ovnick: Unfortunately, my book was just on residential architecture. But from the Society of Architectural Historians, which I’m heavily involved with, we do tours of churches and recently toured one by Ernest Coxhead that was where Cesar Chavez first raised the challenge over on the east side of Lincoln Heights. We look at church architecture, but is it a case of L.A. shaping the architecture or is it architecture shaping the people that are in it? For example, the Hompa Hongwanji temple, right across from the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), which has the traditional arch which faces outward and is now owned by JANM; it’s made out of concrete but it echoes the thatch roof of tradition, including echoing the cedar wood graining that a traditional Buddhist church in Japan would have had because it was built during the 1920s by an Anglo architect and some of the touches are neo-Egyptian because it was a stylish thing and the architect worked in theatrical things. I don’t think that’s new or unusual.
In Savannah, Georgia, there’s a Jewish synagogue that was built in the 1840s in Gothic Revival style. You know Gothic, with that window that’s split into two smaller Gothic arches, symbolizing the Trinity. The rose window with the twelve leaves to represent the twelve disciples. Those have iconographic meanings, but this was a Jewish synagogue and it was built in neo-Gothic because that was the stylish church-like architecture, and this was an affluent membership who were movers and shakers in their community and they particularly wanted a Jewish “church” that would fit in with other churches. They didn’t want to look strange. So, whether a time and a culture shape the building, or the building then shapes the culture—I mean, I doubt many people who went to that “church” thought about the nativity and the twelve disciples.
Boom: So, they like the style and don’t necessarily care where it came from.
Ovnick: I wrote and published in California History on motion pictures and how motion picture-making affected architecture in the 1920s, in the silent era. Without sound, the actors and cinematographers had to do other things—if the story was about a princess and a castle, the very first scene had to show the young lady, probably with a coronet on her head and crenellations on the top of a wall behind her, and maybe a moat. Then movie-goers would realize this was about a princess and didn’t have to have a big discussion. Things like style references that make a setting were exaggerated and clear to read in the silent film era. In the 1920s we get the little castles and Tudor houses and the Spanish Colonial. All these easy to read make-believe backgrounds. Then, likewise, cinematographers used heavily rusticated surfaces so light and shadow would play off them so they wouldn’t look too flat in the kind of film and lighting they had at the time. We had those exteriors with what they called jazzed stucco, the troweled-on stucco that were supposed to look like adobe houses (that never had such a rough looking job) because light and shadow worked. Other parts of the house like columns or door arches or whatever had to be projected in a certain depth, so they cast light and shadow.
Our culture changes, and of course movies are shown nationwide. So you see make-believe architecture in Utah and Wyoming, and you see that heavy use of shadow and texture on buildings—it “took” across the country. It took especially hard here because this is where movies are made. So many people are in the industry, and in fact many of the set designers in Hollywood were also doing residential architecture on the side.
Boom: There’s a great chapter in Day of the Locusts that talks about the crazy diversity of architectural styles that come back in the movies. And we keep telling ourselves stories, projecting. The last line of your book captures this, where you conclude that Los Angeles is “a durable dream.” A beautiful line. But in light of things like the current enormous homeless crisis, do you still believe that Los Angeles is a durable dream?
Ovnick: As a matter of fact, I wrote that book so long ago that I’d forgotten all about that last line. In 1994, who could predict the Northridge earthquake, which hadn’t happened when I wrote that.
Boom: But it’s interesting how just a couple years after major riots that make people doubt whether this region is sustainable.
Ovnick: That’s not maybe just this region. Polar ice caps are melting and other things. People in Venice are doing these elaborate mega-houses on these tiny lots. Society of Architectural Historians was showing one of these houses and the architect was telling us that one of the things she had done was to look at the underground water flow, because it was basically on marshland, and at the topography. So, she built hers in a part of Venice that was several feet higher and away from those underground stream flows, which are ancient stream flows. She wanted to build a one hundred-year house, so it would be there for her kids.
Boom: Forward-thinking. And do these kinds of questions shape your work as editor of SCQ?
Ovnick: You never know what the next article is going to bring, and it’s going to be on some topic you’ve never addressed before hopefully because if it’s something you’ve done already you don’t want it. Each piece needs to contribute something, and every one is a learning experience from an editor’s point of view. I learn things every time, and if I didn’t, then there’s probably something wrong with the article. So how significant is it? What kind of insights does it give on things like homelessness and earthquakes and all those other things, or perhaps on a path that can be constructed? We look at things with a more empathetic eye because of a particular historian’s work, and that has an impact on our current times. It’s not that history repeats itself, it’s just that we open up our mind when we read history, which is a human subject. We’re gaining a wider understanding of our fellow men and women.
Being an editor, then, is like having your finger on a pulse of what’s out there being done and what its possibilities are when it reaches a reading audience. I think that was one of my biggest accomplishments was to get SCQ online. At the beginning, before there was a regime change at the Southern California Historical Society, there used to be a board that I spoke to on multiple occasions about the importance of going online, and their eyes would just glaze over since they were absolutely uninterested, didn’t want to think about it, and didn’t want to know the mechanics of how this could be done or who could do it. It was like talking to the wall.
As the board eventually changed and got some newer members, it happened. I think an all-print journal is not a viable entry. I’m old, so I like reading things in print, and I like having the covers, and enjoy working on the covers. But I know that print things are a dying breed. Whether you can reach an audience, the right audience or a big enough audience with what you put online, that’s a concern.
I think one of the solutions is a journal like ours that has multiple subjects. Every issue has a real diversity of topics that are there, even when they’re a set. But even as a set, each article expresses different viewpoints. A person who’s reading something they got online and sees the title of the article above and below might be intrigued and might read things they wouldn’t otherwise. But if it’s not in that very journal issue as something that might be important to them, are they going to go back and look at past ones? So, one of the concerns of the marketing people at UC Press is how to keep reminding people of good stuff that’s in the past issues. Doing special online issues introduce readers to something covered back in 1920 or 1942 that might be of interest work to send people looking backwards.
Boom: Deeper into the archives, and the online archives.
Ovnick: That’s a possibility, and I hope it works. The current president of the HSSC reached out to four grad students at three different institutions and got them to do bibliographic essays on subjects like Native Americans. They looked through back issues of SCQ and put together a bibliography of articles that have been done on a particular subject. They did one on the mission, noting the articles on the mission era back in the 1920s were romanticizing the padres and the adoring Indians. Then in the 50s they were doing thus and so, which leaves a track that they’ve analyzed. How we change how we view the past, missions being a particularly good example, puts us in mind not to just think in black-and-white, but enables us to think critically about what is the “historical truth.” Twenty years later, something else was the “historical truth.” I think that’s broadening, and it will hopefully work to send others to past issues of SCQ.
Boom: I think that’s something that is hard for undergraduates to grasp, the idea of historiography. That the interpretations change by what you’re reading.
Ovnick: And why does it change? It’s very important. The journal is a form—both SCQ and Boom—of public history. Because they reach out not just to the profession, but to a wider public. And I think that’s very important.
 Out of an extensive list of well-written articles, reflecting good research, and worthy contributions to their fields of history, there are a handful that stand out for their ground-breaking discoveries, exceptional research depth, and insightful analysis. Dr. Ovnick is especially proud to have had a hand in bringing these to publication in the Southern California Quarterly during her tenure (2005-2018; volumes 87-100):
 Merry Ovnick, Los Angeles: The End of The Rainbow (Los Angeles: Balcony Press, 1994).
Copyright: © 2018 Merry Ovnick, Allison Varzally, and Jason Sexton. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.