Iconic Los Angeles-area architect Herry Gesner dies at 97

With little training, he designed eye-catching homes like Ravenseye, the Cole House and Wave House

Harry Gesner (inset) and Ravenseye, one of the homes he designed. (File Photo and Getty)
Harry Gesner (inset) and Ravenseye, one of the homes he designed. (File Photo and Getty)

Harry Gesner, a West Coast architect who designed some of Malibu’s most distinctive homes including the famous Wave House, died this week at the age of 97.

His death was confirmed to the Los Angeles Times by his stepson, Casey Dolan.

A carpenter by trade, Gesner didn’t have an architectural license for many years, and some of his limited training came while attending lectures by Frank Lloyd Wright at Yale. After Wright showed interest in his work there, he passed on an invitation from the world-renowned architect to study at his 800-acre estate, Taliesin. But he still went on to design and craft more than a dozen eye-catching homes in the Los Angeles area.

Built for the swimming magnate Fred Cole in 1954, The Cole House, for instance, became a go-to place for photoshoots for men’s magazines thanks to its Polynesian-bachelor-pad charm. He also designed and, with the help of Norweigian shipbuilders, constructed in 1959 the Hollywood Boathouses, a group of homes at the Cahuenga Pass that, according to the Times, resemble space barges docked on the side of a mountain.

Gesner also designed a home called Ravenseye for playwright Jerome Lawrence in 1997, which was preciently built to withstand not only earthquakes, but wildfires.

But he is best known for the Wave House, which he claimed to have drawn up with a grease pencil “while sitting on a surfboard out by some rocks near the shore.”

“I wanted a shape like you’d find in the ocean,” Gesner told Curbed in 2016. “I wanted a roof that formed to the curves, like scales on a fish. That’s why it has a copper roof with shingles. Not just for the effect, but because it works.”

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The home, which appears to the eye as a cresting wave when seen from the water, even impressed the likes of Sydney Opera House designer Jorn Utzon, who called Gesner long-distance just to tell him so.

Born in Oxnard, California on April 25, 1925, Harry Harmer Gesner was the son of inventor and engineer Harry Gesner and artist Ethel Harmer. The family moved to the Santa Monica area when he was a boy, and he went on to attend Santa Monica High School before serving in the military, where he took part in the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach as well as the Battle of the Bulge, where he was injured.

He later spent time in New York City on the GI Bill, where he took the train to New Haven, Connecticut to attend the lectures by Wright. He then returned to Los Angeles, where he worked in carpentry, masonry and other types of construction.

The first house he built was an adobe brick home for his parents.

Along with Dolan, he is survived by two sons, Jason Gesner and Zen Gesner, and a daughter, Tara Tanzer-Cartwright.

[Los Angeles Times] — Vince DiMiceli