Harry Gesner, California high style architect, dies at 97

Harry Jessner, the daredevil and surfer-loving architect whose towering designs celebrated the dramatic California landscape of homes that stretched between canyons, perched on beaches and ridges from cliffs, died June 10 at his Malibu, California, home, a place called Sandcastle. He was 97 years old.

Casey Dolan, his step-son, said the cause was complications from cancer.

Mr. Jessner, who grew up in California, can ski and surf like a pro. He flew his first plane at the age of 14. Actress John Lockhart was his first love, during his final year at Santa Monica High School – she went to Westlake, they met jet-skiing – but their romance was cut off due to his service in World War II.

As an architect, he was largely self-taught, although Frank Lloyd Wright invited him to study at Taliesin West, his property and school in Scottsdale, Arizona. His mountain-like homes, often built by Norwegian shipbuilders, were characteristic and dramatic Californian, with walls of glass, round, sunken living rooms, fire pits and A-frame roofs. They would define Southern California’s landscape, aesthetic, and free-spirit, as The homes of John Lautner, another eclectic modernist, who designed the alchemy, better known as the Flying Saucer House, perched high above the hills of North Hollywood.

Mr. Gesner painted his most famous house as he bobbed his longboard in front of his final Malibu site. On the shore of a secluded cove, the Wave House was built for friend and fellow surfer Jerry Cooper, and looks like a winged creature or a meandering wave. The round, hand-cut copper panels on its vaulted ceiling resemble the scales of a fish.

The Wave House was built in 1957, the same year that Swedish architect Jorn Utzon won the competition to design the Sydney Opera House, and many have declared, and still maintain, that the Wave House was his inspiration. Mr. Jessner said the resemblance was coincidental – although he remembers inviting Mr. Utzon to praise him for his design, which has been published worldwide.

“I hope people don’t insist that one thing looks like something else, but they do,” Lisa Germany said of her book Sundown Sea Houses (2012), a survey of Mr. Gessner’s work. “It’s human nature and cavity. The inspiring concept comes from the combination of bits and pieces we experience in everyday life and that wonderful sauce, ‘fantasy’.”

Harry Harmer Gesner was born on April 28, 1925 in Oxnard, California, west of Los Angeles. His father, Harry M. Jessner, an inventor, engineer, and adventurer, rode at the age of 16 with the Rough Riders, the volunteer cavalry commanded by Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War. I skied with Duke Kahanamoku, an early Hawaii surfing star; He flew his biplane. Harry’s mother, Ethel (Harmer) Gesner, was an artist, daughter of Alexander Harmer, a famous Southern California landscape painter. The great-grandfather was José de la Guaira, a wealthy Spanish military commander and landowner in Santa Barbara known as El Capitan, who was an uncle of Sir Jessner Jack Northrop, the aircraft designer, engineer, and industrialist who created the prototype of what would become the B-2 stealth bomber.

Mr. Gesner was 19 years old when he landed ashore in Normandy, dodging through the waves from the side of a landing craft. Experience has forever marked him. Years later, he said, “I rudely changed from boy to man after about a minute with wounded and dying and members of my team on the verge of death.”

He survived D-Day but nearly lost both legs due to fighting frost along the German line. He painted as he walked, capturing the canals, churches, and castles of Europe, noting their Gothic details.

Upon his release, he spent six months at Yale revising an architecture class taught by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a visiting professor at the time. Wright invited Mr. Gesner to study with him at Taliesin, but Mr. Gesner boarded a cargo ship instead and headed to Ecuador, where he excavated Inca artifacts. Then he headed to Mexico City, where he encountered Errol Flynn at a bar. Flynn asks him to help get his yacht, Sirocco, back to California, but the departure date is postponed, so Mr. Gessner goes home.

He worked with another uncle, an architect, as a builder’s apprentice and then began designing his own homes.

For his parents and aunt, Mr. Gessner designed angled adobe houses. Embedded in its landscape, it seemed as if it was growing out of the ground. For the developer, he built a glass rhombus, on a ridge on the Malibu coast. For a family with a small site in a valley, he built a house like a bridge – or aqueduct – spanning two slopes.

For swimwear mogul Fred Cole, he designed a double-A-shape bachelorette pillow with Tahitian accents—for its glass walls, Mr. Jessner designed “curtains” made of bamboo and glass beads—and positioned it on a slim site overlooking Sunset Boulevard. The engineers claimed that it was impossible to build on it.

Mr. Gesner would become the architect of choice for many wealthy Hollywood bachelors. John Scantlin—whose company created Quotron, the first magnetic tape-based stock market system that replaced old tape machines—required only a bedroom, a living room, a kitchenette, and a wet bar (as well as a three-car garage and tennis courts). The bath was a grotto, where the toilet was tucked into a thicket of ferns, and the house was surrounded by a pool, from which one could swim in the grotto.

One project that never left the drawing board was the Marlon Brando Complex, to be built on a French Polynesian island he had purchased after filming “Rebellion on the Bounty” in the early 1960s. It was supposed to be powered by windmills and solar panels and cooled by a giant aquarium that Brando wanted to fill with sharks and moray eels. Giant palm trunks were flying supports of multiple decks, which were to be sheathed with pandanus leaves. Brando also wanted a miniature version of this island fantasy for his Beverly Hills property. As Mr. Jessner told Architectural Digest in 2008, it was difficult to keep the actor focused.

“He was very interested in the bedroom, and everything developed from there,” he said. “Suddenly in the middle of the discussion, a beautiful Asian model walked in and Marlon would be gone for half an hour. I was sitting there reading a book.”

Mr. Jessner has used sustainable materials long before they went out of fashion. The Sandcastle, which he built for himself and his fourth wife, actress Nan Martin, in secluded Malibu Bay next to the Wave House, is made of wood salvaged from a high school that has burned down, and marble of public bathrooms that are about to be demolished. He used old telephone poles to support his tower – Mrs. Germany, author of Houses of the Sea of ​​the Sun, described the place as “a Dutch windmill, a Spanish lighthouse, and a hobbit’s dwelling.” Mr. Gesner described it as a home for “two very creative and loving adults, a baby boy and a Labrador retriever.”

In addition to his stepson, Mr. Gesner is survived by his daughter, Tara Tanzer Cartwright. Two sons, Jason and Zayn. and five grandchildren. His marriage to Audrey Hawthorne, Patti Townsend, and Patricia Alexander ended in divorce. Mrs. Martin passed away in 2010.

In the ’90s, Mr. Jessner converted his beloved silver 1959 Mercedes 190 SL into an electric car. He held three patents for a system for converting solid waste into fuel, and in his later years worked on designs for cast concrete and wood structures that were built for extreme weather conditions. “Houses remain,” he told them.

He told the New York Times in 2012, “They will withstand the worst of the elements. Hurricanes of course. Tornadoes. Tsunamis. Termites and sun spots. Far from enduring a volcanic river of molten rock, I believe we can solve all our problems with good design, reasonable and practical design that It takes all the elements into effect.”

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