Lionel V. Mayell is the visionary who coined the phrase “own-your-own apartments” 100 years ago. Long before he was dubbed the father of the modern condominium, Lionel V. Mayell was struggling to be a favorite son.
Forever the Dreamer
He was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1897 and was so small, his parents used a drawer for his crib. When Lionel was seven, the family welcomed a second son. His younger brother, Carman, became everything Lionel wasn’t — athletic, easy-going and favored by his parents.
When the family embarked on a cross-continent move to Los Angeles, California, five-year-old Carman contracted dysentery and never recovered. His parents’ bereavement left Lionel mostly to fend for himself.
As a young man, Lionel stood 5’2” but his dreams towered. He dreamed of doing something big with his life, of being lauded for his mind.
After spending summers working at a tuna packing plant, Lionel graduated from Occidental College and attended law school. During his studies, Lionel became charmed with the idea of modern, communal apartments that could be owned by individuals. He also made a mental note that Northern tourists were flocking to sunny California to escape the biting winters. Putting these ideas together, Lionel pitched his notion to a local senator who thought the young idea-man was onto something great.
Fortune Won and Lost
Soon after, Lionel formed an eponymous corporation and built his first own-your-own apartments (aka condominiums), the Artaban, in Long Beach, California in 1920. By the end of the decade, he had developed two more (Cooper Arms in 1924 and Villa Riviera in 1929) and made millions. He also married, divorced, married again and had two children.
Then the depression hit. People were not buying condos. A friend of Lionel’s late father proffered an idea for a traveling theatrical variety show that would lift spirits. Lionel spent $25,000 per show without being able to recoup costs via ticket sales. Soon, he was broke and divorced for the second time. By age 39, he had made and lost a fortune, failed at two marriages, and pondered what life had in store for him.
Always the Doer
Lionel Mayell’s 40s rejuvenated the dreamer. He managed an apartment complex not of his own making and offered a new tenant a ride to the grocery store in his beat-up old car. Turns out, all the residents crowded into Mayell’s car. Eventually, he did win a date with the renter, whose name was Dorothy. Together, they became partners in life, in faith and in business.
Bolstered by his new supportive wife, Lionel secured a $1,000 bank loan to develop a new generation of condominiums. First, he and Dorothy gave half of the money from the loan to a Christian evangelical youth group. Their bifurcated energy led to building 18 cooperative apartment projects over the next 20 years and financially fostering ministries including Campus Crusade for Christ. In fact, Lionel Mayell is the man who invited a then unknown 25-year-old Reverend Billy Graham to headline a Christian youth rally and a second event that packed the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl.
In the mid 1960s, Lionel left the building industry to work for Campus Crusade for Christ. He died in San Bernardino on August 31,1978 at the age of 81. His daughter, Rita Mayell, wrote a book about her dad, in which she describes him as “The man was my daddy. My hero. My giant.”
Mayell touched many lives. His memorial service included tributes from a former Hell’s Angel biker and from Billy and Ruth Graham, who remained friends with Lionel and Dorothy for the rest of their lives. Even the City Council of Los Angeles adjourned its session that day “in memory of one of the City’s greatest citizens.”
National Legacy, Local Treasures
Lionel Mayell’s design legacy has landed many of his condominium projects on the National Register of Historic Places.
His Gothic revival high-rise, Villa Riviera, cycled through the times, continually reinvented as something new and fresh. Perched on beachfront bluff along Ocean Boulevard, the Villa survived the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake and endured a short-lived neon Art Deco entrance sign.
In 1937, a movie studio executive bought the Villa for his ex-wife, silent film star Norma Talmadge but then defaulted on the loan. A series of leases and hotels operated at the Villa, which was dubbed “the home of admirals” for the many naval officers who lived there. Today, the Villa is restored to individual own-your-own apartments and designated a historic landmark.
Mayell’s California properties stretch from La Jolla and Santa Barbara through LA to Palo Alto. He built six co-ops in Pasadena, one of which is a city landmark (Villa San Pasqual) and another that became his last completed project. This final cooperative was one of Mayell’s three midcentury modern developments in the 1960s, all known as Whispering Waters for their use of water features and expansive glass windows. (See my other article Lasting First Impressions to read more.)
The Villa Catalina in Tucson, Arizona, and the Villa del Coronado in Phoenix are also perennial Mayell endeavors designated as historic places. The Tucson property is a stellar example of modern, low-rise, postwar garden apartments.
Pioneer, pious philanthropist, dreamer, doer. Lionel V. Mayell loomed large.