David was a dear friend and mentor whom I revered as my “big brother.” Working from his eponymous downtown firm, David Lawrence Gray Architects, he was a generous boss and colleague, a long-time educator at University of Southern California (USC). Confident yet modest, David was not a self-promoter although he connected deeply with people. He let his buildings perform for him: his design prowess with cast-in-place concrete was breathtaking, and his peers recognized him with multiple AIA Los Angeles and AIA California Design Awards over the course of his career.
I first met David in the early 1980s when he gave a talk at USC. He had relocated to Los Angeles from his hometown of Seattle, where he was already an accomplished architect and developer. Our friendship was cemented in Chicago in 1993, when we both became AIA Fellows. We shared ideas, stories and information, both professionally and personally. We went mountain-biking together. If you are a developer, you are a risk taker: David took too many risks on a mountain bike. But it was that quality that paid off in his success as a developer as well as architect.
In the late ‘90s I was contemplating buying an old mortuary in Culver City, which I eventually converted into my office. I had never taken a risk like that, and David said “Go go go, own your own building, you can do this!” He also counseled me as I debated taking on partners. David was a fantastic sounding board on how to grow an architectural practice.
David loved Los Angeles, and it pained him to see crumbling early 20th century buildings in the City’s downtown. With great passion he bought, restored and adaptively reused many historic architectural treasures, transforming them into more than 500 new units of housing and multiple creative office spaces. He breathed new life into William Pereira’s Metropolitan Water District Building, now the Elysian; The Tomahawk and Great Republic Life Insurance buildings in Flatiron Park; and the Orpheum Theater. With sleek, modern interiors, airy living spaces and spectacular views, he lured a new generation downtown and helped spur its economic and cultural revival.
Another stellar gift to L.A. is David’s 1988 rescue of Leland Bryant’s art deco Sunset Strip masterpiece, the Sunset Towers Building. Squatters inhabited the West Hollywood structure when he bought it on inspired impulse. “He came home one day and said he had put it in escrow,” recalled Karen Gray, David’s wife of 47 years. “We had 30 days to raise the money. He went shopping and talked to investors, and we scraped enough together to hold the escrow. This was typical of David.” Navigating its resurrection through a tough political, design and construction process, he transformed Sunset Towers into a luxury hotel with every amenity that became a hot spot for the glamorous Hollywood crowd. Its majesty glorifies Sunset Boulevard.
In Telluride, David built a retreat for himself and Karen that honors local history by referencing the vernacular language of mines. He constructed Colorado stone, Douglas fir, and Corten steel into a multi-level, pitched-roof contemporary design that steps up the mountain hillside.
When freed of historical constraints, David unleashed pure poetry in concrete, steel and glass. He developed and designed two dynamic office buildings in Santa Monica, and as the architect of the Marina del Rey Costco enlivened the big box with muscular beams and canopies of steel painted bright yellow, his favorite color.
Most of David’s residential work is concentrated in Malibu, where the beaches and hills on which he loved to bike are sprinkled with single-family homes whose budgets allowed the most powerful expression of his vision. In the 1990s he designed and built a Malibu beachfront house where he and Karen were often visited by his daughter Berkeley, her husband Scott and their children Elliott and Amelia. Last year the couple moved into his last residential project in the Malibu Hills. Its composition of taut steel, glass and earthy concrete captures exquisite light and views of the ocean. It is the work of a master architect.
David Gray significantly enriched the urban fabric of Los Angeles. His timeless works of architecture reach from the Los Angeles River west to the beach, inspiring the same joy with which they were created.
Steven Ehrlich is a partner of Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects.