John De la vaux: one in a million

On September 26 of last year, John de la Vaux died. Builder of some of John Lautner’s most memorable buildings, de la Vaux brought unique qualities and experience to the job, along with a brilliant mind. It is unlikely such a builder will ever be seen again. It is no exaggeration to say that John Lautner’s name would not be as well known if his collaboration with de la Vaux had not happened, happily for both.

John de la Vaux’s daughters have created this beautiful testimony to his life:

John Douglas de la Vaux

1912 – 2018

With heavy hearts we announce the passing of our Dad, John de la Vaux, on September 26, 2018, at the age of 106. His mind remained sharp until the very end, but his body was just worn out.

John was born in Daley City, California, July 4, 1912, the fifth child of Alfred and Aimee de la Vaux.  In 1916 the family moved to San Anselmo. He was enrolled in the First Grade in a one-room school in 1917, only to be removed when the Pandemic Spanish Flu broke out. John was again enrolled in school and again removed due to his father’s incarceration for being a German during WW I, an episode that his father never recovered from. John was enrolled and removed a third time when he was mis-diagnosed with polio. The family moved to San Diego in 1920, hoping for a better life in the wake of the War and John was finally enrolled in First Grade at eight years old. He was blessed with a photographic memory so was able to catch up quickly. During those years in san Diego, he fished for food for his family and frequented the boat-building yards, picking up skills he would use in the future. He even watched the building of Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane! The family moved to Hollywood, California when John was about 16 years old and he was enrolled at Le Conte Jr. High School. He attended Hollywood High School and left school in the eleventh grade when he was 20 years old.

Carling Residence

Life was tough during the post-War years and schooling was interrupted several times when John took jobs to help support his family. The move to Hollywood located the family across the street from the girl who would be the love of his life. His future father-in-law took him into the building trade and gave him the building education of a life-time. They helped to build the brand-new Beverly Hills community!

John married Marguerite Bell in 1933, a marriage that lasted 64 years until her death in 1997. They were blessed with three children: Johnette, Marguerite, and Douglas.

Employment of any kind was hard to find in the 1930s when the Country was still in the throes of the financial crash of 1929. John worked in building construction, on highway projects up and down the California coast, commercial fishing and boat building. When WWII started, he was too old for the Draft. The building trades dried up. Boat-building and commercial fishing supported his family. He built speed-boats for the Actor and Actress John Hall and Frances Langford, and Actor Errol Flynn. When the U.S. Navy wanted to increase the speed of 45-50 mph P.T. Boats, John was involved in a top-secret modification, designing and building a wood hull that would withstand speeds of up to 120 mph. He was on-board the boat when it was tested with new super-charged engines in Long Beach Harbor. The test was successful, but the Navy was daunted by the ultra-speed and cancelled the contract. In 1942, Lockheed Overseas Corporation contracted John as a crew supervisor and sent him to Northern Ireland to build an airstrip for the Allies. He crossed the Atlantic, in a convoy, on the Queen Elizabeth which had been modified as a Troop Ship, at a time when German submarines had become a deadly threat.

Harvey Residence

In 1947, Marguerite had become friends with the wife of an up-and-coming modernistic Architect, John Lautner, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. John Lautner was looking for a builder to construct a very modernistic house in the Hollywood Hills. The two Johns were introduced, and a liaison of 40 years was sealed.  Through those 40 years, John de la Vaux built seven John Lautner designs; the most famous (throughout the world) is the Chemosphere house which is still known as the most modern house ever built. 

Malin Residence – section

Another design, the Harpel house, built beside a small lake in Anchorage, Alaska, was featured in the October 6, 1967 issue of Life Magazine. As John states in the documentary, “Infinite Space,” his life wouldn’t have been complete had he not built those homes.  The homes he built:

Carling Residence

Harvey Residence

Malin Residence (Chemosphere)

Malin Residence

Harpel Residence no. 1 and no. 2

Harpel Alaska – Life Magazine photo
Harpel Hollywood

Began the Reiner Residence (Silvertop)

Silvertop, under construction

Most of the Tolstoy Residence

Tolstoy Residence. Photo by Morgan Group

Remodeled Stevens Residence

Stevens Residence. Photo by Michael La Fetra

John built many more homes designed by other Modern Architects, including a home for George C. Page, founder of Mission Pack. John was subsequently hired as a consultant on the construction of the George C. Page Museum La Brea Discoveries at Rancho La Brea, Hancock Park, in Los Angeles.

John and Marguerite retired to Carson City, Nevada, in 1987, to be nearer his son and daughters as Marguerite was taken away by dementia. He cared for her for 10 years until her death in 1997.  For the past 12 years, John was writing a book on how the Pyramids at Giza were constructed: how the stones were moved, lifted and put in place. He was also writing his life history. His Daughter, Marguerite, hopes to complete his Pyramid book.

Besides being a “builder extraordinaire”, our Dad had a love affair with food throughout his life. He was truly a gourmet cook! He was an avid reader of scientific and nature publications and his phenomenal memory allowed him to quote minute details about a myriad of subjects.  It is said that when a centenarian dies, an encyclopedia of knowledge dies with them.  He was our encyclopedia.

John was pre-deceased by his parents and 5 siblings; wife, Marguerite; grandson, Leonard Bright; daughter-in-law, Jeanine de la Vaux; granddaughter, Danielle de la Vaux; and granddaughter, Laura Dolan Bright-Ruecker. He is survived by his daughters, Johnette Deane and Marguerite Dolan (Joe), son, Douglas de la Vaux (Mary), 2 grandsons, 3 granddaughters, 8 great-grandchildren and 9 great-great-grandchildren.

Dad, we could ask you about anything and you would always know something about it.

Your cooking was beyond amazing; you could dream up a recipe and create a gourmet feast.

We miss you so — you gave so much to so many. Thank you for all you gave to us.

We’ll meet again in your Great Beyond.

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2 thoughts on “John De la vaux: one in a million”

  1. Our family was deeply saddened upon hearing of John’s passing. I was a toddler when he and our dad finished building Chemosphere, and the years still echo countless stories of those days. On behalf of Dad (now 87) and our entire family, we extend our deepest sympathies, and prayers for comfort and peace to the de la Vaux family.
    Sincerely,
    Mary Ann Malin Rollison

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