Los Angeles Times

Calling It Their Bluff

If the scenic patch of bluff at the far end of San Pedro's Point Fermin had been stable, the vacant and vandalized 1914 Craftsman cottage that Bill Roberts and his partners renovated a few years ago might have ended up as wood chips on the bottom of some landfill, making way for new construction.

"Everyone else who was making bids on it was going to tear it down," said Roberts, 86, a retired general contractor.

Roberts bought the 1,280-square-foot two-bedroom house for $340,000 in the mid-1990s--along with his wife, Nan, 70, and two partners, Jackie Law, 79, and her son Jeff Law, 50--and subsequently worked on and supervised the one-year, $58,000 renovation.

The 8,000-square-foot parcel has what Nan Roberts calls "a million-dollar view," overlooking breaking waves, windsurfers and the Port of Los Angeles.

But the geologically unstable lot will not hold a large, heavy house without prohibitively expensive shoring up and the approval of the California Coastal Commission. "The bluff is so iffy," Bill Roberts said.

Certainly, if the bluff were granite, "the house would have been bulldozed," said Gordon Teuber, the San Pedro Realtor who brought the partners together, whom he knew to be fans of old homes.

The Laws have bought and fixed up San Pedro properties for decades. "The more of a junker it is, the better she likes it," Jeff Law said of his mother.

The Roberts, relative newcomers of 15 years in this close-knit community, are known for their efforts to revamp the 1899 Muller House Museum and for helping to bring about a multimillion-dollar restoration of the 1932 Cabrillo Beach Bath House. "You don't ever tear down anything old," Nan Roberts said. "You restore it."

Nan Roberts is past president of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society. Before moving to San Pedro, Bill Roberts was president of the San Fernando Valley Historic Society, and he is a member of the Twentynine Palms Historical Society.

Their goal was to return the house to its original simple grace. It had been built in 1914 during a vibrant period--the Port of Los Angeles had been founded in 1907 and the Panama Canal was just opening, bringing more ships to the port. Oil was discovered nearby that same year, and World War I began.

Renovating the bluff house proved daunting. A former owner had chopped it into a duplex, with a bathroom cobbled into the hallway off the living room. Part of the exterior was covered with 1 1/2-inch-thick pink plaster, and many of the old double-hung windows had been replaced with aluminum ones.

One of the first tasks was clearing trash. "It was a junkyard," said Jeff Law, a sailor and shipwright who worked on the project as the main laborer under Bill Roberts' direction. The team hauled off an old camper that may have served as a guesthouse, chain-link fencing, rebar, water pipes and other wreckage of the past.

Bill Roberts said the former owner was a packrat, but that also was beneficial as some of the materials needed to reconstruct the original details, including moldings, were found in the piles and set aside.Jeff Law and a helper chipped the plaster off the house and garage. It took six weeks of prying and pounding, bracing a two-by-four against the studs to get a solid base for the pry bar. The effort uncovered the original 1-by-6-inch beveled redwood siding.

"We didn't know it was there," Nan Roberts said. "That was a nice surprise." One of her jobs was to fill in the holes to get the boards ready to paint.

After the plaster was gone, the sills, which had been sheared off, were replaced to replicate the original design, and the aluminum windows were replaced with wooden double-hung models.

The single-car garage had termites, a dirt floor and no foundation. With the heavy plaster gone, the garage was jacked up and a concrete foundation and floor poured under it.

Inside, the house had signs of age, use, misuse and neglect, but still had a leaded-glass window, wainscoting, coffered ceilings, original hardware, push-button light switches and even a few original light fixtures, which were rewired.

Restoration was helped by the relatively good condition of the ¾-inch-thick wood floors made of maple and close-grain Douglas fir. "It's beautiful stuff," Bill Roberts said.

Big expenses for the interior included gutting and replacing the kitchen and bathrooms, reworking access to the added bathroom so it opens to a hall instead of the living room, new copper plumbing, enlarged electrical service and a forced air furnace.

A wall of French doors was added in the dining room to replace an aluminum slider, and a set of brick stairs replaced rickety wooden ones. The front door was replaced by a thick wooden door Bill Roberts had saved from a remodel he did at least 25 years ago.

There were a few differences of opinion. Nan Roberts and Jackie Law wanted to see another slider replaced by French doors, but Bill Roberts insisted that would put them over budget. Jeff Law would have liked the kitchen and bathroom cabinets to be fancier, but Bill Roberts wanted them plain, to match the style of the era.

The project was completed with full permits. It attracted the attention of the neighbors, and several stopped by to ask Bill Roberts for construction advice. The final touches were paint inside and out and new landscaping.

During the year of labor, Bill and Nan Roberts, along with Jeff Law, were on the site almost every day, with Jackie Law pitching in for some painting duty. They enjoyed watching migrating whales from the covered porch, and Nan planted a vegetable garden on the cleared lot.

Jackie Law considered living in the house but decided to stay at her own view home. The Roberts said they were tempted to live there too but are pretty well settled into their own home nearby. And Jeff Law said he couldn't afford to live in the house.

In the end, it became a $2,200-a-month rental, now used as a part-time office/studio by music producer Leo Rossi and his company, Highway One Management. His idea was to bring musicians there to work out lyrics and rearrange music away from Los Angeles' corporate environment.

"It's an inspirational place, especially when there's a full moon," said Rossi, a San Pedro native who has dubbed the house "The Point." Members of established and emerging bands, such as Dishwalla from Santa Barbara, bring sleeping bags to use on the twin beds.

Rossi assured the Robertses that his musicians would use acoustic instruments only and not disturb the neighbors. "I promised that I would keep it cool and keep it clean."

Once the house was returned to its original charm, it was discovered by television and movie location scouts, who have paid $2,000 a day to use it as a set. There have been seven shoots there in the last few years, including two "JAG" television shows and a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie called "Follow the Stars Home."

Nan Roberts remembers the project as "quite an adventure," while Bill Roberts said: "It was a fun thing more than anything."

With age taking its toll, Bill Roberts said he probably won't be taking on any more large restoration jobs, but he remains happy about his accomplishments. "I'm glad I was able to do what I was able to do when I was able to do it."

Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for 12 years. She can be reached at http://www.kathyprice.com.

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