This Time, a Tower : Beach Cottage Puts On Victorian Air Bit by Bit

Times Staff Writer

By day, Mike Cunningham salvages cars. By night, he escapes to a world that barely knew them.

Cunningham, the 32-year-old owner of a Wilmington auto dismantling yard, has become a hero among some local history buffs in his home town of Redondo Beach.

Four years ago, the self-described house "sculptor" transformed his near century-old beach cottage on South Broadway into a classic Victorian jewel. He tore off the asbestos shingles, added a gazebo to the front porch and embellished the multicolored facade with elaborate gingerbread.

Inside, he restored the moldings, window casings and furnishings in several rooms. The one-story home, held together with handmade square nails, has been a mainstay on the Redondo Beach historical home and building tour ever since.

New Project

For the past several weeks, saws have been buzzing and hammers have been clamoring once again at the ornate home, one of only a few dozen 19th-Century structures in Redondo that survived the onslaught of commercial and high-rise residential development.

Last year, Cunningham salvaged another piece of Redondo Beach history--the last remaining Queen Anne tower in the city--and he now plans to display it in the way he knows best. He is adding it to his house.

The 90-year-old tower, dismantled from the corner of a Victorian home on the Esplanade just days before bulldozers leveled the structure, is being rebuilt atop the South Broadway home. It hovers 38 feet above the narrow side driveway, which is too tight for modern automobiles, and extends to just three feet from the property next door.

The Esplanade home, built about the same time as Cunningham's, had been donated to the city as a museum by Gray and Esther Funke, who have since constructed a new home on the ocean-view site. The Funkes offered to pay for moving the house, but city officials were unable to agree on where to put it. With demolition just days away, the couple invited Cunningham to take whatever he wanted--including 2,000 feet of molding, window cases, ceiling panels and fixtures as well as the treasured Queen Anne tower.

Status Symbol

"The tower was a status symbol when they were built in the 1890s," said Cunningham, who is a bachelor. "It was like owning a new Cadillac. You would say, 'Hey, I've got a tower on my house,' and it meant something. It symbolized the height of Victorian architecture.

"A friend of mine lived in the house with the tower 13 years ago. I like old houses, and even though I was only 19 years old, I knew I liked this style. It had a real impact on me. When I was in the position to buy a house, there were two choices: that one, which I couldn't afford, and the one I bought. Now I have the tower."

Leonard Martinez, a friend of Cunningham who has served as the master craftsman for the project, has been cutting and applying shingles to the cap of the solid redwood tower and rebuilding its octagonal base ever since a crane placed it on top of the house late last month. Cunningham said it will take another week or so before the tower is completely rebuilt and enclosed.

"When something as awesome as this is unfolding, everyone takes notice," said Toni Phillips, president of the Redondo Beach Historical Society. "The tower comes from the same era as the old Redondo Hotel. That is when Redondo was enjoying its glory days. You would come from Pasadena to your beach cottage on the Red Car, and arrive right at the hotel. It was a romantic period."

Designed by Architect

The 15-foot high cap and 7-foot base, originally attached to the ground floor of the Esplanade home, now rest on a 16-foot high octagonal foundation built by Martinez. The tower will serve as the focal point of a second-floor addition to the home, which Cunningham said will take another two or three years to complete. The entire project has been designed by David Modell, an architect from San Francisco who specializes in restoration.

"This is strictly a hobby," Cunningham said, explaining that he and Martinez do not work under deadlines. "I feel this kind of architecture is an art form. It is like being a painter or sculptor. Everyone has some kind of thing they do on evenings or on the side."

"I just love doing it," Martinez said. "It is a beautiful tower."

A hobby or not, Cunningham takes the restoration seriously, traveling around the country and Canada to collect stairways, ceilings and other bits and pieces of old houses to use in his own. He has pieces of dismantled homes stored in his basement and attic and at his Wilmington wrecking yard.

"I didn't want it to look like something I picked out of a Sears catalogue," he said.

Plans to Remodel

Once the second-floor addition is completed, he intends to remodel the entire interior of the house. "When I first did it, I was a greenhorn," he said. "I had never done it before. After going through other houses properly done, I realized some of the mistakes I had made."

Cunningham said he spent about $10,000 when he first remodeled the inside and outside of the home several years ago, and has already spent another $10,000 on the Queen Anne tower addition. He paid $120,000 for the three-bedroom house in 1978.

But the improvements to the house, he said, probably have not increased the value of the property. "In a business sense, it has not been a real smart way to spend the money," he said. "The land is zoned for multiple dwellings, so you could put three units on it and make money.

"But the whole reason for doing this is, hopefully, it will get people interested in preserving houses rather than selling them off for condos. Redondo still has some real nice houses that have great potential. A lot of people just don't realize what they have because it has been modernized."

New Awareness

Phillips, of the historical society, said preservation of the tower, coupled with the fact that the rest of the Esplanade home was not saved, has inspired a new awareness of historical structures in the city.

She said that even the purists among local preservationists--those who prefer that homes like Cunningham's not be embellished but rather restored only to their original design--welcome the new consciousness that the project has fostered.

The preservation played a key role in the city's successful effort to win a $5,000 state grant in the spring to conduct an architectural survey of homes and buildings in Redondo Beach, she said. Kevin Callahan, a city planning associate, estimates that there are more than 2,000 homes over 40 years old in the city. He said the survey will get under way in September.

"The tower is quite a statement because it shows that even though we were unable to preserve the 603 Esplanade house, there is an effort toward preservation in the community," Phillips said. "We may have lost the battle to save that house, but I am fairly confident that we will win the war."

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