Restorer’s $1-Million Job : It May Be Ultimate Do-it-Yourself Project
What may be the ultimate in do-it-yourself projects sits on the northwest corner of 6th Street and Alexandria Avenue.
It’s the Chapman Park Building, a fine, 1920s-era, Spanish-Revival-style specimen restored, managed and maintained by a single soul.
“What he’s done is quite astonishing,” Ruthann Lehrer, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, observed, “because the quality of the restoration is very high. Yet, the project has been almost a one-man show.”
That one man is Douglas Curran, a 30-year-old bachelor who has not only worked on the commercial building for the past five years but has lived in it at the same time.
“I fixed this first,” he said of his small apartment, “so I could have a place for my beer and my Beethoven.”
Posters on the walls reflect his other love: travel. Less than two weeks after he was graduated from Hollywood High in the summer of 1973, he left home with $200 in his pocket. For the next three years, he lived and worked all over the world.
When he returned, he was no stranger to stretching a buck, a rupee or a yen. To earn board and keep, he had picked hops and apples and worked in construction in England, bound Scriptures by hand in India, forged hand tools in Australia and taught English in Japan.
He had always been handy--built a tree house when he was 5 and restored a World War II Army truck when he was 15--but the trip expanded his capabilities and prepared him for the Chapman Park, which he started restoring five years ago this summer.
“I opened a body shop in Glendale with my brother after I got back from my trip, and then that evolved into a towing business in Venice. In the meantime, this building became a problem for us,” he remembered.
His family had owned it for about 20 years, he said, but the building had not been well maintained. Indeed, he called it “a huge albatross.” There were holes in the walls and chips in the moldings. The whole place needed to be painted and fixed up.
A contractor would have charged $1 million to do the job, he estimated, “but we didn’t all of a sudden have $1 million in a shoe box to spend. So I stepped in.”
He left the towing business to his brother and moved into the Chapman Park, where he spruced up the suites, one at a time.
“After I fixed them, some tenants would agree to a rent hike, and some wouldn’t,” he said. “A lot have been here for a long time. One--Sam Foster, who has an employment agency for domestic help--has been here for 20 years.”
Most development and rehabilitation projects are done on behalf of companies and partnerships backed by substantial capital investments, he noted, but he worked alone on the Chapman Park, using only building revenue and not even the federal government’s investment tax credit, which has proven so helpful in preserving historic-designated buildings. The Chapman Park Building was only approved this year by the Los Angeles City Council as a historic cultural monument.
Help from Tenant
“All the paper work goes to my mom,” he continued. His parents live in Hollywood. “She tells me if we’re broke and going to die this month or if we’re rich and can go ahead and spend on this project or that. So one month I might have $200 to spend and another month, $500 or $2,000.”
Altogether, he figures he’s spent “maybe $100,000 but probably half of that.”
The biggest item was the back gate, made of wrought iron. It cost, he figures, $10,000.
Another major expenditure was on the entry system, which ties into the phone lines and has a brass directory with a speaker and push buttons. “It probably cost a couple thousand dollars,” he calculated, “but I ran all of the lines and got a lot of help from Jerry.” That’s Jerry Jensen, a tenant whom Curran describes as “a computer wizard, classical pianist and philosopher.”
Jensen’s girlfriend just planted flowers by the fountain that Curran recently restored in the rear courtyard . “That took me two months to fix and get running again,” he said. “Part of the fountain was smashed, and I had to hook up a new pump.”
Reminiscent of Ralphs
So Curran has had a little help from his friends, but basically he’s done everything in the building, he said, “except make the parts, although I made my own moldings in the basement.” That’s where he also makes his own beer.
“Theoretically, our building has two stories, but part of it has three, and part has four,” Curran said.
The three-story tower is reminiscent of many of the early Ralphs markets. No wonder. Morgan, Walls & Clements, which designed the Chapman Park Building, designed many of the early Ralphs stores in the same Churrigueresque style. The firm also designed the Chapman Park Market, which has other owners and is still standing across the street, and the Chapman Park Hotel, which was also across the street but was torn down.
Early in his career, Stiles Clements, one of the principals of the architectural firm, produced many eclectic monuments for Los Angeles, including the Atlantic Richfield Building, the Mayan Theater and the Samson Rubber & Tire Co. Later, after he adopted a more modern style, he was responsible for some of the great buildings of the 1940s and 1950s, especially along Wilshire Boulevard. Among them: the Broadway department store, Carnation Co. headquarters and Transport Indemnity Building.
‘Master of Styles’
His career spanned almost 50 years, from about 1910 to 1965. “He was one of L. A.'s most important architects,” Lehrer of the Conservancy said. “He was, if you’ll excuse the pun, a master of many styles.”
With its poured-concrete foundation and facing, the Chapman Park Building reminds Curran of a church or a castle. Its 20 studios and 10 corresponding apartments remind him of buildings in Italy or Greece. Only a couple of his 20 tenants live in the building as he does, but most of his tenants are in creative-type businesses like photography or design, fields that appreciate the skylights and 18- and 25-foot ceilings.
Andresen Typographics occupies the most visible space at the corner of Alexandria Avenue and 6th Street. “This was the armpit of the building,” Curran said. It was a Chinese restaurant before Andresen moved in.
It was one place in the building where he did not do the work himself, he admitted, because--with more than 2,000 square feet--"it would have taken 8,000 years for me to get down on my knees and scrub it out.”
Instead, he offered what he called “a sweetheart deal” on the rent. “And they did all of the work.”
They worked on it for five months to get it right for their computerized typesetting. “Then I wound up playing air-conditioning man,” Curran added. “I had to take two weeks off to run the air conditioning the way I wanted it to go.”
Now all he has left to do at the Chapman Park, though, is some landscaping, ongoing management and continued maintenance. “But the tenants all know that it’s just me doing this,” he said, “and if they throw up on the sidewalk, I have to clean it up. So they’re real helpful and cooperative.”
And he’s beginning to think of his next project, though his early morning swims at the nearby Ambassador, trip to Europe he’s planning in August, and work on his 1960 Ferrari take time.
“Trouble is, when I go to a party, and I’m asked that traditional question--'What do you do?'--what do I say? Entrepreneur? Renaissance person? What I do is not a one-sentence thing,” he said.
So what will he do next? “Maybe open a restaurant. Maybe do something with travel. Maybe be a negotiator? I’m good at that.”
Whatever he does, he’ll depend on himself, though, because he has this philosophy:
“The bottom line is that you have to do it yourself. You can let somebody else do it, but if you do it yourself, you usually get a better job at less money.”