Visitors Get Preview of Haven for Women : Downtown Building Being Converted to Provide Low-Cost Housing, Self-Esteem

Times Staff Writer

A Christmas preview:

That's what it was last week for the 400 to 500 guests attending the annual open house of the Downtown Women's Center at 325 S. Los Angeles St.

Besides viewing the day facility, visitors got a glimpse of the three-story residence being built next door. When completed in March or April, it will be the first permanent housing for women on Skid Row.

The housing is being constructed in a 76-year-old building that once was an artist's loft and a ground-floor mission. It will accommodate 48 women at monthly rents of $135 or $150 each. The going rate in the neighborhood is $200 to $250 for a room.

Nighttime Refuge

The daytime facility for the Women's Center was opened seven years ago by Jill Halverson, a former Peace Corps volunteer and Skid Row welfare worker. No sooner was the center in operation, than Halverson started dreaming of a nighttime refuge as well.

"Some of these women never lived in anything so nice," she said of the residence. "I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of personal growth will result."

Personal growth for the women served by the center has already been apparent, though only the third floor was completed before the open house. Last August, when construction started, Halverson was hoping that work would be finished by Christmas.

"We got behind because of problems between the city's plan checking and inspectors," she explained. It's a typical construction problem, workers on the site agreed.

Through donated materials and labor, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been saved on construction, which is expected to cost about $1 million. Ratkovich, Bowers & Perez of Los Angeles is the project developer, and R.W. Stanhope Co. of Los Angeles is the general contractor, doing the work at no profit.

"This project should be credited to the workmen," Halverson said. "They've been aggressive in getting it done and donating their time and materials."

Clay Dunn of Air-Tec in Carson, who is installing the air conditioning and heating, also got other members of his industry to donate to the cause. "About $12,000 came from the heating industry in cash and contributions," Halverson explained. "All the furnaces were donated."

Donations even extend to house plants. "Bob Carter's Van Herrick's (in West Los Angeles) is donating plants so we'll have one in every room," she added. David Jones, a Beverly Hills florist, is donating flowers.

All that is needed now are dollars, Joe Kloiber, project foreman, said, continuing, "We don't care if they have Washington's face on them as long as we get enough of them."

There are so many finishing touches yet to do, he acknowledged. Alison Wright, of architect Brenda Levin's office in downtown Los Angeles, said, "The workers typically call this 'a nice, small job but complicated."'

Halverson wants the residence to be a home, not an institution, and Levin and Wright sensitively incorporated this concept into the design, although there are community baths and other rooms. The kitchen on the third floor is an example.

A window is cut out of a wall between the kitchen and the hallway, giving the illusion that the kitchen is a cottage. And each of the women's rooms is like a separate house, with porch lights and mailboxes outside.

Part of a Family

Each room has a double bed, sink (and in the future will have, perhaps, a small refrigerator), built-in desk or makeup area, a closet with a full-length mirror, and soft lights and colors. "We want them to see themselves as lovely," Halverson said.

They already see themselves as part of a family that has grown to include the construction workers, Halverson contends. At the open house, each group of people touring the third floor had a hostess, who was one of the women, and a host, one of the workmen.

Halverson is certain that many of the women and workmen will remain lifelong friends. An incident one morning earlier this month reflected the comradeship that has developed.

It was Don Snyder's last regularly scheduled day as dry-wall foreman, and about 20 women from the center paraded onto the construction site, where he was standing, and surprised him with a cake and singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

"Thank you," he said, "but I'll be back."

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