Amid a crush of tropical vegetation, towering bamboo plants and an array of native California trees sits a little-known architectural treasure.
Nestled in seclusion, the simple two-story house designed by renowned architect Irving Gill has been left virtually intact since it was built in 1921. Soon it is going to belong to the people of Santa Fe Springs.
The city has agreed to buy the six-acre estate for $2 million. Long interested in obtaining the property, the city had obtained a promise last year from owner Jim Siemon, 82, that the city would be given first crack once he decided to sell it.
Since then, city officials have visited the site--located between Pioneer Boulevard and Alburtis Avenue, near Telegraph Road--and studied its historical significance, finding that the house is not mentioned in historical accounts of Gill.
“There is no knowledge of it. It’s a very unique property,” said John Loomis, an architect with 30th Street Architects, based in Newport Beach who has toured the house at the city’s request.
The city has considered working to place the house on the National Register of Historic Places and applying for a state preservation grant. But the city council delayed action on that last week, citing concerns about whether the house meets earthquake codes. The council also expressed reservations about applying to preserve the house before the city decides what it will do with the property.
“It would be a feather in the city’s cap to preserve it,” Loomis said.
The property is not only important to the city for
its historical significance but it is located south of the Civic Center--which contains the City Hall, library, Town Center Hall, aquatic center and a post office. The Town Center Plan approved in 1968 envisioned using the property as a cultural arts center with an amphitheater and a museum or exhibit building.
When Siemon announced this summer that the property was for sale, the city had to quickly begin figuring out what to do with it. An ad hoc committee made up of various city officials was formed in July and ideas are now being discussed, said City Manager Don Powell. He said that recommendations could go to the City Council by the end of September.
Could Use for Retreats
Although discussions are preliminary, most ideas focus on using the estate as a cultural arts or conference center. City officials have suggested renting the estate for company retreats or seminars. Other ideas include a bed-and-breakfast inn, museum and possibly office development.
Richard Weaver, director of planning development, said the city would like to preserve the estate’s lush landscaping and historical house and at the same time consider a use that could bring in revenue to offset the cost of maintenance.
The city paid Siemon $200,000 last year for the option to buy the property and will pay the remaining $1.8 million from redevelopment funds, said Bob Orpin, assistant director of redevelopment and housing. Escrow is expected to close in mid-October and the balance will be paid in 10 years. In the meantime, the city will pay Siemon a minimum of $144,000 a year in interest payments, Orpin said.
Secluded and shielded from the encroaching industrial and residential development, the house is one of the last residential projects Gill designed, Loomis said.
Employed Cubes, Arches
Gill, who died in 1936, was famous for his Spartan style, using cubes, white concrete walls and arches. His most noted accomplishment in Los Angeles County was the Dodge House in Hollywood, which was demolished in 1969 to make room for apartments. Gill had a significant impact in San Diego, where he practiced at the turn of the century. He designed about 140 structures, a few of which also remain in Santa Monica, Torrance and Pasadena; the bulk of the 30 to 40 that survive are in the San Diego area.
The eight-bedroom house in Santa Fe Springs has simple archways, a flat roof and thick concrete walls. A circular driveway leads to a U-shaped courtyard that has Oriental planters. Large windows with red trim lead inside the house, which is lavishly furnished with antiques, Persian rugs and Oriental artifacts. A guest house, pool and former chicken coop are also on the property. Off to one side is a sunken lawn for lawn bowling and croquet.
Doves coo in the dense bamboo stalks, some of which are eight inches wide. The entire grounds are extensively landscaped with eucalyptus, sycamore, cedar, palm and even cork oak trees.
“It’s a little oasis of peace,” said Orpin, one of the city officials discussing options for the property. “It’s a very quiet setting.”
Heading for Santa Rosa
Siemon, who has owned the house since 1950, said he will move to Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, shortly after escrow closes.
“The responsibility of maintaining the acreage and keeping the house intact was increasing,” Siemon said. “I thought it would be best for me to dispose of the property.”
It took two years to build the house because the walls are made of reinforced concrete, an innovation started by Gill.
The home was built for Chauncey D. Clarke and his wife, Marie Rankin Clarke, who was Siemon’s second cousin.
Siemon said Marie Clarke was an ardent patron of the arts and one of the founders of the Hollywood Bowl. She and her husband purchased the property in 1915 and developed it as an orange grove. In 1919, the Clarkes hired the firm of Gill & Pearson to construct the home. In 1923, oil was discovered in Santa Fe Springs and Chauncey Clarke leased some of his land for drilling. The Clarkes moved out soon after that, Siemon said.
Bought Out Co-Owners
Marie Clarke willed the property to three persons in 1948, including Siemon, who bought out the other two interests in 1950. He originally owned 11 acres, but sold five acres--where the Civic Center now stands--to the city in 1952.
“After living on the property for 36 years, I will definitely have feelings of reluctance to leave it,” Siemon said, adding he has a “sentimental attachment” to the estate.
“I’m hoping it will be a cultural center,” said Siemon, who requested that the city name it the Marie Rankin Clarke estate. He added that he would like to see events “pertaining to the theater or art world” held there.