They Came, Sawed and Conferred : Not All Sweat, Toil and Fumes for Visitors Exposed to Dirty Work in Home Restorations

Times Staff Writer

Sunday's 4 1/2-hour home tour by the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Highland Park Heritage Trust was not for society folk or those notorious poke-arounds called looky-loos.

It was for people who love the smell of sawdust in the morning.

And people who like other things as well, things like paint remover, plaster powder, polyester resins and the dust of 70 or 100 years that puffs from the recesses of double-hung windows when their counterbalancing weights are being exhumed.

The idea, dreamed up by the people at the Conservancy, was to witness live demonstrations of some of the dirty work behind the finished beauty of a restored period house.

Highland Park, an area rich more in handsome old cottages than sumptuous period mansions, seemed just right for the working-class flavor of the event.

"There is an awakening interest in Highland Park," said Virginia Neely, president of the Heritage Trust, a nonprofit group that promotes community revitalization. "I think they wanted to take advantage of that."

250 People Take Tour

The tour drew about 250 people, at $20 for members and $30 for anyone else. Many were young couples with clipboards and pencils in hand. They asked detailed questions and made notes along the way.

The group visited six private homes, all built in diverse architectural styles between 1897 and 1912 and all now in different stages of decay and regeneration.

At a 1912 Japanese-style Craftsman house near the corner of Figueroa Street and Avenue 50, half a dozen workmen chipped away at crumbling mortar, sawed off termite-hollowed rafter tails and stripped old paint from a brick fireplace.

While supervising his two workmen, restoration contractor Larry Winans, a blond Abe Lincoln type, described how one young man would cut away the ragged end of a thick rafter using a zig-zag pattern called a scarf joint. Then he would saw a matching piece of fresh wood and secure it with dowels and marine resin. It was an all-day job, Winans explained.

Later, time permitting, the young man would bore holes in some of the less-damaged rafters and pour resin in. When the resin hardened, the worker would shape it, just like auto body filler.

With dozens of damaged rafters around the house, it would be no small undertaking.

"Anybody that loves old buildings and takes on a project like this has to be a little bit crazy," Winans said.

A few doors down in a 1907 cottage of river bottom rock, floor finisher Douglas Nigh held a 12-inch carbide sanding disk between his fingers while making a similar point to about a dozen people circled around him on a half-sanded wooden floor.

"The average person who does floors wants to get in and out," Nigh said. "That's how they make their money.

"That's not how I make my money," he said.

Nigh told his audience that many floor finishers consider the carbide polishing the last step in preparation.

"I'm fussy," he said. He looked toward a young, sawdust-encrusted helper. "I insist that he get down on his hands and knees with the Makita." A Makita, he explained, is a top-of-the-line sanding tool.

The message wasn't exclusively sweat, toil and chemical applications, though. The tour included two solid period houses that were almost fully renovated.

A third, the rambling, eclectic home for three generations of a family named Smith was deep in the clutter of wallpaper removal. Inside, a flouncy 40ish woman named Jacqueline Sage painted lavender flowers on a piece of canvas duck.

"Anyone can get an Oriental rug for $99,000," Sage said. "But not many people can get a hand-painted floor cloth that's a one-of-a-kind."

And they can be painted without getting on hands and knees.

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