Living on Stilt Street : One-of-a-Kind Neighborhood Worries That New Construction Will Spoil Its Profile

Times Staff Writer

His friends figured he was crazy when Jerome Joss moved from the Illinois flatlands to a house perched on slender legs over a canyon above the San Fernando Valley.

Joss settled on Sherman Oaks' "Stilt Street," the mountain-hugging neighborhood of pole-supported houses that hover over busy Beverly Glen Boulevard.

"My friends from Chicago say I must be a little nuts to live like this," Joss acknowledges. "People think this whole street will disappear when the Big One hits."

Joss' residence is in a world-famous row of 20 stilt houses designed by renowned modernist architect Richard J. Neutra. The homes rode out the 1971 San Fernando and 1987 Whittier earthquakes without suffering so much as a crack.

But Joss and other stilt home owners are shaking nervously these days. They worry that their one-of-a-kind neighborhood soon will be spoiled by construction of 4-story dwellings that would tower over their homes and ruin their unique hillside profile.

The neighborhood is frequently featured in movies and television shows, with the stilt houses usually depicted as the ultimate in wacky Los Angeles architecture.

The stilts are on many Angelenos' list of must-see local attractions when East Coast visitors roll into town looking for confirmation that shaky Los Angeles is the land of fruits and nuts.

Nowhere Else in the World

"Once these new houses are built, you'll never have this setting again," said Ralph Lewis, who has lived in one of the pole homes since 1970. "Nowhere else in the whole world are there 20 of these houses in a row."

The builder of the new houses disagrees that his project would ruin Stilt Street.

"I'm a Sherman Oaks resident," developer James Leavy says. "I live at the bottom of the hill they're talking about. I aspire to greater heights. . . . I'm going to live in one of those houses I'm building."

Stilt houses are not something found only in Sherman Oaks.

Popular in the late 1950s and early '60s as a way of developing steep hillside lots otherwise considered "unbuildable," isolated stilt houses are scattered across the southern rim of the Valley.

Stilt construction faded from favor with builders after 1966. In February of that year, Los Angeles city officials began requiring that the underside of hillside houses either be enclosed or fireproofed with such materials as plaster or stucco.

These days, few builders are interested in constructing stilt houses because of their single-story design and relatively small interior space.

Neutra's two-bedroom Oakfield Drive homes contain about 2,000 square feet of living space. Each features wide expanses of windows in the rear, where living rooms overlook Beverly Glen and a panorama of the Valley to the north.

"Neutra saw ways to apply technology to keep the indoor-outdoor feeling," said Jerry L. Pollak, a Sherman Oaks architect and urban design planner who lives down the hill from the stilt houses.

"He wanted his houses to fit in with nature, for the trees in the canyon to grow under and around them. He fit the site; he didn't fight it. He didn't dig into the hillside or put in big retaining walls."

Wildlife Sightings

Since their homes leave a light footprint on the Santa Monica Mountains hillside, the stilt dwellers often see wildlife such as coyotes and deer wandering about.

So they were jarred to see bulldozers show up on the street a few weeks ago.

Across narrow Oakfield Drive from the stilt houses, Leavy's workers dug into the steep slope. They began installing trenches for thick retaining walls that will support a 4-story, 3,000-square-foot home. Leavy plans a similar home for a second lot down the street.

Leavy says he got the cold shoulder from the start when he tried to strike up a friendship with his soon-to-be neighbors. "I extended the olive branch, and they wanted to snap it off," he said.

"They've embarked on a program of total harassment. They've gone to the Building Department, to the city councilman's office, to an advisory group for Mulholland Drive. They've called the inspectors out on every little thing. These people want a pristine environment, but they want it out of the other fellow's pocketbook."

Leavy said he is proud of what he is doing.

"I'm not ashamed of the house I'm going to build up there. I'd stack it against their 'shadow boxes' any day in front of an art jury," he said.

The stilt house owners say Neutra's clean, modernistic designs are in a class of their own, however.

Student of Frank Lloyd Wright

Considered a genius by architecture critics, the Austrian-born Neutra was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. At the time of his death in 1970 at age 78, he was acclaimed as one of this country's first environmentalists.

"Long before 'ecology' became a headline word, Richard Neutra based his pioneering architectural notions on the need of people to live in a supportive environment," one architecture expert wrote in a eulogy to Neutra published in The Times.

The owners of Neutra's Sherman Oaks houses say they have asked the city for guarantees that Leavy's excavation will not endanger the stability of their dwellings. They also have urged the city to take steps to preserve the ambiance of their neighborhood.

Last month, they appealed to City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the Sherman Oaks area, to press for a moratorium on construction that would stop further building on the street. Their next move, they say, would be to get the city to declare the area a cultural or historical landmark so future development can be permanently controlled.

City Specifications

"We checked to make sure everything with the new houses is being done to city specifications," said Michelle Krotinger, a spokeswoman for Yaroslavsky.

"The engineers haven't concluded their studies, but they've indicated there's no danger of slippage."

In the meantime, Krotinger said, Yaroslavsky is working with the city's Planning Department to establish new guidelines for residential construction that would limit the height and size of new homes on small lots. Hearings on

that proposal may be held in about six weeks.

Marlene Bronson, Yaroslavsky's chief field deputy, said she has met with Leavy to discuss ways of improving relations with his new neighbors. For starters, she said, Leavy has agreed to warn Oakfield Drive residents in advance when construction trucks are likely to block the narrow street.

City officials said the stilt subdivision may meet the standards that have been set for designation as a historical or cultural landmark.

Buildings with "distinguishing architectural" features or that are identified with "historic personages," relate to a specific period or specific method of construction are eligible for landmark status, said Nellie Sedaghat, a spokeswoman for the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Subdivision May Fit

Neutra's stilt subdivision may fit all four of those categories.

If the stilt houses were designated as landmarks, development of vacant lots around the homes would not be blocked, but limitations could be imposed.

Construction experts agree that the era of the stilt has passed.

"Nobody's going to build one of those today," said Lloyd Emery, acting head of the city's building and safety office in Van Nuys. "Land is too expensive not to use that space for larger homes."

To increase floor space, hillside builders now construct multiple-story homes. Anyway, Emery said, most homeowners now prefer to have the undersides of their hillside homes enclosed so the space can be utilized.

It takes a special type of person to live in a stilt house: "People who don't mind the building walking around a little in the wind," Emery said.

Swaying Homes

The residents of Stilt Street say they fit that category.

"You do sway. You can feel it," said David Hawks, who has lived in a Neutra home for 16 years. "It does move in an earthquake. But I worry more about stuff coming down the hill from above than about falling down the hill myself."

Eighteen-year stilt house resident Virginia Hadfield said: "The '71 quake was like being on the end of a broom. It was frightening. But I love the outside. If I can't live in a tent, this is the next best thing."

Homeowners say Neutra's 40-foot-by-50-foot stilt houses sold new in 1965 for about $35,000. Today, they fetch about $300,000.

They attribute their homes' safety to the stilts' flexibility, which allows the structures to ride out temblors. They say each home is anchored to the hill on the street side and rests on three steel poles on the downhill side that extend from 18 to 40 feet into the ground.

That's somewhat of an exaggeration, said Art Levine, the structural engineer who designed the stilt support system for Neutra.

"The pipe columns go down and stop at the concrete at ground level," said Levine, who has engineered the footings for more than 2,000 hillside homes in the Santa Monica Mountains and Hollywood Hills.

Concrete Columns

The depth of concrete columns in the foundation beneath Neutra's homes ranges from about 6 to 15 feet, depending on bedrock conditions, he said.

"It was fun working with Neutra," he said. "What he said to start with was he'd do everything above the floor, and I'd do the bottom. Because we were building so many houses there at once, I was able to do a study and come up with the system we used."

Midway through the Oakfield Drive project in 1966, the city's fire code changed and Levine and Neutra had to begin fireproofing the bottoms of the stilt houses. "The first few we built down on the Ventura Boulevard side didn't have fireproofing. The others do," Levine said.

Stilt house owner Steven Sadd, who has seen phony "cracks" painted beneath an Oakfield Drive home for a movie scene, said living on the edge is worth it.

"As a youngster, I always wanted a tree house," he said. "As an adult, I bought one."

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