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Decision to Demolish Mansion Pits Owner Against Neighbors

Times Staff Writer

Guests at Donna Harnsberger’s Christmas party last December said her house hadn’t looked so good in years.

Hundreds of lights draped the peeling paint and creaking balustrades of the 94-year-old mansion. Brightly colored foil masked the cracks in some of its 15 rooms. Valets parked cars, and a pianist hired from a department store played Christmas carols under elaborate chandeliers.

Inside, groups of party-goers--mostly neighbors who knew Harnsberger through her efforts to restore several other homes in the area--spoke among themselves of Harnsberger’s long-discussed plans to bring the place back to its former grandeur.

So it came as a surprise to the guests gathered around Harnsberger’s Steinway grand when she told them she would begin tearing the house down the next day. She said she intended to build three apartment buildings in its place.

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The party, Harnsberger told them, was a farewell toast to her home of 13 years.

But her neighbors--preservationists who claim Harnsberger went behind their backs to destroy a historic home--don’t want to say good-bye. They have asked the Los Angeles City Council to declare the home a historic-cultural monument, curtailing for the moment Harnsberger’s efforts at demolition.

With their move, what began as a private feud between Harnsberger and the Highland Park Heritage Trust over the future of the home has evolved into a public contest of wills. The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission has recommended that the building receive monument status, but Harnsberger says she’ll do everything in her power to tear the house down.

Heritage Trust members said Harnsberger’s house, faded now behind chain-link gates at 4911 Pasadena Avenue Terrace, was once the estate of Albert H. Judson, an attorney who in the 1880s subdivided and named the area now known as Highland Park.

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They said their research indicates the home was designed in 1895 by George H. Wyman, the architect who designed the landmark Bradbury building in downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Conservancy, several other homeowner groups and the staff architect at the city’s Cultural Affairs Department agree.

Harnsberger said they’re all wrong. She said she has documents proving her home was not the Judson Estate, was not designed by George Wyman and was not built in 1895.

Harnsberger presented her findings to the Recreation, Library and Cultural Affairs Committee of the Los Angeles City Council on Monday. Because the information she presented had not been examined before, the committee took the rare step of directing the Cultural Heritage Commission to hear the case again. A hearing before the commission is scheduled March 15.

If the commission stands by its prior recommendation to designate the home a historic-cultural monument, then the case will go back to the committee and eventually to the full City Council for a vote.

‘Strictly Principle’

“I’ve never even heard of a Judson before, and all of a sudden I’ve got a Judson estate on my hands,” Harnsberger said. “The reason I’m spending so much time on this is strictly principle. It’s to unravel this story they’re telling about a house I thought I knew a lot about.’

Proponents of preserving the house said there is more than just the future of one home at stake. The Harnsberger house, they say, is the centerpiece of efforts to obtain historic-preservation zoning for a four-mile area of Highland Park. Replacing the home with apartments, the preservationists said, will significantly weaken their case.

The proposed historic-preservation overlay zone would cover a swath bounded on the north by Avenue 51, on the south by Avenue 42, on the west by Marmion Way and on the east by the Pasadena Freeway.

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Homeowners groups in the area said they plan to submit their proposal to the city this month. The designations require public hearings and approval by Los Angeles’ Cultural Heritage Commission, Planning Commission and City Council.

It is ironic that Harnsberger is playing the role of developer, people on both sides of the dispute agree. A wealthy real estate broker with large land holdings in the Highland Park area, she has consistently sided with preservationists in the past. She was instrumental in saving two California Craftsman-style homes on her street from demolition two years ago, and last September the Heritage Trust officially commended her for her role in preserving another old home in the area.

For several months in 1987, the Heritage Trust used her real estate office as a meeting place. Last year, Harnsberger wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Planning Commission in support of the very historic preservation overlay zone that may be threatened by her development plans.

Harnsberger said the decision to tear the house down was not made lightly. Walking around the lush, overgrown grounds of the 33,000-square-foot property on a recent day, she pointed out details, plantings and wildlife she said she loves.

Won’t Sell

The thought of someone else living in her home is unbearable, she said, and she won’t sell. Harnsberger said she planned for years to restore the house but finally decided it wasn’t worth it. The cost of such a renovation, she said, has been estimated at more than $300,000.

“I always thought I’d like to take this out and make it all glass,” she said, waving at an alcove off the kitchen. “But that’s not realistic. It’s all just dreams, just talk now. When we bought this house, I was so excited. It was going to be just fabulous. It’s strictly dollars and cents now though. Dollars and cents.”

Homeowners backing monument status for the building said Harnsberger’s estimated cost of repairs is inflated. And if she doesn’t want to restore the property, they say they can find someone who will.

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The home was built as a country estate when Highland Park was still a rural area and is designed in the Colonial Revival style, said Richard Barron, an architect who is a member of the Highland Park Neighborhood Assn. It later became part of Professor’s Row, a group of stately dwellings built for Occidental College faculty members when the campus was on Avenue 50 and Figueroa Street. Occidental moved to Eagle Rock in 1914.

According to people who visited the home last year, the interior had been well preserved, with the original paint intact, ornate moldings still throughout the house and wide-plank hardwood floors in near-perfect condition.

But the house is not what it was even two months ago. The day after her Christmas party, Harnsberger began removing the moldings from around doors, windows and stairwells, giving away detailing from the house to friends. She uprooted two old palm trees in the front yard and gutted much of the inside before the Heritage Trust secured an order from the city mandating the demolition be stopped. It is unclear now whether the movement to save the house came too late.

Even so, the home today has something of a brooding charm. Vines trail up its graying siding and in back a lush, green hillside belies the fact that the city long ago overtook this once agricultural community. Jay Orens, staff architect with the Cultural Affairs Department, said he thinks the house can still be saved.

‘Worth Saving’

“I think she’s pulled a lot of it apart,” Orens said. “I think it was done to prevent it from qualifying, but I think there’s enough of it left that it’s worth saving.”

Harnsberger said she is going to tear down the house. And even if the city designates it a historic-cultural monument she probably can, Orens said. The designation allows up to a year for the house to either be sold or for the owner to preserve it herself. After that time, the City Council can issue a demolition permit.

Harnsberger laughs at suggestions from her neighbors that she just wants to make money on the property. She said she is keeping the property in her hands to make sure whatever is built there fits in with the neighborhood. She has made her decision, she said. The house has to go, and there is no turning back.


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