Silver Lake: Westside Life Style at Half Price : Real estate values soar with eclectic buyers drawn to the steep hills, short commute

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Realtor Jeffrey Young, behind the wheel of his sporty Jaguar, handled the steep hills of Silver Lake with familiar ease. The 27-year-old Young knows his way around, perhaps even better than some of the community’s old-timers.

“I grew up in this area,” Young said of the Silver Lake district, located 2 1/2 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, “My grandmother still lives here and my dad runs a family plumbing business that’s been around for 60 years.”

Young drove to the crest of Micheltorena Street and parked by a turreted, four-level house where Judy Garland had lived in the late 1940s.

“This is my favorite. All the rooms are round, but wait until you see the teahouse and the gazebo,” Young said, leading the way down a block-long public stairway (one of about 100 known to remain throughout Los Angeles), for a back yard view of the 4,000-square-foot house that sold recently as a fixer-upper for $450,000.

Young bought his own home in Silver Lake a few months ago and said he was lucky to get it for $350,000.


Home Prices Soared

Real estate values have been soaring in the area. A year ago, prices ranged from $100,000 to $500,000; now they’re more like $200,000 to $600,000, and higher. And while the median price for homes in the city rose by 26% in 1988, houses in Silver Lake increased by 33%.

A Los Angeles Board of Realtors report for the past year listed Silver Lake as the leader in home sales, with 398, followed by Pacific Palisades with 395.

Silver Lake was considered a “sleeper” until about 10 years ago and was largely ignored by builders, who favored the San Fernando Valley and Westside areas, said Alita Hanger, president of the Silver Lake Residents Assn.

“But with increasing development downtown, and prices still well below comparable properties on the Westside of town . . . more people will be moving into the neighborhood,” she said.

Silver Lake--the community’s focal point and the city’s oldest fresh-water reservoir--forms an amphitheater-like setting for its eastern and western residential slopes. The reservoir was built in 1909 and named for Herman Silver, a member of Los Angeles’ first board of water commissioners. Adjoining it is the smaller Ivanhoe reservoir.

Converge at The Hub

Silver Lake’s main drag is an undistinguished stretch of Sunset Boulevard that skirts the hills, east to west, from Echo Park to Hollywood, and separates them from the Bellevue district to the south.

The community’s other thoroughfares--Hyperion and Rowena avenues and Glendale and Silver Lake boulevards--converge to form a delta of neighborhood activity at the north end of Hyperion, known simply as The Hub.

The Hub is where much of the local gossip is exchanged, and where the Old Hub Market has been upgraded to include take-out gourmet foods and wine, and where Say Cheese, another popular stop, sells pates, dolmas and marinated mushrooms, and deals with its customers on a first-name basis. Nearby, the Mayfair Market occupies the site of Walt Disney’s first studio.

The neighborhood’s diverse ethnic, cultural and economic mix, which includes long-established Asian and gay communities, is reflected in a number of eating places serving Japanese, vegetarian Indian and other exotic cooking, and in the small shops featuring antiques, clothing, handicrafts and the usual neighborhood services.

Struck by Friendliness

Michael Blum has only just discovered Silver Lake and it’s where he wants to live. “I moved from New York a few weeks ago, and I’ve never been in a friendlier place,” he said. " I mean, people actually say hello.”

Another ex-New Yorker, art director David Sackeroff, has lived in Silver Lake for 11 years and claims it’s “one of the few real neighborhoods left in L.A. where people actually meet and talk. It’s a walking community and I guess that’s because so many of us own dogs.”

Susan Brenneman and Gregory Swordes, newcomers from San Francisco, were looking for a rental in the Silver Lake area last year and ended up buying an older, 1,300-square-foot house with a view for under $250,000.

“I didn’t want a long commute to my downtown office and the views and steep hills reminded us of San Francisco, except that Silver Lake is much more suburban,” Brenneman said. “We’ve been accustomed to living wall-to-wall with our neighbors. At first I felt a bit isolated.”

‘Neat Older Homes’

Norma and Ralph Blunt, owners of Antiques on Melrose, also are part of the new wave of younger professionals with two incomes who have moved recently to the area, attracted by the spectacular views and “neat older homes.”

“We enjoy a Westside life style for half the price,” Norma Blunt said. Their 1929 home, which features a living room stage for concerts, built by the first owner, is part of the original subdivision of silent movie star Antonio Moreno’s estate. Its grand old mansion is still preserved by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters.

New Silver Lake residents soon learn from their neighbors that they’re surrounded by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, Gregory Ain and John Lautner, who turned the area into a showcase for their experimental designs.

They also eventually become aware of the area’s rich movie history. The old-time Keystone Studio in Silver Lake’s Ellendale neighborhood is where Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops and bathing beauties cavorted and where cowboy Tom Mix’s mounts chased up the hills. Later, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard kept a romantic hideaway in those same hills before they were free to marry.

Steep Street Attracts

Scenes from several movies in the ‘20s and ‘30s were filmed on Fargo Street starring Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and the Three Stooges. Even today the steep street is a favorite of competing runners and cyclists and the Fire Department on occasion will use the hill to test its equipment.

The influx of new residents has been growing steadily, according to Hanger, president of a strong and vocal 500-member residents’ association that has been grappling for years with issues that threatened to destroy the beauty of the reservoir and the character of the community.

The association’s vice president, Sheriff’s Capt. Bento Kienast, was born in Silver Lake and still lives in the Swiss chalet that his architect father designed.

“We are beginning to see quite a few changes in the community, but our worst problem is the increased traffic density on our main streets,” he said.

The association successfully opposed the extension of the Glendale Freeway through Silver Lake and waged an 11-year battle to scale down the proposed 2,200 units planned for the historic Garbutt-Hathaway estate on the east side of the reservoir to 96 detached homes.

Property Crimes Dropped

While residents are concerned about daytime burglaries, “Silver Lake has one of the lowest crime rates . . . in our northeast area (including Atwater, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Elysian Valley, Dodger Stadium and Griffith Park),” said Capt. Noel Cunningham, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division.

In the first six weeks of 1989, property crimes in Silver Lake and in portions of east Hollywood and Los Feliz showed an 18% decline compared to the same period in 1988.

The Silver Lake schools are Ivanhoe and Micheltorena elementary schools, Thomas Starr King Junior High School and John Marshall High School. It won the 1986-87 National Academic Decathlon.