Guardians of Heritage Think Old : Panel Members Control Styles to Preserve 1880s Design of Neighborhood

Times Staff Writer

One hundred years ago, when the northwest boundary of Los Angeles was only a mile from downtown, the place to live and “get away from it all” was Angelino Heights, the city’s first suburb.

Gingerbread houses with gables, turrets and widows’ walks sprang up, and despite their placement in a city that levels its past as a matter of routine, most of the graceful structures have managed to survive.

Today Angelino Heights has the highest concentration of Victorian-era homes left in Los Angeles. Six years ago, this fact was recognized when the neighborhood became Los Angeles’ first designated “historic preservation overlay zone,” and it still is one of only three such zones in the city.


Demonstration of Power

As such, Angelino Heights residents exercise unusual control over their neighborhood. A few homeowners demonstrated this power recently, sitting around a lace-covered mahogany dining table in a 102-year-old house.

“It’s boring, a mass of wood, that’s all it is,” Cecil Dover, one of five on the board of the Angelino Heights Preservation Assn. was telling a developer, Andy Lisowski, a West Los Angeles builder who knew nothing about the the Victorian, Craftsman or Mission Revival styles common to the Angelino Heights.

Lisowski wanted to build on an empty lot on Edgeware Road, and his design was spread across the table. Under the preservation ordinance, passed in 1979 and similar to laws in Chicago, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, those wanting to change or demolish existing structures, or construct new buildings, are obliged as a first step in the permit process to take their designs before a review committee of neighbors--in this case, the association.

“I wish you’d tell me what you want,” the dark-haired builder said, scowling.

‘Should Be Special’

“We’re not here to design your house for you,” said Dover, a thickset man with long gray hair who spent 11 years restoring his house in the 1300 block of Carroll Avenue. That block is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“This is a special neighborhood and yours should be a special house,” Dover said.

“We’re not prepared to approve it this way,” added Tom Morales, who had grown up in the Victorian house where they were meeting, and was chairman of the association. “Why don’t you walk around the neighborhood?”

Much of Angelino Heights today seems a tidy community of spacious lots and many trees. It is situated on two crescent-shaped hills just east of Echo Park. About a third of the homes have now been restored, out of 1,336 homes and apartment buildings. Most of the restoration has been done by young and middle-aged professionals, who have moved in during the last decade. In stretches, it resembles parts of San Francisco.

While prosperous merchants, real estate and oil men were its first residents in the late 1880s, Angelino Heights had become another run-down inner city neighborhood by the 1960s. As such, it was, as one resident put it, “the lucky product of neglect.” Forgotten by developers as urban sprawl pushed out to the valleys, the old houses lingered as if in a cocoon.

“That allowed it to exist until preservation efforts could begin,” said Karen Jaeger, who lived for nine years in an Angelino Heights Victorian.

Angelino Heights is larger than the city’s other historic zones, which are the compact South Carthay area southwest of the Miracle Mile and Hollywood’s Melrose Hill, with only 45 residences. It also is the least homogeneous, with a mix of ethnic groups--mostly white, Latino and Asian--and a fairly large group of low-income tenants paying less than $600 a month. Despite preservation efforts, it still is not uncommon to see a run-down rental right next to an immaculately restored home.

Source of Conflict

The juxtaposition of preservationists and owners who, for either cultural or financial reasons, have no interest in preserving the architecture makes for conflicts.

Morales, a short, bald man with a friendly, unpretentious manner, said he began restoring his parents’ house in 1972. When it comes to preservation, he said, many of his neighbors “don’t understand what we’re talking about.”

Owners planning most changes within an historic zone must obtain a “certificate of appropriateness” from the city Planning Commission in addition to the standard permits. But the commission usually follows the recommendations of the preservation committee; committee members in all three zones said they cannot remember one instance when the commission went against one of their decisions.

David Leslie, manager of the Planning Department’s neighborhood planning division, said he does not know why Los Angeles has so few designated historic zones. Efforts to become historic zones are underway in Hollywood’s Whitley Heights; a residential neighborhood north of the Miracle Mile, and in two sections of Highland Park. Heather Hoggan, a leader in the Highland Park effort, said the process is slow, because “we all work, so we do things when we can,” and the city provides “no real place to go and get all the information you need.”

While board members in South Carthay and Melrose Hill said almost all the plans that come to them for review are restorations, Morales estimates that more than half of the 60 projects his board has considered involve new construction, additions and even demolitions.

Educational Effort

“We have to educate people, disseminate information and communicate,” he said, adding that he supports a proposal to amend the ordinance to, in part, make the preservation board a city agency, “with a minimal budget” to pay for the education effort.

“We are volunteers,” he said. “We need a support group.”

Morales maintained that his committee is “not that strict, like Williamsburg (Va.). This is Los Angeles.” The group, for example, did not take issue when one owner painted his house pink, or when another planted a menagerie of ceramic animal figurines across the front of his home.

While the committee apparently makes exceptions for what Morales calls “bad taste,” it draws the line at major changes, such as covering the exteriors with stucco. Or installing aluminum windows. Or demolishing of vintage houses.

The power of the preservation board has yet to face a court test. The longest-running case of non-compliance involves a run-down apartment building where the owner began in 1984 to spread stucco over the exterior and installed aluminum windows.

The Building and Safety Department mistakenly granted the owner a permit before the project was submitted for neighborhood review. Morales said the board later voted against the chances, because both stucco and aluminum windows were out of context with turn-of-the-century architecture.

But since late 1984--despite the review committee position and the issuance of a compliance order by the Building and Safety Department--the owner has neither removed the stucco nor replaced the windows.

The case is sitting in Building and Safety’s investigations bureau, where inspector Tim O’Connor said he is “waiting for the owner to comply,” which would mean either returning the building to its original state or appealing to the Planning Commission. O’Connor said he could “not say” why the department has waited five years without turning the case over to the city attorney’s office for prosecution, or how long he would continue to wait.

On a week night in mid-March, the preservation board met to hear what was only its second demolition request in five years. Landlord Stanley Zurn sought board approval to demolish a dilapidated three-unit Craftsman apartment building on Edgeware Road. The tenants, he said, were all low-income and one apartment had 12 people living in it.

Zurn, a tall man with gray hair askew and blackened hands, seemed to enjoy his status as the neighborhood holdout against gentrification. Privately, some of the newer residents call him a “slumlord,” a description he is aware of but won’t comment on.

He takes a jaundiced view of the whole business of a historic zone, or HPOZ’s as the insiders call them: “There’s no provision in HPOZ’s to preserve low-income tenants,” he said. “If anything it’s meant to bring in higher-income tenants, higher real estate values.”

Home values have quadrupled over the last decade, and many houses now sell for $250,000 and more. Zurn had been offered a chance to sell, he said, but only if the buyer could tear down the structure and rebuild.

“We’re afraid of development,” Morales said. “Demolition opens the door for new development that’s not sensitive.”

Slope of the Roof

Tom Levine, a board member who had spent several years restoring a turreted, gabled house where 43 people had been living before he moved in, said he wants to see the Zurn building’s Craftsman-style architecture preserved.

“Look at the gables, the slope of the roof, those nice little windows, the details,” he rhapsodized. “This house is still part of the spirit of the neighborhood.”

“It can’t stay the way it is,” Morales said. “The status quo is to leave it alone, and admire its beauty until it collapses. And live with the consequences of the people problem.”

The term “people problem” is a common euphemism among the preservationists, and Morales said it refers to tenants who are blamed for “trash and graffiti.” Police Officer Joe Robinson of the Rampart Division noted, however, that Angelino Heights has “the least amount of crime” in the inner-city sector patrolled by the division.

After much discussion, the board members told Zurn they would not consider approving his demolition request until the landlord spent five months seeking a buyer interested in restoring it.

Perplexed by the board’s defense of a building even he, the owner, calls “an eyesore,” Zurn later drove by his building for a second look.

“I thought, hell, you could just have the next owner build and put a few details on the front,” he said.

Role as an Enforcer

Board members are not completely comfortable with their role as the neighborhood Big Brother. “When we became an HPOZ,” Morales said. “I thought the city would be the responsible party. But the concept is the community is its own watchdog, its own enforcer, and we realized we had a lot of work to do.”

Many of the newer residents, however, say they moved to Angelino Heights because of its architecture and historic status.

Richard Collins, a 35-year-old financial director, bought an empty lot and then moved his great grandfather’s 101-year-old two-story house near Boyle Heights--a distance of several miles.

“I’d been interested in this neighborhood for 10 years,” he said, adding he also had to go all the way to Santa Cruz before he found a bank that would lend him money for his effort. “Every conventional lender in town laughed at me.”

The neighborhood is distinctive in more than just its architecture. Once they move there, new residents find the community is a common spot for film locations--with “Aspen,” “Terminal Man” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video a few examples. People walk a lot and tend to know the names of their neighbors, and even their neighbors’ dogs.

Charles Tate, a retired teacher who has lived more than 40 years in a 17-room Victorian, likes to say, “It reminds me of a small town in the Midwest,” except that he has a clear view from his front porch of the downtown skyline.

Tourists are a fact of life. One recent Sunday afternoon, as Alan Whitney sat on his porch on Carroll Avenue reading a newspaper, several cars inched past his 102-year old yellow and white Victorian. Each time the retired actor looked up, it seemed, a stranger was staring back at him. Whitney smiled.

“It doesn’t bother you,” he said. “You miss them if they don’t come by.”