This Old House : Former Drug Hub Draws Attention on Tour of Homes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The center of attention when several historic Los Angeles homes were opened to the public Saturday was not an exquisite Tiffany lamp or a polished 90-year-old oak stairway.

Those touring several streets in the West Adams area were intrigued instead by a newly restored turn-of-the-century showplace that was famous as the neighborhood rock house until last year, when neighbors rallied to drive the drug dealers out.

"The front door had been knocked in by police battering rams," homeowner Jodi Siegner told wide-eyed visitors to the seventh-annual West Adams Heritage Assn. tour. "The living room was used for the storage of drugs.

"There were bloodstains on the walls and floor. We collected buckets of hypodermic needles when we moved in. The garage had been partitioned into three rooms for prostitution. They didn't miss a trick."

The house sits near the end of the 2600 block of Van Buren Place, a carefully manicured, tree-lined street of large Craftsman-style homes built between 1904 and 1910.

Although some houses on surrounding streets are in disrepair, residents of the area have banded together to protect the area's unique architecture and view restoration of the home as a symbol of what neighbors can do to reclaim their streets.

Built in 1904, the two-story clapboard house was days away from being demolished by the city early last year when residents of Van Buren Place took action. They told local real estate agent Jane Harrington that the owner of the house was willing to sell--but that no buyers were in sight.

Preservation-minded Harrington persuaded her boss, real estate broker David Raposa, to purchase the house and finance its partial cleanup. She then set out to evict the 30 or so drug users and transients that were using the place as a flop house.

There was no electricity and the toilets didn't work the day that Harrington and Raposa gathered their courage and walked in to inspect their $90,000 acquisition.

"One man was swinging from the original chandelier in the front entry. Another man under the influence of something was staggering around trying to steady himself. He grabbed onto one of the leaded-glass doors to the dining room cabinet and sent it crashing to the floor right in front of us," Harrington recalled Saturday.

When Raposa checked the darkened basement, he discovered the cellar stairs had been used as an impromptu outhouse by occupants of the house.

"I slipped on the steps and slid down the staircase and landed in about eight inches of stuff at the bottom," Raposa said. "I said, 'This can't be what I think it is.' But it was. A neighbor let me use his garden hose to wash myself off."

Harrington paid some of occupants to clean the basement and the living area and hired off-duty Los Angeles police to guard the house around the clock. She helped move some of the occupants into drug treatment centers and rented a U-Haul truck to drive others to new homes around Los Angeles.

Siegner and husband Tom McCurnin, both of whom are attorneys, purchased the house 14 months ago for $200,000 when the $75,000 first phase of the renovation was about half finished. Since moving in, the two have spent another $30,000 on repairs, McCurnin said.

"I've turned the garden hose on people out front selling crack," he said. "Two months ago, everyone on the street chipped in to pay for a fence across the end of the street that the city let us put up. That helps keep the drug dealers out. Neighborhoods like this have to stand up for themselves."

Some of those who spent $12 each to visit McCurnin's home and 10 other carefully restored residences in the area said they admire that kind of determination.

"At first I thought he was crazy to move here" said Tom Shuck, a co-worker who lives in Agoura Hills. "He's got a lot or courage. What he has done here is unbelievable."

Said Manhattan Beach resident Kathi Boone: "It's unbelievable the amount of work that has to be done on a restoration. I think anyone who undertakes it has to have a lot of guts."

Lauren Schlau, president of the West Adams Historical Assn., said profits from the tour--which continues today near the intersection of 27th Street and Van Buren Place--will be used to expand the cleanup of the 12-square-mile district.

"Every time someone starts painting their house and planting their garden, others around them do too," she explained.

That's community pride, not gentrification, Schlau said.

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