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Between Rock and a Hard Place : Landmarks: Some homeowners object to a drive to label their stone houses as historic. But others say the designation will ensure their survival.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A campaign to designate Glendale’s stone houses as city landmarks has run into trouble because many owners believe the plan will undermine their property rights.

Maria Muriello, who has spearheaded the preservation drive, said Monday that she hopes city planners can resolve such concerns and ensure the survival of the unique dwellings.

“The people have raised objections out of fear,” she said. “If they’re not sure, they say no. Perhaps the next step is to provide stone home owners with detailed information about what is involved. I think people will be less leery.”

Last year, Muriello urged the Glendale City Council to protect the city’s stone houses, fearing a bulldozer might someday demolish the architectural curiosities, built mainly in the 1920s and 1930s.

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By designating such houses--many of which are in the part of La Crescenta within the Glendale city limits--as historic landmarks, the city could stop a property owner from tearing one down to make room for a more modern house, Muriello said.

“Who would ever build another house like this?” Muriello asked, referring to her own La Crescenta stone house. “Who would ever take the time to go stone by stone and build a house like this? They’re irreplaceable.”

She made her plea to the Glendale City Council shortly after city officials had applied for a $2,000 state grant to conduct a citywide survey of stone houses. As part of the survey, the city recently sent letters to about 20 stone-house owners, asking whether they favor a landmark designation for their homes.

The early returns indicate that some stone-home owners do not share Muriello’s interest in city protection.

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The majority of those who responded in writing rejected the idea. Two owners also attended last week’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting and complained that the city is putting them between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The owners said they want to preserve their distinctive dwellings but fear that landmark status will entangle them in red tape when they try to modify or sell their homes.

“If it wasn’t for the government intrusion, I’d be delighted with such a thing,” said Bertrand Murphy, who owns a 64-year-old stone house in Glenmore Canyon. Murphy, an interior decorator, said he doesn’t want the city to dictate the design of any addition to his house.

“I wouldn’t mind advice, but I don’t need someone less competent than me deciding what I can put on my house,” he said.

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Murphy has other concerns.

He questioned whether landmark status might hamper a prospective buyer from getting a loan on a stone house. In addition, Murphy, 67, is worried that city officials might deny him permission to install an elevator when he can no longer climb the 46 steps leading to his front door.

Kirk MacDonald, whose grandfather built some of the stone houses in La Crescenta, also told the commission that a historic designation would lead to unwelcome government interference in decisions regarding his La Crescenta home.

Dana Ogdon, a city planner, said the challenge now is to resolve some of the concerns expressed by the current stone-house owners.

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He said landmark status would not prevent an owner from making changes in a home. But he said the city would work with the property owner to ensure that the original character of the dwelling is preserved.

Glendale officials have the authority to impose protective landmark status on a building without the owner’s consent, but Ogdon said, “In 99% of the cases, the city is going to respect the wishes of the property owner.”

He said city officials hope to meet with owners of the stone houses soon to answer questions about the impact of a landmark designation.

“Our philosophy is that we want the people themselves to preserve these places,” said Vonnie Rossman, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission. “I think we’ll have the majority of the people who will be interested in saving them. They’re a cultural jewel.”

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History buffs and building experts say the homes, distinguished by walls made of rugged stones and mortar, would be too costly to build today. In most cases, they were built of stones collected on the property, with little attention to future significance.

“They just thought architecturally, they made a nice house,” said Roderick MacDonald, whose father, Rory, developed La Crescenta’s Highway Highlands tract, which includes many of the remaining stone homes. “They built a wood-frame house and veneered the stones on the outside.”

He said the stone construction provides good insulation and is durable.

“They haven’t shaken down in any of our earthquakes,” MacDonald said. “They have lost a few chimneys, but I don’t know of any stone-house walls that have shaken down.”

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“Certainly, these buildings are significant,” said David L. Smith, president of the Glendale Historical Society, which is urging the city to grant protection to many of the city’s older houses.

Although they may be divided over whether the houses should have landmark status, the owners appear to be united in their affection for the unusual dwellings.

Maria Muriello said it was a case of love at first sight when she and her husband, Joseph, bought their stone house in 1986. “We saw it from the street and said, ‘That’s our house,’ ” she recalled. “We’re kind of nostalgic. We like houses with character.”

Cynthia Daly said she and her husband, Bryan, were responding to a vague real estate ad when they found their new home in the 1500 block of Kenneth Road. “When we saw it was a stone house, we fell in love with it,” she said.

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Still, the dwellings do not appeal to all home hunters. Real estate agent Rocky Williams, who represents the owners of a stone house on 4th Avenue in La Crescenta, said it is priced at $305,000--slightly less than some similar-sized but more modern houses in the neighborhood.

Williams said he tells prospective buyers about the city’s preservation plan to enhance their interest. “The way we’ve been advertising is that it is a possible historical landmark,” he said. “I think they would take pride in that.”


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