Where Homes, Money Tend to Be Old : Los Feliz: Not much has changed in the lifestyle of this part of Los Angeles, where the successful have lived for generations.
Overhead, the trees on North Vermont Avenue in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles form crowns that spread 70 feet or more, a graceful dapple of oval leaves, glossy green on top and bronze underneath.
The bark of these 60-year-old Moreton Bay fig trees is light-gray and smooth, except where the stout trunks branch out into boughs. Then it is as creased as an elephant’s knee. And the roots--ah, the roots. The elephant melts, flows in every direction in foot-high ridges along the ground for 20 feet in some cases.
This is Los Feliz, after all. It’s a neighborhood that shows its roots.
“This area, of any in L.A., probably has the highest rate of homes that have been in one family since the ‘20s,” says real estate agent Dorothy Carter of Jon Douglas Co. And, she says, “There are a tremendous amount of people who sell in Los Feliz who buy in Los Feliz.”
Situated on the southern slopes of Griffith Park, near freeways and 15 minutes by car from downtown, Los Feliz represents to Los Angeles what Gramercy Park does to New York or Nob Hill to San Francisco. Los Feliz mansions suggest old money, good cloth coat, not fur money, their elegance so understated it’s a murmur.
In the nearby shopping areas, the Los Feliz Theater on Vermont shows art films next to the well-known Chatterton’s Bookshop; down the block, patrons of Sarno’s sing operatic arias between courses. Homeowners above Los Feliz Boulevard are likely to include the Music Center when pointing out features of their vast views.
And apartment-dwellers below the boulevard take pleasure in the greenery of the largest metropolitan park in the nation. Whereas the Hollywood Hills show the quaint and glamorous Hollywood sign, the Los Feliz Hills bear the serene, classic lines of the white triple-domed Observatory and Planetarium.
Yet Los Feliz is less homogenous than those neighborhoods: The nearby shops cater to customers speaking a variety of languages. And though the median price of Los Feliz homes is approaching $500,000 now, it remains un-yuppified, a family place.
Says resident Nina Mohi--she and her son both went to the local high school, John Marshall High, “It’s a great place to raise children because if they’re rich, the kids don’t know they’re rich, and if they’re poor, that’s not so bad, either.”
A century ago, the land belonged to Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith, and two centuries ago, to Cpl. Vicente Feliz, and before that, to the Cahuenga Indians, who used part of Ferndell in Griffith Park for their council grounds.
Feliz, as founder of the Pueblo de Los Angeles and its first commissioner, was granted 6,677 acres in 1794. Like the homeowners who succeeded them, the Felizes tried to keep the land in the family. They held on to their El Rancho de Los Feliz (in Spanish, the plural of a family name is the same as the singular) until 1863.
Several owners later, Griffith bought the land in 1884 and deeded 3,015 acres of it to the city, which added another 1,000 acres to establish Griffith Park.
In the 1920s, elegant but unostentatious mansions, often in Spanish or English style, were built on the gentle slope above Franklin Avenue. Luminaries such as Cecil B. DeMille, W. C. Fields and Deanna Durbin arrived. There were more physicians than you could shake a crutch at--it became known as Pill Hill.
Master architects found a market in Los Feliz for their innovative work. Frank Lloyd Wright did three houses; his son, Lloyd Wright, many more. Richard Neutra, R. M. Schindler, Gregory Ain and John Lautner designed dozens.
Michael Lehrer, a Los Feliz architect and USC professor, calls the homes in Los Feliz “the absolute architectural gems of the city.” A good architect “reads the hills,” he says, and except for one tract built in the 1960s on the former Los Feliz Estates, the houses “tend to be fitted into the landscape.” The result is “a European or Italianate look,” Lehrer says.
Most of the deodars planted on Los Feliz Boulevard in 1916 are still there, waving their feathery fir boughs in the breeze. And many of the old families remain.
Barbara Bullock and her husband, a physician, bought their home for $12,000 in 1939. She says the neighborhood, in appearance, “was much the same as it is now.”
The old homes draw the newcomers. According to Gary R. Holme, president of the Los Angeles Board of Realtors, Los Feliz was the hot spot for home sales in March, leading every other area in the city: Twenty-six houses sold for an average price of $479,600, he says. In April the average was down slightly to $468,993.
Los Feliz resident Philip Homsey, an attorney who stepped down last week as president of the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., grew up in Sacramento. On a family trip in the early ‘60s, he saw Los Feliz Boulevard for the first time and remembers thinking, “One day I’m gonna live in one of these homes.”
After graduating from law school in 1976, he and his wife “toured all around the city,” he says, looking for an apartment. And then he had the kind of deja vu experience that keeps real estate brokers from going broke.
“When I saw Los Feliz,” he recalls, “I thought, ‘This is the place!’ . . . I just want to keep moving up the hill a little bit.”
They rented at Franklin and Normandie avenues, then on Los Feliz Boulevard, and in 1981, bought a two-bedroom house above the boulevard for $187,500. And “I was probably the only person in Los Angeles who lost money in real estate,” he says with a laugh. He put a few thousand dollars into the property but couldn’t unload it. In 1985, he bought a Spanish-style three-bedroom repossession nearby for $430,000, and in 1986 the other property sold for only $190,000. But the Homseys recouped. Their present house is now “probably worth a million-three to a million-five,” he says.
Homsey is the third owner of this house, and “most of my neighbors are the second owners,” he says. He adds, “It’s as far up the hill as I want to go.”
The elegant old homes still act as magnets. Real estate agent Jodi Hodges of Jon Douglas Co. says her customers specify: “I don’t want a new home.” What she calls the “large, character homes” cost far more in Bel-Air and in Hancock Park don’t have the view, she says. In Los Feliz, realtors, homeowners and house hunters use the word character as often as a dramaturge.
As real estate agent Lee Doumitt of Castagna Realty explains, “if you woke up in Los Feliz and you’d been sleeping 20 years, you’d know you’re in Los Feliz.”
“And in the last few years,” Hodges says, “there’s a new attitude: A lot of people like to fix homes up.”
In search of a fixer-upper “with character” and viewing a house on Los Feliz Boulevard that’s on the market for $750,000, interior designer Philip Osterloh, who lives in Sherman Oaks, mentions an additional attraction:
“There is a mixture of people here; in Sherman Oaks, everybody is similar. . . . And it still seems safe here. You don’t see a lot of bars on the windows.”
In fact, “crime is down a little bit” in Los Feliz, according to Paul Afdahl, senior lead officer at the Police Department’s Northeast Division. Robberies and thefts of cars or from them are all down, although 70% of the crime in Los Feliz is still vehicle-related, he says.
There is occasional gang activity in Griffith Park or around Marshall High “during school hours or immediately after,” Afdahl says.
Two screenwriters in search of a character--a character home, in this case--moved from New York to a house above Franklin Avenue six months ago. Keith and Peggy Walker--she also acts--paid “in the sixes,” he says, meaning above $600,000. They bought it sight unseen, except for a video, and are jubilant about the house and the area.
The Walkers are walkers. Says Peggy: “We walk everywhere--to the cleaners, to the marketplace. . . .” Their immediate neighborhood, she says, “is the first place I’ve ever moved to that people acted like neighbors, like they used to in Alabama” when she was a child. “This is more like down South,” she says. “More like home. It’s gentler.”
“Here in Los Feliz, there’s a kind of camaraderie,” Keith says. “We know and say hello to almost everyone on the street. . . . And it’s not just a WASP neighborhood.”
The cosmopolitan nature of Los Feliz is as old as its history. Barbara Bullock came from Bakersfield and met her physician husband at Stanford. Architect Lehrer, who is Jewish, went to local schools and lives just south of Los Feliz Boulevard, within a mile of all his relatives.
Marshall High alumna Nina Mohi, whose parents were both born in Italy, was one of the people instrumental in preventing the school’s Gothic architecture from being sacrificed in the mid-'70s.
Josephine Nicola, of Lebanese heritage, arrived as a doctor’s bride 40 years ago.
Serop Israelian, proprietor of Universal Shop, a fabric store on Vermont Avenue just below Franklin, has been in the same location almost 19 years. Soft-spoken and genial, he says, “I am Armenian from Romania. . . . I speak Romanian, Armenian, Turkish.” His smile broadens as he adds, “a little English.” He also speaks “a little Spanish, regarding the business.”
Asians have always lived in the neighborhood; the Latino population has grown larger over the years, and more Armenians are from the Soviet Union now.
Opinions on the schools serving Los Feliz appear mixed. Marshall High won the 1986-87 U.S. Academic Decathlon. Students at Thomas Starr King Junior High last year scored below the state averages; at the elementary schools, Los Feliz school scored below, and Franklin school scored above.
The biggest problems facing Los Feliz residents these days is the traffic on Los Feliz Boulevard, Homsey says. Griffith Park presents advantages--"you can walk to the Greek Theatre at night"--and disadvantages: “the traffic it brings, the crime it brings, the homeless.”
As president of the improvement association, he supports plans to upgrade the nearby shopping areas on Vermont and Hillhurst avenues below Franklin, seeing the need for “a fine stationery store, a hardware store, . . . more delis and some planters” and bemoaning the fact that “the awnings on some of those shops look like they’ve been there since the ‘30s.”
Not all Los Feliz residents favor the projected improvements.
“I like a lot of it the way it is,” Peggy Walker says.
“Oh gee, yeah,” Keith adds. “Homey, old-fashioned, comfortable.”
AT A GLANCE Population
1990 estimate: 29,755
1980-90 change: 14.8%
Median age: 40.5 years
Per capita: 27,431
Median household: 42,258
Less than $15,000: 15.4%
$15,000 - $30,000: 19.5%
$30,000 - $50,000: 24.4%
$50,000 - $75,000: 18.4%
$75,000 + 22.5%