Opening Doors to the Past : Los Feliz: Volunteers are reconstructing the histories of famous properties in an effort to preserve the community’s stately landmarks.
The work is time-consuming, grueling and detailed, but sorting through 60-year-old building permits is Ken Hollis’ idea of a good time.
A plasma research technician by day, Hollis--pursuing his multiple interests in archeology, history and computer programming--often spends up to three hours a night plugging information from building permits and other historic papers into a computer database.
Hollis is just the kind of volunteer Diane Kanner was looking for when she set out more than three years ago to document the history of Los Feliz, the roughly 70-year-old community of old wealth and distinguished architecture built on hilly terrain at the southern base of Griffith Park.
The effort is called the Los Feliz Historic Survey, and its goal is twofold: to put together promotional pamphlets, presentations and a book about Los Feliz, and more broadly, to give historic status to some of the community’s oldest and most famous properties.
Ordinarily, such surveys are initiated not by volunteers, but by city officials who study historic sites as part of a broader project, said Frank Parrello, a city planner. For instance, as the Los Angeles Planning Department updates the city’s 35 community plans, officials will perform a general survey of potentially historic buildings to ensure that they are not endangered by revised land-use plans, Parrello said.
Los Feliz is considered part of the Hollywood community. Its plan won’t be revised by city officials for another five to seven years, he said.
Kanner, a free-lance real estate writer and architecture buff, thought the community should have a more thorough survey than the city would do, and a lot sooner.
“People are curious to know who built the big, old houses in the area--and the modest ones as well,” Kanner said. “We also want to find out where our potential landmarks are so we can prioritize those we feel are worth saving.”
Kanner had experience in historical research as a volunteer for a survey of Hollywood in the early 1980s and later as a historic planning consultant for City Councilman Michael Woo. But a survey on the scale she contemplated would require private donations of perhaps $100,000 and volunteers.
Kanner and other organizers were confident that Los Feliz was the kind of community that could supply both.
Los Feliz, as Kanner explains it, was considered rural and out of reach of the urban transportation systems of the 1920s. But its rolling hills, with Griffith Park as a backdrop and Hollywood as a neighbor, attracted the attention of well-known architects and wealthy celebrities.
Wilbur Cook, a landscape architect who designed the streets of Beverly Hills and Oakland, was thought to have laid out Los Feliz around 1910, Kanner said. Soon to appear on those streets were sprawling houses in the Spanish colonial revival, Mediterranean, Craftsman and modern styles. Frank Lloyd Wright; his son, Lloyd Wright; Richard J. Neutra and Wallace Neff were among the architects who designed many of the houses.
Los Feliz became the home of Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, actress Norma Talmadge and former Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler. The Bullock’s department store family built a house there in 1915. Travis Banton, the fashion designer of Paramount Studios, followed suit 15 years later.
William Mead, who served in the Assembly from 1897 to 1901, built his house in Los Feliz in about 1906, and in 1916 formed the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., now one of the oldest and most powerful homeowner groups in the city.
In its first year, the association and the Los Feliz Women’s Club planted deodar cedar trees along Los Feliz Boulevard. They still line the wide, heavily trafficked thoroughfare connecting Glendale to Hollywood.
The trees are considered a historic and cultural monument, as are the Los Feliz Manor apartment building, built in 1929, and the William Mulholland Memorial Fountain on the corner of the boulevard and Riverside Drive. The fountain honors the man who created the Los Angeles municipal water system.
Kanner, a resident of the community since 1972, hoped to spotlight those and other celebrated monuments when she initiated the survey in 1987. She pitched her idea to the Los Feliz Improvement Assn. and earned its endorsement.
Her historic preservation committee held its first fund-raiser in 1988. The 1920s-style party drew about 600 people and brought in nearly $30,000 for the survey. A combination street fair, auction and home tour last September raised another $10,000.
Kanner and the association launched the project by hiring an architectural and historical consulting group to do a general “windshield” study of Los Feliz. The consultants sought out houses built before World War II that seemed to have architectural or historical flavor and the potential for designation as historical-cultural monuments.
The search resulted in a list of nearly 2,800 houses--more than half of the roughly 5,000 houses in the area--ranging from the Spanish colonial revivalist properties in hillside neighborhoods to houses on Los Feliz Boulevard, with their broad lawns and winding driveways.
Kanner recruited about two dozen volunteers to help pore over old maps, marriage licenses, tax records and newspaper clippings for glimpses of Los Feliz history. Obscure documents such as the old bylaws of the Los Feliz Women’s Club provided some details.
The volunteers acquired a few old pictures from the Los Angeles Public Library for $10 each. A photography class at Marshall High School agreed to take shots of the properties identified by the consultants.
Meanwhile, Hollis, who joined the effort in December, 1989, was busy sweeping much of the information being gathered into a database he created for the survey. He also helped Kanner file a request with the city’s Building and Safety Department for any building permits related to the nearly 2,800 properties identified in the consultants’ windshield survey.
On a Monday evening in January, 11 volunteers gathered around a table at Kanner’s Hillhurst home to study files of information about famous Los Feliz residents and landowners. Their task was to establish a general chronology of major land and property purchases in the community.
The meeting was organized like a business conference. The volunteers, who wore specially designed name tags with a Los Feliz Historical Survey logo, followed a carefully planned agenda. But the discussion was informal. For most of the volunteers, the research process was a novel experience.
“The goal of many of the volunteers is not to designate historic districts,” Kanner said later. “They just want to learn more about Los Feliz.”
They were not disappointed. The files they delved into that night were tagged with some of the most widely known names in the early years of Los Angeles.
In 1898, affluent landowner Griffith J. Griffith donated thousands of acres of his property to the city of Los Angeles, and Griffith Park was born.
Meanwhile, developer Homer Laughlin was buying scores of parcels nearby. He built and sold a number of large houses in an area called Laughlin Park--now an exclusive, partially gated neighborhood off Los Feliz Boulevard.
Famed movie director DeMille in 1916 moved into a Mediterranean-style house in Laughlin Park, next door to a house that Charlie Chaplin had rented for several months. Four years later, he bought the neighboring property and joined the houses with an atrium. DeMille lived there until his death in 1959.
Chandler, publisher of The Times from 1917 until his death in 1944, built a house on five acres of Los Feliz property the same year DeMille moved in. He also bought parcels in the community for his eight children. His wife lived in the Inverness Avenue house until her death in the 1950s.
Sixty to 80 years of development would bring a flock of celebrities and well-known architects to Los Feliz. The 1920s featured some particularly notable construction: the Ennis house on Glendower Avenue, designed in 1924 by Frank Lloyd Wright; the Lovell house on Dundee Drive, a 1929 creation by Neutra; the Taggart house on Live Oak Drive, designed between 1922 and 1924 by Lloyd Wright, and the Sowden house on Franklin Avenue, another Lloyd Wright creation built in 1926.
Finding details about those properties, well-documented because of their architects or former owners, has been fairly easy. The history of other structures has been harder to track down, Kanner and others said.
Several weeks after the Monday night meeting, Kanner received a response to the group’s request of the Building and Safety Department: copies of about 8,700 building permits for most of the 2,800 properties identified as potential historic sites.
The permits will enable the group to investigate the history of many lesser-known properties in Los Feliz because they list owners and architects during times of construction or modification, Kanner and Hollis said.
Those details will be useful when the volunteers request local, state or national historic status for some of the properties and neighborhoods they have studied, Kanner said.
In addition to nominating specific houses as monuments, the group is likely to recommend that Los Feliz Boulevard, Laughlin Park and one or two other Los Feliz neighborhoods be designated as historic preservation zones, Kanner said.
That goal may be controversial. The designation would subject to city review any major alterations to houses or buildings within the preservation zone. Some residents fear they could be unfairly restricted in making changes to or selling their homes.
“One of the reasons some people live here is because we can do a lot of what we want to do,” said Mark Laska, vice president of the Laughlin Park Homeowners Assn. “We own the streets, we can put up gates, we can do what we want. There would be concerns that we’d be giving up some of those positives if we’d be included in that type of zone.”
The city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, subject to the approval of the Planning Department and City Council, can designate old or famous structures as historic-cultural monuments to protect their historic value, said city planner Parrello.
The commission also can designate entire neighborhoods as historic preservation zones if a significant number of the structures are deemed historically and culturally significant, Parrello said.
Neither designation requires the consent of homeowners. And, after a structure is given historic status, it cannot be significantly altered without approval by the heritage commission or a specially appointed review board, Parrello said.
Kanner said her group would not recommend historic preservation for any neighborhood where most residents did not want it. “We’re not going to shove it down their throats,” she said.
But, she added, the Los Feliz Improvement Assn. has strongly asserted a community voice in deciding what happens to private property with historic or aesthetic value.
The group has had disputes with some Los Feliz Boulevard residents over the construction of high walls in front of their houses, she said.
“We’ve always told people this is not Beverly Hills,” she said. “You can’t build a wall that separates you from the general public.”