A Man’s Romance With the Past : Restoration: Tom Green is one of a small group of enthusiastic amateurs fighting to preserve the Southland’s architectural history.
Tom Green looks up at his Moorish tower as though he’s expecting Rapunzel to let down her golden hair.
“I should be tearing this whole thing down,” he says. “Instead, it’s tearing me up.”
Tearing up his bank account, he means.
Green is standing in the inner courtyard of the Monterey, his 70-year-old 19-unit Moroccan-style apartment building hidden behind a Vons in Coronado.
But the supermarket’s bland efficiency seems an age and 10 cultures removed from the Monterey’s courtyard--a lush oasis hidden from the world outside. Its arches, terra-cotta tile, giant-leaf plants, climbing bougainvilleas, half-century-old palms soaring up and over the roof, and the gurgle of its 10-foot three-tier fountain--all are props from the world of harems, of Omar Khayyam, of unhurried pleasures.
The Monterey is a phoenix from California’s gently roaring 1920s when a great surge of sentimentality for all things Spanish and Moorish swept through the state, a yearning for that earlier, more elegant age, the time of the Silver Dons.
But that was then. This is now, the age of the space-efficient condo. One thing is almost certain: If not for Tom Green, the Monterey probably would be just a memory.
Four years ago, this 54-year-old collector of antiques and antique buildings migrated south from Los Angeles just as the Monterey seemed to be nearing its end. There was talk of demolition to make way for “better use of the land"--condos, probably, or long, narrow “Billy-Boxes,” named after a local contractor.
Green himself is an ex-contractor, but he’s one of a small bunch of enthusiastic amateur restorers. They’re fighting for the Southland’s architectural history, buying and saving old apartments like the Monterey with no official backing, no special knowledge of the culture they’re preserving, no good reason other than love.
Economics says these relics should make way for more efficient uses of increasingly valuable land. Nor are the structures spectacular enough in a historic sense to attract big-time government preservation.
So Green took money he’d made in real estate and bought the Monterey for $1.75 million in 1987--when it had become a run-down house in dire need of major repairs. No historic preservation order would have prevented him from bulldozing the 100-foot-wide property and dividing it up.
Instead, he spent “maybe a hundred thousand dollars” on structural and electrical repairs, retiling the roofs, scraping out the detritus of decades from the apartments, building walls, the inside gardens--and almost wrecking his car hauling up the giant fountain, piece by piece, from Mexico.
“I think lost causes are in my blood,” he says, “or backing them before their time: My father lost most of his fortune backing the inventor of the tubeless tire.”
Green is a refugee from Los Angeles. He started as a teen-ager helping his mom buy run-down Hollywood houses, restoring them and reselling.
His mother, Marion Engel, had been a Ziegfeld Girl, a dancer and an actress. But when his father, John Harry Green, died, his mother decided to put her flamboyant tastes fully into real estate.
“We’d always only buy places we liked, and we’d always put in one outrageous touch,” he says, “like a crystal chandelier. We made a lot of money.”
They bought some Old English-style apartments on Carol Drive in West Hollywood. “The one great thing about owning these places,” says Green, “is that people live here because they love it. It’s their heart that brings them in, not their pocketbook.”
Perhaps that’s why so many famous people gravitated to the Greens’ places or to other exotica like the now-demolished Garden of Allah.
But it was their piece de resistance-- three very French-looking apartments at 9941 Durant Drive in Beverly Hills that attracted the most names: Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland.
“I thought I was there for life,” says Green. “The problem was it became too valuable. We’d bought it for $79,000 in 1961. But as property valuations went up, taxes went up, costs skyrocketed, these old places are high-maintenance things--and we couldn’t put the rents up to match.”
Because of rent control, Green says he “came under increasing pressure to demolish or to sell . . . I eventually did it. Sold to a developer. I gave up the charm to realize my value.
“I had to do it,” Green says, “but I’ll always regret it.”
Still, selling 9941 Durant Drive gave Green the chance to root around farther south.
First, he bought a home for himself in San Diego: the Villas de las Fuentes, two English-yet-Moorish-style villas hidden on a knoll in the Mission Hill area and very vintage 1920s.
His own place has turrets, verandas, three fountains and a history: It was a high-class brothel run by an Arizona-based mob syndicate during the ‘60s. It now houses his vast collection of antiques, including knightly armor, music boxes, and in a red living room, a standing Empire-period 19-candle chandelier.
But the Monterey across the way in Coronado is the project that makes up for selling the Beverly Hills place.
“There are still several of these in the older parts of San Diego,” Green says, “and hundreds still in L.A. The trouble is, most are run-down. With rent controls, as we had in Beverly Hills, that pretty much seals their fate--unless you have someone like me who’s mad enough to spend what’s needed to restore them.”
Green never has trouble renting the apartments at the Monterey, where rents average about $850 to $1,000 a month.
By modern standards they’re small, the floors creak, the windows stick, and to get to the apartments you have to negotiate stairs and sneak under narrow violin-shaped archways.
Yet it is these irregularities that keep the tenants there. It’s what keeps Green, the master of the Monterey’s fate, captivated, too.
“It is something to do with continuity,” he says. “When the Monterey was built, it was harking back to an even older time. . . . buildings like the Monterey give you a sense of passage, of what went before, and--if we look after them--of what will come beyond us. They’re the connection.”
Every so often, Green holds a cocktail party in the inner courtyard. Flutes and guitars float over the chatter as guests mingle in the patio, looking more romantic among its arches and around the fountain than they ever could inside some ballroom.
The old Monterey comes alive, suddenly coming into its own . . .
“Those are the moments,” says Green, “when I know this place is worth preserving.”