It seems as though the clock has been turned back in a northwest Glendale neighborhood, where a band of mostly volunteers is working to clean up and preserve one of the city's oldest and most significant structures.
The workers are uncovering years of overgrowth and neglect in and around Taylor House, a 120-year-old redwood farmhouse at 1027 Glenwood Ave., recently purchased by a young family determined to restore the property to its original beauty.
The effort has triggered an outpouring of energy that has united friends and strangers with a common goal and a growing spirit of community reminiscent of a bygone era.
Immediately after they purchased the property on July 1 for $135,000 in cash, Anthony and Diane Fleitas, at first aided by friends and relatives, rolled up their sleeves and began clearing away the overgrowth that had kept the old house one of the city's best-kept secrets for decades.
"Nobody has even seen this place for 20 or 30 years" because of the thick vegetation and vines that shrouded the structure, said Anthony Fleitas, 29, a customer service manager for a plumbing supply store.
Fleitas and his 27-year-old wife have two children, ages 4 years and 3 months, and say they hope to move into the house within six months and live there for the rest of their lives--if they can get the necessary permits and raise the estimated $150,000 in additional funds needed for the renovation.
"This is my dream," Anthony Fleitas said. "I want to sit on the front porch and watch my children and grandchildren grow up."
The sudden fervor shown by the Fleitases quickly inspired some of their new neighbors, who volunteered manpower, tools and other equipment. Many worked from dawn to well past dark over the long July 4th weekend and they continue to pitch in where needed. Some bring pitchers of lemonade and others supply food, potluck style.
When one particularly stubborn stickery pyracantha bush--with branches like tree trunks that loomed over the roof--finally was yanked out by its roots, dozens of neighbors, onlookers and passersby cheered and applauded.
"It's like being in Mayberry," said Dale Hedges, a neighbor and deputy sheriff, who said he had never really seen the historic house, which is just across the street from him. "It's like the 1950s."
"It's unbelievable," Anthony Fleitas said, claiming the house has magical powers. "It has really brought the neighborhood together. It is the most amazing thing in the world."
Neighbors, city officials and historic preservationists said they are elated that the house many thought destined to be torn down will be saved. The volunteer workers also said they are caught up by the enthusiasm of the Fleitases--third generation Glendalians--who are pouring all of their savings and energy into the project.
With childlike glee, Anthony Fleitas invites anyone who voices interest to tour the premises.
"Anybody who wants to help out or come and see it is welcome," he said. "It's our history. It's what Glendale is all about."
Built in 1873, the structure is the oldest frame house in Glendale and is about the same age as the city's two earliest adobe structures. The house, which represents the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of Craftsman design, was originally part of a 26-acre ranch owned by Jesse and George Taylor, according to city historic records.
The single-story structure with a peaked roof was first located six blocks to the east, at Pacific and Glenwood avenues. In a 1962 newspaper article, a former owner, Helen McLeod, said her father, dairyman James Conner, gained possession of the house and property around 1908.
Conner had the house moved to its present site around 1920. McLeod, in the article, described the surroundings in that era:
"There Conner found he was out in the country for certain. Olive groves flourished on both sides of the street and adjacent was a large vineyard. The road was a narrow one, of dirt, and there were no buildings nearby."
The house remained in the Conner family, which eventually subdivided the land and built the surrounding homes that now make up the residential neighborhood, city officials said.
Roy Svetich, who has lived next door to the Taylor House for 10 years, was one of many in the neighborhood who complained to city officials about the condition of the property in recent times. He said homeless people slept in the weeds and children played in the bushes. Many complained that the property was an eyesore and devalued the neighborhood of well-kept homes.
"We never saw the house beyond all the shrubbery," said Svetich, 66. "It was a mess, a complete disaster. I'm sure glad someone is doing something."
Despite repeated orders from the city, the owner-occupant, James Conner, a descendant of the original Conner family, was unable to maintain the property because of illness. Conner, who suffered from emphysema, was hospitalized last November and died in June at age 68, said his aunt, Mary Sharp, 80, who lives nearby.
The property was put on the market by Conner's relatives for $250,000 last January as a "tear down" on a double lot, which would allow construction of two houses, said Kristi Withers Cousens, a broker whose father and real estate partner, John Withers, had listed the property with Verdugo Hills Realty.
The sales price was lowered to $135,000 cash in June after the city notified the brokers that the house was protected under the city's historic preservation ordinance. Under that law, demolition would require a lengthy approval process, environmental impact studies costing $150,000 or more and City Council authorization, said Jerry Wasser, city historic planner.
Most potential buyers were interested in purchasing the property for development, Cousens said. Others, who said they would like to see the house saved, did not have the resources to pay cash, a requirement because the house, in its dilapidated condition, was not eligible for a loan from a financial institution, the broker said.
For the Fleitases, who lived just four blocks away, seeing the "For Sale" sign and touring the premises brought visions of a dream come true. The house had a big front porch, just like the one depicted on a friendship card Diane had given to her future husband when they were first dating, Anthony Fleitas said. She had written on the card that "someday we will have a beautiful home, with a big front porch."
"When I saw the porch on the house, I started crying," said Anthony Fleitas, his voice choking. "It was the same as the one on the card. My dreams had come true, a place for my family to grow up. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it."
Family members helped the couple scrape together the cash to purchase the house.
"This is the original ranch ranch," Anthony Fleitas said, pointing out the hand-painted dining room floor, built-in redwood sideboard and square nails and horsehair plaster in the walls. "Its all made out of redwood. There's no termite problem here."
The residence has 1,326 square feet, including a living room with fireplace, dining room, kitchen and two bedrooms. A bathroom, added in the 1940s to replace the original outhouse, has fallen into disrepair and will need to be rebuilt, as will the porch.
The new owners are also considering adding a master bedroom and bath. All repairs and additions require approval by the city Historic Preservation Commission and City Council, officials said.
A city historic preservation report on Taylor House notes that "the structure is now in such poor condition that when the property is sold, Glendale's oldest frame house will no doubt be demolished."
Anthony Fleitas is determined that is not going to happen, although the renovation and restoration will cost an estimated $150,000. He has asked the city for assistance in finding financing and to help expedite the permit process. But, Fleitas said, the prospects of such backing looks dim.
"I need all the help I can get," said Anthony Fleitas, who plans to furnish the house with period pieces and continue to offer tours after the family moves in. "If anyone wants to make a donation, we could use it."
He calls the house his "Field of Dreams."
"In the movie, they said if you build it, the people will come."