Stuart Anderson has faced a few challenges in the 18 months since he bought two houses in the Los Angeles’ neighborhood of Harvard Heights.
Built in 1905, the two adjacent Craftsman homes--one is 2,700 square feet, the other, 2,200 square feet--were boarded up when Anderson purchased them as a unit for $425,000. Having recently restored a 1920s California bungalow in Highland Park, the urban planner was ready to tackle something on a more dramatic scale.
But he hadn’t counted on heavy winter storms when he began to replace the roof on one of the houses. Winds blew the protective plastic tarp off the beams and sent a torrent of rain into the living quarters.
Two months later, Los Angeles erupted in rioting and Anderson found himself struggling to smother the flames engulfing his back yard fence and palm trees, which had caught fire from a burning mall on nearby Western Avenue.
Nevertheless, Anderson rallied, and on Valentine’s Day the larger of his houses was opened to visitors for a historic-homes tour presented by the Harvard Heights Neighborhood Assn. and the West Adams Heritage Assn. Those touring Anderson’s home saw an elegant staircase, a design feature uncovered by hacking through layers of drywall, and a dining room paneled in natural wood.
Still, Anderson maintains, “If it were solely for the house I’d be gone. I like the people, the diversity. You know your neighbors. During the riots everyone was helping each other out. . . . I haven’t experienced a neighborhood that was so close since I was a small child.”
Lying south of Koreatown and northwest of USC, Harvard Heights formed the original tract of Los Angeles’ West Adams District at the turn of the century.
The large pocket of homes and apartments is bounded by Pico Boulevard on the north, Washington Boulevard on the south, Normandie Avenue on the east and Western Avenue on the west.
Typical Harvard Heights homes, built between 1904 and 1910, are two-story Craftsman style. Victorian detailing is found in numerous “transitional” houses, which reflect both architectural movements. A great many were the work of Frank Tyler, a prominent local architect of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Street names--Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford--suggest the aspirations of the upper-middle-class residents who originally lived there. Although the homes lacked the exclusive aura of the mansions south of Washington Boulevard, which once sold for $50,000 and up, they retained a decidedly upscale feel.
While largely made up of blacks and Latinos, Harvard Heights has become a neighborhood whose diversity cuts across a broad cultural and social spectrum. Since the early 1980s, growing numbers of white homeowners have been wooed by the architecture of the area’s older homes and reasonable prices; additionally, a significant share of senior citizens, gays and families with young children make up the population.
An unrestored house sells for about $175,000, said Jon Rake, an agent for City Living Realty. At the high end, a fully restored 3,500-square-foot house costs between $375,000 and $395,000. The median-priced home, with some updated electrical, plumbing and a degree of historical detailing, is about $225,000, he said.
Rake said that interest among buyers has been marked by cyclical turns. “We went from people buying historical homes because of the character, to good value, to close to downtown and tired of commuting. Now we’re going back to, ‘Oh, I love those old homes,’ ” he said.
Six years ago, Mary Wormley and her husband, Don Frederick, were drawn to the West Adams District because of their interest in old homes. Although Wormley, a journalist for Time magazine, recalls loving every house she saw, it was the size, affordability and dining room of a 3,200-square-foot 1908 Craftsman in Harvard Heights that sparked the sale.
“We walked in, and I think what struck us both was the built-in breakfront in the dining room,” Wormley said. “It had leaded glass windows in what is called an onion design and that was the original element. It had a bow window and a wonderful brick fireplace. It was just very inviting.”
Since then, Wormley said, a love of old houses has become just one of many interests shared with their neighbors. For example, the social life of the couple’s 22-month-old son, Dalton, counts as an unexpected bonus.
Said Wormley: “On any given Saturday there is always a bunch of nice kids right on our block. Some of my friends who live other places in the city are always making play dates and driving their kids to play group. He never lacks for fun. That is really a wonderful thing.”
What has impressed Pat Campos are the annual tree plantings. “The year that we moved in everyone was helping each other dig a hole in front of their yard to plant their new tree. In a couple of weeks they are going to have another tree planting,” said Campos, a teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Campos recalls that she and her husband, Miguel, hadn’t planned on buying a home two years ago. However, their discovery of the two-story Craftsman was another case of love at first sight. By refinancing their original home, they raised enough money for a down payment on the $240,000, four-bedroom house. “It was so cozy. It had a lot of woodwork, a nice back yard for the kids,” she said. “It gave me such a good feeling.”
Until 1900 the land now occupied by Harvard Heights was filled with little more than dust and sagebrush. The only signs of the city to come were the farm of Charles F. Stewart at the corner of Western Avenue and Washington Boulevard and Mary E. Chester’s boarding school one block east.
But all that changed in the early years of the century as Los Angeles’ population surged from 100,000 to 500,000 residents and Harvard Heights emerged as a “streetcar suburb” that enabled people to move further out of the city.
Don Zigrang, who grew up in Harvard Heights, sounds wistful when he reflects on the public transit available in the World War II years of his youth. “For a nickel you could hop on the Pacific Electric car and be downtown in 10 minutes. If you wanted to transfer, the streetcar went right down Venice Boulevard to Ocean Park. This was really a handy area to live,” said Zigrang, who repairs and sells automobile racing ignitions.
Now living with his wife, Carmen, in the 1908 Craftsman his father purchased in 1940 and next door to the one his grandfather bought in 1919, Zigrang said convenience is still a plus for Harvard Heights. “You’re 15 minutes away from the beach, same amount of time from Pasadena, Hollywood,” he said. “You are central to any place in the L.A. basin.”
Through the years the couple has watched as many of the old homes in Harvard Heights were cut up into apartments or replaced with commercial structures. The neighborhood could not compete with the lure of all the new homes sprouting up in the San Fernando Valley and other outlying reaches, and the older homes were forsaken in the exodus to the suburbs.
Zigrang, though, is hopeful. “There was a Craftsman across the street that was cut up into four apartments. One of the neighbors bought it and put some money into it. It’s now a single-family home. It’s turned around. There are a lot of these that are turned around,” he said.
The trauma of the Los Angeles riots, which trapped many residents in their homes without electricity for five days, still affects the neighborhood. But the sense of increased closeness that came with pulling together during that stressful period has accelerated the healing process.
Last November, however, Jon Rake, one of the Harvard Heights Neighborhood Assn.'s three presidents, noticed that the normally enthusiastic participation of residents in local beautification projects had dwindled. Attributing the decline to a lingering malaise, a reaction to the riots, he joined with the Los Angeles Police Department to organize a large-scale cleanup campaign called Project BOND (Beautify Our Neighborhood District).
“Fifty people showed up, from 2 years old to 80 years old, all races. We went from Normandie to Western. In six hours we made it look much better,” Rake recalled.
The recent news that Project BOND was one of six national winners in a competition called “You Can Make a Difference Day” has heightened the residents’ sense of accomplishment. Rake, who had entered Project BOND in a contest sponsored by USA Weekend Magazine, said that the association will receive $1,000 toward their favorite community interest.
The battle for adequate city services remains a contentious issue that is constantly being tested in an area that straddles two council districts.
“Frankly, we don’t get our fair share,” said association president Lano Soroko. “The trees aren’t trimmed. The sewers are clogged. It takes two years to get them unclogged in this neighborhood.”
In the meanwhile, the struggle has hardly left the Harvard Heights leadership daunted. Said Soroko: “Our attitude is knowing that they can’t get it done-- we have to get it done. We don’t rely on our council person. We don’t rely on city services. Whether in unorthodox ways--and those have been tried too--we just do it.”
At a Glance
Population 1992 estimate: 7,235 1980-90 change: +21.4%
Median age: 28 years
Annual income Per capita: 7,349 Median household: 22,883
Household distribution Less than $30,000: 58.1% $30,000 - $60,000: 33.6% $60,000 - $100,000: 7.4% $100,000 - $150,000: 0.7% $150,000 +: 0.0%