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Above It All

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the veranda of his house, Bruce Gleason looks down, down, down onto a swath of the San Fernando Valley floor. Daylight is departing, and a rainy mist has furred the vista. A river of car headlamps on Van Nuys Boulevard glows more brilliantly by the moment.

“The view. Each night when I come home, I’m re-charmed by it,” he says. “The lights, they’re striking. Life is in session down there--150,000 people going about their life.”

To be in Gleason’s house, one of more than a dozen stilt houses that curve along Oakfield Drive, is to feel suspended in midair at high altitude, aloof and above it all.

From ground level, travelers on lower Beverly Glen Boulevard can scarcely ignore the Oakfield houses, perched in whimsical precariousness on the steep slope to the east like wide, weird birds that might at any moment take flight.

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Looking at them, it’s hard not to think that what ultimately keeps them up, in a place of earthquakes, mudslides and wildfires, is airy confidence itself, a kind of trust.

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In that respect, stilt houses embody a different era in the psychological history of the city. Perhaps 1,500 of them accumulated on the hillsides of Los Angeles from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. City building regulations and other social and economic forces make it highly unlikely that any more of them ever will be built.

Over the years, stilt houses have been depicted on television and in film as tidy symbols of the thrill-loving, rule-breaking mentality. Yet the city’s architectural historians have paid them scant attention. Mary Ovnick, author of “Los Angeles: The End of the Rainbow,” a history of the city’s social trends and how they were reflected in its residences, calls them “a small housing type; one of our minor trends.”

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For one thing, the classic stilt house is hardly a feast for the eyes--a modest, boxy one-story thing, of between 1,200 and 1,600 square feet, usually built by a developer with a buyer of ordinary means in mind.

“It’s not that they’re built into the hillside in some interesting way,” says architectural historian and preservationist John English. “They look like tract houses floating on the hillside. It’s one thing to see them on a street in Reseda, but when you see them on these stilts, it’s very strange.”

Stilt houses were a simple, inexpensive engineering solution to the problem of building on spectacular hillsides. Their typical original buyers, says Ovnick, a professor of history at Cal State Northridge, “were still the GI generation, the people who had their little cracker-box tract house and they were getting to be middle-aged and they were going to move up to something. But, of course, they worked in factories and weren’t wealthy people who could afford mansions.”

Nowadays, with high real estate prices a given, a widening chasm separating the wealthy from everyone else, and record numbers of Americans feeling uneasy about everything, it’s not easy to imagine the heyday of stilt houses. In Los Angeles, it was a time of unabashed post-war hubris when anything seemed doable, a time when ordinary people realistically could aspire to the heights.

The houses being built in the hills today tend to be multistory mansions behind huge retaining walls, or cascading in complicated steps down a slope, or simply gouged into the steep landscape. The tastes of those who can afford to build there no longer run to tract houses on stilts.

Whatever its aesthetic shortcomings, the classic stilt house curtsied to nature rather than deformed it. The landscape flowed unimpeded beneath the dwelling. It looked like something a hillside could shrug off any time it chose.

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During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a number of hillsides did just that.

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The typical stilt house’s support system consists of two or more steel pipes diagonally braced by steel rods or cables in an X-pattern, holding the floor of the house aloft. In some cases, its floor beams are attached to its street-level concrete foundation; in some cases not.

Thirteen hillside houses in the city collapsed in the quake. Nicolino Delli Quadri, a senior structural engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Building & Safety, says most of those were stilt houses of the rod-braced variety. Three people perished as a result of stilt houses coming down.

In the earthquake’s aftermath, department engineers formed a study group to survey hillside-house failures. The group’s final report identified stilt houses as the hillside homes “most vulnerable to earthquake damage.” Delli Quadri says the floor beams of the stilt houses that collapsed were not attached to foundations; when the stilts and cross bracing systems faltered, the floors simply slid forward and down the slopes.

Although the rod-braced design is acceptable to many engineers, it presents special maintenance problems, Delli Quadri says. “When you have rod-type bracing, the rods are supposed to be re-tightened every few years,” he says. “Also, there are problems with corrosion in some cases, with the earth sloughing up against the bottom and corroding the rod connectors. Homeowners don’t pay attention to those things. They probably don’t even know they have them.”

As a result of the survey, the 1996 Los Angeles Building Code requires the floor beams of any new stilt houses to be attached to street-level foundations, which involves minimal expense.

The requirement also applies to existing stilt houses undergoing reconstruction worth 50% or more of their value. In such cases, meeting the requirement costs about 20,000 to $60,000, Delli Quadri says.

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Yet, it is concern over L.A.'s other principal source of disaster--fire--that effectively has blocked construction of stilt houses for more than a generation.

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A 1966 building code regulation governing construction in mountain fire districts, which include virtually all of the city’s dramatic hillsides, requires the supports and undersides of buildings to be enclosed or made resistant to fire for at least one hour.

Such fireproofing--coating support structures with stucco, or fashioning them out of heavy timbers or concrete--is prohibitively costly, unrealistic or both.

“To wrap all the stilts and under floor in stucco would be very cumbersome,” says Delli Quadri. “I have not heard of it being done. The bracing rods are very flexible; they tend to vibrate and the stucco would tend to shake off.”

Similarly, he says, he knows of no stilt-type houses built on timbers so heavy they could burn for an hour without compromising the stability of the structure. “It’s possible,” he says, “but very impractical, and would be expensive.”

Architect Dion Neutra, who worked with his renowned father, the late Richard Neutra, on the design of almost 30 stilt houses, says such dwellings could be built on concrete support structures, “but it would be extremely expensive.”

“If somebody said, ‘Gee, I really love that look of openness underneath,’ you could go with concrete because it would be much better looking and easier to maintain than steel members,” Neutra says. “One of the factors I would consider would be a precast system for the columns--if we could figure out how to get columns that big up to places that high, which would be another problem.”

The readier solution, abundantly evident in the city, has been to build hillside houses with long exterior walls dropping to the slope. That complies with the building code, and creates considerably more living space in a house. It also makes a house much more visually intrusive on the hillside. “It creates an area under the house where fire can’t get to, but it also creates an enormously unattractive long, blank wall of stucco,” says architecture historian Jeffrey Chusid. “Building regulations are often not sympathetic to building naturally in the hills.”

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Not all stilt houses are created equal, and an earthquake can sort out the differences in no uncertain terms.

Bruce Gleason bought his Oakfield Drive home brand new for $42,500 in 1967, late in the stilt-house era. Since then, he says, it’s been “100 percent solid” through two major earthquakes and has grown in value to an estimated $335,000.

His and 19 other stilt houses on Oakfield and Beverly Ridge Drive, the next street up the hillside, were designed by the Neutras to be a cut above typical. Gleason’s house has 1,900 square feet. Its design called for the floor beams to be tied to the foundation, and for the bottoms of the stilts themselves to be attached to the foundation by concrete beams running up the slope.

The 1971 Sylmar earthquake, which registered 6.5 on the Richter scale, merely caused a bric-a-brac shelf in the house to fall. The 1994 Northridge quake, which registered 6.7, did about $10,000 worth of mostly cosmetic damage, Gleason says.

Not all of his neighbors’ stilt houses fared as well. Three of the 20 dwellings, two on Beverly Ridge and one on Oakfield, collapsed. Four-year-old Amy Tyre-Vigil, whom Gleason often saw strolling the neighborhood with her mother, died when their Beverly Ridge house collapsed onto Oakfield, a few hundred feet from Gleason’s house.

Many of the other houses were seriously damaged. In some cases, foundations tore away from the street. Several of the houses are still undergoing repairs.

The destruction scratched up old, painful associations for Dion Neutra. He and his father, until his death, had tried without great success to disassociate their name from the Oakfield and Beverly Ridge houses ever since their construction began in the early 1960s. The architects were keenly dissatisfied with how their plans were carried out.

“They weren’t following the design, not only structurally, but aesthetically,” Neutra says. As a result, the Neutras had no further hand in the project, which was completed by others after the original developers went bankrupt.

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Living in stilt houses, no matter how meticulously built, is not for everyone.

“It takes a certain type to be able to handle it, because even from wind there is a certain amount of movement,” Neutra says. “Some people who bought those were sort of pioneering types, but everybody I’ve ever talked to who’s lived in one has been thrilled with it, loved it.”

Gleason clearly is one of them. The 73-year-old lawyer, whose 30-year residency makes him Oakfield Drive’s longevity champion, relishes what he calls the “vibrational resiliency” of his house.

To demonstrate, he jumps up and down hard on his veranda several times. The house, high above its steep, brush- and ivy-covered slope, shudders minutely.

“These houses, they shake, they give a little,” he says, beaming. “When the Santa Ana winds come through, they pick this house up and rock it like a toy.”

Experiencing that phenomenon might make a dedicated flatlander out of another person, Gleason concedes, but it only confirms him in his love of his stilt house. If he ever leaves it, it will likely be feet first.

“Those of us who live up here tend to stay awhile because of the seclusion, the isolation, the quietness, the beauty, the scenic aspect,” he says. “You see, you get hooked. You get hooked emotionally. I stayed this long, I might as well go the distance.”


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