A FRESH START

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for eight years. She can be reached at: KathyPrice@aol.com

To hundreds of drug-addicted and alcoholic women seeking sobriety in South-Central Los Angeles over the last quarter of a century, the ramshackle old house known as the Mini Twelve Step House must have seemed like a glimmering castle.

Given refuge from the streets, the women, many of them homeless, strung-out prostitutes, probably gave no mind to the decayed wood and peeling plywood that served for the home's front and back porches.

And they probably barely noticed the stained front door, antiquated electrical system, fragile plumbing and structural beams that were rotted because of a leaking bathtub on the second floor.

But others noticed.

"It felt kind of dangerous," said Bobbie Owens, executive director of the house, which is named for the four women who founded it (Marie, Inez, Nita and Iona).

Owens recalled with a shudder the soft spots in the home's floors and its rickety steps.

"It was scary," she said.

Danger also lurked outside the walls. As one of only two homes on the block without protective fencing, the house and its residents were vulnerable to enraged boyfriends, drug dealers and others. Once, a man was discovered living beneath the house and reading pornography, having crawled through a large uncovered air vent.

Still, even with the house crumbling and the cotton popping out of torn living-room couches, there was a waiting list to get into the place, which can house 18 women at a time, each of whom stays for six months to establish a sober life.

For years, Owens, along with the board of directors and others, had scrambled for money to renovate the 12-bedroom house, which was built in 1905 as a rooming house and later used, according to a popular rumor, as a bordello.

Finally, a representative from the state of California, which licenses the program, inspected the deteriorating house and announced: "You'd better do something about this."

Salvation came in 1994, when the city of Los Angeles awarded the program $118,000 for renovation of the house, thanks to a grant proposal written by then-development director Cheryl Branch.

The renovation process began in earnest when the board selected architect Michaele Pride-Wells. She called for a charrette (a designers' round table meeting) to decide what the remodel should include.

Meeting of Minds

That meeting, held in the home's living room in 1995, included Pride-Wells; her project manager, Barbara Ellis; a structural engineer; City Councilwoman Rita Walters; Owens; and Gloria Stevenson Clark, director of the city's Human Services and Neighborhood Development Department.

Also at the charrette were the most knowledgeable people of all: the women who lived there.

"The residents designed it," Owens said. "When we asked the women, they knew everything. They knew every corner of this house."

For instance, the women said that they were tired of fighting over the one bathtub upstairs and that more showers would be better.

And they had no place to put their grooming items. When it was suggested that money could be saved by not including sinks, vanities and mirrors in the bedrooms, the women protested vigorously. Life was hard enough, they said, without fighting with 17 other women over counter space in the two bathrooms.

By the time the charrette was complete, one fact was obvious: "The $118,000 wasn't going to cut it," Owens said. By then, though, the Northridge earthquake had hit, damaging the structure even further, and $300,000 in government funds became available for quake reinforcement and other improvements.

The road of the remodel, from conception to completion, was fraught with detours. Even before the physical work began earlier this year, a new roof had to be put on the house.

"We couldn't hold the house together another day," Owens said. "It was raining right inside the building. The ladies were emptying buckets as fast as they could. I was calling the city for a permit."

Then, after the residents were relocated to another shelter and the empty house was readied for renewal, vandals stole lighting fixtures, parts of the old Wolf stove and so much copper piping that it cost $1,400 just to get the water running again.

But at last, the actual remodel was started by Harik Construction of Covina, which had presented the lowest bid for the project. It wasn't very far into the project before a new problem was discovered:

The original exterior clapboard was intact under the stucco that had been sprayed on 20 or 30 years ago. The siding needed to be removed to add plywood sheer walls to strengthen the building. That extra work added thousands of dollars on to the job.

Also, dry-rot was discovered in the foundation and floor joists.

"Until you start the job, you're not sure what you're dealing with," said Bob Hicks, vice president of Harik. "No one knew, not even the architect."

Though Harik estimated $279,000 for its part of the job, that total rose to $340,000. Along the way, it occurred to Hicks and others that "it would have been easier to tear it down and start over." But they discovered that community development funds are typically available only for renovation, not for new construction.

By the time the remodel was completed in mid-October, the house--now pink with white trim and surrounded by a white metal fence--was barely recognizable from its state one year ago.

"It's gorgeous!" exclaimed one former resident, bounding up the stairs during a tour of the house. "Oh, there's sinks in every room. The ladies are going to love this. And no more fighting over the bathtub.

"They kept the grace of the old place and added new stuff."

The results of the renovation are evident from the street, with iron gates and an arbor that will one day hold climbing roses. Sturdy front steps lead to a large porch and new white door.

From the foyer, the massive original stairway leads to the bedrooms on the second floor. To the left of the foyer are the large living room, a wheelchair-accessible bedroom and a computer-equipped resource and study room. To the right are a reception area, a giant dining room with a side patio and the industrial-style kitchen. Behind that is the service porch.

In the living room, the masonry fireplace was removed to create better seating arrangements for the meetings, such as those of Alcoholics Anonymous, that are held there.

Loath to return the old, broken-down furniture to the new house, Owens asked supporters for donations. The first items to arrive were deep, plush couches provided by "The Price Is Right" television show.

"Bob Barker takes care of us," Owens said with a laugh. A new washer and dryer were other gifts from the show's warehouse.

The dining room includes abundant cabinets for dishes. A wall of French doors leading to the new patio brightens the room. The patio itself gives the women a place to sun and smoke.

"This makes for better attitudes," Owens said.

Throughout the house, colors are soft and feminine, including mauve Formica counter tops. In the upstairs bathrooms, the walls are painted "Twilight Whisper," which is a soft mix of gray, purple and blue.

According to Ellis, the color makes the residents' skin look healthier and counteracts the harsh effects of the fluorescent lights, which tend to make facial wrinkles look more pronounced.

"This is a place where women learn to boost their self-esteem," she said.

Other touches include large closets and 18 individual cabinets for toiletries. Of course, every creative effort brings critics, and some have told Ellis that the home "looks like Barbie's house."

Safety Features

Many improvements are not cosmetic. For instance, the house now has excellent air flow, which helps prevent the airborne spread of diseases such as hepatitis. A new alarm system, along with the iron fence, makes the house more secure.

Naturally, there are still needs. More furniture for the living room would be nice. The windows need coverings that equal the home's quality. Ellis would love to see outdoor furniture on the side patio. And she is still "begging" for more landscaping.

Looking back over the years-long process of renovation, Owens noted that almost all of the people who made it happen were women.

"We've got to take care of our sisters," Ellis said.

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