Owners Seeking Preservation Zone for Eichler Homes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some Granada Hills homeowners are seeking historic preservation status for their subdivision--even though its history only goes back as far as "Meet the Beatles!"

Located on a handful of side streets just south of the Sunshine Canyon Landfill, Balboa Highlands is a collection of modest, low-slung homes built in 1963 and 1964 by modernist developer Joseph Eichler. Taking a cue from Frank Lloyd Wright, his architects gave the houses clean lines inspired by Asian designs, glass exterior walls, courtyard atriums and an emphasis on indoor-outdoor living.

About 45 owners in the 108-home tract have responded favorably to the proposed creation of a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone in the neighborhood. The designation would make all exterior changes to the homes subject to review by a five-member preservation board, said organizer and Eichler homeowner Jaime Flores.

Joy Nicastro, an original Eichler owner who purchased her home 35 years ago, said she supports a historic zone because she has seen too many ill-considered remodeling jobs. The Los Angeles Conservancy, a historic preservation group, estimates that about a third of the houses have been been subject to alterations not in keeping with Eichler's vision, from neocolonial light fixtures to country-style doors.

"You should allow owners to have creativity and individualism, but they should say to people moving in, 'If you want a stucco house, you should go somewhere else,' " Nicastro said. "These are historical homes."

Supporters are also hoping an overlay zone will buoy real estate prices in the wake of the landfill's 1999 reopening, a move that has been highly unpopular with nearby residents.

Ken Bernstein, preservation director for the conservancy, said the typical Eichler home in Balboa Highlands sells for about $400,000. Real estate agents say Eichler homes in the Bay Area go for twice as much.

The city's historic preservation designation has never been bestowed on a postwar suburban housing tract, but there is a growing consensus that Los Angeles' best suburban architecture is worth saving, Bernstein said.

"With the passage of time, home buyers are taking a new look at the best of the Valley's postwar design and finding value," Bernstein said. "Obviously, not all the Valley's architecture is worth preserving. But the Eichler homes are one of the hidden postwar jewels of the San Fernando Valley."

The catalyst for the homeowners' effort was the conservancy's architectural tour of the Valley in November. Visitors were impressed by the beauty of the subdivision, one of three in the L.A. region built by the Northern California-based Eichler Homes Inc. While homes built by Eichler have attracted a cult following in the Bay Area, where the majority of his 11,000 houses are located, their existence here came as something of a shock to the Southern Californians on the tour.

"There were about 250 people out here that day, and they couldn't believe what they saw," Flores said.

Flores, 39, a self-professed design buff, says he is mostly interested in making sure the neighborhood's Eichlers, designed by A. Quincy Jones & Frederick E. Emmons, aren't remodeled into irrelevance.

"There are little bits of funky remodeling here and there," said Flores, who moved to the neighborhood eight years ago and lovingly restored his slate-gray, four-bedroom home. "But we have support from a lot of the original owners who are still here, and all the new owners of the last couple of years really get it."

Flores concedes that he has heard some grumbling about the idea. Original owner James Jones, 80, isn't convinced that the idea will work.

"I would imagine that the people wouldn't be driven to [support it]," Jones said. "It's their home. They should do what they want with it."

To create an overlay zone, the Los Angeles City Council must first agree to commission a survey to determine whether the neighborhood has true historic value.

The six- to 12-month process analyzes the significance of the buildings' architecture in the context of the area's history and identifies which buildings are eligible. Once the survey is completed, the Cultural Heritage Commission, Planning Commission and City Council sign off on the findings.

Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents Granada Hills, has not decided whether to support historic status for the neighborhood, said Phyllis Winger, planning director for his office.

"It's not something we're driving; the community is driving it," she said. "If it truly is deemed meritorious, it wouldn't be a problem. But it's not all wonderful, because there would be rules and restrictions put on homeowners when it comes to remodeling."

The drive to protect other examples of original suburban architecture is also underway in other pockets of the city.

Homeowners in a Van Nuys neighborhood bounded by Vanowen and Gilmore streets and Hazeltine and Kester avenues, are trying to secure an overlay zone for a mix of prewar bungalows and Craftsman-style homes.

In Mar Vista, a group of 52 homes designed by modern architect Gregory Ain is under consideration to become the first postwar tract in Los Angeles to receive historic designation, Bernstein said. Currently, there are 15 overlay zones in Los Angeles, with 10 more under consideration, he said.

The Granada Hills effort mirrors those in Northern California. A number of Eichler communities in the Bay Area are pushing for recognition through the National Register of Historic Places.

The Northern California homeowners also produce a slick newsletter and Web site that contains profiles of famous people who lived in Eichler homes and information on Eichler, who was one of the first builders of large tracts to sell to minorities.

The integrated Eichler neighborhood in Granada Hills was a selling point for Nicastro when she moved to Balboa Highlands in 1966.

"My minister told me that wherever Eichler went, they integrated," she said. "As soon as I saw this place, I knew it was what I wanted."

When Jones and his family moved to the neighborhood in the early 1960s from an Eichler tract in Palo Alto, he did not take race into account, he said.

"I wasn't interested in whether it was integrated or not--it was a good neighborhood," he said. "And this place has a few little features that are neat. It's a nice home."

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