Old Homes Won't Be History


Looking past the broken wood stakes along the parapet, the boarded windows and chips in the porch floor, it's easy to picture the Spanish Colonial Gilbert Kraemer estate in Placentia as it was in the 1920s: a grand showcase with its own tennis court, pool and cabana.

In Brea, the wood-frame 1912 Charles Kinsler home is more modest, but even richer in history. The third home built in the city--and the oldest left--it includes a front room with a separate entrance, so Judge Kinsler could conduct the city's first legal business without disturbing his family.

These two monuments to local history were recently saved from the scrapheap because history-minded residents leaned on city officials to preserve them.

Brea officials last week celebrated the sale of the Kinsler house, the culmination of a nine-year effort to assure its preservation. The new owner, Melissa Van Ert, who is in the construction business, beat out 33 other applicants. City planners are convinced she appreciates its historical significance and will honor the agreement to keep the original exterior architecture intact.

In Placentia, the city has worked out a deal with the owners to rehabilitate the Kraemer house. However, the owners get to move it to a corner of the property so they can build seven houses on the rest of the estate.

Kraemer is a familiar name in Placentia. Daniel Kraemer owned 4,000 acres in the area in the 1860s. At the turn of the 20th century, his son Samuel built one of the grandest homes in the county on Angelina Drive, named for his wife. One of his sons, Gilbert, built across the street from his parents in 1918.

The lavish Samuel Kraemer home was torn down in the 1970s to make room for condominiums.

Pat Jertberg, a longtime Placentia resident who's part of the historical committee that advises the City Council, recalls the sadness of going through the home before demolition. The committee was allowed to keep some of the items from the house.

"But there simply wasn't enough community support to save that home as a historical landmark," she said.

Twelve years ago, the Gilbert Kraemer home, already out of the family, was sold to its current owners, a partnership represented by Nevis Construction, for about $750,000.

The new owners soon proposed tearing down the Kraemer house and replacing it with 13 single-family homes.

"We said, 'No way, no how,' " said Joyce Rosenthal, the city's director of developmental services.

By then, the city had become more history-minded. Too many people had complained about the losses of other historical buildings in the 1970s, including the train depot and the Onteveros adobe, which dated from the early 1800s. The depot site is a parking lot, and a self-storage business occupies the adobe property.

But Placentia's history buffs still lacked enough influence to save the Gilbert Kraemer estate. In the mid-1990s, the owners offered to drop development plans and sell the property for $1 million to anyone who wanted to preserve it. But with the economy suffering, no one, including the city, could muster the money to buy and rehabilitate it.

The owners kept coming back with scaled-down development plans that kept getting rejected by the Planning Commission and the City Council.

The seven-house plan finally got approved earlier this month, on condition that the owners rehabilitate the Gilbert Kraemer home and move it no farther than the north end of the property. If the work meets city approval, then it can be sold.

But that's not a very satisfying compromise, said John Walcek, the incoming president of the Placentia Chamber of Commerce, who's also on the advisory historical committee. The owners can tear out the tennis court, the pool, the cabana and the unattached brick garage.

"The ambience of the property is what's historical, not just the house," he said. "Once it's moved, it never has the historical value it once had."

Rosenthal agrees. But what can the city do? she asked.

"The plan the City Council has approved is the best of all options left to save the house," she said.

In Brea, the Kinsler house also had to be moved. At 129 Orange Ave., it was smack in the middle of the city's redevelopment zone. The city put together an advisory committee to see which historical properties within that zone should be saved. The Kinsler house was at the top of the list, said Brian Saul, who led that committee.

"The problem with tearing down a historical home, once it's gone, it's gone forever," Saul said. "That house is important to this city solely because of the man who lived there."

Charles Kinsler, who was wounded while part of Theodore Roosevelt's battalion during the Spanish-American War, came to Southern California to work in the oil fields in 1899. He organized Orange County's first labor union, the Brea Gas and Oil Workers Union. When Brea residents wanted to form a city, they asked Kinsler to become the census enumerator to make sure they had the requisite 500. He and his wife, Lena, counted 732 inhabitants.

Kinsler became the first city clerk, served on the first school board and was a recording judge for 10 years. He also ran the Kinsler Hotel, long since gone.

Van Ert, who lived in Orange, knew nothing about Kinsler when a friend told her about the house on the market.

"But one look and I fell in love with it," she said.

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