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A Home Tailor-Made for Bilbo Baggins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a sliver of a street near Culver City’s main commercial strip sits a tiny patch of Middle-earth where Bilbo Baggins would feel right at home.

Fountains gurgle languidly into ponds teeming with goldfish. Tree trunks flank hand-carved doors. The shingles of domed roofs cascade down walls chunky with bricks and mortar.

In the tidy files of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, the three structures that make up this urban fairyland are matter-of-factly labeled the Lawrence and Martha Joseph Residence and Apartments, Historic-Cultural Monument No. 624.

But for decades, neighborhood youngsters have known them as the Hobbit Houses.

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It is thus serendipitous that, half a block to the south, the Mann Theatre on Washington Boulevard should now be showing “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” the sweeping epic of elves, wizards and, of course, hobbits.

These whimsical cottages, assembled lovingly from 1946 to 1970 by Lawrence Joseph, a onetime artist for Walt Disney Co., are among the few remaining buildings in Los Angeles in the Fantasy Revival style.

Also known as Storybook style, the architecture calls to mind Snow White, dwarfs and cackling witches stirring steaming pots of nasty potions. The brick-red spider web designs built into doors and windows enhance the Disneyesque aura, as do the myriad cats that slink across the brick paving and doze in sunny patches on the roofs.

“The houses are truly spectacular and unique,” said Trudi Sandmeier, a preservation advocate with the Los Angeles Conservancy, a group that works to save the city’s architectural and cultural heritage.

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“It’s almost like a folk art environment along the lines of the Watts Towers,” she added. “Someone’s personal inspiration and creativity created this little gem.”

The cottages also serve as a tangible link between Martha Joseph and her late husband. “He built it. I watched him build it,” she said. “It has quite a meaning for me.”

If the exterior brick, timber and stucco evoke Hansel and Gretel, the interiors would better suit Horatio Hornblower. Joseph, an expert carpenter and sailor, used to describe his creations as “Scottish seacoast” until he visited Scotland and didn’t see anything much like them there.

Nonetheless, the built-in furnishings and carved beams--all finished in a garnet hue--would warm a sea captain’s heart. The kitchens resemble galleys: long and narrow, with storage in every nautical nook and cranny. Vertical-grain boat planking radiates out in eccentric circles on the floors. Hand-gouged boards front the cupboards and chests. Red-tartan wallpaper adorns many of the walls and ceilings.

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The main house and most of the apartments in the other two cottages have built-in, fold-down desks. At each sits a three-legged chair. The unsuspecting might try to perch on it as they would on a regular seat, until told that the stools were used by those attending cockfights in Spain and are intended to be sat upon backward, so that the elbows can rest on the “back” of the chair.

There are no doorknobs. Rather, doors open with boat latches and levers, all fashioned by Joseph. Jauntily knotted ropes serve as pulls on many of the drawers.

Naturally, Star Lore

Like many a Los Angeles home, the Joseph property comes with a ration of Hollywood lore.

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The late dancer and actress Gwen Verdon was the Josephs’ first tenant. Years ago, Nick Nolte squeezed into one of the bachelor pads in the rear building, and Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin shared the upstairs one-bedroom in front.

In 1963--and it’s a long story--authorities searching one of the seven apartments found much of the $240,000 in ransom money paid by Frank Sinatra after his son Frank Jr. was abducted. The Josephs had nothing to do with the kidnapping.

The buildings inhabit an otherwise undistinguished one-block stretch of Dunn Drive, just south of Venice Boulevard in Palms, where many other parcels have been paved over for parking.

Across the street two residences survived the wrecker’s ball, but the rest of that side of the block consists of an open-air parking lot and an ungainly, multilevel parking structure serving the theaters and nearby medical buildings.

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Doctors and nurses in hospital garb crisscross the street, hurrying between offices and nearby clinics. Few give the Hobbit Houses a second glance.

It’s a shame because, tucked behind trees, ferns, birds of paradise, pools and dainty fences made of sticks, they would find a wondrous hideaway.

The property did catch the attention of Arrol Gellner and Douglas Keister, who pictured it in their sleek new book “Storybook Style.” They describe the genre exemplified by the Joseph buildings as “the most delightful home style of the 20th century,” even though its heyday--1920s and 1930s--was brief.

Today, Storybook style houses are rarities, vastly outnumbered by the California bungalow. Another prime example is the 1920s-vintage Spadena House, also known as the Witch’s House, which was moved to Beverly Hills from Culver City. Designed by a studio art director, that house was famed for its “theatrically exaggerated look,” the authors note.

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To architectural historian Jeffrey Samudio, it was no accident that a bevy of such “folkloric environments” sprang up in Southern California. Many of those built just before, during and after World War II coincided with the flourishing of the entertainment industry and the burgeoning of the middle class.

Union wages afforded whimsically minded residents unprecedented leisure time in a benign climate, Samudio said, giving rise to such hand-crafted monuments as Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Grandma Prisby’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley and Lawrence Joseph’s Hobbit Houses.

As he was building, Joseph worked on secret military projects at the Lockheed Skunk Works facility, then in Burbank. He died in 1991 and was still tinkering with his cottages until near the end.

His childless widow, Martha, worked for many years as a secretary for movie studios, including Universal and MGM, just down the road from their property. During her career, she was secretary to actor Rock Hudson and director Alfred Hitchcock.

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Once a lithe dancer, she now uses a walker to get around. She is constantly attended to by friends and longtime tenants, many of whom treat her like a surrogate mother.

Kevin O’Neill, who grew up in Culver City and has lived in one of the Joseph apartments for 28 years, considers himself the property’s caretaker. A carpenter, he apprenticed informally with Lawrence Joseph, whom he still refers to as “Papa.”

Over the years, Martha Joseph said she used to fret about what would become of the property.

“I know that three minutes after I’m gone, this will be a parking lot,” she would say.

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Pursuing Long-Term Protection

In 1996, with the help of a friend, Roberta Goodwin, she secured historic-cultural monument status for the property from the city of Los Angeles.

They are planning to pursue longer-term protection either by invoking the Mills Act, a state law that provides property tax reductions for historic properties for a 10-year period, or by donating an easement to the Los Angeles Conservancy. To qualify for that, the property would have to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Just as Frodo Baggins enjoyed the fellowship of a loyal band as he set out on his perilous journey to destroy the ring, so too has Martha Joseph found supporters. She plans to name O’Neill and another tenant, along with Goodwin, as the property’s trustees.

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“I’m depending on them,” Joseph said. “I want the place preserved.”


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