Advertisement

Preservationists Discover ‘Trailer Park That Time Forgot’

Share
TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles register of Historic-Cultural Monuments may look like a fairly complete document, but don’t let those 18th century missions, 19th century mansions and early 20th century movie houses fool you. The list lacks trailer parks, and the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission thinks it’s time to change that.

In a move that state and federal experts say could be the first of its kind, the commissioners are asking City Council members to give monument status to the Monterey Trailer Park, a 1.7-acre site at Highland Park’s eastern edge that dates to the early 1920s, a pivotal era when Americans were taking their first long-haul road trips with Model Ts--and without motels.

The property’s owner, who acquired it in April, has written city officials to say he’s not just opposed to the idea but “flabbergasted” by it. “For eight years, it was sitting there with nothing done to it,” Peter Young said. “And now that I’m trying to restore it, they’re calling it historical. You should have seen the amount of trash that was hauled.”

Advertisement

Young said he has no plans for major changes to the property, and bought it for its “interesting character.” But he said he fears a monument designation--which requires property owners to get city approval before making substantial changes--would leave him too few options. City staffers said a vote is probably weeks away.

Preservationists say few such sites remain and note that the city’s Historic-Cultural Monuments list, begun in 1962 and now 715 sites long, is already a diverse document. Entries include a row of avocado trees in Los Feliz that may date to the 19th century; the 1939 Coca-Cola building downtown (which was designed to resemble a cruise ship); and the Catalina, an actual ship that shuttled passengers between San Pedro and Catalina Island from the 1920s to the 1970s. (At last report, the vessel was moored in Ensenada, which would make it the only city landmark now in foreign waters.)

In the vast majority of cases, says city Historic Preservation Officer Jay Oren, the council follows the Cultural Heritage Commission’s advice on monument designations.

Meanwhile, in the quirky community at the tree-shaded trailer park site, just south of the Pasadena Freeway and just west of the South Pasadena city line, the property’s history and the future are topics A and B. About 30 tenants dwell there full time or part time in trailers and mobile homes on pads where 10 original “auto camp” cabins once stood.

“It’s like a bubble here, a time capsule ... the land of the lost,” said Ed Lum, a 36-year-old graphic artist who has lived there since 1996. “To get a space here is about like getting a good apartment in New York. You have to wait until somebody dies, almost.”

The most voluble tenant is John Agnew, who discovered the park while making a U-turn eight years ago. A collector of vintage trailers and a transportation specialist for television and film production, Agnew “just fell in love” and seized his first chance to move into the park. Then the 40-year-old Agnew encouraged several friends and his sister to follow, thereby lowering the property’s median age and raising awareness of its potential as the trailer park that time forgot.

Eventually, Agnew took over as resident manager, planted some succulents, rolled in his collection of about 15 old trailers, added a pair of pink flamingos and laid plans to buy the place himself.

It’s because that purchase effort failed and Agnew had to haul off most of his trailers, Young contends, that the former manager contacted preservationists in a bid to tie him up in red tape. Agnew, who relocated the trailers to a new home in Altadena, says he and his allies are just trying to protect the park and its residents.

“He didn’t just buy a piece of property. He bought family,” Agnew said. “He bought a big relationship with a lot of people with different backgrounds.”

The deeper tale behind the trailer park begins in the early 1920s, when a businessman named Elmer Drummond opened a gas station down the street and dubbed this site the Monterey Auto Camp. In 1923 and 1924, Drummond built a pair of small Craftsman-style houses, which remain, one of them occupied by a tenant. The site also includes a former office (now converted into a residence and occupied); the site’s original bathing-and-laundry building (now locked up); and a structure that may be one of the 10 original guest cabins, now amended, expanded and occupied by a tenant. Around these ramshackle buildings sit 22 trailers and mobile homes, mostly owned by tenants who rent the pads they occupy.

At least a few of these tenants are big believers in the trailer’s role in human history. Thursday morning, in fact, found Agnew and Lum and a few friends seated by Agnew’s 30-foot ’57 Airfloat, watching an old documentary on Airstream pioneer Wally Byam’s 1959-60 jaunt from Capetown, South Africa, to Cairo, a venture that entailed 41 trailers and took 221 days.

But preservationists say the central issue is not whether the park’s trailers and mobile homes, none of which predate the 1950s, deserve a place in local annals alongside Union Station or the Hollywood sign. Instead, they say, the site’s layout and enduring buildings illustrate the emergence of car culture in the early 20th century, when entrepreneurs were scrambling to house a new breed of traveler: the long-distance auto tourist.

Eight decades later, it’s still clear that the Drummond family’s strategy included a forest setting. Trailers are set among five tall Monterey pines (apparently planted in the 1920s), another set of Cypress pines, several live oaks (estimated age: more than 100 years), about 15 Chinese elms, 10 walnut trees and a pair of California redwoods.

“It is a real part of our history,” said Meri Pritchett, a 29-year-old West Adams resident and Los Angeles Conservancy member who collaborated with Hollywood artist Sara Velas on the nomination, which commissioners approved earlier this month. “It’s especially part of L.A.'s history, because people came into this area post-World War I, and there were a lot of these auto camps acting as temporary housing before L.A. was able to boom.”

Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy and a supporter of the park’s nomination, said he knows of no comparable sites in Southern California. State officials said their database search of more than 50,000 registered California historic sites turned up no trailer parks. National Park Service historian Edson Beall said he got the same result in a review of 1 million buildings, structures, sites and objects listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Though RV parks and permanent trailer communities remain in ample evidence nationwide, many historians say the auto camps played a different role in their day, acting as way stations for Model T enthusiasts and setting the stage for the opening of the first motel, the Milestone Motel, in San Luis Obispo in 1925.

Along with the conservancy, supporters of the nomination include the governing board of the Highland Park Heritage Trust and historian Richard Longstreth, a specialist in the dawn of the automobile age in Southern California. Longstreth, an author and professor at George Washington University in Washington, suggested in a May letter that the trailer park site might be “a unique survivor” and that beyond city recognition, the property may merit listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Of the five dozen mobile home parks in Los Angeles, said 19-year resident Don Brown, president of the homeowners association, “this is the most unusual, because of the trees, the surroundings, the landscaping. We have the country here in the city. You don’t see that in a lot of trailer parks.... People come to this park, and the next step is Forest Lawn.”

In August, commissioners visited the site, scarcely noticeable from Monterey Road because of its thick vegetation and sloping topography, and Sept. 4 they gave a unanimous thumbs-up for historic listing. Young, a teacher, says he was unable to argue his side because the meeting fell during his first week of school.

Councilman Nick Pacheco, whose 14th District includes the site, said he hasn’t visited or made up his mind, but he noted that in proposed historic monument cases, “it’s always an awkward situation when the property owner is not the applicant.”

Until the recent sale, the park had remained in the Drummond family. County assessor’s records show that Young, of San Marino, paid $540,000 for the site, a figure that reflects the restrictions imposed by city rent-control laws and state legislation that shields mobile home park residents from eviction and other measures.

If he’s able to act on his plans for the property, Young said, “I would envision most of it will stay as is, and the two houses on top of the hill will be restored to their original situation.” However, if zoning and other restrictions permit, Young said, he might try to convert the old bathhouse’s interior into a living quarters and might add two or three more trailers or mobile homes. As it is, he said, rental income falls short of the mortgage payments.

When he took over the property, Young said, he found that transients had been trespassing in some of the buildings, and that many doors and windows had been poorly maintained. When he sought a demolition permit for one boarded-up structure, he said, the Building and Safety Department sent out an inspector who gave quick approval. (Building and Safety officials confirm that a demolition permit was issued for a building; Young has said he will hold off on demolition at least until the historic question is resolved.)

Though the country was dotted with thousands of short-term trailer courts as recently as the late 1940s--in a 1941 tourist guide, Trailer Travel magazine listed the Monterey Road property among 41 auto camps, tourist courts and related venues in Los Angeles County--historians say almost all have been overtaken by newer development. Given that, said the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Bernstein, “I don’t anticipate that this is going to start a movement to designate dozens of trailers.”


Advertisement