Avant-garde colony reborn as a 1950s suburb

Times Staff Writer

Winnetka looks much like the rest of the central San Fernando Valley, with sturdy 1950s ranch-style tract homes, corner churches and supermarkets. But the community got its start as an avant-garde communal living experiment.

Utopian beginnings

Charles Weeks, who had helped develop Winnetka, Ill., brought his brand of utopia to Southern California in the early 1920s. Weeks thought a plot of land, a couple of thousand chickens and a palm tree at every corner were the means to enlightenment.

Living close to the land would unleash true creativity, he believed, so along with the 1-acre chicken farms, he shepherded a symphony orchestra, took his "colonists" on pilgrimages to the Hollywood Bowl, and founded schools and a community center.

The experiment didn't survive the 1929 stock market crash, although a few outer buildings still remain.

Weeks spent the rest of his days indulging his passion for spearfishing in the warm waters off West Palm Beach, Fla.

The next generation

The community is a magnet for families looking for a place to raise children.

Typical single-family home listings include a 50-year-old, three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,480-square-foot home on an 8,300-square-foot lot for $349,950 and a four-bedroom, two-bath home built in 1963 for $419,000.

Minivans are replacing restored '60s muscle cars in driveways as baby boomers start to cash in and retire or to move up.

Two of Realtor Neil Sammons' recent sales were by original owners who bought their 1,300-square-foot homes in the '50s.

Insider's view

The speculators of the early '90s who bought properties for rental income are cashing in too, Sammons said.

Among new buyers fixing up properties are such recent immigrants as Niyasa and Mohamed Milan, originally from Sri Lanka. In the year they have been in their home, the couple has painted the exterior and erected a fence. (A neighbor's puppy kept stealing their children's shoes, which were lined up by the front door.)

Sammons calculates that about 80% of the homes are owner occupied. Neighborhood watch groups meet regularly with the Los Angeles Police Department's West Valley officers.

Good news, bad news

Winnetka has four parks, including the Winnetka Recreation Center, home to a popular Valleywide soccer league. Pacific Theatre's Winnetka 21 movie theater is in nearby Chatsworth. Ethnic restaurants run the gamut from Bolivian to Vietnamese.

The only places open in Winnetka after 10 p.m., however, are bars and supermarkets.

The area is bordered and crisscrossed by busy streets. The LAPD Valley Traffic Division jokingly calls Mason Avenue "the Mason Freeway."

Stock report

As of early November, 55 properties were listed for sale, from $179,950 for a two-bedroom, two-bath 925-square-foot condominium to $849,000 for a 3,950-square-foot home on a 7,231-square-foot lot.

Report card

Winnetka is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Elementary schools in the area include Winnetka (on 5 acres deeded to the district by Weeks in 1922), Sunny Brae, Limerick and Fullbright. Scores on the 2003 Academic Performance Index ranged from 652 to 737 out of a possible 1,000. Sutter and Northridge middle schools serve students from Winnetka. They scored 597 and 616, respectively. Cleveland High School in Reseda and Canoga Park High School, among schools that draw students from Winnetka, scored 640 and 578.

Historical values

Single-family detached resales:

Year...Median price






*year to date

Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; California Department of Education, Policy and Evaluation Division; www.losangelesalmanac.com, "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb" by Kevin Roderick; "The San Fernando Valley: Then and Now" by Charles A. Bearchell and Larry D. Fried; Neil Sammons, Pinnacle Estate Properties; zipRealty.com.

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