At first glance, the stately Ziegler House in Highland Park is an unlikely setting for a child-care facility. The 1904 Queen Anne-meets-Craftsman style mansion looks like a location scout's dream bed-and-breakfast inn, but that rubber-coated play area is no mirage. The La Casita Verde Infant and Toddler Center, set up in 2002 at the renovated estate, is turning heads as a stellar example of municipal creativity. Last month the L.A. city-owned site won the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Housing and Urban Development Secretary's Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation. The award cited "an energetic coalition" of city departments, the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Community Development Department and citizens groups for rescuing a gem from decrepitude while bringing a high-quality child-care center to the underserved Highland Park area.
Built by Alfred P. Wilson and Charles Hornbeck, the mansion in the Sycamore Grove enclave was owned by Louis B. Ziegler, vice president of the Ross Ziegler and Co. grocery and meat market business. The house was bought in 1959 by Carl Dentzel, director of the Southwest Museum, who deeded it to the museum. The museum put the property on the market in the late 1980s, and community members persuaded the city to buy it in 1991. They spent years campaigning for a restoration. The $3.2-million renovation began in 1999, and the child-care center opened in April 2002.
"It's wonderful the way these grand rooms lend themselves to a comfortable space for little children," says Judy Nygren, executive director of the Mount Washington Pre-school and Child Care Centers, which operates La Casita Verde. The facility serves 42 charges ranging from 6 weeks to 2 1/2 years old, mostly from low-income families. With a 3-1 staff-to-child ratio, daily written reports to parents and a high level of staff-parent interaction, the center has a waiting list that numbers in the hundreds, Nygren says.
Nygren praises the consultants at Historic Resources Group as "the masterminds" of the project. Peyton Hall, the private firm's director of architecture, says the mansion was a challenge. "It's a very fragile two-story wood-frame structure. You still get the sense that nothing has changed despite the interior reinforcement work." The facelift included seismic upgrades, earthquake damage repair and new mechanical systems. Detail work included exterior paint color based on the results of a chipping done by architect Martin Weil. Vitrified clinker bricks still adorn both chimneys, and the roof sprouts curved rafter tails. Inside, toys and cribs share quarters with hideaway Victorian pocket doors, raked closets and wood paneling festooned with decorative bow ties.
"The Ziegler House says that we care about preservation in Los Angeles," says Nicole Possert of the Highland Park Heritage Trust, which is partnering with the Los Angeles Conservancy on a walking tour of Highland Park's Sycamore Grove area. "The house is a drawing point," Nygren says. "People in the community should have an opportunity to see what can be done."
The next Sycamore Grove walking tour is scheduled for Dec. 13. Reservations are required and can be made at (213) 623-2489 or the conservancy's Web site, www.laconservancy.org.