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Old House Seeks a New Place It Can Call Home

Times Staff Writer

The classrooms haven’t been built yet. But home work is already being parceled out at Central High School No. 2 in the West Adams district.

That’s where construction planners for the proposed $130-million campus are being taught that it’s not easy to preserve Los Angeles’ past when you’re building for its future.

Workers have demolished most of a century-old neighborhood of houses and businesses to make room for the 15-acre high school at Vermont Avenue and Washington Boulevard.

They have been determined to save two of the nicest houses, however: a 101-year-old clapboard bungalow and a stylish “colonial transitional” Victorian built in 1905.

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The one-story bungalow was sold for $1, jacked up and successfully moved two months ago to a vacant lot about eight blocks away near Union Avenue and 22nd Street.

But the two-story Victorian at 1548 W. 20th St. still stands abandoned in the middle of the school site -- an unwitting victim of Los Angeles’ current housing boom. And the clock is ticking on its survival.

Construction officials say the 3,500-square-foot dwelling must be removed by midsummer so the site can be graded and prepared for the school’s planned September groundbreaking. The new campus, with room for 2,200 students, is targeted to be renamed and opened in 2006.

So far, efforts to find a nearby lot for the threatened home have failed. And a series of out-of-town relocation sites have evaporated before they could be acquired.

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“This house is part of the history of Los Angeles. Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” says Eric Bronson, a leader of the West Adams Heritage Assn. and a nearby resident. “You can understand why the L.A. Philharmonic was so upset when their Stradivarius was stolen. This isn’t a Stradivarius, but it’s part of our heritage.”

Bronson says there are numerous empty lots near the school site that could easily accommodate the huge, wood-framed house.

But in the super-heated Los Angeles real estate market, property owners aren’t interested in inheriting an old house that requires thousands of dollars to move and restore.

When school officials acquired the campus site last year for $43 million, they were aware of its historic nature. Part of an 1896 annexation to the city, the Griffes Tract, as it was called, was originally in a thriving suburban neighborhood that included apartments and businesses.

The oldest of the dozen-plus homes in the area dated to 1886. There were several apartment buildings and a cluster of small rental bungalows arranged around a courtyard. The Foster & Kleiser billboard company used a five-acre parcel. A pair of circa-1920 “film exchange” buildings used for the distribution of early movies adjoined a Lyon Van & Storage warehouse built in 1916, according to Kip Drabeck, the high school site’s project manager.

School planners fingered six of the houses for possible preservation. When a potential buyer did not exercise his rights to acquire them, the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to auction them off.

“When we had the auction, only one guy showed up. We’d expected to have some competition for the two-story Victorian. But he got all six properties for $6,” Drabeck says.

The purchaser was John Joseph Ramos, a businessman and old-house buff who grew up in a 1917-vintage house in San Gabriel and is refurbishing a historic home in Pomona.

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At first, Ramos figured he would work with like-minded preservationists to locate lots for the houses in the neighborhood. The nearby parcel was found for the three-bedroom bungalow -- along with a buyer willing to pay the $40,000 moving fee and ante up thousands more to restore the house to its 1903 glory.

Like Ramos, preservationists in West Adams couldn’t find owners of empty lots who were willing to take the other old houses, however. Churches in the area with room for the structures weren’t interested. Neither was USC.

“There’s an empty lot in my neighborhood and it wouldn’t cost that much to move the Victorian house there, but the guy who bought the lot at this point wants to build a brand new structure,” said the heritage association’s Bronson.

Lots large enough for the Victorian house in Silver Lake and Echo Park were likewise unavailable. A spot for it was located in Rancho Cucamonga, but permits for its placement there could not be obtained in a timely fashion because of rebuilding going on from last fall’s wildfires, according to Ramos.

Finally, a potential spot for the old house was found in Altadena. Ramos said a demolition permit for an existing structure on the lot was being sought by Tierra Concepts, a Los Angeles consulting firm that is working with him on the relocation.

With its four bedrooms, living room, parlor and maid’s quarters, the dwelling will have to be cut into about six pieces to be moved.

Special permits and approvals from cities and agencies between West Adams and Altadena must be secured before a house-moving company can truck the pieces beneath bridges and overhead utility lines.

Ramos predicts that the move will take as many as 18 days and cost up to $170,000. Reassembling the house and restoring it will run another $85,000.

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In contrast, the smaller bungalow moved in March was transported in one piece in just one night. It has been placed on a new foundation and is being renovated.

School builder Drabeck said delays in final state approval of the campus plans were giving Ramos extra time to try to save the Victorian house.

But the other four homes he bought had to be demolished because they were on portions of the school site that had to be graded early.

He said the heritage association helped salvage architectural woodwork, original redwood siding and interior cabinets from the four doomed homes before they were torn down. Those items will be used for the restoration of other old homes in historic West Adams.

“It certainly takes time and effort to save old buildings like these,” Drabeck said. “But when it came time to actually move the houses, groups that had been proactive in the beginning sort of faded away.

“We basically have just one guy with a small development company who is hanging in there and trying to get it done.”

Ramos said he hopes the Victorian can be moved before it has to be demolished. He said he was disappointed that owners of nearby vacant lots didn’t want it.

“At this point, we’re just trying to save the structure. People keep asking, ‘John, have you saved it yet?’ When you’re down to the wire like we are, that’s not what you want to hear.”

At the schoolyard, that’s an important lesson for preservationists to learn.


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