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A Home to Faded Dreams

Times Staff Writer

The sharecroppers’ daughter looked past the broken windows of the grand old home on West Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles -- past the weeds outside and the stray cats within -- and fell in love.

In the rural Louisiana parish where Arlillian Moody was born, this was the kind of house where only white people lived.

Where others saw a decrepit dowager, she saw Elegant Manor, a place where her people -- black people, working people -- could celebrate, dress up, take classes, get married, hold church.

That was Arlillian Moody’s vision in 1977.

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Today Elegant Manor is a dream in disrepair, a nuisance in a neighborhood that suddenly is fashionable again.

The paint on the home’s delicate Queen Anne woodwork is peeling, and gang graffiti mars the inside walls. Last month, city workers hauled old cars and tons of junk off the property.

“It’s sad,” said David Brooks, a Department of Sanitation worker who helped with the cleanup. “I used to always see weddings and parties going on in this yard.”

“Ms. Moody,” another observer noted, “would be totally devastated.”

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From its start at the turn of the 20th century, this was a house of high promise. Before even a board was nailed, one newspaper predicted it would be “one of the most picturesque homes in Los Angeles.”

Back then, West Adams was the preferred address for Los Angeles’ white elites, among them James T. Fitzgerald, a self-made music-store mogul. He hired one of California’s best-known architects at the time, Joseph Cather Newsom, to design his showcase home at the corner of West Adams and Arlington Avenue.

Renowned for his graceful lines and whimsical style, Newsom delivered a unique, 15-room building that combined Italian Gothic and Queen Anne touches, with curling wooden ornamentation outside and tranquil gothic arches within.

By the time Arlillian Moody moved to Los Angeles in 1943, many of the Fitzgeralds’ Brahmin caste had moved on to new utopias such as Hancock Park and Beverly Hills.

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Soon after arriving, she opened a dress-making shop in a storefront on 1st Street that had belonged to Japanese Americans shipped to internment camps in World War II.

Ms. Moody, as everyone called her, was an excellent seamstress. She moved her operation to a house off Crenshaw Boulevard and raised three children, mostly on her own.

She sent her youngest child, Lauretta Carroll, off to Caltech to study engineering. Her oldest son, Robert Carroll, spent time in San Quentin on assault charges. Later, he became a bus driver.

Her middle child, Ronald Carroll, was working at Long Beach Naval Shipyard when he discovered the Fitzgerald place in 1977. The house was empty and ragged. Most of the windows had no panes, and the steep gables lent it the air of a haunted house. Yet Ronald likened it to a big, admirable boat that would not sink.

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His mother was even more smitten. At her urging, Ronald put a down payment on the house with money he had saved during a stint in the Army.

Much had changed in West Adams by 1977. The whites were followed by the city’s burgeoning black middle class, who moved in after World War II, when racial covenants were struck down in court. Some of the mansions were occupied by prominent blacks such as actor Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”

The Santa Monica Freeway cut the life from the neighborhood in the 1960s. The Watts riots also took a toll. Apartments done in cheap stucco filled the expanses between the old mansions. Larger homes fell into decline or were carved up into warrens for the poor.

At one point, the Fitzgerald House had been a rest home for movie actors. In 1977, Ronald Carroll bought it from the Regular Associated Troupers, a group of vaudeville actors and circus performers.

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Ms. Moody moved into a downstairs room, set up her sewing equipment and got to work. She enlisted family members, friends and people off the street to help with the restoration. They painted inside and out, cleared the weeds, laid sod, and planted a garden with strawberries and tomatoes.

“It became not a family project, but more like a neighborhood project,” said Ms. Moody’s daughter Lauretta Carroll, 50. “Everybody took some part in rehabbing the place.”

From the ruins of the Fitzgerald home rose Elegant Manor, a curious mix of community center, dress shop, catering operation and halfway house. Ms. Moody hosted fancy weddings and quinceaneras and Mother’s Day celebrations. She rented it out for TV and movie shoots. It served as a polling place and a classroom, and the occasional home to political groups, nontraditional churches and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Fraternities and sororities held theme parties. For a while, the kitchen regularly whipped up home cooking for the cast of the musical TV show “Soul Train.” Until this year, an annual parade honoring Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey ended up there.

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Frederick Lewis, an employee at the county assessor’s office, was married in the manor’s side yard in 1983. He remembers its attractive garden and tastefully appointed rooms, where the wedding party danced the cha-cha and the Texas hop.

“It was exactly what it said: an elegant manor,” he said.

Ms. Moody made the tablecloths by hand in the downstairs room she had taken for herself. And she ruled over an eclectic workforce that included the neighborhood’s homeless, poor and drug-addicted. Some stayed in a trailer in the yard. All they had to do was work.

In an old diary, Ms. Moody listed, with the tenuous grammar and spelling she had learned in the segregated South, the house’s guests, events and accomplishments.

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The home, she wrote, hosted “wedding, hundreds of wedding ... schools of all kind ... gests of all country and degrees, stars of all classes ... churches with many type of religions. Many old ones came for love and help. Many young one came for care.

“I were shown by God how to use this home. Everything happens at the Elegant Manor.”

When Ms. Moody and son Ronald persuaded city officials in 1982 to put the home on Los Angeles’ lists of Historic-Cultural Monuments, preservationists cheered: Four years earlier, a 32-room colonial-style mansion across the street had been torn down to make way for a public school.

But beneath the historic status lurked problems. Half business and half charity, Elegant Manor was an idea improvised by a woman with little knowledge of zoning regulations and bureaucracy. Projects such as hers have proved complicated and expensive, even for the foundations and churches that have stepped in to restore and adapt West Adams’ other large homes.

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City records show a history of permits denied, granted, revoked and amended for Elegant Manor. There were orders to stop operating it as a restaurant and nightclub, to stop all commercial uses, and to stop using it as a community center.

Some of the orders were followed. Some, apparently, were not. In 1992, however, the city zoning administrator allowed Elegant Manor to remain in operation, if it followed rules to prevent noise and deal with parking problems.

It was about then that Ms. Moody’s health began to deteriorate. Ronald took over day-to-day operations as she shuttled back and forth to the East Coast to be with her daughter. In diary entries written around 1993, Moody worried about the fate of her house.

“Please don’t tare me down in front of your young peoples,” she wrote. “I have help so many.”

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Ms. Moody died in February 2001 at age 85.

It eventually became clear that the place was never going to be the same under Ronald Carroll’s care. Heartbroken and battling his own demons, he ran the operation from a ramshackle caretaker’s cottage behind the mansion and let junked cars pile up in the yard.

Neighbors noticed a louder, more aggressive group of young people coming to the house for late-night parties. Residents regularly called police to complain about partygoers making noise, driving too fast and urinating on their lawns.

The neighborhood, meanwhile, had undergone still another transformation. Urban pioneers from the rest of Los Angeles had begun rediscovering West Adams in the early 1980s, and by 2001 they were a dominant force in the community, pumping money into home renovations and leading the fight for special historic preservation zones.

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The wild parties did not sit well with old or new residents. They were shocked in January when two teenagers were shot and killed outside the house. The two shooters were gang members who had attended a party there, police said.

A month earlier, Ronald Carroll had been found guilty of violating trash and safety ordinances. He was sentenced to more than 400 hours of community service. In a separate action, the city revoked his permit to hold parties.

Friends and family say the 57-year-old is a good man who was simply overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the home. His daughter Carra said he was devastated by his mother’s death and has been focused on the health of his grandson, who recently underwent heart-transplant surgery.

Joseph Davis, a friend of Ronald’s, said the city had made him a scapegoat. He said that until recently, Ronald was charging working-class families next to nothing to hold parties in the yard because he knew they had nowhere else in the neighborhood to go.

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“Ronald Carroll has a heart of gold,” he said.

Ronald Carroll gave a tour of the manor recently, the night before the city hauled away the last of his junk. Some of the rooms were clean and freshly painted. Other rooms had holes in the ceiling, stacks of furniture, or graffiti.

“I would like to stay here and make it into something it hasn’t been in awhile,” he said.

Other family members either can’t afford to help or don’t want to. Looking back, Lauretta Carroll sees that Elegant Manor was always a longshot.

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“Had my mother been slightly more educated, a little better dressed, perhaps a little more articulate, she wouldn’t have had any problems,” she said. “She did not fit into the perception of what an individual should be in order to have a piece of property like that. And yet she was the only one who saw the vision of that property when it was sitting there for sale for so long.”

Ronald Carroll bought the house for $49,000 in 1977. Today he said it’s on the market for $1.2 million -- although he sometimes seems reluctant to sell.

His property agent, Anna Marie Brooks, said the place would most likely go to a wealthy Angeleno looking for a showcase home.


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