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Trying to Save the Missionary Spirit

Times Staff Writer

His mission, he says, is to save the Missionary Colony.

But time may be running out for Glendale preservationist Alan Leib, just as it may be slipping away for the forgotten neighborhood built 80 years ago as a sanctuary for missionaries.

The 17-home enclave near the intersection of Glendale Avenue and Mission Road is earmarked for razing to make room for a healthcare company expansion project.

“An entire intact 1920s neighborhood is going to be wiped out,” Leib said. “When I drove by here and saw the fences and the boarded-up windows, I got sick to my stomach.”

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Featuring tidy dwellings built in Craftsman bungalow, Mission Revival and English Tudor styles, the enclave at one time totaled 29 homes that provided short-term housing for missionaries and their families during furloughs from overseas assignments.

The Missionary Colony was built, paid for and operated by a woman, not a church.

Colony founder Jennie E. Suppes was a widow who used profits from an oil well she owned to finance the construction of the homes as well as a 95-seat chapel, a small park, a library, a laundry room and a 22-bed retirement home for ill elderly missionaries.

Suppes moved in 1909 from a Missouri farm to Southern California so her sickly son could benefit from the warmer weather.

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For several years, she operated a 50-room boarding house for single women on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. Later, she ran a home in Pasadena for single missionaries from Christian denominations. She moved to the more pastoral Glendale area around 1920, purchasing five acres of what had been a barley field.

She often told of how she decided to build a whole village for visiting missionaries and then prayed that she could raise the $50,000 she needed.

“Everyone thought I had a few screws loose in the upper story,” she told one interviewer several years before her death in 1966 at age 96.

“I knew through the struggles that God would somehow send the $50,000 to build proper housing. It came at last through an oil well on a piece of unimproved ground that I owned. They had to drill over 4,000 feet before oil came. The company was on the verge of giving up several times.... Then one day the startling news came that a gusher of 5,000 barrels a day had come in. I soon had my $50,000.”

Just as suddenly, the well in what is now Santa Fe Springs caved in. After workers cleaned out the sand that clogged it, only salty water could be found, Suppes said.

Suppes admired missionaries not only for the work they did but also for the hardships they and their families endured.

“Those brave warriors leave home and friends and all and go to the desolate and savage outposts of the world” to do their work, she said in 1923 as she opened the first phase of the Missionary Colony.

A 1936 newspaper account of life at the colony told of its nondenominational nature and of its international reputation.

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“There is no remote corner of the globe where Mrs. Suppes is not remembered,” it stated, noting that letters that “bear strange postmarks” poured in regularly from missionaries in far-flung regions of Asia and Africa inquiring if she would have space for them to stay when they returned to the U.S. on furlough.

After their visits, “weather-beaten men turn their faces from Glendale toward remote African villages and begin their treks back to duty, refreshed and heartened,” the article summed up.

Each colony home was equipped with a refrigerator, a range, a radio and a piano, and rents were kept low -- just enough to cover expenses.

A historical assessment of the colony prepared by the site’s current owner notes that Suppes was responsible for laying out the enclave’s parcels, paving the streets and sidewalks, and installing electricity, gas, water and sewer lines.

In the early 1950s, Suppes retired and deeded the property to a New York-based group, the Christian and Missionary Alliance. It owned the colony until the 1970s.

These days, the colony cottages and bungalows are owned by a firm called MEK Associates Inc. The 94-bed Leisure Glen skilled nursing facility has been built on the former site of Suppes’ colony chapel. Her onetime rest home for elderly missionaries is used as an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center by Glendale Adventist Hospital.

A company affiliated with MEK, Healthcare Management Services, intends to build an office building and parking lot where bungalows now sit on the north side of Mission Road. A 35-room addition to Leisure Glen is planned for the south side of the street.

The colony’s houses will be razed “as soon as we get in our hands the demolition permit,” said Bobby Federico, administrative manager of Healthcare Management. Residents of the cottages moved out months ago, and workers boarded up and gated off the buildings.

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Chris Baxter, a Glendale planner, said the firm must secure approval from the city’s design review board and wait out a public appeals period before demolition can occur.

Despite the historic nature of the colony, the site has not been designated a city landmark because “you have to have the property owner’s consent to apply for historic monument status in Glendale,” said Juliet Arroyo, the city’s preservation planner.

Leib said he plans to file a protest on grounds the colony is historic.

“How can you demolish an intact Missionary Colony and not have an impact? There’s no way you can deny it’s historic. They admit in their own assessment it’s unique,” he said.

According to Leib, there are ways the nursing home operator could refurbish the old colony cottages, connect them with corridor structures and convert them for patient use. Such an adaptive reuse would preserve the street’s 1920s look.

Even better, the company could sell the homes to buyers willing to use them for single-family housing, he said.

To emphasize his point, Leib escorted real estate agent Cindie Karlzian from her nearby office to inspect Mission Road. The cottages might not be dream houses, but Karlzian said they would sell, especially in this hot real estate market.

“Absolutely there’s a market for these,” she said. “Houses in this area that are much smaller are selling for almost $400,000.”


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