A Cool Spot Is Now This Cold House

Times Staff Writer

It was the cool place to hang out in Los Angeles a century ago -- a gathering spot for the likes of artist Frederic Remington, conservationist John Muir, composer John Philip Sousa and poet Carl Sandburg.

These days the landmark Lummis House in Highland Park is more of a cold place to be stuck in.

A leaky roof and sponge-like rock walls are turning the unusual museum that celebrates early Los Angeles into a dank and moldy place that local historians say has become unfit to work in.

Lack of heat is forcing the Historical Society of Southern California to "furlough" staff members who for decades have conducted public tours of the old house and used it as their headquarters.

Rainstorms flooded the home's main display hall and caused its plastered walls to bubble and split.

Conditions are so poor in the furnace-less structure that employees and volunteers wear heavy coats and huddle around plug-in heaters as they work on society publications and programs and book the tours that draw thousands of history buffs and schoolchildren each year.

The house is owned by the city and has been designated both a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument and a state historical monument. The 1,200-member society leases it and helps with its maintenance. It also handles its day-to-day operations.

The house was built by hand between 1898 and 1910 by Charles Fletcher Lummis, a colorful author and newspaperman who was a tireless civic booster of the American Southwest and, in particular, Los Angeles.

Lummis was famous for walking from Ohio to California in 1885 to take a job as the first city editor of the Los Angeles Times. Along the way, he wrote dispatches for the paper about his 143-day transcontinental jaunt. The hike took him through New Mexico and turned him into a lifelong devotee of Indian and Spanish culture.

Lummis constructed the sprawling, L-shaped residence at 200 E. Avenue 43 from smooth river rocks he had gathered from the nearby Arroyo Seco. Recycled Santa Fe railroad ties and telegraph poles were used for framing and for the roof. It was designed to showcase Lummis' growing collection of artifacts of the West.

The finished house was part British castle and part Spanish hacienda. A circular turret stands at one end, anchoring a 2-foot-thick stone-faced concrete wall that had the look of an early California mission. It features concrete floors, built-in cabinets, numerous fireplaces, and tiny doors just big enough to accommodate the 5-foot-7 Lummis. The cold floors, in fact, were a factor in Lummis' divorce from his second wife, Eve.

Some of Los Angeles' first intellectual salons took place at the house, which attracted literary types as well as entertainers.

"Any fool can write a book, but it takes a man to make a dovetail door," said Lummis, who bragged that the house built around a clump of arroyo sycamores and called El Alisal ("place of the sycamores") would stand for 1,000 years.

But major renovations, not just repairs, will be required for that to happen, local historians now say.

Directors of the 121-year-old Historical Society agreed last week to commission a detailed assessment of the home's problems. After that, they will search for ways to pay for the seismic reinforcement, electrical upgrading, structural waterproofing and forced-air heating that it needs.

The renovations will probably cost millions and could disrupt tours of the house and its recently restored natural garden, officials said.

Discovery of mold during a recent inspection quietly ordered by society administrators apparently sparked talk that the group was being forced to vacate the house and halt the tours, officials said.

"It's not closed. We're not closing," said Denise Spooner, who became the society's executive director last August and was surprised by the home's chilly winter presence.

"There are some mold problems, but it's not the kind of mold that's a health hazard. We had it checked out. We are not endangered by the mold. But the place is just freaking cold."

Society staffer Margaret Dickerson has worked nearly 19 years in an office that once served as one of Lummis' bedrooms. She said the interior temperature hovers around 63 degrees in the winter.

"I just wear layers and layers of clothing and gloves with the fingers cut out," said Dickerson, of Pasadena.

Society employee Robert Montoya said he has learned to head straight from his Echo Park home to El Alisal if it's stormy.

"I use a mop and bucket every time it rains," he said. "Water comes in from the roof and walls. We move things around to keep them dry." The home's main hall, which Lummis called his "museo," is nicknamed "Lake Lummis" when it floods.

"Lummis did a good job building this place. There's just no way he could have anticipated what the environment would be 100 years later," Montoya said.

Spooner, a former history professor who lives in Claremont, said heavy development around the old house has probably affected drainage in the area. She said city parks officials have allocated $55,000 to make roof repairs but that the concrete-and-stone walls remain "very porous."

Lummis apparently used no steel reinforcement in his walls. "There are structural problems. The tower may be pulling away from the house," Spooner said.

She said the Historical Society will partner with the city in seeking grant money to pay for the renovations.

"The house has not been at the top of anybody's restoration list," she said. "Money flows very slowly through city coffers. When you have people dying at King/Drew and kids aren't learning in school, it can be hard to justify putting money into historic preservation."

The society is seeking a state grant of up to $300,000 to pay for the initial "historic structure report" that will assess El Alisal's condition. Spooner said the group will learn in late summer or early fall whether the house qualified for the money.

Society board member Peter Mauk, a theater historian and Los Feliz resident, said repairs would be carefully undertaken -- and only with the approval of preservation experts and the city.

Society board president Larry Burgess said that officials agreed to let staff members work from home on a rotating basis during the winter. But he added that workers are maintaining a presence at the Lummis house and are continuing to conduct tours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

"It's possible someone may have heard us talking about shutting the place down," said Burgess, a historian and library administrator who lives in Redlands. "We've been talking about what we can do for temporary office space when and if we're able to do a complete rehab. This house is going to require some major attention."

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