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Pure gold to longtime residents

Times Staff Writer

Long Beach’s California Heights was settled by seekers of black gold who hoped to strike it rich on residential lots that came with oil rights. Turns out there wasn’t much oil in the area -- despite its proximity to Signal Hill’s gushers -- but the Spanish Colonial Revivals and Craftsman-style homes that were built in the ‘20s and ‘30s are worth plenty today.

Beginnings

The Jotham Bixby Co., taking advantage of the local oil boom, subdivided and sold California Heights lots in 1922 and built the first homes. Around the same time, some craftsmen working on upscale Spanish Colonials for the Virginia Country Club set in nearby Bixby Knolls built smaller versions of those homes for Heights buyers, said Ray Grabinski, a former Long Beach City Council member and 35-year Heights resident.

California Heights merged with the nearby Chateau Thierry subdivision to create an improvement association, and the area quickly grew to 250 families by 1927. That year the city of Long Beach permitted the installation of ornamental lighting and trees, many of which still grace the neighborhood. In 1990, California Heights was designated a historic district, overseen by the Long Beach Cultural Heritage Commission.

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What it’s about

Drive down the 50 or so tree-lined blocks bordered by Wardlow and Bixby roads and Lime and Gardenia avenues in central Long Beach, and behold one after another of the best examples the early 20th century had to offer architecturally -- in miniature. California bungalows, Tudor Revivals and neo-traditional homes contribute to the eclectic design mix of homes, often occupying only 1,100 square feet and with three small bedrooms. But they please the eye, and many have been upgraded where it counts: behind the walls.

Kerrie and Robert Weaver, both 37, have lived in California Heights for 13 years. Kerrie said she felt as if she had stepped back in time when the couple moved in. Neighbors enjoy local events together, such as the annual street fair on Atlantic Avenue, when several blocks of the road are closed to traffic.

Insider’s view

Charleen O’Connell, 75, has some serious California Heights bragging rights. Her grandfather, Charles A. Johnson, used money he inherited from his relatives, the prominent Bandini family, to build the house on Gundry Avenue that the family has owned for seven decades. Johnson paid $5,000 to have the three-bedroom house in 1,300 square feet built for O’Connell’s parents, who were expecting a child and needed housing.

When O’Connell’s parents walked into the completed Spanish-style house on April 21, 1930, they discovered fully furnished rooms, including a grand piano and flowers in a bowl.

O’Connell fondly recalls the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus coming to her neighborhood when she was a child. Her father walked her and her sister to the nearby railroad tracks to watch the elephants disembark the railway cars for the huge tents set up in the open fields nearby.

“There were vacant lots around when I was a kid, and we used to burn post-Christmas trees and have weenie roasts there,” O’Connell said.

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Good news, bad news

Many families move to California Heights because of its historic-district status, embracing the remodeling restrictions that maintain architectural heritage.

But others, unaware of the designation, buy the small houses with plans to add rooms, then face disappointment and anger when their plans are rejected, said Geoff McIntosh, a Main Street Realtors agent in Long Beach.

To avoid that friction, the city installed street signs that denote the historic status. Also, sellers are required to disclose to buyers the district’s special designation.

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Although most residents love the convenience of having an airport nearby, many oppose a Long Beach Airport expansion, fearing more noise and traffic, Weaver said.

Housing stock

There are about 1,500 properties in California Heights, most of them single-family homes. Recently, 25 were listed for sale. The most expensive listing, $869,000, was for a four-bedroom home in 2,200 square feet. On the lower end of the spectrum was a two-bedroom home in 871 square feet, listed for $527,900.

Report card

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Students attend Longfellow Elementary, which scored 876 of a possible 1,000 on the state 2006 Academic Performance Index Base report. Hughes Middle School and Long Beach Polytechnic High School scored 810 and 726, respectively.

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diane.wedner@latimes.com

Sources: Albert Guerra, former California Heights Assn. president; www.cde.ca.gov; calheights.org.

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