Majoring in history

Times Staff Writer

A concentration of fin de siècle Victorian and Craftsman houses, ranging from mini to mansion — some pristinely restored, others barely touched — add charm to USC-close University Park, a historic district sitting between downtown and Exposition Park.

Beginnings

Old money began to settle this area after 1876 when Nathan Randolph Vail purchased 20 acres of land west of Figueroa Street between 23rd Street and West Adams Boulevard. Vail built a grand Victorian on Chester Place. Oil baron Edward L. Doheny bought a mansion that today, along with eight others, is part of the downtown campus of Mount St. Mary's College.

What it's about In a word: preservation.

A Historic Preservation Overlay Zone protects the exteriors of the classic houses from radical changes. The HPOZ board encourages restoration of fine details, such as gingerbread trim, and advises on paint colors. Inside, the most polished properties feature built-ins, glossy woodwork, stained-glass windows, hardwood floors, five-panel doors, original windows and beamed ceilings. Some have courtyards and gardens.

"It helps stabilize the neighborhood," said Jim Childs, an animator who serves on the HPOZ board. His wife, Jean Frost, a union executive, chairs the board. The two guardians of neighborhood aesthetics paid less than $60,000 in 1978 for their 1887 Queen-Anne/Stick-Style Victorian, a Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission landmark, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Their house is located around the corner from the small, bucolic St. James Park, once the private domain of the surrounding mansions. Today, the park, in keeping with its original era, boasts decomposed granite walkways instead of concrete paths, a water fountain that has a period feel, and an old Moreton Bay fig tree.

As in many historic neighborhoods, some streets are more intact than others. Around 70% of the buildings, about 800 structures on 500 lots, according to Childs, still have "basic architectural integrity." But there are gaps where, since the 1940s, apartment buildings have replaced graceful old mansions. Some Victorians also have been turned into multifamily housing.

Insider's view "This is not just a house, it's a way of life," Ann Dorr said of "The Pink Lady," an elegant, exquisitely restored Victorian that was built in 1880 at Florence Avenue and Alameda Street, then was moved a few years later to University Park. The retired educator shares the home with her husband, Edward, a dentist.

Initially, she didn't want to leave Pacific Palisades after her husband found the house while looking for investment property in 1989. She remembered what University Park was like when she was a student at USC in the 1960s.

"You didn't go out. You didn't walk the area. It was dangerous," she said. Friends still ask when they visit whether their parked cars will be safe. The Dorrs have never had a break-in.

They paid $350,000 for "The Pink Lady" in 1989. When the market tumbled after the 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, they tried to sell it for $275,000 but didn't get a nibble. It is not for sale today.

Fourth-generation Trojans and major supporters of their alma mater, the Dorrs have restored 18 nearby Victorian and Craftsman houses, which they rent to USC students.

Good news, bad news

Students spill into the neighborhood, heading to Pete's Burgers on Hoover Street, an institution that has been serving them up since 1972. USC's nonprofit 24th Street Theatre offers plays and children's fare at affordable prices. Living close to campus has other advantages.

"We could go to things at USC every night, if we had time," Edward Dorr said.

Yet, those same students who give the neighborhood its youthfulness pose another problem: parking.

"Almost every student at USC [who lives in the area] has a car," Dorr said, "and they don't take them to school. They ride their bikes or take the tram."

Housing stock

Small two-bedroom, one-bathroom houses sit across the street or around the corner from large mansions, according to Jim Weber, who has been selling real estate in the area for 25 years. Only one single-family home is on the market at this time. The two-story home, which has five bedrooms and three bathrooms in 1,845 square feet, is listed at $710,000.

Report card

On the 2005 Academic Performance Index report, Norwood Elementary scored 673 out of 1,000. John Adams Middle School posted 616; Berendo Middle School, 553; and Manual Arts High School scored 525.

Historical values

Residential resales:

Year...Median Price 1990...$196,000

1995...$108,000

2000...$190,000

2005...$480,000

*2006...$562,500

*Year to date


Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; http://www.cde.ca.gov .

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