Inside a grand house, history is a comforting companion

Special to The Times

We bought the house, in Hancock Park, Windsor Square, in 1985. My husband, David, and I were dazzled by the gracious boulevard lined with violet-blue jacaranda trees, the rolling green lawns, the elegant architecture, Mediterranean and Tudor, of the beautiful block. We were reminded of the East Coast (which we both missed), of something old Washington Square — in the middle of Los Angeles.

Our house was built in 1923 by Harry Harlan Belden, who employed a noted architect, Raymond Kieffer, to design an Italian Revival residence for Belden’s parents. The house could be included, we learned, in the California Register of Historic Resources, but we would never register it. That would somehow make the house seem less like our home.

Questions of history were far from our minds back then — though we were quickly introduced to the private historical sense that governed neighborhood relations. For many nights after we settled in, the dog next door — owned by a couple in their 80s — barked unceasingly. When I finally asked if he could be quieted down, as my 3-year-old was having trouble sleeping, I was told that the dog had been barking “long before you moved in.” As a friend pointed out, our four-legged neighbor was not the “arriviste": We were.

It was easy to feel like an arriviste, a bumbling intruder, in the Edith Wharton-wannabe atmosphere of the neighborhood. But it was true that, beneath the surface, things were changing — and they had been gradually changing for a long time. Sometimes it was right there to see.

There was the eccentric little village of Larchmont a few blocks away — with a high-end canned goods grocer, one or two sleepy shops and a down-home cafe called Café Chapeau, which would remain cheerfully down-home as the rest of Larchmont Village morphed into an upscale hot spot.

Now the Village sports every avatar of consumer hip: a Starbucks, a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a Blockbuster, a serious yoga center and nonstop sidewalk cafes. Now producers from Paramount and soccer moms rub elbows at Larchmont Florist, where Michelle, the proprietor, makes every floral arrangement, or at Chevalier’s Books, where local authors’ works are displayed in the window.

Then there’s Fremont Place, the gated community where Mayor Tom Bradley lived near Muhammad Ali — a triumphant rebuke to those who had viciously tried to block Nat King Cole’s integration of Hancock Park in 1948.

For those who recalled bitterly that Beverly Hills was built because Hancock Park would not allow Jews to live in its precincts, there was the inarguable, ongoing progress of enlightened and lasting change. Hancock Park homeowners were now Korean, black, Jewish. Hancock Park homeowners now included entertainment industry people, who had also been shunned by the Old Guard.

Hancock Park had, ironically, evolved into the filming location of choice in L.A. — because of its East Coast ambience. It’s easier and cheaper to film in our neighborhood when the setting is supposed to be Connecticut. Thus, the neighborhood that had, for so long, resisted actors and “Hollywood” became an actor itself. Sound trucks and trailers began to fill our streets, with accompanying noise and traffic.

Now the city requires filming permits that must be approved by neighborhood residents. Friendly representatives of production offices go door-to-door, forms in hand.

Once an earnest young man stood on my doorstep and showed me a piece of paper that said his production crew would “make rain” but not cause flooding (why hadn’t Noah gotten this contract?), and that there would be some “drive-by” in movie cars, but no “distracting” gun play. There would be a few bodies on the pavement in front of the house down the block where filming would take place.

“How many?” I asked. “A massacre?”

No, he explained patiently, just a “small intimate grouping.”

I like the idea of the rearrangement of the present into a faux past, that “small intimate grouping.” This is a kind of L.A. history, even if it is production company history. Somehow a little tweaking of the narrative seems right for a neighborhood so steeped in versions of the past, in contradiction.

Over the years I have often felt that I could sense others who’d lived in our house since 1923. And though our kitchen has been remodeled, we still cook on the amazing Magic Chef stove that’s been in the house since it was built. I think back to past Thanksgivings: We’d bake a cake in one of the ovens while the turkey roasted in the other, the six burners laden with simmering pots and pans, the “warmer” oven filled. How many other holiday and dinner parties and family breakfasts were prepared on this stove? How many celebrated and mourned in the kitchen and dining room and in the bedrooms upstairs?

As the years passed, the house we’d sometimes thought of as perhaps too “old Hancock Park” became a haven, grew lived-in, comfortable, uniquely ours.

I never realized how deeply we were at home in the house until one terrible October evening four years ago. Friends, relatives and neighbors had, one by one, waved goodbye, and I stood alone in the front hallway. My daughter Annie was upstairs and our dogs were wandering about, but I might as well have been on Saturn. Then, after I stood there for a long while, absolutely still, I felt the house surround me and embrace me. It is, as I’ve said, a big space, but its touch was intimate.

My husband, David Dukes, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. David was an actor, with friends and colleagues all over the world — and my daughter and I had spent the days after his death and his funeral talking to the press and providing a haven for friends and relatives.

The house serenely accommodated a crowd at all hours of the day and night, upstairs and downstairs: people crying, talking, drinking, eating, mourning our unthinkable loss.

But after they were all gone at last, when my daughter and I needed the house to come back to us, just us, to feel “the right size” again, it held us in its familiar grace and comfort: It was there for us. It had been waiting to be what it had always been, throughout the years and now in death: our solace, our place like no other, our home.

Carol Muske-Dukes is the author of “Sparrow: Poems” and a book of essays about Hollywood and Hancock Park, “Married to the Icepick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood.”