The old house on North Avenue 56 looked somewhat dilapidated, but Pat Samson of Highland Park Heritage Trust advanced undeterred, past the unkempt lawn, sagging front porch and wood crying out for new paint.
"1909 Colonial Revival," she pronounced, stepping inside. "Look at the leaded-glass windows. And . . . a very large entryway," she told the owner excitedly, turning around slowly in the wood-paneled room to envision how it must have appeared almost a century ago. Back then, she said, visitors waited in the spacious entry hall while servants glided up the redwood stairs with calling cards for the mistress of the house.
Samson was making a dry run of Saturday's second annual Highland Park House and Walking Tour, which she expects to draw 150 people to the Northeast Los Angeles community. In a black binder, she jotted notes about former owners and architectural motifs.
The tour, which will cover six blocks, about 15 old homes and four civic, church and commercial buildings, is as unpretentious as Highland Park itself, Samson says.
Trust members say this year's tour stresses local history and small-town American institutions more than grand architecture. Included are the historic Masonic Lodge, the American Legion Hall and St. Luke's United Methodist Church, a century-old building with an impressive stained-glass window.
Those who prefer immaculately maintained Frank Lloyd Wright or Greene and Greene homes might be dismayed however; some of the Highland Park buildings are run down, worn by the years of neglect and deterioration common in many older neighborhoods.
"Highland Park doesn't have the stately old homes of Pasadena, but . . . it's a good example of middle-class, early 20th-Century architecture," said David Weaver, a Mount Washington architect and founding member of the Heritage Trust.
Some buildings, such as a former Boys Market on Monte Vista Street, a Spanish Mission-style structure that now houses the Northeast Community Clinic, have been included for their sentimental value, Samson said. Highland Park entrepreneur Joseph Goldstein, who founded the chain, opened his second Boys Market there in 1931 with four brothers. Residents used to say they were headed over to "the market run by the boys," Samson said, and thus the firm got its name.
Many homes on the tour are built in an eclectic architectural style, blending the influences of Colonial Revival, Craftsman and California bungalow, Weaver said. Samson uses the same description for Highland Park's inhabitants, including Anglos who are third-generation residents, Latino and Asian families, and renovation-minded yuppies who are relative newcomers.
Some homes have been partly or completely restored, affording a glimpse of what turn-of-the-century life was like in one of Los Angeles' first suburbs. Highland Park was a growing, thriving community then, settled by bankers, doctors and other professionals who liked living close to downtown, as well as by artists and writers drawn to the beauty of the nearby hills and canyons. Servants often lived in small houses behind the bigger homes.
One example is a blue house with an enclosed porch on North Avenue 56, where Dr. Elmina F. Cook lived and worked after she graduated from the Iowa College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1888. Cook, one of Los Angeles' first women doctors, used the entry hall as a patient waiting room, Samson said.
Then there is the home of Charles H. Randall, an ardent prohibitionist who served in Congress from 1915 to 1921. The publisher of the Highland Park News Herald newspaper also lived on North Avenue 56, as did a member of the prominent Sepulveda family, which owned large tracts of San Fernando Valley land.
To track down historical and architectural data, Samson and several friends spent months poring over city and county property records and interviewing elderly residents of the 43,000-person community. Samson's interest in local history dates back about five years, when she volunteered to help survey culturally significant buildings as part of a statewide task force, she said. When the survey ended, several members, intrigued by the area's culture and eager to pursue their new-found architectural knowledge, formed the Highland Park Heritage Trust.
The group now holds walking tours, gives annual awards to property owners who enhance the area's cultural, historical or architectural heritage and has prepared slide shows and a video of Figueroa Street circa 1900, when it was called "the Avenue."
One of Samson's personal favorites is a Queen Anne home built in 1904. "They had to steam the pieces of wood siding so they would bend into that shape," Samson said, pointing at the rounded turrets characteristic of the building style.