REDONDO BEACH — When Leo Riley died in March after a long illness, he left his wife of 56 years with a stack of medical bills and other debts, half a dozen rental properties in need of repairs, and very little cash.
Last month, unable to pay taxes on the properties, Riley's 76-year-old widow, Hester, decided to sell the least valuable of them--a tiny two-bedroom cottage on North Gertruda Avenue built just after World War I.
Hester Riley agreed to sell the run-down house for $130,000 to two partners who plan to tear it down and build a modern two-story home. Escrow on the sale is expected to close next month.
But Hester Riley's cottage at 302 N. Gertruda is on the edge of what some local preservationists say is the city's oldest remaining neighborhood. And they want it to stay there.
After years of watching old homes fall to bulldozers and new ones rise in their place, some residents of this, the oldest city in the South Bay, have set out to establish historic districts to spare old structures from extinction.
Last week, in a move that caught Riley and the buyers of her cottage by surprise, more than two dozen residents of the 300 block of North Gertruda called for a freeze on demolition and building on the block until the city develops guidelines for new construction in historic areas.
The block and several others in the city are being surveyed for possible inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, a prestigious list of historic structures and districts kept by the federal government. The block is part of the original town site of Redondo Beach, which was founded in 1892, and most of the homes were built in the early 1900s.
"The neighborhood has been together for nearly three-quarters of a century," said Kathleen Gauss, a homeowner on the block who wants a moratorium on construction. "Whether you are talking about paintings, ancient Greek structures or houses, you only have one shot at preservation. Once it is gone, it is gone."
The neighbors, calling themselves Citizens for the Preservation of Historical Houses, took their cause to the City Council on Tuesday night, asking the council members to impose the freeze until the city finishes its historical survey and finds out if the block qualifies for the National Register.
The council members, cautious about getting involved in a real estate dispute, instructed City Atty. Gordon Phillips to investigate whether they can legally impose a freeze on the area, determine what limitations would be placed on homeowners if the area were declared a historic district and come up with a definition of what the district would include. Phillips will report back to the council July 8.
Sale in Limbo
In the meantime, the residents' request and the council action have put the sale in limbo for two weeks, leaving Hester Riley worried that the deal to sell the property might fall through. When she stopped by the vacant cottage one day last week, she began to weep as she recounted the events of the past few months.
"We bought it so that when we got old we could sell it if we needed money," Riley said. Riley owns eight other homes several blocks from the cottage, including the one in which she lives, but those dwellings are either older or more valuable than the cottage, she said. One of her homes was built in 1895.
"The others are all in a row," she said. "I just couldn't think of parting with those."
Riley's daughter, Ann Baker, said her parents worked hard to accumulate their properties and said neighbors on North Gertruda should let her mother live out her life peacefully. Baker said she and her mother are not opposed to preserving historic homes--Baker's home on Helberta Avenue has been on the city's historic-home tour for five years--but said the North Gertruda cottage is not worth saving.
'Dreams Cost Money'
"They saved all of this for some security," Baker said. "The neighbors have a dream, my mother has a problem, and they are not compatible. Dreams are great, but dreams cost money, and it is my mother's money it is costing."
Sandra Dyan, president of the Citizens for the Preservation of Historical Houses, said that the group understands Riley's plight and that the neighbors would compensate her for any money she loses if a freeze is imposed. She said the group would like to buy the house, refurbish it, and sell it to someone who will preserve it.
"The house is really in pretty good shape, and there is no reason to tear it down," said Dyan, who works for the city as a license inspector. "Most of us on this block have rehabbed our homes, and they looked worse than that one when we started."
The buyers of the cottage, however, say the house is dilapidated and cannot be refurbished. Diane Oeffler, a Palos Verdes resident and one of the buyers, said she and her partner, John Woods, a Hawthorne carpenter, considered saving the house but changed their minds once they saw the condition of the inside.
'It Is Daunting'