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Fate of Old Bell Home Poses Dilemma : City With Little Money for Restoration Might Sell or Tear It Down

July 03, 1986|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

BELL — Plopped down among small, well-tended homes, the Bell Mansion appears forsaken and forlorn, a neglected relic in need of restoration to its previous humble and graceful state.

A weather-beaten wooden exterior--with peeling paint and broken screens--greets visitors to the house at 6500 Lucille Ave. Its most striking feature is a small, rusted bell embedded in the middle of the aging gable.

The house--one of the oldest in the county, built sometime during the 1870s--is city property more by accident than design.

The city still has no definite plans for the house, purchased 18 years ago. Not wanting to shoulder alone the high costs of rehabilitating the house, the city always held out hope for state or federal grants.

But now that it is clear that there will be no federal or state money, the council has decided to settle the house's fate--by selling it, fixing it up or tearing it down. Making the choice of restoring the house even more difficult is the fact that it is plain and not architecturally significant.

'An Albatross'

"It's been an albatross around the neck of the council ever since they accepted it," said Mayor George Cole, who toured the house last week with other City Council members in an attempt to figure out what to do with it. He wants the council to make a decision before the end of the year.

The house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, once belonged to James George Bell, a prominent figure in the Southeast Los Angeles County area in the early 1900s. The city bought the property in 1968 for $18,000 after James George Bell's relatives donated $12,000 of that amount. The house has pretty much sat unused and unoccupied--except for a caretaker--since

then.

Recent discussions about the city's long-term goals led the council to try to decide the fate of the house, the focus of numerous studies in recent years.

The city has "studied this thing until we're blue in the face," City Administrator Byron Woosley said.

"It looks like the federal and state government will not be able to assist us," Woosley said. "The burden falls back on the City of Bell's shoulder."

Besides a coat of paint, the two-story, four-bedroom house needs major foundation and structural work. Estimates for total restoration range from $100,000 to $300,000, city officials said.

"It was just in horrible condition," said Cole, after seeing the inside of the house for the first time. "All I could see was dollar signs."

The major expense could not have come at a worse time.

"This is a period when the city is strapped economically and facing reduced revenue sharing" funds, Cole said. But he added that because the house is an eyesore and badly deteriorated, the council "can't just keep passing the buck."

Cole said he sees three choices: Fix up the house for public use, tear it down or sell it.

"This is a very plain house. That's the dilemma of it. Is this the best way to spend taxpayer dollars?" Cole said.

If the city decides to shoulder the cost of rehabilitation, Mayor Pro Tem Jay B. Price said, the house would most likely serve as a museum and meeting place for the Chamber of Commerce and other organizations in the city.

Furniture Offered

A few members of the Bell family agreed to give the city the furniture from the 1870s if the house is restored, city officials said.

"The idea was to restore it and use it . . . as an historic site," Price said.

Although the structure is solidly built, "it's not a uniquely designed building," Cole said. "It's been butchered over the years. All the nice original things like old doorknobs have been taken out."

The house was moved to Lucille Avenue from its original location about two blocks away. There were plans at one time to move the house near City Hall, but they fell through when state Office of Historic Preservation informed city officials the house would lose its significance if moved from the second site.

The Bell family once owned a ranch in what is now the cities of Bell and Huntington Park and the Hollenbeck Heights area. The cities of Bell and Bell Gardens, as well as the exclusive Westside Bel-Air neighborhood are named after James George Bell, who worked as a developer. James George Bell's son, Alphonzo Bell, also became a land developer and discovered oil in Santa Fe Springs in the 1920s.

City officials hope the dilemma of the historic house will be quickly resolved.

"We will finally bring to fruition what has been sitting dormant for a long time," Price said.

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