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A First-Class Dwelling : A New Owner Discovers the Lively History of His House--and Los Angeles--in a Search of the Public Records

July 20, 1986|HARRY ANDERSON | Harry Anderson is assistant business editor of The Times.

My house is my history book. Like a wise grandfather, this splendid relic of 1903 has been teaching me about the city that adopted me 15 years ago. The old place has watched Los Angeles grow from just over 100,000 to more than 3 million. It was here before the movies, before the aircraft plants, before the car dealers. It's been through earthquakes and fires, freeways and race riots, even louvered windows and stucco.

And now, as the renaissance of downtown Los Angeles attracts new people to the nearby West Adams area, it may survive yuppies and gentrification.

My education began when I moved in early last year; I knew nothing about the place except that it was big, old and run-down, and that I loved it. But as I peeled away years of wallpaper and paint, the house nagged at me: Who built this place, and why? What was the neighborhood like then? Why did this elegant old house fall into such disrepair?

Finding the answers became my passion. For weeks, I spent lunch hours in the county Hall of Records looking over musty property-tax rolls and grant deeds. I stood patiently in line at City Hall to check turn-of-the-century building permits. I waded through local histories, city directories and old phone books at the downtown library. I searched newspaper files. Only bits and pieces emerged.

And then, finally, through voter-registration lists, I located a daughter of the original owner, born in the house in 1905 and still living in Los Angeles.

On a warm April morning, she came back to the childhood home she hadn't seen in 56 years. The house was so different now, so dilapidated, she said; it was difficult to remember how things used to be. But gradually the details came back.

She still had a couple of old pictures of the place, and her father's ledger, in which he had meticulously recorded the money spent to build the house: $4,087.75.

Just before the century turned, the area where Western Avenue now crosses the Santa Monica Freeway was a hilltop covered with wheat fields. Each hot summer afternoon, almost without fail, an ocean breeze cooled the hilltop. Real estate developers, eager to subdivide the wide-open spaces around Los Angeles, soon decided that West Adams Heights wouldn't be for newcomers just starting out; this prized spot would be reserved for the grand homes of those already cashing in. Lots cost at least $1,500, and, according to restrictions placed on the deeds, one could build only a "first-class dwelling of two or more stories" worth "at least $3,500," with its own private stable.

It was just the place for James Gordon Donavan. Born in 1865, Donavan had come from Illinois to visit Southern California for a few weeks in 1893 and, like so many others, never left. The tiny watchmaking shop he opened the following year on the site of the current Los Angeles City Hall became, by the second decade of the century, one of the city's most successful jewelry stores. Now known as Donavan & Seamans, it's still doing business in Newport Beach.

Late in 1902, Donavan and his wife, Rose, bought a lot in West Adams Heights and built a house that reflected their increasing wealth and optimism about the city's future. The five-bedroom, 3,800-square-foot home stood proudly on Western Avenue at the corner of 22nd Street; directly across the wide, unpaved avenue was Berkeley Square, grandest of the turn-of-the-century real estate developments, with 20 giant "townhomes" behind a central gate.

The Donavans moved in by late 1903, the first to arrive on their block. They waited a few years for city sewers, street lights and dependable electricity. But by 1910, the area had become a tree-lined, manicured, upper-class neighborhood, linked to downtown by electric streetcars and dotted with magnificent churches.

In 1907, the Donavans' daughter told me, the old coal-fired furnace in the cellar was converted to oil. In 1912, the family built a two-room addition; an earthquake knocked over a chimney sometime thereafter. The laundress used to come on Monday; the maid lived in a small upstairs bedroom. The older daughter was married in the house in 1920, and their younger son died there in 1926.

A severe recession just before World War I all but ended construction of new mansions in West Adams, though, and by the 1920s the area had become congested and commercialized. Smoky, noisy flivvers clogged Western, Normandie and other major thoroughfares. The houses came to be regarded as too big and too old-fashioned for the Jazz Age; some were torn down for apartments or stores. The original residents, their children grown, moved to the city's new suburbs farther west, and newcomers--many of them Japanese or Jewish--took their place.

In mid-1929, Donavan leased the land to Shell Oil for use as a gasoline station. The home was given to a real estate speculator in return for moving it off the site to a lot three blocks away, and the family moved to Hancock Park.

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