MANHATTAN BEACH — Mayor Jan Dennis looks at the 1933 house and muses over its colorful, even notorious history.
Too many of Manhattan Beach's historical structures have been torn down or remodeled, she says, and the city should do something to preserve its past.
Now is an appropriate time, she adds, because next year the city will celebrate its 75th anniversary and a house with some history and mystery is for sale.
Dennis proposed last week that the city buy the 1933 house and grounds at 1126 2nd St., which has an asking price of $695,000. The agent handling the sale, Jason Lane, estimates that the house needs $100,000 worth of work.
The mayor, who also is historian of the Manhattan Beach Historical Society, wants the house to showcase the society's documents, photos and other city memorabilia. She would also open it for public tours and rent meeting rooms in the house to clubs.
Dennis said the society may be able to repay the city for the property with money from fund-raisers and rental of meeting rooms.
In a straw vote, Dennis' proposal got the support of council members Gil Archuletta and Connie Sieber, as long as grant funding is available. But Councilmen Larry Dougharty and Bob Holmes opposed the idea. The council will make a final decision after the staff looks into grant possibilities.
Dougharty, a self-employed consulting economist who evaluates government expenditures, called the proposal "one of the top three (ever) in not being a good use of public funds."
He said it falls right behind a convention center in Liberia to which there were no roads and the U.S. government's multibillion-dollar expenditure to make a stretch of the Arkansas River navigable.
"Dougharty and Holmes both said no flat out, which I kind of figured. . . . Neither one of them have any children," said Dennis, adding that her proposal would help preserve the city's history for future generations.
Dougharty was stunned by Dennis' comment and said he is interested in preserving history. "That house that Jan wants to save, to me, is not historic. . . . I don't know that the city government should spend three-quarters of a million dollars to preserve it. . . . That's awfully expensive for a very limited purpose."
Renting rooms to service groups would cause parking and noise problems for neighbors, Dougharty added.
He said a better alternative would be an informal proposal by Michele Nemmott, a city recreation and parks commissioner, who is trying to obtain funds to restore a house at 205 15th St. and relocate it on the Santa Fe Railroad right of way, which belongs to the city. He said the cost of moving and restoration has been estimated at $20,000.
Typical Beach Cottage
The house--believed to be the fifth oldest in Manhattan Beach, Dougharty said--is typical of the beach cottages that sprang up when the city was settled in the early 1900s as a summer-home town.
The 2nd Street home, a large, two-story house with front and back balconies, is not typical of Manhattan Beach, he added.
Nemmott said she started working to preserve the 15th Street house about a week and a half ago after she learned it was to be torn down. She had rented the house for two years about 20 years ago. She said she is worried that too many houses are being torn down and that the city is losing its history.
"I thought somebody ought to save that house. If not that house, some other house," she said.
Dennis said that she is not familiar with the 15th Street house but that "I would be thrilled to have houses restored."
As for the 2nd Street house, Dennis said she covered some of its past in a book she has written on the city's history, "A Walk Beside the Sea," which she expects to be published in January.
Interviews with Dennis and a former resident, along with old newspaper articles, give this account:
Novelist Gouverneur Morris and his wife, Ruth, were apparently the first people to live in the house, which cost about $4,000 to build. In 1936, Reid Russell--a boyfriend of silent-film star Lila Lee, who lived with the Morrises--was found shot to death on a garden swing.
The case, widely publicized, was first ruled a suicide by police but was reopened several times as a murder investigation. Authorities never figured out what happened.
The body had been discovered by Lee's 14-year-old son, James Kirkwood Jr.
About 1960, Kirkwood wrote a book about Russell's death and the difficulty he and his mother had coping with it. A recent television movie, "There Must Be a Pony," was based on the book.
In an interview last week from his home in New York, Kirkwood was surprised to learn that the house had not been torn down. Kirkwood, who is convinced that Russell's death was a suicide, recalled that on the following Halloween he sold tickets to children who wanted to look at the swing where Russell was found.
"That was my way of getting back at him" for committing suicide, Kirkwood said.
He moved to a ranch near Fresno the next summer, he said, because the house was overrun by police and curiosity seekers.
He said he would like to see the house preserved and had looked for it unsuccessfully about eight years ago when "A Chorus Line," which he also wrote, was playing at Los Angeles' Shubert Theatre and he was in the area. "My God, why didn't I find it?" he said. "I was dying to go there just for memories."