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ON THE STREET OF DREAMS : Eighty Years Ago, West Adams Boulevard Was a Fashionable Neighborhood. Today, a Group of Pragmatic Young Homeowners Is Restoring Its Glory

December 21, 1986|SUSAN PRICE | Susan Price is former decorating editor for House Beautiful publications.

During the past five years, some imaginative urbanites have solved the problem of affordable housing by buy ing architecturally distinguished fixer-uppers on West Adams Boulevard, just southwest of downtown Los Angeles. The portion of the boulevard that extends east from Crenshaw Boulevard to Vermont Avenue was a fashionable neighborhood in the 1900s and today is a melting pot of styles--Victorian, Greek Revival, Dutch Colonial, Moorish and Egyptian--and even something that's called Tahitian-Edwardian. But it is the street's Japo-Swiss-style Craftsman bungalows--West Adam's distinctively Californian architectural legacy--that are at the center of current restoration efforts.

The leaders of the Craftsman Movement in the United States--Gustav Stickley and Charles and Henry Greene among others--rejected the idea of a house as a showplace and instead designed houses for comfortable living and as "havens of rest." A Craftsman bungalow is simple and sturdy with heavy beams, elephantine columns, strong straight lines, dark interior wood trim and extensive built-ins. Interior details are natural and were handcrafted in a reaction against the machine-made ornamentation of the Industrial Age. The airy, spacious rooms were designed to be complete in themselves.

"I like a room which looks its best when the sun streams into it through wide open doors and windows," Gustav Stickley wrote in the early part of the century. Sleeping porches, loggias, pergolas, "outdoor living rooms" and gardens were created to encourage healthy indoor / outdoor living. Exteriors of the houses blend horizontally with the landscape, with oversize eaves and rustic shingle exteriors stained green or brown. In those ways, the Craftsman bungalow was, despite its anti-machine-age design, the first modern house.

Because Craftsman homes combine old-fashioned graciousness with contemporary livability, restorers find these houses attractive. Prices that average $123,000 and a variety of low-interest government loans have increased the bungalows' appeal. The approximately 150 restoration-minded homeowners who have moved to West Adams in the last five years range from the ambitious and adventurous--such as Mimi and Charlie Stuart, who bought "the most abused house on the street" for $85,000 and did most of the fixing-up themselves--to caterer Randy Fuhrman, who paid $145,000 for a house that had already been partially restored and who recalls that "the floors and woodwork were done, but the top two floors looked pretty trashy." Bill Washington and Kathleen Salisbury, who have turned their house into a bed-and-breakfast inn, were the first "restoration people" on their block. "It was strictly a matter of the most value for the money, and we're a mixed couple, so we had no qualms about living in a black neighborhood," Salisbury says. West Adams is just northwest of USC, in a predominantly black middle-class area with growing Latino and Korean segments, plus a mix of Hungarians, Poles, Japanese, USC students and an increasing young professional and gay population.

The two-story Craftsman house that Mimi, 27, and Charlie Stuart, 28 (he's a television account executive), bought in 1982 had been broken into nine rental units. A wall had been built across the living room, bisecting the hearth. There were two bathrooms in the kitchen--"very pink and very illegal," Mimi says--and a kitchen in the upstairs bathroom. Mimi, an artist, did nearly all of the interior stripping, refinishing and painting. The restoration took two years.

"In the first year we camped out in the bedroom because it was the least junked-up room," Mimi recalls. "And since we didn't have a heater, we burned the studs and joists from torn-down walls in the fireplace for heat."

During the second year of renovation, they got a $40,000 loan from the Community Redevelopment Agency; that went for "plumbing and the heavy-duty stuff."

Of course, there are good reasons why "The Money Pit," a film about the horrors of restoration, is a favorite with the West Adams Heritage Assn. Stories of roofs crashing and surprise floods abound on the boulevard. The Stuarts recall that they finished stripping and refinishing their living room and dining room in four days when they learned of an impending family visit. When they returned from the airport with their guests, they walked into a flooded kitchen. "The new accordion valves under the sink had burst. I learned later that they were the wrong kind," Mimi says.

The kitchen now functions perfectly, thanks to a "very rained-on" buffet that the Stuarts rescued from a neighbor's backyard, and cabinets that cost $10 each at the L.A. Wrecking Co., a frequent haunt.

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