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Neutra-Built Home 1st to Be Preserved as Pasadena 'Treasure'

April 26, 1987|SUE AVERY | Times Staff Writer

Constance Perkins wanted to ensure that the Pasadena home designed for her in 1955 by architect Richard Neutra would never be changed--inside or out.

So she recently became the first homeowner in Pasadena to take advantage of the city's new Historic Treasure designation.

An angry Board of Directors last year approved a measure establishing the Historic Treasure designation in the hope of preventing a recurrence of what has become known as the rape of the historic Blacker House. Two years ago, a Texas rancher bought the house and immediately stripped it of an estimated $1 million worth of original light fixtures designed by pioneering architects Charles and Henry Greene.

Like Neutra, the Greenes were known for designing homes in which interior details--including color schemes, furnishings and light fixtures--were considered integral parts of the structure.

Pasadena's previous efforts to protect its historic structures focused on exteriors. The Historic Treasure designation is aimed at protecting interiors as well.

Before her home was awarded such a designation, Perkins had to agree that neither she nor any future owner would alter the interior or exterior of the home without the approval of the city's Cultural Heritage Commission.

In return, Perkins is eligible for financial incentives. She can receive grants for preservation work equal to all the city's share of her property taxes, as well as free architectural services and waivers of fees for rehabilitation work that preserves the building's historic character.

A separate provision of the ordinance prohibits the owners of the 56 buildings in Pasadena designed by the Greene brothers from altering their interiors or exteriors without the permission of the Cultural Heritage Commission.

If the owner and the commission cannot agree on the proposed change within a year, the owner is free to go ahead with whatever alterations he desires.

Neutra has been described as the most influential Los Angeles modernist architect from the 1930s until his death in 1970.

He worked closely with Perkins in designing her home on Poppypeak Drive in the San Rafael Hills section of Pasadena. Special Neutra touches in the house, which has less than 1,000 square feet of floor space, include the light fixtures, the interior colors, some of the furniture, built-in bookcases and an openness enhanced by a pond that extends into the home.

So Perkins was eager to go through the painstaking process of providing 21 typewritten pages documenting all the significant interior and exterior architectural features of her home.

"I have spent $17,000 on restoration, which is the same amount of money as it cost to build the house," said Perkins, who has repainted the house in the original colors several times and kept intact all the original built-in furniture. "And I have deeded it to the Huntington Library for use as a residence for visiting scholars so I know it will be preserved."

An early draft of the preservation ordinance would have allowed the Cultural Heritage Commission to designate a building as a Historic Treasure without the owner's consent, and would have allowed the city to use eminent domain proceedings to block demolition of such a structure.

However, that proposal drew strong opposition from members of the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Realtors, who said it infringed on property rights.

The compromise measure passed in June stipulates that owners must consent to Historic Treasure status and provide documentation showing that the building has historical or architectural significance.

A second home is now undergoing the documentation process. Near the Arroyo, it was designed in 1909 by noted tile maker Ernest Batchelder, who was also an architect.

Robert Winter, who has owned the house for 15 years, discounted fears that homes designated as Historic Treasures might drop in value because future owners would have to get city permission to make interior alterations.

"My house has natural wood paneling that makes it very dark, so I assume that someone would buy the house for its history," Winter said. "Otherwise a buyer wouldn't be attracted."

He said hundreds of people had toured his house and told him that they would like to own it, "so I don't think I am taking too much of a chance. And to me the house is a treasure."

The public outcry over the removal of the light fixtures from the Blacker House was heard as far away as the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. Aroused by nationwide news coverage, delegates discussed the issue at the group's convention last year in Seattle.

Although the furor has largely subsided, the incident and the ordinance that grew out of it are regarded as a watershed in the effort to preserve Pasadena's historic architecture.

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