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Sam Hall Kaplan

Monrovia Is Looking Quite Exceptional After 100 Years

August 22, 1987|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Kaplan also appears in The Times' Real Estate section.

Monrovia is 100 years old this year, and, happily, sections of this city on the north slope of the San Gabriel Valley look it.

Somehow the rapacious development of the last decade that has plowed under much of the valley's history seems to have bypassed a few verdant square miles of Monrovia above Foothill Boulevard.

Whenever I am nearby and have a little time to spare, I detour through the area to slowly drive up and down the tree-shaded streets lined with a rich range of Victorian, Queen Anne and Craftsman Bungalow styled houses set back on deep lawns.

To me, the area is the valley's architectural "Brigadoon," a mystical place out of time and context.

Yet, the houses there of obvious historic merit are not all "correctly" adorned or painted in the "right" colors. Indeed, some are in need of a coat of any color paint, along with a little more respect for their age and value.

In the words of a resident, Monrovia is "real and reasonable," first and foremost a place to raise a family, as attested by the station wagons and small trucks in the driveways, and the bicycles and tricycles strewn over the lawns. The look is of a small Midwest town; not a suburb of Los Angeles,

"Most people who have moved here did so because they liked the big old houses and their prices, not necessarily because the houses were historic," explains Bruce Carter who with his wife, Lynn, is active in the Monrovia Old House Preservation Group. He added that interest in preservation is relatively recent, spurred on by the city's centennial.

What first attracted me to Monrovia was the persevering Aztec Hotel, at 311 W. Foothill Blvd., which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A relic of the brief fad in the 1920s that took the Spanish Revival-style one-step beyond and decorated it with Mayan designs, the stucco and concrete concoction by architect Robert Stacy-Judd is a singular delight.

But more of a delight to me was the neighborhood of turn-of-the century houses to the north I discovered while walking off a particularly filling meal I had consumed at the hotel's restaurant. And each time I return to Monrovia I discover a few more design delights.

Among the more noteworthy are 168 and 173 Highland Place, two fanciful Craftsman-styled houses designed by Frank Eager and Arthur Kelly, respectively. Kelly also designed the substantial shingle and stone Craftsman house at 225 Highland.

A block to the east at 225 Mayflower Ave. is a grand Queen Anne-styled house that has been dated 1887. It was designed by architect Joseph Cather Newsome with his characteristic flourish of fish-scale shingles, stained and cut glass, and carved wooden decorations.

A block north at 329 N. Melrose Ave.--flaunting similar flourishes, and then some--is the Mills House. Though it is not known whether Newsome designed the house, the gabled structure featuring a carved frieze below the roof-line and a well detailed covered veranda is a marvelous rendition of his work.

In similar design spirit are the Queen Anne-styled houses at 447 W. Hillcrest Blvd. and 250 N. Primrose Ave. The latter was built in 1885 entirely of redwood and decorated in the more ornate Eastlake style--note the detailing of the rectangular corner tower--for William Newton Monroe, the city's founder. He had hoped that the house would set a style for his ambitious development scheme, and to a degree it did.

There are dozens of other structures in the area of architectural and historical interest, as well as a modest city center, blessed with trees, and a park containing various relics. These include a canopied water fountain dated 1907, and behind it a granite boulder with a likeness of Monroe carved into it.

(For a more detailed look at Monrovia, the Old House Preservation Group has put together a brochure with a self-guided tour. It is can be picked up at the Chamber of Commerce, 620 S. Myrtle Ave., which is open weekdays from 8 to 4.)

Also on the National Register of Historic Places is 464 N. Myrtle Ave. Though it is hard to see from the street because of the heavy landscaping, the modest Mediterranean-style house is where author and social reformer Upton Sinclair lived in his later years. He died in 1968.

Sinclair had moved to Monrovia in 1942 from Pasadena, commenting at the time that the city of roses was becoming too congested. The prescient Sinclair always was a little ahead of his time.

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