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Folks and Folk Art : Lodge's Tenants, Living and Otherwise, Face Loss of Their Home

November 18, 1987|T.W. McGARRY | Times Staff Writer

All the tenants facing eviction from a 46-year-old motel and bungalow complex on the northern border of Burbank Airport need new homes. Some are poor. Others are big, flashy and famous.

But quiet. Very quiet.

The tenants of the Old Trappers Lodge in Sun Valley include human beings--about 350 to 400 of them, including about 100 children--and 20 towering statues of Old West types, famous as a treasure of American folk art.

Both the flesh-and-blood inhabitants and the celebrated collection of concrete characters will probably need new homes in the next few months because the motel probably will be sold to Burbank Airport and razed.

The Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority voted Monday to take a 60-day option, renewable for up to another 60 days, to buy the 2.6-acre site for $2.3 million. The land is at the northern end of one of the airport's runways.

The airport has been negotiating with the descendants of sculptor John Ehn for about a year, airport spokesman Victor Gill said, in line with its policy of acquiring land bordering the airport. There are no plans for the land, he said.

Ehn opened the Old Trapper Lodge--he was once a trapper in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan--in 1941. Some of the 78 buildings on the site were already there--one three-apartment unit dates back to 1882--and the others he built. Since the death of Ehn and his wife in 1981, the land has been owned by their four children and a son-in-law.

In 1951, Ehn saw a sculptor working at Knott's Berry Farm, and hired him to make a statue of an old trapper--modeled on Ehn--for the motel. After watching the sculptor work, Ehn figured he could do that himself, although he was a seventh-grade dropout with no background in art.

Over the next 30 years, he created a whimsical collection of Old West-style characters, modeling many on his family. His wife's countenance was put on a stalwart pioneer woman. The face of a daughter, Rosemarie Farish, who now runs the motel, adorns "Two-Gun Rosie," a dance hall girl.

The collection includes a "Boot Hill," with humorously inscribed tombstones.

In 1981, the motel was designated a state historical landmark, one of 10 folk-art environments in California so honored. Other well-known examples of folk art--usually the work of unschooled eccentrics who make up in dedication and primitive gusto what they lack in technique--include Grandma Prisbey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley and the Watts Towers.

The Ehn family must sell because of financial pressures, Farish said. Ehn and his wife died within six months of each other, leaving the family with an inheritance tax bill of about $500,000.

But the final blow, she said, was a decision by the Los Angeles City Council to require landowners in their zoning area, who now have septic tanks, to install sewer hookups and help pay for street lights, an expense she estimated at $250,000.

"The economics is crowding us too much," Farish said, but the family wants to keep the collection together.

"My dad's dream will be preserved," she said. "We're a tight-knit family, and we're of unanimous feeling on this, grandkids and all."

SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments), a national folk-art organization with headquarters in Los Angeles, is looking for an organization to take the statues, Farish said. If there are no takers before the bulldozers arrive, the statues will be stored until a home is found, she said.

It may be more difficult to find homes for the tenants, most of them poor Latinos. The units, which range from one-room studios to three-bedroom apartments, rent for $40 to $160 a week, furnished, with utilities. The lowest rents, she said, are the result of many tenants staying for 15 to 20 years or more, locking in low rates under rent-control laws.

Farish has been warning tenants for a year that the lodge is being sold, she said, and, under city law, $300,000 of the sale price will have to be spent on helping tenants relocate to comparable quarters at comparable rents.

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