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Historic Home an Oasis of 19th-Century Calm

January 17, 1988|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

The long, low, white stucco adobe with its porch and shingle roof looks as if it is sitting right in the middle of the 19th Century.

But it's not, as the nearby San Diego Freeway visibly demonstrates.

It's really a kind of time warp: the telltale sign of a modern metropolis on one side and the oldest home in the Centinela Valley on the other--still serene, still peaceful amid lawns, shrubs and shade trees.

"We don't even know the freeway's there unless someone reminds us," said Margaret Bates, a volunteer docent of the Historical Society of the Centinela Valley, whose job it is to take people through the Westchester home that was built in 1834 by rancher Ignacio Machado and has rarely been unoccupied since.

Reminders of Past

If the freeway speaks of cars and traffic jams, the Centinela Adobe recalls a South Bay past of crops, grazing animals and isolated towns instead of contiguous cities.

"This was a land grant stretching all the way to Marina del Rey," said Bates, recounting the Machado period--he raised corn and had 6,000 grapevines--and a succession of owners leading up to Robert Burnett, a Scotsman who raised sheep and by 1872 had acquired 25,000 acres.

Perhaps the most famous owner was Daniel Freeman, who bought the ranch for $140,000 in gold in 1885 and later turned 11,000 acres into a settlement he called Centinela (Spanish for scout ). Later, it became the city of Inglewood.

Subsequent owners maintained the adobe as a showplace into the mid-1940s, when it was occupied by a series of renters.

One recent visitor recalled living there during the 1940s as a teen-ager. His room was a brown wooden bunkhouse that still stands near the adobe, said Evelyne McEntire, another docent.

Authentic Simplicity

What is now the back of the adobe originally was the front, but it still has the authentic simplicity captured by old photographs. The present front, which faces the driveway off of Midfield Avenue, shows later additions by Burnett and other owners and a heavier roof than adobes customarily had.

Inside, the atmosphere of the past prevails within the thick adobe walls and low ceilings that enclose the original rooms full of furniture, musical instruments, portraits, dolls, leather hatboxes and the bric-a-brac of decades.

An antique organ still works--"We have concerts once in a while," said Bates--and a piano that came by ship around South America's Cape Horn is kept in tune.

The adobe boasts a couple of curiosities: a large wooden wardrobe closet that came apart for easy transport by wagon, and two simple wooden chairs with leather seats that were unearthed when the freeway was built.

Although a few visitors drop by the adobe on the two afternoons it is open, the big crowds come for a fiesta in May and a September barbecue, which are fund-raisers for the historical society.

Visiting Neighbors

People in the immediate neighborhood are the most frequent visitors, say the docents. "They come over to find out what this is," McEntire said.

It was this very neighborhood that nearly spelled the doom of the Centinela Adobe almost 40 years ago. When the land was subdivided, the adobe was scheduled for destruction to make way for new homes.

But history-minded citizens came to the rescue, raised money, purchased the property in 1950 and deeded it to Inglewood, which still maintains the adobe through the Parks and Recreation Department, even though it is in the City of Los Angeles.

In recent years, the adobe has acquired a couple of neighbors. The Centinela Valley Heritage and Research Center was dedicated in 1980 and houses historical society archives and a variety of collections, including costumes, documents, books and a 5,000-item photo collection.

Although a modern structure, the center has a stately Victorian atmosphere through the use of wooden doors, paneling, heavy bookcases and elaborate mantle pieces taken from the Freeman mansion, which was built in 1888 and demolished in 1972 so Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital could be built.

A second building is the former Freeman land office, a circular wooden structure with a wide veranda that houses artifacts of Freeman's land development and other business activities.

Docents say there is no lack of historical material for the Centinela Adobe complex to display. Whenever a longtime resident moves, or there is an estate sale, a few boxes filled with the past turn up at the society's doorstep.

"We have tons of stuff," said docent Bates. "We have to rotate it."

What: Centinela Adobe

Where: 7634 Midfield Ave., Westchester

When: Sundays and Wednesdays, 2 to 4 p.m.

Admission: Free (donations accepted)

Telephone: (213) 649-6272

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