PASADENA — Some things are hard to even give away.
Take the 16 Craftsman and ranch-style houses on the northwest corner of the Caltech campus that were scheduled to be demolished to make way for a new $35-million research facility.
Rather than destroy the houses, which the school owns and had used for student housing, Caltech made an offer it thought few could refuse. Anyone willing to move a home to a new location could have it for free--and get $2,500 to help out with expenses.
But after six months, during which the school received dozens of inquiries, only five people have taken Caltech up on its offer. The remaining 11 houses will face the wrecking ball in the next two weeks.
Mike McCallan, manager of Caltech's office of engineering and estimating, said it was a disappointing end to months of work to save part of the turn-of-the-century neighborhood.
"People have good intentions, but the deeper they get into it, the worse it looks," he said. "Moving houses is a very precarious business."
The loss of the houses has angered some city officials, who fear that another 45 homes in areas marked by the school for expansion may also be demolished.
"They sincerely tried, but the fact is that Caltech is knocking down more houses than almost any development," Director Rick Cole said. "They're taking apart a neighborhood piece by piece.
"We're not putting a man on the moon here; we're just moving a house across Pasadena."
Caltech started trying to give away the homes last October, when it began advertising the offer in The Times and the Pasadena Star-News.
By the time the ads stopped running in December, McCallan said, the school had received more than 75 inquiries.
"People kept calling and asking, 'Are you really giving away homes?' " he said. "They thought this really must be the American dream."
The 16 houses, most of which were built in the 1920s, are in an area bounded by Lura and Constance streets and South Michigan and Wilson avenues.
The modest neighborhood is filled with bits and pieces of local lore. A wood ranch-style house at 1108 Lura St. belonged to William A. Fowler, a Caltech professor who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1983. The Spanish-style home at 1115 Constance St. was once owned by Nora Brown, a writer who had more than 500 poems published.
The neighborhood also includes a few architectural gems, such as the white-shingled, Craftsman-style house at 1116 Lura St. and the Spanish-style adobe residence at 1135 Constance St.
Caltech owns more than 90 homes on or near the campus. It has owned and maintained for years the 16 houses it tried to give away. After students were evicted earlier this year to make way for the new 140,000-square-foot Beckman Research Institute, the houses were vandalized and allowed to deteriorate.
Gang graffiti cover many walls, valuable antique doors and fixtures have been stolen and most of the houses would require extensive renovation.
McCallan said that many who thought they were looking at the bargain of the century soon discovered the pitfalls of moving a house.
At an open house on Jan. 9, the number of interested parties had dropped to about 35. Of those, 25 applied for houses, but by the April 15 deadline, the number of applicants had dropped to just five.
Moving a house costs at least $20,000, and there are additional costs, including the price of a new foundation and restoration.
And those who were willing to pay the price still had to find lots for the houses.
Adrienne O'Donnell of Pacific Palisades, who considered a house on Lura Street, said she abandoned her plans after realizing that she could not find an empty lot by the April deadline.
"I drove every street in Sierra Madre and Pasadena looking for a lot," she said. "There just wasn't anything out there."
Even those who took the homes say it has been no easy task.
Al and Ligia Rodriguez were flabbergasted when they first saw the ad for free houses in the Pasadena Star-News.
"I couldn't believe it,' Ligia Rodriguez said. "My husband called right away and we jumped into the car to look at them."
But since then, it has been a frustrating and tiring process.
"It's been a lot tougher than I thought," Al Rodriguez said. "The hardest part has been trying to comply with the city requirements."
Rodriguez said he spent about $3,000 and two months just to get the moving, sanitation, building, electrical and site permits he needed to move the house 2 1/2 miles from Caltech.
But despite the time and trouble, they say it has been worth it.
They already had a $100,000 lot on El Nido Avenue, and they estimate the total cost of relocating and restoring the two-bedroom, ranch-style house at $50,000.
"If everything goes right, we'll have a good deal," Ligia Rodriguez said.
The city's Cultural Heritage Commission credited Caltech with going "above and beyond the call of duty" in trying to save the houses.