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Around the Foothills

The prettiest house, labeled idiosyncratic, was dying of neglect.

June 02, 1988|DOUG SMITH

The architectural and historical integrity of Highland Park, a concern that admittedly hasn't long stood at the top of the social agenda, now receives diligent care from a group called the Highland Park Heritage Trust.

The 8-year-old group's purpose is to promote knowledge of the gracious, if not especially gilded, past of this early suburb of Los Angeles.

The trust also puts in a word on behalf of preserving the community's many structures that survive from the housing booms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both goals will be served at its House and Walking Tour beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday along several blocks criss-crossing North Avenue 66, a broad and handsome avenue that carries little traffic.

The annual walking tour, now in its fourth year, is as honest as they come.

Instead of picking out the community's best historic residences and sending visitors out with maps to find them, the organizers move to a different neighborhood each year and show all of it, good and bad together. Docents lead tour groups through some of the better houses and describe others from the sidewalk.

Two women from the trust gave a preview tour Friday. They began at a small, well-preserved house that was constructed around 1900 as the gatehouse for a reservoir that has since been moved.

"We'll call that vernacular or eclectic, which means we don't know what it is," said Sally Beck, this year's tour organizer.

Its owner, Lawrence Gleason, who has lived there since 1943, was at work Friday sanding its painted gray porch. He said he had heard that the house was 125 years old.

Beck, a retired librarian for Woodbury University and a purist on matters of age, challenged that notion.

"That's really a little bit early for this area," said Beck, who is fluent in the deeds of title, building permits and assessor's maps for the area, which she called the old Garvanzo Township. She estimated that it was built about 1895 at the earliest.

The other woman, Pat Samson, was more of a purist in style. She noted with a sigh the changes rendered by old home improvements: doors with three panels instead of five and sculpted moldings, both characteristic of the 1940s rather than the turn of the century.

On balance, however, they rated it a good historical house, especially the front room with its five-panel doors and original fancy window frames.

In the next few blocks, the tour covered a lot of ground architecturally. There was a small Tudor house--Hollywood Tudor, they called it. There was a nearly intact Craftsman house and nearby it, a Colonial Revival mansion. There were some decent bungalows and some that would have been decent, Samson said, had their original wood not been covered with stucco.

Farther on came an East Coast cottage that was used in the TV series "Cagney and Lacey," then a well-preserved Victorian located diagonally on a corner. The prettiest house, labeled idiosyncratic, was dying of neglect, the result of an elderly owner who has "neither the money, energy nor inclination" to restore it, Samson said.

Almost next door was what Beck called "Our Painted Lady," a sprawling two-story with ramparts over one window. It has been recently painted half a dozen colors in earth tones and red.

A string of houses on Avenue 66 were designed by architect Frederick M. Ashley, who worked on the Los Angeles Observatory. Beck believes that he also worked on City Hall, even though his partner, John C. Austin, gets the credit. Beck said the information comes from Ashley's secretary.

"His secretary said he did it, so he did," she said with finality.

Beck conceded later that some historical culture offered on the tour is merely legend.

Indisputable is the visual clash caused by the relentlessly boxy two-story apartments that now rise between many of the older homes.

"We like to point out we're not opposed to apartments if they're done tastefully," Samson said.

Some, it turns out, are done tastefully. Samson liked one apartment walled entirely in red brick. But a few doors away was one so ugly that its only quality, in her opinion, was the landscaping that half concealed it from view.

Both women's favorite house on the tour is also half-hidden by a wall of ancient hedges. It is a large Queen Anne-Eastlake house owned by a woman who lives downstairs and funds its painfully slow restoration by renting the upstairs.

She will be there Saturday to lead groups through her house and possibly to offer little confessions, as she did Friday, about the ambivalence that can afflict the person who inhabits a home in the process of restoration.

One side of her, she said, wants to strip down the Mediterranean-style wallpaper a previous owner put in the hallway. The other side knows that it must be left in place until she is ready to tackle the entire room. So it stays.

Like a Queen Anne house with Mediterranean wallpaper, Highland Park is hard to classify. Eclectic and vernacular will have to do.

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