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Russian Village : Built of Rubble in the Depression, Houses Are Now Claremont's Pride : 'They built (the houses) with the materials available. It was really a classic American story.'

June 16, 1988|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

One might think that prospective homeowners would be less than thrilled to learn that their dream house was designed and constructed by untrained laborers using chunks of pavement, telephone poles and odds and ends scavenged from condemned buildings.

But to residents of Russian Village--15 houses built along South Mills Avenue in Claremont during the Great Depression by poor immigrant workers--these humble origins are a source of pride.

"You just develop real respect and affection for the people who built this," said resident Leo Snowiss as he admired the walls of his home, which was constructed with more than 2,500 concrete blocks that were chiseled from street rubble.

"They were very poor people," added Snowiss, a professor of political science at UCLA. "The Depression just wiped them out. They built (the houses) with the materials available. . . . Under the lash of necessity they could do it. It was really a classic American story."

The key figure in the story of Russian Village is Konstany Stys, a Polish immigrant who came to the area in the early 1920s from Youngstown, Ohio, where he had been a steel worker.

Although he didn't have much money, formal education or experience in housing design, Stys created a neighborhood of hand-crafted homes that has been included on the National Register of Historic Places as a definitive example of "folk architecture."

Attracted by the construction work available at the nearby Claremont Colleges, Stys bought a plot of land among the citrus groves of south Claremont. In seeking building materials, Stys needed to look no farther than the large piles of rocks that had been cleared from the surrounding land to make it arable.

Using those rocks, along with larger boulders hauled down from the mountains and surplus lumber from construction sites at the colleges, Stys built a modest house in 1922 that established the village's rocky, rustic style.

At the onset of the Depression, Stys subdivided his land and sold parcels under generous terms to friends, relatives and co-workers who had been left destitute. Mortgage payments--not always collected--were as low as $5 a month. Stys lent home buyers his labor and his knack for obtaining low-cost building materials.

Stys' neighbors copied his architectural style, more out of financial necessity than aesthetic consistency. While most of the houses were built with the plentiful field stones, builders also used pavement from flood-damaged streets and red tiles scavenged from the roofs of buildings condemned after the 1933 earthquake. Fixtures were obtained from a salvage company in Los Angeles.

"Old-timers in Claremont talk about how Mills Avenue used to look like a junkyard because of all the rubble that was down here," said Mayor Judy Wright, author of "Claremont: A Pictorial History."

"That was one of Stys' talents. Here he had this junk just dropped on his property and he used very good taste" in building the houses.

Wright, a former president of Claremont Heritage Inc., the community's historical society, has also written a brochure recounting the history of each home. The brochure is for those interested in taking a walking tour of Russian Village.

Opinions differ as to how the neighborhood came to be known as Russian Village. The most common story is that neighbors mistook Stys' accent as being Russian. Others say that some Claremont residents at the time perceived a hint of Bolshevism in the cooperative community established by the immigrant workers.

With one notable exception, the homes were built without blueprints, accounting for some unique floor plans. Building design was dictated by available supplies and the needs of growing families.

"These houses are all different," said Snowiss, whose home features an exposed-beam ceiling made of surplus lumber hewn with an ax-like tool called an adz by Stys and his son Raymond. "They all grew like weeds, like beautiful weeds."

Only one house departed from this unplanned approach. Peter Ficker, a Pomona architect, owed Stys $80 for construction work. Short of money, Ficker offered to settle the debt by designing a house. Stys took the blueprints as payment, but built the home reading the plans upside down.

"When they were putting it on the lot, they flipped the plans, so that the patio that was to have been to the south was to the north," said Georgia Warden, who was raised in the house.

The mistake did not dissuade Warden's father, Erle Bunker, from buying the house in 1938. Warden later inherited the house and lives there with her husband, Les.

After extensively remodeling their home, the Wardens received a commendation from the city for retaining the house's historic features.

Although major exterior alterations require approval from the city, maintenance of the homes' historical character is largely on the honor system. Some residents even collect blocks of street rubble with which to build additions to their houses.

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