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Around the Foothills

The houses still stand with tired, though unmistakable, distinction.

August 04, 1988|DOUG SMITH

A busload of tourists from Tustin unloaded in Highland Park Saturday morning on an unusual historical outing.

They were were on the trail of the elusive founding family of their Orange County city of 46,000.

The Tustin Area Historical Society, 35 of whose members made the bus ride Saturday, was drawn to Highland Park by a small notice in The Times a few weeks ago. It said tours of several Highland Park houses were being given, among them the Tustin House.

Carol Jordan, the unofficial Tustin historian and curator of the society's museum, immediately saw more than a coincidence in the name. The Tustin descendants had mostly drifted away soon after their patriarch, Columbus Tustin, died in 1883, having lost the fight with nearby Santa Ana to get the Southern Pacific railroad through his town. Only Columbus's son Sam had kept up a presence, coming back regularly to collect rents on the family holdings.

"I knew they moved to Highland Park," Jordan said. "We have lost contact with the other descendants."

Jordan called the Highland Park Heritage Trust, which was giving the tour.

"I asked how the Tustin House got its name," she said.

It turned out that the widow of Columbus Tustin was the same Mary Tustin who built the third house in a row of four two-story, turn-of-the-century houses that still stand with tired, though unmistakable, distinction overlooking Figueroa Street, at Avenue 50.

It also happens, to the delight of the Tustin Area Historical Society, that the Tustin House, after a long decline and a brush with extinction, is about to be put back into something fairly close to original form.

That story, which was reported in The Times, involves Ted Kitos, a former West Hollywood Council aide and preservationist. Kitos formed a group to buy two of the four houses from a developer who was getting ready to demolish them. Kitos now shares the Tustin house with a few tenants remaining from its days as an apartment house.

"We had not known of its existence or that it was being preserved or that there was any interest in calling it the Tustin House," Jordan said. Nor did they know that it is a fine example of Craftsman architecture by the same firm that designed the Egyptian and Chinese theaters in Hollywood. A first-hand inspection was obviously inevitable.

Kitos, a jaunty young man in a blue and white flowered shirt, led tours through his two houses Saturday. He said he plans to move permanently into the older house next door to the Tustin house as soon the workmen, who were on the job Saturday, are done restoring it. Then he will get to work in earnest on the Tustin house, which he hopes to sell to someone who will keep it as a living monument.

As the Tustin visitors filed through its mahagony-paneled living room, Kitos pointed out the almost invisible joints which showed where the main vestibule had been walled off to divide the house into flats.

All of it would be put back the way it was, he said.

Sally Beck of the Highland Park Heritage Trust also gave tours and spoke of the house with familiarity. She had often visited it in the 1930s, tagging along with her doctor father on his house calls with Mary Tustin's son-in-law, Clayton Platt.

"When I was a child, I remember this room," she said, tapping on the hollow-sounding wall that separated the rooms. "It gave a feeling of great spaciousness. I remember Fannie Platt did have her piano over by the doorway."

The tour moved on to the other two Craftsman houses on the block. Both were in closer-to-original condition than the Tustin house. The reason, easily apparent to all, was their owners.

One was Helene Johnson, the widow of John Cherry Johnson, whose father, a Highland Park banker, built the two houses. Helene Johnson's house has now been in the same family since 1912, Beck said.

The other Johnson house now belongs to Margaret Herivel, who bought it with her mother in the 1940s when they couldn't find a rental that would take their cats. After her mother's death, Herivel began restoring the house.

Both Johnson and Herivel said they thought their lives would be shattered when the developer bought the two houses next door.

"I just dreaded the idea of three stories next door," said Herivel, who has watched apartment houses spring up on the street. Now, the new owners are restoring her feeling of neighborhood as well as the houses.

"It's just marvelous," Herivel said. "Before, I was secluded. I didn't want it known that I had antiques."

Johnson, who was Cherry Johnson's nurse before she became his wife, seemed a little more pugnacious. "We fought them and won," she said.

Herivel and Johnson, Kitos and Beck joined the touring Tustin historians for lunch under a shade tree.

Then the tour rolled on to nearby Heritage Square.

Jordan said the group has accepted Kitos's invition to return when his house is finished.

"He said 60 to 90 days," she said. "I think he's dreaming."

Of course. He's a real dreamer.

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