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History's Whisper Falls Victim to Area's Building Boom

December 08, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

The director of a group that maintains the Charles F. Lummis home in Highland Park learned last week that a strip of land next to the landmark home is slated for apartment construction.

The apartment project planned on the lot could endanger the home's 2 1/2-acre garden and block the group's plans for expansion, said Tom Andrews, director of the Southern California Historical Society.

Andrews learned of the project only last week, less than 2 weeks before construction was set to begin. He said the sale of the land to a developer has undermined his plans eventually to use the land to expand the home into a well-appointed museum and research center.

Andrews took over the directorship of the 1,500-member historical association 3 years ago and has coordinated ambitious restoration plans at the turn-of-the-century home, where the society has its headquarters.

The society is a 104-year-old association that publishes the Southern California Quarterly, the definitive journal on Southern California history. It also publishes history books and awards fellowships to history students.

A private nonprofit group, the society has received some financial support from the city, and the garden's restoration was financed in part by a city grant. The society has appealed to city officials for help in preventing the development but has received little encouragement.

Los Angeles developer Ronald Gentry is planning to break ground next week on the 8-unit apartment project. Gentry bought the two 40-by-120-foot plots for $270,000 in September. The unpaved strip that he purchased lies between Avenue 42 and Avenue 43 and separates the historic landmark from a number of single-family homes.

It was once the Pacific Union Railroad right of way. Gentry's plan calls for two 2-story buildings, one facing Avenue 42 and the other facing Avenue 43, with parking behind each.

Gentry also bought land across the street that Andrews said he had hoped the city would eventually purchase as part of the plan to expand the Lummis home and give the Historical Society more space to work.

"I was working on developing a master plan on this larger goal of having the garden, the home as a museum and a history center, so that the society isn't seen as some kind of cobweb organization dealing with the past, but that we're actually involved in the present and in trying to do something for the community," Andrews said. "This takes away that dream entirely."

Historical society officials said they fear that the apartments will loom over the Lummis property, blocking the sunlight on its many varieties of plants and changing the character of a garden that has literally blossomed in the last 3 years.

The association has just completed $150,000 of improvements to the garden. Volunteers have planted hundreds of wildflowers and plants indigenous to Mediterranean climates in the large garden.

The number of visitors drawn to the Lummis home has increased more than sixfold since 1986. The estate attracts more than 800 visitors each month, Andrews said.

"When you're in the garden, you don't see any boundaries; it's like seeing infinity," said Suzie Chamberlain, director of the Garden Volunteers, a group of 25 people who work in the garden on weekends. "It's like being in a much larger space. If you just think we're going to be looking at a 2-story, stucco building, it's a real different thing. It's just going to loom. And it's a shame, a real darn shame."

Lummis Eucalyptus

Of more immediate concern to Andrews is the health of two eucalyptus trees planted by Charles Lummis almost a century ago; the need for parking space that the unused lots had unofficially provided, and the loss of access by truck to a dumpster nearby.

The eucalyptus trees hang over the border of the Lummis land onto the strip purchased by Gentry. And with construction of the apartments, the home's volunteers who have parked on the lots for years will lose their unofficial spaces.

Andrews said he had discussed his plans with the lot's previous owner, David Weiss, 2 years ago. He said he dismissed Weiss' offer to sell the land to the city, believing that the lots were too small for development.

Andrews said he was unaware of the sale to Gentry until last week, when the developer installed a fence around the perimeter of the property and a power outlet. Ever since, Andrews has been busy calling city officials and local resident groups trying to prevent the construction. City officials have said the project is probably too far along to be stopped.

'Pretty Far Gone'

"It's unfortunate that he didn't try to acquire that parcel of land before this all happened," said Art Gastelum, principal administrative coordinator to Mayor Tom Bradley. "It's pretty far gone, in my opinion. It's going to be pretty hard to stop."

Gastelum said he has suggested that Andrews meet with the developer this week to try to stall the project and then seek funds to buy the land. In an interview last week, Gentry said he would be willing to sell the plots at a profit.

On Sunday, as docents mingled with contributors at a historical society party in the gardens, Andrews walked around the property and spoke of his disappointment.

"It's just happened a few months too early, that's all," Andrews said. "I'm not even to a place yet where I'm saying the city should buy into my dream, but I just wanted them to listen to it. I thought I had the chance to put together a history complex that was a real winner. Now it's too late."

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