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MARBLE MANOR : Tiled Hill Home Grows, Piece by Piece

March 23, 1989|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Forty-two years ago, Robert Johnson bought a lot that slithered up a steep canyon at a bend where a narrow, winding road ascended into the wild country of Elysian Park.

It's been a perfect spot for whimsy. Johnson built his own house on the edge of the slope, a simple, brown wood-sided box that was modern for its time.

He then began to encircle it with a lattice-work of gray cinder-block walls forming terraces that intersected up the hill at kaleidoscopic angles.

Over the years, whimsical Landa Street somehow stayed clear of the Los Angeles building boom, leaving Johnson and his wife, Helena, who came along in time, free to pursue their fractured vision of domestic beauty.

Their medium is marble. They like it because it's colorful and warm and tactile and as varied as snowflakes. And especially they like it because it's cheap.

Applied Piece by Piece

"We didn't pay a dime for this," Johnson said, smiling innocently and waving his hand like a wand over the marble fascia that he and Helena have applied piece by piece, like quilt work, over thousands of square feet of wall.

He exaggerates slightly.

There was the time that he and Helena were driving along the highway in Arizona and saw a nice piece of rose quartz at a roadside stand.

"My wife bargained with the guy and we bought it for $3," Johnson said.

Far more typical, though, was the time in Flagstaff when they happened across a large quarry of precious stone in a landfill, where it was apparently deposited by the widow of a departed lapidary.

All it cost them was a major repair bill.

"We burned out our transmission on the drive back from Flagstaff to Los Angeles with about 1,000 pounds," he said.

Their big strike came 10 or 12 years ago at California Marble Co., somewhere in the city nearby.

The owner had 11 tons of odds and ends.

'Insurance Pays for It'

"Generally speaking, a marble man has a lot of broken pieces brought in by people," Johnson said. "They want them to be replaced. Generally, the insurance pays for it."

And, generally, they leave the broken pieces behind.

The yard owner had once contemplated doing something with them. Then he had to move. He made the Johnsons a bulk rate offer: no charge.

"It took us 30 or 40 trips back and forth with our sedan," Johnson said. "You can get about 400 to 500 pounds and then the tires look kind of thin."

Some of the pieces are quite substantial. The largest are up to four feet long and almost as wide.

"The worst part is carrying it up the steps," Helena Johnson said.

Her husband downplayed the effort.

"If you have a person on each end, it moves," he said. "You learn."

Robert Johnson was not unprepared for this calling.

"I brought in a little talent in the form of being an apprentice mason," he said. That's when he was 17.

He later became a civil engineer and worked until retirement for Los Angeles County.

Those days, the weekends were an extension of his work.

"Often on Friday, when he came home from the office, I had everything ready so we could do something in the evening," Helena said. "It takes teamwork, too."

Her job was to mix the cement. He designed the forms, sometimes using doors, and invented the structural system to bind them to the walls.

"We have learned that if you put enough iron and steel, it stays well enough," he said.

He found that coat hangers work best, and are also free.

"They're very easy to come by," he said. "People throw out old hangers in the trash."

Johnson estimates that he has used 10,000 hangers.

He won't guess the number of pieces of marble, quartz, onyx, granite and desert stone.

They wrap all the way around the back of their house and up the canyon behind it, cascade down from the front door to the deck above the garage and completely encase the garage. All that is in the Johnsons' private world, out of public view.

'For Our Own Pleasure'

"We do this for our own pleasure, you see," Robert Johnson said. "We don't do it for any other reason."

And yet they haven't denied the world a peek at what they do. In the last phase of their project, they covered every square foot of a fanciful stairway and terraced garden leading down from their canopy of trees to the sidewalk below.

The Johnsons are known to their neighbors as the nice couple who smile and wave as they work. They have no pretensions about the meaning of their masterpiece.

"It's nothing special," Robert said. "It's something to fill in your time."

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