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Living in the Past : To caretakers who live in area museums, it's no big deal to share their homes with tours, vandals, ghosts and historical artifacts

June 29, 1989|R. DANIEL FOSTER | Foster is a frequent contributor to Valley View.

Paul Hafen, Joseph Marino and Elva Meline can best explain their living arrangements to friends by handing them museum brochures.

They live in area museums as caretakers or curators. They admit that their "open-house" style of life is a bit unusual. Bathing in an 1880s copper tub, inviting guests to stay the night in a Victorian guest room or sharing quarters with a ghost isn't for everyone.

Every Wednesday through Sunday afternoon, the public tramps through Hafen's adobe home. "The rest of the time, when it's not open for tours, it's all mine," said Hafen, caretaker of the sprawling Leonis Adobe ranch in Calabasas.

Hafen, 72, moved into the Monterey-style house three years ago. He is on duty from 5 p.m. until early morning when he leaves for his job as general manager of Creative Dental Ceramics in Los Angeles. He lives at the museum rent-free, as have two previous caretakers. He is there in case of fire or vandalism; he has no other formal duties.

Home of Pioneers

Leonis Adobe, which was built in 1844 and is a historical landmark, was the home of pioneer Miguel Leonis and his Indian wife, Espiritu.

"Now this is living; you can watch the world go by," Hafen said from a second-story porch outside his room. Before him was a small vineyard and arbor covered with budding grapevines. The dim roar of the Ventura Freeway behind the house could be heard. Bustling Calabasas Road with its antique shops, restaurants and clothing stores cut a parallel path in front.

"Most of the things around here are more than 100 years old," Hafen said. "I really consider it my home. In fact, I got married right in this doorway here."

Hafen paused in a curved archway. Two years ago, 50 guests filled the museum's living room for his wedding to Mary, his third wife, who lives near Victorville and visits on weekends.

"It's like going back in time," said Mary Hafen, 65. "It's amazing; you sit there in an oasis and the world goes on around you."

"I think he really enjoys the house," Glenn Hiatt, museum director, said about Hafen.

Hafen got the job after a friend recommended him to the museum's board of directors. "He has free rein of the place," Hiatt said. "We don't want to have any big parties, but we don't restrict him too much either--he's a very congenial fellow."

Company Barbecue

"I'm having a company barbecue next month," Hafen said, pointing to a massive barbecue pit in the museum's back yard. Nearby was a chicken coop, vegetable garden, farm machinery and a corral where sheep, goats, horses and a few Texas longhorns stirred up the dust. "They've got that huge rotisserie--we could do a cow."

Hafen occasionally puts overnight guests in the master bedroom, where Miguel and Espiritu Leonis once slept. The room's entrance is gated; like other rooms, it is decorated with Victorian furniture. A massive canopy bed framed by flowing red velvet drapes and a carved mahogany headboard dominates the small room.

"I just unlock the gate and tell them not to use the commode," Hafen said, pointing to a basin under the bed. "I tell them to use the bathroom."

Down the hall from Hafen's private bedroom, originally used by the Leonis' only child, Marcellina, is Hafen's bathroom, which doubles as a tourist exhibit with its 1880 copper-lined, walnut-paneled bathtub and 1920s fixtures.

"One time the board of directors had a group up here and I stepped out with just a wraparound towel on," Hafen said. "I took a towel with me on the spur of the moment. It could have been a disaster.

"I no longer bathe between 1 and 4."

What Joseph Marino once saw on TV newscasts, he now sees in his back yard, which is a city park.

"At first it was kind of spooky," said Marino, 53, who moved two years ago to Bolton Hall Museum in Little Landers Park in Tujunga. "You have to deal with all the drug addicts, ex-cons and dopers that hang out in the neighborhood. When you actually live what you see on the news, it's kind of scary.

"When I first moved in, kids would climb up on the roof and throw rocks and burning paper down the fireplace," said Marino, a former Glendale mailman who--with his walrus mustache, shock of gray-blond hair and portly frame--could easily double for Captain Kangaroo. "They were testing me. But now they help me clean up the park."

Lives Rent-Free

Marino receives no salary for his full-time job but lives rent-free. As a 24-hour live-in caretaker, he is responsible for keeping up the main hall, which is used by church groups, women's clubs and an art society. Another caretaker lived at the museum, which was built in 1913 as a community hall, for a year before Marino moved in.

Marino sometimes sits alone at night in the hall with its imposing stone fireplace. Tujunga Indian artifacts and other memorabilia surround him. There is a yellowed copy of the Tujunga city song: "Tujunga--See What You've Done For Me."

"I just sit and look out the windows," Marino said, petting his small poodle named Bebette ("that's French for bug"). "Kids look in the window and think I'm a ghost."

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