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1 City's Passion Is Another's Poison : History Counts to Residents of S. Pasadena


SOUTH PASADENA — On his lush lawn bordered by beds of asparagus ferns and impatiens in shades of pink, purple, red and orange, Vern L. Bengtson surveyed the land around Prospect Circle, where eight lanes of Long Beach Freeway may one day traverse.

"The problem is that the whole neighborhood, this beautiful 1920s neighborhood, would be taken," Bengtson said. "To me, it's cultural suicide to destroy a glimpse into what represents the best of the architectural past in Southern California. To indiscriminately tear this down is sinful."

Bengtson, 48, a tall, balding and full-bearded man, is the director of the Gerontology Research Institute at USC. Seven years ago, he and his wife bought their two-story, Mediterranean Revival house, with its Italian influences of arched doorways, its columns, porch balustrades and red roof tiles.

When Bengtson bought the house, it was not in the proposed 6.2-mile path of the freeway extension. Now it is--along with 1,425 other houses in Pasadena, South Pasadena and the El Sereno section of Los Angeles.

Because of the architectural significance of Bengtson's neighborhood, it is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, citing the freeway plans, recently designated South Pasadena as one of America's 11 "endangered places." Within the proposed route are dozens of historic houses. These include houses designed by internationally known architects Rudolf Schindler and Charles and Henry Greene.

Officials of the state Department of Transportation say they are sensitive to the impact the road would have on historical structures and, to that end, they say, Caltrans has developed the least intrusive and best route.

"We're proposing to move and restore all the architecturally distinctive houses in the path," said Jeffrey Bingham, Caltrans' chief of environmental planning for Los Angeles and Ventura counties. However, Bingham said, although the department will negotiate with homeowners on whether an individual house meets that criterion, perhaps only a few dozen of the most architecturally and historically significant house will be moved.

Bengtson's house, with its unpainted concrete exterior and canvas awnings over the casement windows, is an unlikely candidate. By any standard, it is a wonderful house, although its designer and builder were not famous. To Bengtson, the 3,500-square-foot house is a treasure beyond replacement.

Conducting a tour, Bengtson entered the house through the arched front doorway and made his way into a living room with a rounded, cove ceiling. The rich sounds of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor filled the room.

As he stood before a substantial fireplace mantel, Bengtson rubbed its burnished, bronze-colored tiles, handcrafted by locally renowned tile maker Ernest Batchelder.

"This is just priceless. . . . Notice the green highlight," he said. In the center of the fireplace, tiles depict a landscape of mountains and trees at Sequoia National Park. "The phrase, 'They don't build 'em like they used to,' certainly is true here."

Bengtson explained that the house was typical of upper-middle-class homes when it was built for $10,000 in 1927. Much of the design and construction, he said, incorporated elements of the Craftsman school, using inexpensive, natural and functional materials.

"The theme then was bringing the best of craftsmanship to everyone," he said.

But that kind of craftsmanship is expensive today. A similar house on Linda Vista in Pasadena or in Sierra Madre would be worth at least $900,000, he said.

In his study, he flicked on the lights to illuminate wall sconces. "These are so elegant, yet they were so cheap then, and they were mass-produced."

Walking on the hallway's solid oak floor, he moved into the bathroom. There, he ran his hands along azure tiles with hints of magenta and pointed to the delicate blues of two stained-glass windows.

"In a melting-pot, fast-changing society, we need these oases of history to provide continuity," he said.

Outside again, he walked onto the porch. "My wife and I, we sit out here every evening and talk over what happened during the day."

These days, the subject is sometimes "this black cloud of the freeway" hanging over South Pasadena and how the community and surrounding cities are divided on the issue.

He walked onto the winding walkway and looked up at the treetops. "This tree, this wonderful deodar, is our friend. Hundreds of generations of birds have grown up in this tree. Losing this house would be like losing part of my heart."

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