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Downtown Digs : The Flats Apartments Are Short on Room, Long on Waiting List


ORANGE — Ramona Cowley wakes most mornings to the gentle murmur of voices and the chink and clink of dishes and flatware being shuffled onto tables in the outdoor cafe below.

The rich aromas of thick, black coffee and spicy Cuban breakfast sausages waft up the 20-foot staircase that leads to her landing.

The fountain in the middle of the traffic circle--where Glassell Street and Chapman Avenue meet--bubbles and gurgles, the sound of the splash of falling water carrying easily into her apartment through huge, double-hung windows.

Cowley lives like few others in Orange County ever have--or ever will: In a real city apartment, in a real downtown.

She sometimes flinches as a horn blows or an impatient motorist races his engine in the circle, or as a metal chair leg scrapes discordantly across the sidewalk below her bedroom window as waiters and waitresses at the Felix Continental Cafe bustle about, readying the outdoor tables for the early trade.

But mostly she just smiles and accepts the noises as just another part of her morning serenade.

The 28-year-old bookkeeper is a resident of the Flats, an unusual apartment community carved out of the top floor of what used to be Ehlen & Grote Company, a general store.

When new in 1904, the half-block-long brick building was turn-of-the-century Orange's answer to the urban mall. Now it is one of the oldest commercial buildings in the historic Orange Plaza. The ground floor and the copious basements have been given over to some of the city's mob of antique stores, and upstairs is the Flats.

You may have seen the place from the outside.

The bright orange awnings, dark brown window trim and white-glazed brick facade of the old building's second floor invariably grab the attention of motorists circumnavigating the circle, shoppers scouring the plaza's antique stores and diners enjoying the fare and open air at one of the cafes in or near the plaza.

But while many have seen the building, relatively few have seen the surprises within. Those who do usually either love it or hate it, and those who love it often enter their names on the seemingly endless waiting list of people who want an apartment there.

It warrants a look inside--through the South Glassell Street doorway tucked discreetly between two antique shops, up the carpeted stairwell, through the glass security doors equipped with an electronic locking system that provides Flats dwellers--about half of them single women--with what recent arrival Lisa Acuna calls "a really welcome sense of security."

The system requires visitors to ring the flat of the person they are calling on to be admitted, discouraging both the curious and the larcenous.

At the top of the stairs, about 20 feet above street level, is the first surprise.

Instead of a labyrinth of dark hallways pocked with faceless doors, there's a 1,200-square-foot lobby, softly lit during the day by two huge, old-fashioned glass skylights. It is comfortably furnished with sofas, chairs, end tables, an antique drugstore scale and a family-size, round oak dining room table.

The nine apartments have 8-foot-tall windows that face onto Glassell Street and open onto the lobby, as do several of the interior bachelor units. Each door is topped by a transom and has a window of bubbled, hand-poured glass in the top half--a hangover from the days when the apartments were offices and the names of the doctors, dentists and accountants who occupied them were painstakingly lettered in gold leaf on the glass panes.

Apartment numbers are painted on the walls in an orange and cream graphics scheme that reflects the early 1970s, when the Flats opened for business.

Unit 15 is Ann Fox's. Unit 6 is David Parnell's.

They are typical residents. And that makes them examples of another of the Flats' surprises. It is not just a bunch of apartments, it really is a community.

Fox is a widow who admits to being "late 50-ish"; Parnell is in his early 30s and single. Her place is done in antiques, his in plywood. His hair is longer than hers.

She was the banquet coordinator at the Tail o' the Cock restaurant in Studio City until three years ago. Now, to keep busy, she works at a local antique store about a three-minute walk from her door.

He is a professional window washer.

They couldn't be more different, but both consider themselves part of a family.

"When you first see this place, you think how neat it is and how it would be great to live in such an unusual place," Parnell said. "Then you see how all the neighbors up here interact, and that makes you love it."

In a typical apartment complex, friendships among residents, if they form at all, center on the pool or the recreation room and often are left there. People move in and live for a while and move out and no one misses them.

At the Flats, it is not like that.

The units are small, the place is self-contained, and, except for a 900-square-foot deck, it is all indoors.

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