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Opening Doors to the Past : Los Feliz: Volunteers are reconstructing the histories of famous properties in an effort to preserve the community's stately landmarks.

February 28, 1991|LORI GRANGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The work is time-consuming, grueling and detailed, but sorting through 60-year-old building permits is Ken Hollis' idea of a good time.

A plasma research technician by day, Hollis--pursuing his multiple interests in archeology, history and computer programming--often spends up to three hours a night plugging information from building permits and other historic papers into a computer database.

Hollis is just the kind of volunteer Diane Kanner was looking for when she set out more than three years ago to document the history of Los Feliz, the roughly 70-year-old community of old wealth and distinguished architecture built on hilly terrain at the southern base of Griffith Park.

The effort is called the Los Feliz Historic Survey, and its goal is twofold: to put together promotional pamphlets, presentations and a book about Los Feliz, and more broadly, to give historic status to some of the community's oldest and most famous properties.

Ordinarily, such surveys are initiated not by volunteers, but by city officials who study historic sites as part of a broader project, said Frank Parrello, a city planner. For instance, as the Los Angeles Planning Department updates the city's 35 community plans, officials will perform a general survey of potentially historic buildings to ensure that they are not endangered by revised land-use plans, Parrello said.

Los Feliz is considered part of the Hollywood community. Its plan won't be revised by city officials for another five to seven years, he said.

Kanner, a free-lance real estate writer and architecture buff, thought the community should have a more thorough survey than the city would do, and a lot sooner.

"People are curious to know who built the big, old houses in the area--and the modest ones as well," Kanner said. "We also want to find out where our potential landmarks are so we can prioritize those we feel are worth saving."

Kanner had experience in historical research as a volunteer for a survey of Hollywood in the early 1980s and later as a historic planning consultant for City Councilman Michael Woo. But a survey on the scale she contemplated would require private donations of perhaps $100,000 and volunteers.

Kanner and other organizers were confident that Los Feliz was the kind of community that could supply both.

Los Feliz, as Kanner explains it, was considered rural and out of reach of the urban transportation systems of the 1920s. But its rolling hills, with Griffith Park as a backdrop and Hollywood as a neighbor, attracted the attention of well-known architects and wealthy celebrities.

Wilbur Cook, a landscape architect who designed the streets of Beverly Hills and Oakland, was thought to have laid out Los Feliz around 1910, Kanner said. Soon to appear on those streets were sprawling houses in the Spanish colonial revival, Mediterranean, Craftsman and modern styles. Frank Lloyd Wright; his son, Lloyd Wright; Richard J. Neutra and Wallace Neff were among the architects who designed many of the houses.

Los Feliz became the home of Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, actress Norma Talmadge and former Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler. The Bullock's department store family built a house there in 1915. Travis Banton, the fashion designer of Paramount Studios, followed suit 15 years later.

William Mead, who served in the Assembly from 1897 to 1901, built his house in Los Feliz in about 1906, and in 1916 formed the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., now one of the oldest and most powerful homeowner groups in the city.

In its first year, the association and the Los Feliz Women's Club planted deodar cedar trees along Los Feliz Boulevard. They still line the wide, heavily trafficked thoroughfare connecting Glendale to Hollywood.

The trees are considered a historic and cultural monument, as are the Los Feliz Manor apartment building, built in 1929, and the William Mulholland Memorial Fountain on the corner of the boulevard and Riverside Drive. The fountain honors the man who created the Los Angeles municipal water system.

Kanner, a resident of the community since 1972, hoped to spotlight those and other celebrated monuments when she initiated the survey in 1987. She pitched her idea to the Los Feliz Improvement Assn. and earned its endorsement.

Her historic preservation committee held its first fund-raiser in 1988. The 1920s-style party drew about 600 people and brought in nearly $30,000 for the survey. A combination street fair, auction and home tour last September raised another $10,000.

Kanner and the association launched the project by hiring an architectural and historical consulting group to do a general "windshield" study of Los Feliz. The consultants sought out houses built before World War II that seemed to have architectural or historical flavor and the potential for designation as historical-cultural monuments.

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