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AROUND THE FOOTHILLS

Memories of a '50s Tract Home and 2 Slightly Scary Mansions

May 16, 1991|BY DOUG SMITH

Part of my childhood mythology revolves around the two houses on top of the hill that we almost bought, but didn't.

I walked by them every day on my way home from Mount Washington Elementary School. They were large, heavy, two-story mansions. They were mysterious and slightly scary, as such strong design could only be to a postwar child whose first recollection was of moving day, 1951, when the small cracker-box tract house at the top of Camino Real received its first, and so far, only owners.

Our house had the basic H plan and was so tiny that the most efficient way to get from the bedroom hall door to the kitchen was with a single bound over the cocktail table resting at the foot of the convertible couch.

As I understand, we were lucky to get a house of our own in the scarce market after World War II. This one had virtues. It had a view of City Hall, then the only tall building in Los Angeles, poking up over Kite Hill. It had a wild canyon to explore. It had room to expand. And it cost less than $10,000.

The irony is that the two old houses on San Rafael Avenue were almost that cheap when they were put up for sale back then, one at $10,500, the other $11,500.

I remember hearing my father say many times that he had looked at each and came very close to buying it. One was less attractive because it straddled most of a lot, leaving too little room for a pool, even then a consideration. Weighing against both was age. Undoubtedly they would need new wiring, new pipes, new shingles, new eaves. Those things would call upon skills and funds we didn't have.

Our house was new. So we stayed.

There followed many remodelings. The garage became a bedroom. A new garage was built. The living room was expanded and a bathroom attached to the master bedroom. Then the bedrooms were enlarged. Last came the pool.

That ended Phase One of the rebuilding. Phase Two came more than a decade later, long after I was out of the picture. It has added two studies and a bathroom over the new garage. Its underlying purpose, though, was to gather and refocus the diverse architectural strains that had come to haunt the house.

Someday, I contend, it will be recognized as high Crackerbox Revival, the epitome of Southern California's Populist ingenuity.

Until then, the two houses on top of the hill seem to be enjoying relatively greater stature. They haven't changed much, except presumably to be rewired, replumbed, repainted and reroofed.

I probably wouldn't have walked by them again had they not come under the sharp eye of the Highland Park Heritage Trust. This group of historical preservationists has yet to acknowledge even a modest distinction belonging to the house I grew up in.

But, this Saturday it will heap acclaim upon the two I didn't. This will happen in the Heritage Trust's seventh annual house and walking tour.

Tours will leave on the half hour, beginning at 10 a.m. from 3819 San Rafael Ave. As is customary, the guides will point out nearly 30 houses from the outside and venture inside four of the best. Extras this year will be sudden vistas of the now exuberant downtown skyline and a stroll across the exquisitely gardened grounds of the Self-Realization Fellowship. Since 1925, the Indian religious sect has maintained as a monastery and retreat the 1909 hotel built by developer Robert Marsh to promote his hilltop subdivisions.

Dress rehearsal for the guides was Tuesday afternoon. This is when those responsible get their stories straight as to the difference between a barge board, a purlin and a lintel and who built what house when and for whom.

A great deal of research goes into the tours. Any fact in question, such as the construction date of a house, is answered by reference to an original building permit.

Still, there is room for interpretation and value judgment.

It took some discussion Tuesday to decide on a casual mention only for the Marsh House. Though not the first house on top of the hill, it was built for Marsh himself, making it one of the most significant.

Unfortunately, later owners fixed it up with a melange of stucco and siding, obliterating its original Craftsman design.

"It was remuddled in the late '60s, early '70s," said Charlie Fisher, an ardent researcher for the Heritage Trust. "It was designed and built by Meyer and Holler, Milwaukee Building Co. The gable on the front originally had three windows. They've been removed."

"Are we going to say remuddled?" one of the group inquired.

"Well, it is," Fisher said stonily.

"I don't think we should," someone else interjected. "It has historic significance. Let's not beat on it."

Thankfully, neither of the houses from my past had been remuddled. I didn't find them mysterious or scary any more. But I think they've become quite expensive.

One, in fact, had been purchased and cared for by the Self-Realization Fellowship. As it turned out, it was snatched right out of Fisher's hands when he was slow in making a bid.

"I could have bought that house for $75,000 in 1981," he said.

You couldn't get close to it for that today.

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