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Love of Things Old Preserves Community : Harvard Heights: Despite 1992 riots and problems with city services, area's stately and affordable Craftsman-style homes draw residents.

September 12, 1993|LINDA BETH MOTHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mothner is a West Los Angeles free - lance writer

Stuart Anderson has faced a few challenges in the 18 months since he bought two houses in the Los Angeles' neighborhood of Harvard Heights.

Built in 1905, the two adjacent Craftsman homes--one is 2,700 square feet, the other, 2,200 square feet--were boarded up when Anderson purchased them as a unit for $425,000. Having recently restored a 1920s California bungalow in Highland Park, the urban planner was ready to tackle something on a more dramatic scale.

But he hadn't counted on heavy winter storms when he began to replace the roof on one of the houses. Winds blew the protective plastic tarp off the beams and sent a torrent of rain into the living quarters.

Two months later, Los Angeles erupted in rioting and Anderson found himself struggling to smother the flames engulfing his back yard fence and palm trees, which had caught fire from a burning mall on nearby Western Avenue.

Nevertheless, Anderson rallied, and on Valentine's Day the larger of his houses was opened to visitors for a historic-homes tour presented by the Harvard Heights Neighborhood Assn. and the West Adams Heritage Assn. Those touring Anderson's home saw an elegant staircase, a design feature uncovered by hacking through layers of drywall, and a dining room paneled in natural wood.

Still, Anderson maintains, "If it were solely for the house I'd be gone. I like the people, the diversity. You know your neighbors. During the riots everyone was helping each other out. . . . I haven't experienced a neighborhood that was so close since I was a small child."

Lying south of Koreatown and northwest of USC, Harvard Heights formed the original tract of Los Angeles' West Adams District at the turn of the century.

The large pocket of homes and apartments is bounded by Pico Boulevard on the north, Washington Boulevard on the south, Normandie Avenue on the east and Western Avenue on the west.

Typical Harvard Heights homes, built between 1904 and 1910, are two-story Craftsman style. Victorian detailing is found in numerous "transitional" houses, which reflect both architectural movements. A great many were the work of Frank Tyler, a prominent local architect of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Street names--Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford--suggest the aspirations of the upper-middle-class residents who originally lived there. Although the homes lacked the exclusive aura of the mansions south of Washington Boulevard, which once sold for $50,000 and up, they retained a decidedly upscale feel.

While largely made up of blacks and Latinos, Harvard Heights has become a neighborhood whose diversity cuts across a broad cultural and social spectrum. Since the early 1980s, growing numbers of white homeowners have been wooed by the architecture of the area's older homes and reasonable prices; additionally, a significant share of senior citizens, gays and families with young children make up the population.

An unrestored house sells for about $175,000, said Jon Rake, an agent for City Living Realty. At the high end, a fully restored 3,500-square-foot house costs between $375,000 and $395,000. The median-priced home, with some updated electrical, plumbing and a degree of historical detailing, is about $225,000, he said.

Rake said that interest among buyers has been marked by cyclical turns. "We went from people buying historical homes because of the character, to good value, to close to downtown and tired of commuting. Now we're going back to, 'Oh, I love those old homes,' " he said.

Six years ago, Mary Wormley and her husband, Don Frederick, were drawn to the West Adams District because of their interest in old homes. Although Wormley, a journalist for Time magazine, recalls loving every house she saw, it was the size, affordability and dining room of a 3,200-square-foot 1908 Craftsman in Harvard Heights that sparked the sale.

"We walked in, and I think what struck us both was the built-in breakfront in the dining room," Wormley said. "It had leaded glass windows in what is called an onion design and that was the original element. It had a bow window and a wonderful brick fireplace. It was just very inviting."

Since then, Wormley said, a love of old houses has become just one of many interests shared with their neighbors. For example, the social life of the couple's 22-month-old son, Dalton, counts as an unexpected bonus.

Said Wormley: "On any given Saturday there is always a bunch of nice kids right on our block. Some of my friends who live other places in the city are always making play dates and driving their kids to play group. He never lacks for fun. That is really a wonderful thing."

What has impressed Pat Campos are the annual tree plantings. "The year that we moved in everyone was helping each other dig a hole in front of their yard to plant their new tree. In a couple of weeks they are going to have another tree planting," said Campos, a teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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