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Home to an Old Dream : Dilapidated Taylor Ranch House, Built in 1885, Likely to Be Razed

December 30, 1993|PSYCHE PASCUAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MONTEBELLO — Taylor Ranch house is one of those buildings only a rodent or a history buff could love.

A family of ground squirrels once took over the main room of the century-old house at 737 N. Montebello Blvd., scurrying past the humans sitting at a table. On a windy day, chips of white paint flutter off the building. Add a stiff breeze, and a shard of wood falls away.

Time has not been good to the first structure in Montebello equipped with electricity.

"You look at it real close and you can see wood rot," said Alan Bushaw, 75, a photographer and longtime Montebello resident who used to visit the ranch house regularly. "If the termites quit holding hands, it's liable to fall down."

Although some residents have not lost their love for the historical landmark, not much is being done to preserve it, they say.

Montebello officials have had plans to demolish the building since 1972, when voters turned down a bond measure that would have generated $1.5 million to $2 million to build an arts center on the site.

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The plan is on hold until the city can find the money to demolish the old building and erect a community center that would be more than three times its size.

Mayor William M. Molinari said the Taylor Ranch house would have been torn down long ago if the voters had agreed to it. The many organizations that use the ranch house for classes, breakfast meetings and social events have clamored for a new building for years.

In 1984, a Montebello newspaper columnist summed up the community's divided sentiment about the ranch house: "To some, it is an eyesore and financial liability to the community," he wrote. But, he joked, the house was widely known as the home of a stray dog named Tuesday, and a stray cat that thrived on pancakes discarded by the Montebello Breakfast Club.

"Who in their right mind," he wrote, "would want to destroy something which allows Tuesday and that cat to exist?"

The original one-bedroom house was built in 1885 by Al and Mabel Taylor in what was then the remote countryside southeast of Los Angeles. Thirteen years later, the couple built a redwood barn, which still stands. The farm was dotted with strawberry and blackberry patches.

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When the Taylors left the ranch in 1909, they leased the land to an oil company. Various caretakers looked after the buildings until 1950, when the Taylors' friend, Evelyn White, was allowed to live there and to use it as a meeting place for her fledgling arts group.

White transformed the ranch into the center of Montebello's art community and the home of the Southland Art Assn., a group of artists who still use the center as a studio, meeting place and gallery.

Montebello purchased the five-acre ranch in 1970 for $200,000, but allowed White to live in the house until she died in 1983. The house has not been inhabited since, but the Montebello Breakfast Club still meets there, and art classes are given several days a week. Montebello officials estimate the ranch property to be worth between $3 million and $5 million in today's market.

Some residents say the ranch house has lost much of its charm in the past two decades.

"There's not much the city can do to make it look much better," said Marge Risher, a longtime Montebello resident and the ranch's unofficial historian.

On a recent visit, Risher leaned on an outside wall, and a piece of wooden siding fell to the ground. "We're just ashamed of it," she said.

Time has also altered the landscape around the ranch. The two-lane dirt road that once snaked around the one-story house has been replaced by straight, four-lane Montebello Boulevard.

The modest ranch house is dwarfed by the spires of an Armenian church and clusters of houses and condominiums. The fields that used to be dotted with horses now hold housing tracts and parking lots.

City officials say the house is not worth preserving because frequent renovations have altered its original architecture. Rooms were added piecemeal, including a meeting hall, a piano room and a kitchen.

The squirrels that invaded the rooms are gone, but decay has set in. A ceiling fan wobbles. The reddish-brown concrete floor in the entryway has never had the benefit of tiles, and slopes about a foot low on one side.

The odor of mildew permeates the rooms. The kitchen is unusable because the wiring is so old it could start a fire, officials said. And because parking is limited, art students must hike up a hill carrying easels and art supplies.

Eleanor Brown, 69, who has lived in Montebello for 36 years, said she visits the house to play the piano in a back room. But unless a stiff breeze comes in the window, in summer the room is sweltering.

"We wish it had a nice cooling system," she said.

Ophelia Godinez, who has taught art classes at the ranch for nearly 30 years, said the city recently installed lights and a new telephone. But many other repairs have not been made.

"See the hole in the wall?" Godinez asked, pointing to a fist-sized gouge that has been there for six years. "It's been caving in for a long time, but the city wouldn't fix it."

Godinez said she hopes City Hall will put more money into maintenance and reconsider its plans to tear down the building someday. And she thinks others feel the same way.

"I love coming here. We can come paint here anytime we want to," Godinez said. "This is heaven to a lot of people."

But Parks and Recreation Manager Pilar Alcivar said city officials do not believe the house should be preserved at any cost.

"We don't put a lot of money into maintaining it. It's a useless building. It's not big enough. The ceilings are too low. The acoustics are horrible," Alcivar said. "It would be great if we had the facilities and funds to maintain it as a historical site. But there's a point where you have to look at your priorities."

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