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IN TOUCH WITH THE PAST : Craftsman-style homes in three neighborhoods recall gracious days of yore. Today they rate among L.A.'s best buys

October 01, 1995|MARILYN TOWER OLIVER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dawn and LaMont Howard's courtship and marriage have centered on their 1905 home in Kinney Heights, a neighborhood of large Craftsman- style houses in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

When LaMont Howard bought his 3,500-square-foot house in 1988, it was suffering from neglect and vandalism. Graffiti marred the house and pigeons roosted inside. Some of the floors had buckled when previous owners had allowed the bathtubs to overflow, and the plaster was badly damaged.

"It was a money pit," he said.

Dawn Harris saw the house for the first time when the two were dating. She arrived with wine and pasta for a supper in the unfinished living room. "The next week I was helping him Spackle," she said. Today, the Howards and their young son, Nicholas, live in the carefully restored six-bedroom, 3 1/2-bath home.

"I appreciate the quality of the old, the character and the detail of the antique," said Dawn Howard, who grew up in a nearby neighborhood.

Kinney Heights is one of several neighborhoods that developed around Berkeley Square, an exclusive gated community of large mansions in turn-of-century Los Angeles.

Berkeley Square fell victim to the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway in the early 1960s, but about 200 large homes in three surviving contiguous tracts retain much of the pre-World War I ambience. The three are Kinney Heights and Gramercy Park on the south side of the freeway and Western Heights on the north side.

The three neighborhoods are bound roughly by Adams Boulevard on the south, Washington Boulevard on the north, Western Avenue on the east and Arlington Avenue on the west.

Hidden behind the mini-malls of Western Avenue, the palm-lined streets look much as they did 85 years ago and are frequently used as movie locations. Today, the neighborhoods are home to a mix of African American and White residents, including many who work in the entertainment industry.

In the early 1900s, Western Avenue was the western boundary of the city, and fields and orchards stretched beyond Arlington Avenue. Kinney Heights--named after Abbot Kinney, who developed Venice--Gramercy Park and Western Heights were suburban tracts that attracted the upper-middle class. Streetcars connected the area with downtown Los Angeles.

With the arrival of the automobile, newer neighborhoods became more fashionable, and many of the old families moved away. In time, some of the large homes were partitioned into rooming houses; others were demolished to make way for apartments.

In the late 1940s, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision eliminated restrictive racial covenants, middle-class African Americans began to move into the neighborhood.

Louise Watson, a retired dentist, and her late husband, Donald, bought their 11-room home on 24th Street in 1951 for $16,500.

"When we bought the house, there was no freeway and the neighborhood was very quiet. The neighbors were very welcoming," she said. "Twenty-fourth Street today looks much as it did over 40 years ago."

The construction of the freeway in the early 1960s was a blow, demolishing Berkeley Square and cutting the neighborhood in half. "The freeway took away a whole way of life," Watson said. "We didn't fight then the way we do today."

Beginning in the 1980s, young professional White and African Americans have been moving back into the area, lured by large, affordable homes with such amenities as stained-glass windows, mahogany paneling and small alcoves called inglenooks.

For the last six years, Jay and Sue German have owned and operated Salsbury House, a five-bedroom bed and breakfast inn on 20th Street in Western Heights. The 1909 house is virtually all original, with leaded beveled glass, stained glass, paneling and original light fixtures. Built-in cabinets with leaded glass line the dining room walls.

"Moving here from Mar Vista was a conscious choice for us," innkeeper Sue German said. "It is extraordinarily quiet here. I especially notice it when guests leave at 10:30 in the morning. I can hear birds chirping and I can't believe I'm in Central L.A."

"It's an extraordinarily social neighborhood with parties and potlucks," said Jay German, public relations director at Claremont Graduate School.

"We look out for each other and work together with the police on gang and drug problems. Every summer there's an annual summer block party at a private home."

Pat Karasick, a kindergarten teacher, and her husband, Christopher McKinnon, a film production manager, bought their three-story 1909 Western Heights home in 1988. They were drawn to the neighborhood in part because they could get a much larger house there for the amount they wished to spend.

"We also wanted to buy in an integrated neighborhood," Karasick said. "This was very important to us."

Their house has an inglenook and gentleman caller benches, seating that opens to provide extra storage, next to the stairs. The third-floor attic houses a sewing and craft room. The house is furnished with Craftsman antiques.

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