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Ascending to Historic Heights

Preservation: Commission declares Los Feliz steps, built in 1924, a cultural landmark.

August 07, 1998|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How do you turn four sets of obscure stairways that seemingly go nowhere into a genuine Los Angeles cultural landmark?

If you're Diane Kanner, you go about it step by step.

That's how the Los Feliz resident this week managed to convince a city preservation board to designate concrete stairs in her hillside neighborhood as a historic-cultural monument.

The steps were built in 1924 by the developer of the Los Feliz Heights subdivision to give home purchasers a shortcut to markets and shops on nearby Vermont Avenue.

These days, though, they are used mostly by residents exercising their dogs--or looking for a cardiovascular workout for themselves by climbing the 463 steps between Cromwell and Glendower avenues.

The designation Wednesday by the Cultural Heritage Commission protects the four flights of stairs from closure and could lead to financial grants that could be used to help maintain the steps.

Before they convinced city commissioners about the historic significance of the stairs, however, Los Feliz residents had to convince themselves.

"We weren't even sure who owned them when we started," said Kanner, a biographical author who has lived in the neighborhood since 1972. "Some thought that maybe adjacent property owners owned the steps and were assessed for them."

It turns out that the city owns the stairways--although you wouldn't know it by the amount of attention that municipal workers pay to them.

So Los Feliz Heights residents sweep the stairways weekly and scrub away graffiti that is sometimes left by vandals. The decision to seek monument status came when neighborhood leaders realized that structural repairs will eventually be needed to preserve the steps.

Kanner began working on the monument application in January. She argued for the designation in early July before commissioners, and then invited them to walk the stairs themselves July 15.

"We talked to residents and interviewed old-timers from the first graduating class of John Marshall High School. But no one knew the steps' history," she said Thursday afternoon as she relaxed on a concrete bench at the top of the 181-step Cromwell-to-Bonvue Avenue stairway segment.

"Then one of our local Realtors, Richard Stanley, said, 'It's obvious: The steps were put in when the streets were put in.' So I checked in the city archives to see when this area was developed and it was all there."

Kanner made four trips to the archives, tracing the design of Los Feliz Heights' streets and other subdivision amenities through city Planning Department and Public Works records filed in 1921 and 1922.

Alma Carlisle, a retired staffer from the city Historic Survey Office, told Kanner where to find specific stairway design documents.

"We went to the city engineer's vault and found the original plans. They are very elaborate and very detailed," she said.

Kanner began prowling the corridors of the city's Central Library, the USC History Center and the Huntington Library in San Marino researching the background of the tract's developer, William Mead. She discovered he was an energetic man who helped draft the City Charter now being revamped by officials.

Mead was a politician who served in the state Assembly between 1896 and 1900 before establishing the Central Bank of Los Angeles in 1900. He built his own mansion in the Los Feliz area in 1913 and launched his first subdivision, Hillhurst Park, Kanner said.

The building boom of the early 1920s prompted development of the hillside Los Feliz Heights tract. Mead designed the stairways to compensate for the steep, twisting streets that were too narrow for sidewalks in some areas, according to Kanner.

Mead went on to serve as a city water commissioner at the time the Los Angeles Aqueduct was built and became the first president of the city's Planning Commission. Kanner said he established Los Feliz's first property owners group, the Vermont Canyon Assn., before dying in 1927.

That group was the forerunner of the Los Feliz Improvement Assn. These days, members of that organization's beautification committee regularly help prune branches and bushes that now shade the stairway's four segments: the longest between Cromwell and Bonvue, the 70 steps between Bonvue and Glencairn Road, the 79 between Bonvue and Bryn Mawr Road and the 133 between Bryn Mawr and Glendower.

Homeowner Melinda Peters said residents hope the monument designation enhances their chances of obtaining matching grants from the city to help pay for stairway maintenance.

So far, Peters said, residents have raised more than $1,000 to pay for the cleaning of stairway walls with water-blasting equipment. They are also thinking about placing a mural on one stairway wall that has been a target of vandals.

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