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Picking Up the Pieces

It's a painstaking process, but disassembling old houses saves reusable bits of the past that would otherwise fall to the wrecking ball.

February 04, 2001|SUSAN CARRIER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When new homeowners asked historian Phyllis Learner for early photographs of their historic Beverly Hills mansion, she was more than happy to comply. But Learner's delight turned to despair when she discovered that the vintage photos would be displayed at a "wrecking party" celebrating the home's demolition.

Palatial mansions, historic homes, quaint cottages: The wrecking ball has no respect for pedigree in Southern California, where a "tear-down" house can just as easily be a mansion as a dilapidated shack.

Replacing old with new can chip away at Southern California history while heaping millions of tons of rubble onto crowded landfills.

"In most cases, the owners thought they were creating something more prominent than the original, and they do often end up with a beautiful house, but there's no historical significance," said Learner.

When a house can't be saved, many of its parts can be. More and more demolition crews are practicing deconstruction, a labor-intensive but environmentally sound alternative to typical "smash and dash" demolition.

Instead of a bulldozer plowing down the structure and sending the rubble to the dump, the building is carefully dismantled, board by salvaged board, and the pieces are reused or recycled.

The drive to demolish is fueled in part by a booming economy and a record number of individuals making money in the stock market and Internet companies.

In addition, according to a study by the National Assn. of Home Builders, the average American house just keeps getting bigger. By June 2000, the average size of a new home rose to 2,260 square feet, a 50% increase over the typical 1970 residence.

American homeowners, hungry for space and volume, demand higher ceilings--9 feet instead of 8--and more windows. Living rooms are shrinking and the formal dining room is nearing extinction while master suites and family rooms are becoming de rigueur.

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With changing lifestyles and living patterns, it's no wonder that houses built 30 years ago, let alone 100 years ago, often seem as passe as avocado green appliances. The answer, for many, is to tear down and start over.

It's a continuing trend that has preservationists and heritage commissions up in arms. Sue Mossman, president of Pasadena Heritage, said that historical designation is one way of preserving the past. Still, in spite of designations, most houses in Pasadena could be demolished because of "inconsistencies and lack of strength of the ordinances."

Fortunately, she added, "because of a rising tide of interest in historic homes and [the] relative premium of these homes, we're finding that more and more people choose to keep them or even move them. It's a big victory of the preservation movement."

Even preservationists struggle with the "restore" versus "demolish" decision.

"Just because something's old doesn't mean it has to be saved," said Kris Miller-Fisher, a Sierra Madre City Council member who took some heat when she filed for a permit to tear down a 1900s board and batten cabin in Sierra Madre. "Some properties are important to a culture or a town, and others are not as significant."

Miller-Fisher, an architect who has taught historical preservation at Cal Poly Pomona, and her husband, an architect, plan to replace the cabin with a 3,200-square-foot California farmhouse-style residence, typical of Sierra Madre.

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Valerie Gruzin learned the hard way that not every house is worth saving when she ran into problems restoring a 1925 home in Santa Monica.

"In the course of remodeling, we kept discovering major problems with plumbing and electrical and rotten dry wall," she said.

"Then we decided to add a second story and we had to structurally re-engineer the whole foundation of the old house. We spent a great deal of time and a great deal of money, all because we didn't want to demolish," she said.

After Gruzin's experience, she was much less sentimental when she and her husband, Ron, purchased their next property. They deemed it a candidate for a tear-down and discovered that if they couldn't save the house, they could at least save its pieces.

Gruzin, an environmentalist by inclination, hired a demolition company that specializes in deconstruction.

"The wood went to Mexico, the aluminum and steel were salvaged and the concrete was recycled," said Gruzin.

When deconstructing a home, the most valuable parts are stripped out first. Mantles, attractive hardware, architectural ornaments, Batchelder tile, wrought iron gates and lighting fixtures are highly prized artifacts.

Some homeowners include the salvaged finds in restorations. Others use the pieces as decorative artwork, as if they were sculptures or paintings, or incorporate the castoff pieces into unique furniture.

Miller-Fisher, the Sierra Madre resident, salvaged most of the wood from her tear-down cabin.

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