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The Quest for a Sense of Place

A tour explores some of L.A.'s historic districts, which offer respite from tear-down mania.

April 04, 2002|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years ago, Peter Persic had had enough of living in a tear-down crazed section of Beverly Hills. He wanted a neighborhood with "architectural integrity," and found his dream a couple of miles east in South Carthay, which he calls a "tranquil oasis in the middle of the big city."

Just east of La Cienega Boulevard, South Carthay provides Persic with "a sense of the kind of theatricality and romance that was Los Angeles in the '30s." It also happens to be one of Los Angeles' 15 Historic Preservation Overlay Zones--the city's official designation for a historic neighborhood.

On Sunday, seven of these districts will be the subject of "At Home With History," a self-guided tour showcasing the city's rich, and often overlooked, architectural heritage. The event is co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Conservancy, the HPOZ Alliance and the featured districts.

Historic designations have been granted over the past 19 years to Los Angeles neighborhoods, or parts of neighborhoods, that have retained their architectural integrity; all must include buildings that relate to each other historically, architecturally, or culturally.

The seven highlighted Sunday were chosen for their range of styles--Victorian to Spanish Colonial Revival--and locations, including West Adams-Normandie and Western Heights, both west of downtown L.A.; University Park, near USC; South Carthay; Angelino Heights, near Echo Park; Banning Park, in Wilmington, and Miracle Mile North, just north of the L.A. County Museum of Art. The tour features one open house in each area, and area residents will be available for questions.

"'I didn't even know this neighborhood existed' is the most common comment we hear," says Murray Burns, a preservationist, longtime Angelino Heights resident and founding member of the HPOZ Alliance, a 2-year-old group formed by members of the various districts. "Letting people know these areas are here was certainly the object when I approached the conservancy with the idea for the tour."

"We figure we will have done our jobs on this tour if people walk two blocks in these neighborhoods," says Jane McNamara, the conservancy's director of education. "We also wanted people to look at where they live and to understand their neighborhood's connection to the history of L.A. Districts may have significance because of their roles in the city's past, even if they don't have a famous landmark in the middle. An area of intact 1920s and '30s tract homes tell an important part of L.A.'s history."

Over the years, the residents of these ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods have become closely connected, sharing a passion and commitment to preserving the city's residential history. Although some admit they sometimes clash over various issues, the benefits of living in these districts far outweigh the occasional argument, they say.

"There's been a reconnection to neighborhoods in the city, and there's a new level of neighborhood activism in general," says Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the conservancy. "I think it's a way of finding a sense of place within a large, often faceless city."

Persic, public relations director for the Los Angeles Central Library, found that connection when he moved to South Carthay. The area, located roughly at Pico and La Cienega boulevards, is filled with 1930s-era homes built by developer Spiros George Ponty on land that once grew produce for Ralphs markets.

Although the homes are mostly two-bedroom Spanish Colonial Revival, one-story tract houses, their details far surpass today's standards. Exteriors have varied features such as courtyards, tile and arched entrances. Inside are hand-painted ceilings and murals in classical motifs, as well as stained glass and delicate molding trims.

A block away from the gas stations and nondescript storefronts on Western Avenue, just north of the Santa Monica Freeway, the quiet neighborhood of Western Heights is filled with early 1900s-era Craftsman homes. Vine-covered cottages and larger homes, stout and sturdy, line the street. Some have been restored to pristine condition, others slump and sag from a lack of attention, but each has a distinctive personality that gives a glimpse of what the city was like a century ago.

Don Lynch bought his home, which will be featured on Sunday's tour, five years ago, moving from Redondo Beach to an area he was familiar with through his involvement with the West Adams Heritage Assn.

"I know all my neighbors, which wasn't true in Redondo," says Lynch, a historian and co-author of "Titanic: An Illustrated History." "Here, everybody kind of knows everybody. When I walk down to the corner, I have to add on five minutes to visit with anyone who's out doing yardwork."

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