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Did Young Richard Nixon Romp Here?

House: Preservationists want to save Yorba Linda bungalow, but no one's certain of its significance.

June 03, 2002|MILTON CARRERO GALARZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few blocks from the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace sits an old, wooden house with chipped paint and broken windows, a slightly worse-for-wear mystery from another era.

Local lore has it that as a child, Nixon romped in the grassy yard outside the Yorba Linda home. The story goes that a second cousin, author Jessamyn West, lived in the house for a while and baby-sat Nixon when he was just a tot.

Others say there is no proof that Nixon, or even West, spent any time at the house. All of which leaves the two-story bungalow at a curious crossroads. Its owner wants to rip the place down and replace it with a larger, more modern building. A historical-preservation group wants the home preserved, believing it echoes an important chapter in Yorba Linda's history.

City officials and even staff members at the Nixon library say the debate has them stumped.

Library officials say they don't know whether the former president spent any time at the house. City officials are looking through enrollment records at two local colleges to see whether West, a novelist and short story writer who died in 1984, ever lived there.

"It has been difficult to ascertain what relationship the house had to the West family," said Joe Dmohowski, a collections librarian at Whittier College who has studied Nixon and West since 1985. "It is even more difficult to identify ties to the Nixon family."

The house, built about 90 years ago, is a handsome wood-frame bungalow, though in need of some repair. Its owners, Kent and Cathie Brush, want to build in its place a new house--a mansion, some neighbors complain. The city has put their plans on hold, deciding to study the importance of the house before issuing a permit for it to be razed.

Twice before, the Brushes got permission to renovate their home, each time letting the permits lapse without doing any construction. The couple declined to weigh in on the current debate.

Wendy and Ed Rakochy, who live across the street, said they want not only to see the house preserved, but also to have the neighborhood declared a historic district, serving as a gateway between their community and the nearby Nixon library. Rakochy and his wife have refurbished their Craftsman-style house, keeping the original wood and brick.

"You cannot put a price on that home," Ed Rakochy said of the Brushes' house. "No matter what condition it's in, you can't replace it."

Along with other supporters, Rakochy and his wife have formed the Yorba Linda Historical Conservancy. The group monitors changes in the neighborhood and tries to prevent other residents from altering their homes in ways that divert from their original design.

"I don't want this neighborhood to become a mish-mash," Wendy Rakochy said. "I see the future of this neighborhood [as] the crown jewel of Yorba Linda."

Whether the Park Place house should be saved in the name of Richard Nixon or Jessamyn West is another matter.

Clearly, Nixon lived in the neighborhood as a child. And at some point--probably her college years--so did West. There's a park adjacent to the neighborhood named for her.

As a girl in the early 1900s, West moved to then-rural Yorba Linda, where her family had an orchard, according to biographical material. She attended Fullerton College and later graduated from Whittier College, as did Nixon.

The strongest link connecting West to the home came in 1979, when the Yorba Linda Star published a story tracing the writer of "Friendly Persuasion" to the address.

West responded with a letter to the editor saying that after looking at the photograph that accompanied the article, she believed it was the house where she lived during her college years.

But Dmohowski said his research shows that while West mentions baby-sitting Nixon in her writings and in speeches--sometimes exalting in their shared Yorba Linda roots--she never specified the Park Place house. In fact, several other houses have been linked to the West family in Yorba Linda, including one that was once down the street from the Brushes'. It was demolished decades ago, and Don Bigonger, 44, now lives at the site in a modern stucco home.

Bigonger said he suspects that all the talk about history is a ploy to stop redevelopment in the neighborhood.

"If they want to have [their own home declared] historical, I have no problems with it," he said about the Rakochys' renovated Craftsman. "But they should not include the whole neighborhood in their plans."

Patricia Haley, Yorba Linda's community development director, said it will probably be three months before the city finishes its probe into the lineage of the house. When complete, the findings will be presented to the City Council, which will determine whether the Brushes should be allowed to knock the place down.

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