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Preservationists Discover 'Trailer Park That Time Forgot'

History: Highland Park site is a relic of a time when Americans made their first long road trips.

September 17, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles register of Historic-Cultural Monuments may look like a fairly complete document, but don't let those 18th century missions, 19th century mansions and early 20th century movie houses fool you. The list lacks trailer parks, and the city's Cultural Heritage Commission thinks it's time to change that.

In a move that state and federal experts say could be the first of its kind, the commissioners are asking City Council members to give monument status to the Monterey Trailer Park, a 1.7-acre site at Highland Park's eastern edge that dates to the early 1920s, a pivotal era when Americans were taking their first long-haul road trips with Model Ts--and without motels.

The property's owner, who acquired it in April, has written city officials to say he's not just opposed to the idea but "flabbergasted" by it. "For eight years, it was sitting there with nothing done to it," Peter Young said. "And now that I'm trying to restore it, they're calling it historical. You should have seen the amount of trash that was hauled."

Young said he has no plans for major changes to the property, and bought it for its "interesting character." But he said he fears a monument designation--which requires property owners to get city approval before making substantial changes--would leave him too few options. City staffers said a vote is probably weeks away.

Preservationists say few such sites remain and note that the city's Historic-Cultural Monuments list, begun in 1962 and now 715 sites long, is already a diverse document. Entries include a row of avocado trees in Los Feliz that may date to the 19th century; the 1939 Coca-Cola building downtown (which was designed to resemble a cruise ship); and the Catalina, an actual ship that shuttled passengers between San Pedro and Catalina Island from the 1920s to the 1970s. (At last report, the vessel was moored in Ensenada, which would make it the only city landmark now in foreign waters.)

In the vast majority of cases, says city Historic Preservation Officer Jay Oren, the council follows the Cultural Heritage Commission's advice on monument designations.

Meanwhile, in the quirky community at the tree-shaded trailer park site, just south of the Pasadena Freeway and just west of the South Pasadena city line, the property's history and the future are topics A and B. About 30 tenants dwell there full time or part time in trailers and mobile homes on pads where 10 original "auto camp" cabins once stood.

"It's like a bubble here, a time capsule ... the land of the lost," said Ed Lum, a 36-year-old graphic artist who has lived there since 1996. "To get a space here is about like getting a good apartment in New York. You have to wait until somebody dies, almost."

The most voluble tenant is John Agnew, who discovered the park while making a U-turn eight years ago. A collector of vintage trailers and a transportation specialist for television and film production, Agnew "just fell in love" and seized his first chance to move into the park. Then the 40-year-old Agnew encouraged several friends and his sister to follow, thereby lowering the property's median age and raising awareness of its potential as the trailer park that time forgot.

Eventually, Agnew took over as resident manager, planted some succulents, rolled in his collection of about 15 old trailers, added a pair of pink flamingos and laid plans to buy the place himself.

It's because that purchase effort failed and Agnew had to haul off most of his trailers, Young contends, that the former manager contacted preservationists in a bid to tie him up in red tape. Agnew, who relocated the trailers to a new home in Altadena, says he and his allies are just trying to protect the park and its residents.

"He didn't just buy a piece of property. He bought family," Agnew said. "He bought a big relationship with a lot of people with different backgrounds."

The deeper tale behind the trailer park begins in the early 1920s, when a businessman named Elmer Drummond opened a gas station down the street and dubbed this site the Monterey Auto Camp. In 1923 and 1924, Drummond built a pair of small Craftsman-style houses, which remain, one of them occupied by a tenant. The site also includes a former office (now converted into a residence and occupied); the site's original bathing-and-laundry building (now locked up); and a structure that may be one of the 10 original guest cabins, now amended, expanded and occupied by a tenant. Around these ramshackle buildings sit 22 trailers and mobile homes, mostly owned by tenants who rent the pads they occupy.

At least a few of these tenants are big believers in the trailer's role in human history. Thursday morning, in fact, found Agnew and Lum and a few friends seated by Agnew's 30-foot '57 Airfloat, watching an old documentary on Airstream pioneer Wally Byam's 1959-60 jaunt from Capetown, South Africa, to Cairo, a venture that entailed 41 trailers and took 221 days.

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