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SURROUNDINGS / WEST ADAMS

Balmy Days Ahead for a Historic Home

June 19, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

They shoveled through trash, ashes and decades of dirt to unearth this South Seas treasure.

And they spent a pot of gold doing it.

Still, the $1.2-million restoration of a 100-year-old dwelling southwest of downtown Los Angeles is worth it, contend those who found the Polynesian-looking place buried in neglect.

The three-bedroom structure on the northwest corner of Arlington Avenue and 24th Street in the West Adams area is called the South Seas House. It earned its nickname from the unusual roof that was built atop it in 1902.

Steeply pitched with dramatically peaked gables, the roof covers the house and its airy, sweeping porch that is reminiscent of breezy huts constructed by Pacific Islanders.

The home was owned by Joseph Dupuy, an opera singer and musician who helped create the Los Angeles Symphonic Orchestra. The structure was designed with an eclectic blend of Victorian, Craftsman, Colonial Revival and Asian influences.

Experts say it was one of Los Angeles' first tropical-themed houses, the precursor to the exotically eclectic architecture of the 1920s that brought Chinese-style theaters, Egyptian courtyard apartment houses and an Assyrian tire factory to the area.

Dupuy died in 1922. For the next 50 years a succession of owners took care of the South Seas House.

But in the early 1970s the city purchased the structure and its lot for a street-widening project. When the roadwork was scrapped, officials rented the place out.

By the 1990s the tenants were gone and the house was empty -- except for vandals and squatters. And for the scavengers who crept in to loot the place of its antique doorknobs, its banisters, columns and lighting fixtures.

The end seemed near when some transients tried to warm themselves by burning one of the built-in bookshelves. They stuffed it into the polished-brick living room fireplace, but the blaze got out of hand and burned a gaping hole in the oak floor.

The city Department of Parks and Recreation, which by then had taken control of the property with an eye toward using it for the expansion of a nearby park, was preparing to bulldoze the house in 1994 when the neighbors stepped in.

"One day we saw an estimator outside the house assessing the demolition cost," recalls neighbor Laura Meyers, a magazine writer who soon found herself helping lead a campaign to save the structure.

About 100 residents of the West Adams district worked feverishly to collect $7,000 in small donations and began mapping plans for the house to be restored and used for youth programs.

Skeptical parks officials set a Jan. 1, 1995, deadline for locals to raise the rest of the $100,000 that full restoration was then expected to take.

The city let that deadline slide after discovering that neighbors had hauled away trash, planted flowers in the frontyard and begun painting the house -- even adorning with faux windows the plywood that the city had nailed over the glass panes smashed by vandals.

"We took out 110 bags of stuff -- old clothes, old papers, things left by vagrants," said neighbor Wally Matsuura, who has lived nearby since 1938.

Students from a USC architecture class helped replicate long-missing construction blueprints for the house.

Neighbor Karen Haas played detective when she noticed that thieves had stolen the ornate front porch columns, leaving the house's signature roof precariously close to collapse.

"My brother found the columns in an antique store on La Cienega," said Haas, who stored them for the city in her basement after police retrieved them.

Architect Michele McDonough, a resident of West Adams, worked first as a volunteer and then as a city-paid designer for the restoration.

"This house embraces the optimism and creativity that Los Angeles has had since it's been a city. It looked to the west with its Polynesian roofline and to the east with its classical columns and Victorian shingles. It is a great symbol to this neighborhood," McDonough said.

But the deeper the volunteers and experts dug into the wreck that was the South Seas House, the worse things looked. By late 1995, repair estimates had risen to $269,000 -- even if the coalition of neighbors was willing to act as its own contractor for the project.

In 1996 city officials instructed the neighbors to stop work. With the assistance of Councilman Nate Holden, officials found funding to renovate the old house and turn it into a community center.

The estimated repair cost had jumped to about $600,000 by 1999. The tab was $844,7000 when the contract was finally approved 16 months ago. With design and contract administration costs added, the price tag hit the $1.2-million mark.

The finished house gleams as it must have when Dupuy, his wife and two sons moved in. This time, though, the house is wired for high-speed Internet connections and equipped with a long concrete ramp by the back door that complies with handicapped-access laws.

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