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Star From Bygone Era Returns to the Limelight

Former Bay Area resident ignites effort to save a neglected home with a storied past.

September 11, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The locals never paid much attention to the place. It took a newcomer from San Francisco to realize that the home of one of Los Angeles' most important old-time mayors was in jeopardy.

And now the Bay Area transplant is helping rally Hollywood residents and city officials to prevent the demolition of the former residence of James R. Toberman, the mayor who brought electric lights, mass transit and fiscal integrity to Los Angeles in the late 1800s.

The two-story clapboard residence at the corner of North Harvard Boulevard and Loma Linda Avenue was neglected and facing demolition when Dave Monks noticed it three months ago.

Monks, a former San Francisco governmental affairs worker who moved here at the start of the year, rents an apartment across the street and walks past the fading house each day.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
UC branch -- A Sept. 11 article in the California section on the former residence of James R. Toberman, a Los Angeles mayor in the late 1800s, mistakenly said that a branch of the University of California was established in Los Angeles during his time in office. Los Angeles State Normal School, the forerunner of UCLA, was established then, but it did not become part of the UC system until 1919.

Surrounded by apartment buildings, the home is accented with Colonial Revival columns and gables and stands on a large, elevated lot. It is the last single-family home in the mostly immigrant neighborhood.

So Monks was naturally curious when a "for sale" sign popped up in its front yard at the start of summer. And he was concerned when he learned the old house was being marketed as a tear-down and as a site for a future apartment project.

"I figured somebody important had to have lived there in the past. It's a house that looks like it had to have a great pedigree," he said. "This must have been a lovely, high-end neighborhood at some time in the past."

Historian Greg Fischer, a legislative deputy for downtown-area City Councilwoman Jan Perry, suggested that Monks consult the old Blue Book -- Los Angeles' social register -- to find out whose home it had been.

Monks discovered it had been Toberman's. Then he learned that Toberman had been one of the more influential leaders in Los Angeles history.

Toberman came to Los Angeles in 1864 as one of President Abraham Lincoln's first appointed tax assessors. He was the city's Wells Fargo agent for six years before being elected to seven one-year terms as mayor from 1872 to 1874 and then again from 1878 to 1882.

During Toberman's City Hall tenure Main Street was paved, the city's first street trolleys began rolling and -- on New Year's Eve 1881 -- the mayor flipped the switch that turned on the first electric lights in Los Angeles. Also during his time in office the Los Angeles branch of the University of California was established, the Los Angeles Athletic Club was created and the first synagogue in the city was organized.

Toberman initiated fiscal reforms that cut property taxes by nearly 38% and at the same time reduced the city's indebtedness by $30,000. He left office with a $25,000 surplus in the city's treasury.

Toberman moved his family from the downtown area to his new house in the Hollywood suburbs in 1907. Records indicate that he hired the architects who designed what is now Hollywood's Magic Castle to create the home for him.

The Toberman family roots soon extended deeply into Hollywood. Nephew Charles E. Toberman became one of the community's chief developers. His involvement with 53 Hollywood subdivisions and landmarks such as the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the El Capitan Theatre and Grauman's Chinese Theatre had earned him the nickname "Mr. Hollywood" by the mid-1900s.

Monks took his findings to Hollywood Heritage, a preservation group. That organization took up the old house's cause, lining up support from the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council and the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council.

The group circulated petitions calling for the home's preservation -- something that resonated with many.

"I'm from Boston, where there are a lot of old things. Here in L.A. everything's so new," explained Adam Doyle, a film set decorator who has lived in the neighborhood for three years.

Envisioning the old house as a future community center or library, Hollywood Heritage leaders also looked inward for help.

One of the group's directors, preservation architect Fran Offenhauser, agreed to buy the house and hold it for a year to give the city and the community time to decide what to do with it. If no public use of the house was found by that time, Offenhauser said, she would restore the house and convert it into high-quality rental units herself.

Offenhauser, whose previous work has included restoration of Victorian-style homes around USC, offered the full $825,000 asking price. The home's owner accepted an offer from a developer, however, and in August the future of the house seemed bleak.

But preservationists also won the backing of local City Council members Tom LaBonge and Eric Garcetti.

Last week, LaBonge helped convince the city's Cultural Heritage Commission to add the Toberman house to the city's list of Historic-Cultural Monuments. Such a designation would delay demolition for up to one year.

At the same time, LaBonge won council approval to have Recreation and Parks administrators investigate the feasibility of acquiring the house and converting it to a community center.

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