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Around the Old Oak Tree

Couple kept the specimen in their living room when they built their house in the 1940s. Now it's a landmark.

September 18, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

They were between a rock and a hard place. So they went out on a limb.

That's the short version of how Pearl and Bill Sloan ended up with a 50-foot oak tree in the middle of their living room.

The tree dominates the couple's Topanga Canyon home. Its huge branches poke through their ceiling in five places. Outside, its leafy canopy covers their house like a giant beach umbrella.

For 57 years, the oak has dominated the Sloans' life too.

Estimated at 300 years old, the tree is the matriarch of a grove of oaks that shade the pair's Old Topanga Canyon Road property. Its gnarled branches have grown so long that some of them rest on a rocky slope behind the house.

It was the grove that attracted the Sloans to the site in 1946. Fresh out of the Navy, Bill Sloan had come with his wife and three young sons from Illinois to complete his engineering studies and work in Los Angeles' burgeoning aircraft industry.

For a year, the family lived at a dusty Burbank trailer park in a 16-foot travel trailer that they pulled across the country behind their 1937 Chrysler Airflow sedan. Desperate for some Midwestern elbow room and greenery, they found themselves in Topanga Canyon looking for a place that they could afford.

They discovered several lots for sale for $1,200 each. But they were unimpressed.

"The first time we looked, it was the fall, and everything was brown and dry," Bill Sloan remembers. "We came out again in the spring, and it was different. Everything was green, the wildflowers were out and it was just beautiful."

Adds his wife: "The trees were wonderful -- they're the reason we bought this property."

There was no electricity or water at first. The big oak was their pulley when they used a rope tied to the Chrysler to drag the trailer onto the hillside.

The family's first order of business was to build a shed-like kitchen-and-bathroom structure next to the trailer. They intended to camp in it until they could build a real house in open space farther up the hill.

They were in for a shock when they broke ground for the house, however. The open space turned out to be almost pure rock. The bulldozer operator gave up after one day, warning it would take dynamite to dent it.

The Sloans were in a jam. They didn't have the money for a major excavation. And the only flat place for a house was in the grove, under the matriarch oak. They decided to build there.

"Bill asked what we should do about the big tree. I said, 'Put it in the house,' " Pearl Sloan recalls. "We couldn't cut it down. The oaks were the reason we bought the place."

But could they build a house around an oak without killing it? Would Los Angeles County even issue a permit for a house with a tree growing in the middle of it?

It turned out that county building inspectors cut plenty of slack in those days for canyon dwellers, according to Sloan.

"The building department didn't even want to see anyone from Topanga. There were no geologic surveys required, no septic system percolation tests. They just asked if your septic tank was going to be at least 10 feet from the house and if it had plenty of windows."

Nonetheless, Sloan painstakingly shoveled around the tree when it came time to dig the home's foundation. He devised tiny, steel-reinforced concrete "bridges" over tree roots so they would not be disturbed.

Sloan spent seven years building the house. Until the three bedrooms were finished, the couple's three sons slept in the trailer while they and two younger daughters slept in the kitchen.

For walls and steps, Sloan used basalt rock he dug up with a sledgehammer and crowbar from a stone quarry a short distance up the canyon. His sons and friendly canyon neighbors helped pour concrete.

"There were no cement trucks available back then. You'd order 10 tons of gravel and 10 tons of sand and 30 or 40 bags of cement, and all the neighbors would come and help mix it and pour it. And you'd help them when they were building something," he said.

Sloan was careful not to let the wood-beamed roof touch the tree. At first he used canvas as weatherproofing between the roof and the oak. But raccoons shredded the cloth, forcing him to use his aerospace skills to design metal rain gutters.

Those visiting the house for the first time were stunned when they spied the living room oak. Workmen delivering furniture after it was finished in 1954 stopped in their tracks.

"How are you going to get that tree out of here?" they asked. "We aren't," Pearl Sloan replied.

These days, the tree house is something of a Topanga landmark. A decades-old conservation district plaque records one of the Coastal Live Oak's branches at a circumference of 7 feet, 7 inches. It's more than 8 feet now.

The tree's 75-foot-wide canopy is visible through living room skylights. When it's windy, upper branches sway wildly and creak. But the five main branches inside the house barely move, according to Sloan. And only during the wildest rainstorms does water seep inside.

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