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The State | COLUMN ONE

It Changed Hands -- and Hearts

This West Hollywood home has had 11 owners in 78 years and increased in value nearly 200 times over. But its true worth lies in the memories.

April 29, 2005|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

After eloping with his high school sweetheart, Delamer Hillman Jr. went looking for a house.

A just-built, stuccoed two-bedroom of about 1,300 square feet in West Hollywood seemed the perfect place to raise a family -- far from the bustle of downtown Los Angeles, but not far from the shops and restaurants of Sunset Boulevard.

And at about $6,200, it fit the budget of the 22-year-old car salesman nicely.

So began, in 1927, the story of 9019 Dorrington Ave., a house that has been called home by 10 other owners in the 78 years since Delamer and Mildred Hillman moved in, planted a garden and raised sons Robert and Richard.

The succession of owners at 9019 Dorrington -- including an immigrant who fled Communist Russia, a gay couple looking for a welcoming neighborhood and a young movie producer hoping to spark a new romance -- reflect the changing face of Southern California and illustrate the crucial role a simple house and a small patch of dirt play in building personal wealth.

All but one of the owners of 9019 Dorrington made money selling the house -- combined, the others walked away with more than $1 million. Last year, the modest home where the Hillmans raised a few chickens in the backyard sold for $1.2 million, nearly 200 times its first sale price. It was one of 7,826 homes in Los Angeles County to sell for more than $1 million last year, a record.

In today's housing market, appreciation is more often discussed in economic, rather than sentimental, terms. But 9019 Dorrington -- with its dark wood floors, tile courtyard and bay window -- enriched its tenants with more than dollars.

Long after the money goes, the memories linger.

Robert Hillman, now 70, still recalls the Victory Garden his parents planted during World War II. And the life partner of John N. Martines so loved the backyard pepper tree that the two moved rather than chop it down for a swimming pool.

"I'm thrilled with it," said current owner John P. Roberts, a 39-year-old entertainment executive who bought the house last year. "I walked in and I was like, 'Oh my god!' I was blown away by the backyard." He called his agent to report that he'd found his dream home: " 'We're done: Whatever it takes, let's get this house.' "

Just as 9019 Dorrington begins a new chapter in Roberts' life, so does he begin a new chapter in the story of the house.

A house's history

When builder Paul Jones pounded the final nail in the Spanish-style cottage on about an eighth of an acre, the surrounding area was emerging as a tidy suburb of a sprawling Los Angeles.

Born as a railroad town in the 1880s, the working class community of Sherman was still a fairly quiet patchwork of single-story bungalows when people started to call it West Hollywood.

Shortly after the turn of the century, Victorian and Mediterranean-style homes had sprouted along Sunset Boulevard. Fancy apartment towers and lush, tiled garden courts followed, catering to the free-spending movie industry crowd. By the 1920s, nightclubs like the Cafe La Boheme gave birth to the Sunset Strip.

The house Hillman bought in 1927 only superficially resembled the one now swaddled in aromatic rosemary and wisteria. It didn't have central air conditioning or a garage, for instance, let alone the built-in wine cellar in the kitchen.

Hillman worked in his brother's downtown Los Angeles auto sales and rental business. Delamer and his sweetheart at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, Mildred, had eloped in 1926 and were married at a minister's house.

In the backyard, the family raised chickens that provided fresh eggs and sometimes became dinner, recalled Robert Hillman, who now lives in Hacienda Heights.

At the outset of the Great Depression in 1930, the assessed value of the house that originally cost about $6,200 was reduced to $2,100.

His father always seemed to be at work, Robert Hillman said, especially during World War II when he stayed on the job nights to help manufacture small aircraft parts in a shop at his brother's car business. At home on Dorrington, the family grew vegetables in a Victory Garden. And Mildred served as president of the West Hollywood Elementary School PTA.

The Hillmans sold the house in 1948, when the family moved to a bigger house on 59th Place in Los Angeles to be with Mildred's elderly mother. Even though they owned it for more than two decades, the Hillmans didn't significantly profit from appreciation. With the economy improving in the postwar boom, the next owner became the first to feel a pang of regret that he didn't hang on longer.

Russian immigrant Lee Zhito bought the house from the Hillmans for $13,000. He gave it to his mother, Elizabeth, a widow who had fled Kiev in the 1920s after the Communist revolution.

"She always wore a babushka and was very, very proud of it," recalled her granddaughter and Lee's daughter Nina, a freelance photographer who lives in Marin County.

Indeed, the Zhitos called the matriarch "Babu," said Lisa, Nina's sister.

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