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Recycle, Reuse, Re-create

October 01, 2006|Barbara Thornburg | Barbara Thornburg is a West senior editor and former president of the L.A. Conservancy and the Carroll Avenue Restoration Foundation.

People in L.A. aren't the only ones getting make-overs. Buildings are too. A church, power substation, firehouse dormitory, water tower, train car, movie theater and neighborhood market are all enjoying second lives as private homes. It's part of a trend known in preservation parlance as adaptive reuse. Born again, these buildings give rise to unique dwellings with a lot of soul. They also make sound conservation sense, preserving resources and helping to put the brakes on regional sprawl. Evocative of other eras, these reincarnations are poised for 21st century sights, sounds and experiences. As one resident explained his passion for such buildings: "I like putting my mark on an old space and becoming part of its history."


Soulful Digs

Outside, it still looks like a church.

Inside is a different story.

Santa Monica architect and educator Anne Troutman had just about given up on finding a home with character when her prayers were answered--an 1875 Carpenter Gothic church had appeared on a multiple listing service. "It had so much heart and soul you could feel it immediately," says Troutman, who bought it less than a week later.

The humble church--Santa Monica's oldest remaining wood structure and a landmark since 1977--has had four owners and three locations in its 130-year life. It began as the Methodist Episcopal Church at Sixth and Arizona streets. Eight years later, it was transported two blocks west to Fourth Street to be closer to town; in the early 1900s it was moved to Second Street, a gift to a parish in Ocean Park.

Deconsecrated in 1923, it served for years as a community center for widows of Civil War veterans. Painted letters still visible above the front-door transom spell out its days as Patriotic Hall. When the building was threatened with demolition in 1971, local artist Helen Taylor Sheats saved it from the wrecking ball by converting it into her atelier. She designed stained-glass windows for her church home, and for three decades slept on a bed where the altar used to be.

The predicament for Troutman and her husband, architect Aleks Istanbullu, was how to retain the architectural integrity of the church, yet have it reflect their modern sensibilities. Their solution: a free-standing cabinet-like structure set within the 40-foot-square sanctuary. "The walls don't touch the old church," explains Troutman. "We essentially built a building within a building."

The couple's large collection of books is housed in the exterior of the "cabinet," and a modern kitchen sits in its center. The mezzanine overhead, reached by a small staircase, contains Troutman's office and a guest area. Behind the cabinet, two bedrooms with garden views anchor the back corners of the home, while the den occupies the church's old social hall. "It's ecologically sound to adopt older buildings and not just tear them down and build new ones," says Troutman, a director of the Santa Monica Conservancy.

In the waste-not, want-not spirit of the 19th century, the couple used all the beadboard and chair-rail molding, Douglas fir flooring and iron window weights they could salvage. An old pew they rescued sits in the garden under the avocado tree. "It's a quiet place to sit and look at the old church's peaked red roofs," Troutman says, adding that passersby still come to the front door. "They think it's a church--until they see the pool table."



A readapted water tower has its

residents going in circles.

"I felt like I had won the golden ticket to get into the Willy Wonka chocolate factory," says psychiatrist Robert Bright Jr., explaining his reaction when he purchased a 1,100-square-foot water tower in Pasadena three years ago. The 1891 wood-shingle structure once contained a 50,000-gallon steel water tank that served nearby Grace mansion. (The Victorian mansion, built for William Stanton, a cousin of Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war, was designed by Frederick L. Roehrig, architect of the historic Green Hotel and its Castle Green annex.) Today, the 45-foot-tall tower has four stories connected by a narrow, winding staircase.

Bright's partner, Ruben Garcia, manager of a sober-living house in Hollywood, had to get used to the stairs and round rooms but soon succumbed to the tower's lofty charms. Their third-floor balcony offers ringside seats come Fourth of July, when they watch the Rose Bowl fireworks. "They're practically in our backyard," says Garcia. "It's spectacular."

The uninsulated tower gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but Garcia and Bright wouldn't live anywhere else. "It's really quiet and serene," Garcia says.

One of the biggest challenges of life in a tower occurs when they get a delivery. "There's no going through the front door and up the stairs," Bright says. When the 200-pound-plus Kenmore Elite arrived in July, they had to extend a large beam out the fourth-floor window and lift up the refrigerator with a hand winch.

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