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Old-world idyll in Altadena

An early death relegated J. Wilmer Hershey to obscurity, but Norwic Place teems with his vision of pastoral France.

September 21, 2006|Laura Randall | Special to The Times

SOMETIMES Sally Warner wakes up in the morning, gazes at her petite bedroom's ceiling and understands how the shrimp in the takeout container must feel. Her neighbor John Gregoire has to warn visitors to watch their heads when they pass under the low arches in his front hall. And don't even think about getting a pizza delivered fast to their out-of-the-way cul-de-sac in Altadena.

"You practically have to go out on the street and beg," Warner says. "They think the street is a driveway and pass right by."

Inconveniences, sure, but for Warner, Gregoire and their neighbors, these are minor trade-offs for living in a quirk of history. Their street, Norwic Place, is a little-known cluster of eccentric houses meant to evoke the rural feel of 1920s French Normandy. Most were designed or inspired by a footnote in California history: a young architect named J. Wilmer Hershey.

Because Hershey died young -- he was 31 when he succumbed to bacterial endocarditis in 1926 -- few records of his work exist. He is best known for drawings that became the basis for the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, beloved by locals for its architectural whimsy. He is believed to have worked with Wallace Neff, either as a draftsman in Neff's Pasadena office or as part of a team known as the Community Arts Assn., enlisted by Santa Barbara civic leaders to redesign downtown after the June 1925 earthquake devastated the city.

"It's fair to say that Neff and Hershey were in that group at the same point," says Robert Ooley, the architect for Santa Barbara County. Though William Mooser III is credited as the courthouse's primary architect, Hershey's designs, Ooley said, "had a strong influence on the building," which is among Santa Barbara's top landmarks.

Like Neff, Reginald Johnson and Roland Coate, Hershey was closely associated with the Spanish Colonial Revivalism movement that dominated California architecture in the 1920s. He designed many of San Clemente's classic Spanish-style buildings, including its community center and the Hotel San Clemente, now an apartment building on the National Register of Historic Places. He built residences in Pasadena and Beverly Hills, according to his granddaughter Christine Hershey, including one that belonged to film director King Vidor.

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AND then there is Norwic Place.

The homes -- with their high gables, exposed timbers and prominent brick chimneys -- are described in a 1925 Pasadena Star-News article as "a secluded retreat with Old World characteristics." In an early nod to the indoor-outdoor lifestyle of the West, most have French doors that open to backyards or gardens. Hershey's plan also called for a huge elm tree and a working well in the center of the cul-de-sac, both meant to encourage socializing.

"He was in love with the romantic notions of the European villages," Christine Hershey says, adding that he wanted the design to appeal to the tastes of the era.

It did -- and still does. Though lots have been divided and more homes have been added, many have stayed true to Hershey's whimsical vision. Warner's home wasn't built until the 1940s, but its beamed ceilings, amusingly miniature doorknobs and fireplace metal work with a dragon motif all conjure another time and place. On the whole, the street has retained its period flavor.

"I was amazed at how intact it was and redolent it was of 1920s community life and architecture," says Tim Gregory, who discovered Norwic Place in the late 1980s as president of Altadena Heritage, a preservation group that was conducting a windshield survey of historic homes. Because Altadena is an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, none of its structures are eligible for designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hershey, a distant relative of Pennsylvania candy mogul Milton Hershey, would have appreciated the effort, his granddaughter says. Hershey was a passionate, hands-on overseer of his projects. As Norwic Place was built, he would monitor the carving of wood beams, the hand-painting of ceilings and other details. "As I understand from my grandmother," Christine Hershey says, "he'd literally make sure the plaster was the right texture."

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THESE days, residents say they were attracted to the street's storybook charms long before they knew its history. Warner, a children's book author, moved to Norwic Place seven years ago with her husband, sculptor and writer Kit Davis.

"The first thing people say when they visit is, 'It's magical,' " she says.

When Rick Zuber bought his two-bedroom home in 1984, a Realtor suggested that he and his wife could move again in a few years as they expanded their family.

"I said, 'I don't think so,' " Zuber says. "We fell in love with it."

Glenn Leisure also had a love-at-first-sight moment when he bought his home in 1984.

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