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From shabby to stately chic

October 04, 2008|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

AS an architectural photographer and confirmed "house-aholic," Mary E. Nichols has seen many a residential wreck. But the 1908 specimen at 212 S. Wilton Place -- part of an L.A. street listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- was a house of horrors.

Nichols and partner Keith Wood, an ex-rocker with a talent for restoring old houses, took possession in 2006. Their first walk-through betrayed ample evidence that the overhaul they planned would require feats of engineering, tons of patience and a stout treasury.

The entire house was listing. An owner in the 1920s had added Spanish-style touches to the Classical Revival dwelling. The place had been a rooming house for years, then another owner in the 1970s let it deteriorate further, Nichols said. Heaps of trash lay inside, and weed-covered cars littered the backyard.

"The biggest surprise of the renovation was the domino effect of everything we tried to do," Nichols said. When the house was jacked up to pour a new foundation, plaster flew off the walls and the jury-rigged flooring popped up all over, creating a fun-house appearance. "It was horrifying," she said. Fourteen months and $800,000 in renovations later, Nichols and Wood sold the property for $1.85 million.

The new owners, husband and wife Eric Vizents and Monica Erickson, are opening the residence Sunday for a tour sponsored by the Windsor Square-Hancock Park Historical Society. It is one of five homes in the 200 block of South Wilton Place that will be open to celebrate the centennial of the historic street, originally planned as an upper-middle-class, single-family residential area back when Western Avenue was the city's western border.

The 65 houses along Wilton Place and Wilton Drive include fine examples of Classical Revival, Colonial Revival and Craftsman architecture. According to residents, four houses were threatened with demolition in 1972, when the city announced plans to widen and straighten Wilton Place to improve the flow of traffic. Longtime neighbors objected and asked the state to designate the area as historic. In 1979, the Wilton Historic District became the third area in the city to be placed on the national register.

Vizents and Erickson moved to Wilton Place from nearby Country Club Park and its historic Milbank mansion, which Erickson had inherited -- an 11-bedroom, eight-bathroom, 11,000-square-foot-plus house featured in "Running With Scissors" and "Ali."

And their pristinely restored Wilton property?

"We walked in and immediately loved it," Vizents said of the house, which has four bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, an imposing portico and paired columns with elaborate capitals.

Nichols had installed vintage chandeliers and sconces (from neighbors as well as Wertz Brothers and Ray Ferra's Iron N Antique Accents) and chose neutral paints (from Farrow & Ball). A friend restoring a house on Rossmore Avenue contributed a fireplace mantel. Nichols also had salvaged columns from a razed house on Vermont Avenue and installed them in the library nook, replacing some that were long lost.

In July the Los Angeles City Council approved the house's designation as city historic-cultural monument No. 925. The Planning Department noted its architectural merit, calling it "inherently valuable for a study of a period style."

According to the city, the architect is unknown. But from 1920 to 1927, actor Lewis Stone -- who played Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy movies and was one of five finalists for the best actor Academy Award in 1930 for "The Patriot" -- called it home.

"Houses have a way of finding the right owners," Vizents said. "We consider ourselves stewards. We're here to love the house and live in it."




Wilton Place history on tour

The house at 212 S. Wilton Place will be one of five featured on the Windsor Square-Hancock Park Historical Society's "Looking Back in Time" tour, which will run from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The event will feature live entertainment and refreshments. Tickets, $30 for adults and $20 for full-time students age 22 and younger, can be purchased on South Wilton Place at 2nd and 3rd streets. The block will be closed to vehicles. For information, call (213) 243-8182.

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