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Group ordered to leave mansion

L.A. says Hollywood Heritage has flouted rules on Wattles estate.

September 20, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood's leading preservation group has been ordered out of the community's most prominent historic estate for allegedly ignoring city rules and renting out the mansion for disruptive parties.

Hollywood Heritage has supervised the famed Wattles Mansion for 25 years under an exclusive agreement with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. The city purchased the mansion for about $2 million in 1968.

But parks officials say the nonprofit organization -- known for its vigorous efforts to protect endangered structures from Hollywood's early years -- has failed to properly maintain the 101-year-old landmark. The group has also been accused of failing to turn over financial records related to weddings, film shoots and other special events at the mansion.

Nearby residents on dead-end North Curson Avenue complain that partygoers' cars clog the street and block driveways. They say that loud, amplified music echoes through their hillside canyon on party nights.

Leaders of Hollywood Heritage deny that events staged at the sprawling mansion or on its hillside grounds are a nuisance and dispute assertions that they have failed to comply with their city agreement to operate and manage the site.

They say they were stunned when a 30-day eviction notice arrived in the mail.

"It's been quite a shock and a kick in the teeth when you've saved a landmark," said Fran Offenhauser, the group's vice president.

"This place was in shambles when we took it over. We took it over because the city had no money to pay for it. We've put two and a half million dollars into the mansion. They should be giving us a parade for preserving this place."

Designed by architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey and built in 1907 as a winter retreat for Omaha banker Gurdon Wattles, the two-story Mediterranean-style mansion at 1850 N. Curson Ave. has been designated a Los Angeles historic-cultural landmark.

Offenhauser said her group intends to meet Sept. 29 with parks officials and Hollywood-area Councilmen Tom LaBonge and Eric Garcetti in an effort to regain its city licensing agreement to supervise and operate the mansion.

Nearby homeowners said they are not surprised that the city has cracked down on the mansion's operations.

"Sometimes they're parking all the way up here for events they have there," said Lan Ritz, who lives about two blocks from the mansion. "There are so many people. They block the street and driveways."

Ritz said the neighborhood was delighted when Hollywood Heritage first took over Wattles Mansion.

"We were such supporters. We never had problems in the '80s. But it just crept up on us. Then we saw their lease -- it was very restrictive. It may have said, 'No street parking,' but nobody enforced it."

In a letter to the city, North Curson residents said the neighborhood was "subjected to the noise of parties going past midnight with loud music, sometimes by live bands."

Two years ago, residents complained to parks officials that mansion parties and events sometimes drove nearby residents to leave their homes for a night's sleep.

Earlier this year, parks administrators ordered an audit of the mansion's operation and restoration. The outside review determined that Hollywood Heritage was in "direct noncompliance" with more than half of 15 provisions of its year-to-year licensing agreement.

The audit concluded that the group failed to document expenses, "failed to ensure" that fees from weddings and filming performed at the mansion were used for restoration purposes, failed to require proper permits from users of the estate, was out of compliance with policies relating to the consumption of alcohol on the site and did not conduct fundraising activities to restore the mansion.

It also asserted that Hollywood Heritage failed to provide the city with a roster of its leaders' names and phone numbers, failed to give the parks department required audited financial statements and lacked proper insurance.

Offenhauser, who said she helped draft the original 1983 agreement with the city, disputed the audit's accuracy.

"This was written by somebody who knows absolutely nothing about preservation," she said. "There is nothing in our lease about alcoholic beverages. . . . Insurance is scrupulously kept. There is no amplified music."

Some leaders of Hollywood Heritage said they wonder whether the eviction order is payback for lawsuits that the group has filed against the city in the past over demolition of landmarks for Hollywood's ballyhooed resurgence.

"It leaped into everyone's mind," Offenhauser said. However, she said it appeared that the council was willing to "be helpful and part of the resolution of this."

She indicated that her group has already accepted reservations for about a dozen weddings in the coming months. According to private wedding coordinators, the mansion can accommodate up to 600. The rental fee for a ceremony that size is about $9,000.

Vicki Israel, an assistant general manager with the parks department, said the city is prepared to allow scheduled weddings to proceed under departmental supervision.

"We've asked them to stop booking. But it's my understanding they are proceeding," Israel said of Hollywood Heritage. "We will honor the bookings to the best of our ability."

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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