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Santa Monica landmark gets good shot at secure future

The city's last shotgun house, once on the verge of demolition, will become the headquarters of the Santa Monica Conservancy.

January 23, 2010|By Martha Groves
  • The house, designated a landmark in 1999 and saved from demolition at the last minute, is moved from one temporary home, at the Santa Monica Airport, to another elsewhere in the city. Plans call for moving it again.
The house, designated a landmark in 1999 and saved from demolition at the… (Nina Fresco )

Even brand new, it was little more than a shack, albeit one with an occasional gingerbread flourish.

Its very nickname -- shotgun house -- evoked a Wild West spirit. And when the simple wood-frame structure was assembled in what is now the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica in the late 1800s, the area was a breezy, bucolic retreat where inland residents could escape the heat and relative bustle of Los Angeles.

After years of deterioration and dislocation, the landmark shotgun house, regarded as the last remaining intact structure of its type in Santa Monica, will be rehabilitated by the Santa Monica Conservancy as its headquarters and "preservation resource center."

The city and the conservancy signed a 20-year renewable lease this week that calls for moving the house back to Ocean Park, where it will be located behind the historic Streamline Moderne Merle Norman building. It will be the fourth location for the building, which has bounced around the city, ducking the wrecking ball.

"Since the time this house was saved from demolition and designated as a landmark in 1999, members of the Santa Monica Conservancy have worked tenaciously to become the steward of this special property," said Carol Lemlein, the group's president.

Shotgun houses were once a low-cost, no-frills alternative to the elaborate Victorian, Edwardian or Queen Anne dwellings for vacationers and would-be residents. The humble homes -- consisting of three to five rooms in a row with no hallways and a door at each end -- satisfied the need for a structure that could be erected easily, quickly and cheaply

The lone remaining shack in Santa Monica nearly escaped preservationists' notice.

According to a 2005 story in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the house was erected in the 1890s in Ocean Park, a beach resort created by the visionary Abbot Kinney next to the swampy land that would later become his Venice of America resort.

It was a one-story board-and-batten cottage with a front gabled roof. It was one room wide and three rooms deep. Slender porch posts supported a shed roof and stick balustrade.

The name is often said to derive from the belief that a shotgun could be fired through either the front or rear door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house without hitting a thing.

By the 1870s, the rail depot in Ocean Park was unloading scores of shotgun houses from downtown Los Angeles. The $100 homes came in kit form or were prefabricated and pre-assembled and dragged into place by horses. At their peak, there were perhaps 200 such houses in the Santa Monica area.

Efforts to preserve the shotgun house began in 1998 when the property owner filed an application for demolition. Spurred on by local architect Mario Fonda-Bonardi, the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission designated the house a city landmark but reluctantly approved its demolition. Neighborhood activists appealed. The City Council upheld the landmark designation the following year and ordered an environmental analysis, to see whether the house could be saved or moved. Reporting on the possible consequences of razing the house, a consultant labeled it "an architectural gem. . . . To even consider demolition of such a significant structure would in any other country be scandalous."

In 2000 the council certified the final environmental impact report but adopted a "statement of overriding considerations" allowing for demolition. Two years later, just as the owners were finally ready to tear down the house, preservationists surrounded the building.

"They had started to take the back off the house," said Sherrill Kushner, a preservation activist. "One of our members went diving into the Dumpster to retrieve some things."

Fonda-Bonardi help negotiate with the owners to buy the building for a dollar. He and other activists helped persuade the city to let them have it towed to Santa Monica Airport to keep it out of harm's way.

In 2005, with construction set to begin at the airport, the council authorized another temporary relocation, this time to city property on Olympic Boulevard. The conservancy again raised funds to hoist the house onto sturdy wheels and have it hauled to the former Fisher Lumber site. It remains there today, tucked out of sight but open to the elements.

The conservancy has a fund-raising challenge on its hands. Lemlein projected the tab for preparing the site and relocating, restoring and rehabbing the house at $480,000.

"It's going back to the same street it came from," said Karen Ginsberg, assistant director of the city's Community and Cultural Services Department, "and it will be put to good use."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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