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A reprieve for a classic L.A. structure

When a blaze damaged a detached garage-apartment designed by the celebrated L.A. architect Paul Revere Williams, neighbors fearful it would be demolished sounded alarms with conservationists and historians. Instead, a film producer who owns the property wants it restored closer to its original state.

April 11, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • Contractors look over the fire-damaged garage of a house on South Alta Vista Boulevard designed by Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams and owned by film producer David Willis. Willis plans to restore the home closer to its orginal state.
Contractors look over the fire-damaged garage of a house on South Alta Vista… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

When the detached garage-apartment of a house designed by the celebrated Los Angeles architect Paul Revere Williams caught fire recently, neighbors sounded alarms with the Los Angeles Conservancy and the city's Office of Historic Resources. They fretted that the owner might demolish the structure instead of rebuilding it.

Quite the contrary, said David Willis, who owns the property on South Alta Vista Boulevard.

"We're going to look at it as an opportunity to restore it back closer to the original," said Willis, a producer of films including "The Whole Nine Yards," "The Kid" and "Die Hard: With a Vengeance," starring his brother, Bruce Willis. "We're taking bids right now."

The March 28 blaze caused an estimated $20,000 in damage to the structure and an additional $15,000 to its contents, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department. Investigators say the fire was caused by improperly discarded smoking materials.

In a long and prolific career, Williams, who died in 1980 at age 85, designed mansions for Frank Sinatra, Lon Chaney and Lucille Ball. But he also relished the chance to bestow his thoughtful touches — hand-hewn beams, unobstructed sight lines and secret passageways — on more modest dwellings. Two of those structures, including Willis', are in the Miracle Mile North historic district, where preservation advocates cherish the cachet they add to the pocket of single-family homes built in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

The South Alta Vista Boulevard house was built of stucco and brick veneer for J.C. Miller in 1930. It is American Colonial Revival with an English influence, whereas the predominant style in the neighborhood is Spanish Colonial Revival. According to Los Angeles County assessor records, the Willises bought the four-bedroom, three-bath house for $1.8 million in 2008.

Preservationists have taken issue with recent modifications to the detached garage-apartment building, a simple, utilitarian structure with dormers and a steeply sloping roof. In October, the city Department of Building and Safety ordered Willis to seek retroactive approval when he violated city code and installed an aluminum garage door without permission.

Willis said he had changed the plank doors of the three-bay garage — removing a beam that separated two of the doors and installing one large aluminum door and one smaller one — to make room for a family vehicle. "We couldn't get a regular-size sedan through those doors, let alone a car big enough for our children," he said.

The home is considered a "contributing structure" in the Miracle Mile North Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, but it is not governed by the HPOZ board. Under a state Mills Act contract, Willis pays property taxes of less than $5,000 a year, well below the $19,000 that would have been assessed. In return, Willis is obligated to use the savings to maintain and, if necessary, rehabilitate the house. Mills Act contracts are governed by the city's Cultural Heritage Commission.

The apartment over the garage would have been built for staff, said Toby Horn, former chairwoman of the Miracle Mile North HPOZ board. Horn and her husband, Harold Tomin, own the nearby Howard-Nagin residence, the other verified Williams house in the area. A smaller version of the Willis house, it was designated a city historic-cultural monument in 1989.

"I've encouraged [Willis] to work with a qualified architect who understands Paul Williams," said Lambert Giessinger, historic preservation architect with the city Planning Department's Office of Historic Resources. Giessinger said simple design changes could be approved by city staff. "If it becomes more complicated," he added, "we can take it to the Cultural Heritage Commission."

The first African American fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Williams designed, redesigned or partnered on thousands of structures in the Los Angeles area, including such landmarks as the Theme Building at LAX, the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Shrine Auditorium, Chasen's and Perino's restaurants, the Ambassador Hotel, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and the Los Angeles County Courthouse. In addition to the Howard-Nagin residence, four other Williams houses have been designated as city landmarks. Several other Williams projects have burned or been demolished.

Rose Greene, a Santa Monica financial planner who grew up in the Willis house, fondly recalls playing hide-and-seek in a secret passageway behind the closet in the master bedroom. She said the interior was radically altered years ago by a family member who was preparing it for sale. But many original elements remain, including crank metal windows and a curved brick wall with extruded concrete along the side.

"To be in one of Paul Williams' homes was a real privilege," Greene said. "My mother was telling us that as we were throwing baseballs against the wood paneling."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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