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Honoring the San Fernando Valley's past — yes, it has one

The Survey L.A. project aims to recognize little-known but important properties that help tell the region's back story.

April 24, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • Raymond Shelly, 75, knew his San Fernando Valley home was old even before the city of Los Angeles decided it was: He was born there. His grandfather built the house in 1896.
Raymond Shelly, 75, knew his San Fernando Valley home was old even before… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

Drive slowly and look closely as you pass through one hilly and rocky corner of the San Fernando Valley, and you'll see reminders of a long-forgotten rural past.

Raymond Shelly's house, a wood-frame folk Victorian with a slightly sagging porch, was built in 1896. He lives there with his wife, and a pair of horses in a barn in the back.

So far, it's the oldest property found in an official city survey of historic properties in Sunland, Tujunga and Lake View Terrace — communities created from the old lands of Rancho Tujunga.

When I informed Shelly, 75, of this, he wasn't the least bit surprised. He knows his humble home is old.

"I was born in this house," he told me. So was his father, Raymond Shelly Sr., who used to ride a horse-drawn buggy down Foothill to school at San Fernando High. His grandfather Michael Shelly built the place.

Thanks to a small, relatively new city department, the historic significance of the Shelly homestead now has been officially recognized.

The Office of Historic Resources has two full-time staffers. But with the help of teams of architectural historians working on contract, it's performing a critical task: identifying and cataloging every building worth protecting among Los Angeles' 880,000 individual properties.

The city's Survey L.A. project is being funded, in large measure, by a grant from the Getty Foundation. Thanks to the foundation and other donors, a city that's neglected much of its history for so long is doing something big to hold onto it.

It's not just great architecture that Survey L.A. is looking for, said Ken Bernstein, manager of the Office of Historic Resources.

"It could be an average structure that has a great story behind it," Bernstein said.

The hard part is that not many of us know those stories. Midwestern pioneers might occupy a neighborhood in one generation, Asian and Latino immigrants in the next.

Local preservationists missed the Shelly home when they conducted their own survey of the area a few years back.

It was spotted by Christina Dikas, a San Francisco-based architectural historian and one of several professionals hired to do the block-by-block fieldwork of Survey L.A.

Dikas spent days scouting the Valley neighborhoods with a city-issued computer tablet, marking properties and checking old records.

"It just stood out," she said of the Shelly residence. "Nothing else in the area looks like it."

Dikas came to L.A. with a fresh eye and formed some opinions.

"There's a disconnect between what L.A. is now and its heritage as an agricultural region," she said. "People don't know what was there."

If you do have memories or stories that stretch back into our city's history, Survey L.A. could use your help. Its website has a form you can fill out to flag an important property in your community.

Before my visit to the Office of Historic Resources, I'd never thought of the northeast San Fernando Valley area as being especially old. But thanks to Survey L.A. and local preservationists, I now know that a century of history is layered there.

I visited Stonehurst in Shadow Hills, where I found homes built from fieldstones in the 1920s.

On Commerce Avenue in Tujunga, I saw a storybook-style home from 1941. I drove past the ultra-modern Hatherall House in Shadow Hills, designed in 1958 by architect John Lautner.

And in the heart of Tujunga, next to the stone walls of Bolton Hall, I found a group of men playing chess.

Built in 1913, Bolton Hall, now a museum, was once the gathering place of a utopian farming community known as the Little Lands. Its settlers included "quite a few Civil War veterans who bought property here sight unseen," said Lloyd Hitt of the Little Landers Historical Society. "When they got here, they found nothing but rocks and sagebrush. A lot of them just sat down and cried."

The community went bust after seven years, and its old plots gave way to suburban tracts after World War II.

Hitt has lived in Tujunga since 1946, when his father came to L.A. to work in aerospace. A few years back, he helped rescue a 1928 castle named Weatherwolde from the wrecking ball.

Shelly, meanwhile, has protected his farmhouse by living in it.

Before the 210 Freeway was built, his family's holding was much larger than it is today, with groves of orange, grapefruit and pear trees.

"We had smudge pots to keep the trees from freezing," he told me. "We burned coal inside them."

Across Foothill Boulevard, his neighbors included a Japanese American family that grew carnations. After Pearl Harbor, "they came and gave us their radios and their cameras because they knew they'd have them taken away soon," Shelly said. "Then they got hauled off to a concentration camp. We took care of their flower farm for them. When they got out, it was here waiting for them."

The Japanese family sold the farm — now the site of a school. The Shellys were forced to sell the state much of their land when the freeway went through.

Now Shelly's hoping to fix up the farmhouse — maybe with a historic preservation grant. His wife, Stephanie Warner, said she'd like to get the barn restored.

Up near the barn's rafters, I saw a wicker baby carriage with metal wheels. "That was mine," Shelly said, and I tried to imagine the septuagenarian before me as an infant, his mother bumping him along past the farmhouse.

I asked Shelly if he had any plans to sell the property, to which he replied with a grin, "No, I'll be buried here."

With any luck, even after that day comes, the city's efforts should keep the home his grandfather built standing well into the next century.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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