Jeff Hildreth stands in the underground space on his Sierra Madre property… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
Fifteen feet beneath his home, in a dirt cavern bolstered by wood beams and concrete, Jeff Hildreth sees his dream.
Here in this shadowy hole, light will one day filter through stained-glass windows. There will be a baby grand piano and a wall for storing vintage clarets and sauvignons. Patrons will come for the roar of the stone fireplace, the whisper of water gliding down a wall of polished rock — and everyone will marvel over the Sierra Madre wine bar and art gallery built by the owner into a pocket of earth.
But the enormous 1,400-square-foot hollow will remain a chilly shell for now, because Hildreth has been slapped with a lawsuit by the city. In a town of 11,000 known for welcoming artisans, he and his wife, Taryn, are at risk of losing their home — and the cave they have spent a decade digging.
They foresaw few problems in 1998 when they bought the property on Montecito Avenue as newlyweds. They lived in nearby Montrose and believed they could remodel the tiny Sierra Madre cottage for an easy resale, finishing it in a coat of lavender with a scalloped exterior. Charmed by the transformation and the locale, they decided to hang onto it.
Soon they were envisioning a wine bar, an anomaly at the time, that would do double duty as an art gallery and show off Hildreth's oil paintings. Their street was a main artery to the city's quaint downtown, which had few upscale establishments. Residents, they believed, were in need of a romantic setting within the city limits.
A former contractor and construction worker with a degree in urban planning from USC, Hildreth chose to build the place himself. Instead of adding on to the renovated home, he decided that digging underground would lessen the noise for neighbors and create a conducive space for a wine cellar. Because the lot is sloped, he envisioned one wall of the subterranean space extending above ground level, offering the perfect spot for stained glass windows.
After applying for a conditional use permit to convert their residence to a commercial establishment, Hildreth broke ground on his wine bar: the Sterlingoak, named for the giant oak that created a canopy over their yard.
The 51-year-old never meant to dig the hole by hand. But the property is too small for a tractor. He used a backhoe and a truck until the city cited him for undermining a portion of an adjacent alley. So he dug into the earth armed with a five-gallon bucket and a pulley. Friends and family members often stopped by to lend a hand. Neighbors and passersby did too.
Most of the dirt was carted away by contractors and others interested in the free soil he offered on Craigslist.
It was slow going and the work was squeezed between other jobs. He makes his living as an on-call independent contractor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Taryn is an airline attendant. Eventually they installed a commercial kitchen in the house and became certified in viniculture.
But things went awry, Jeff Hildreth said, when paperwork filed with the city was lost and new staff members unfamiliar with the project halted the couple's work, sometimes for months. He believes the city changed its vision of Montecito Avenue as a mixed-use street and hoped to derail his project. In 2005, he was cited for unpermitted hazardous excavation. Multiple stop-work notices were issued by building officials who said there was no record of approved plans for the project.
The Hildreths were confused by what they believed was miscommunication and red tape. Pressed for money, they sold their Montrose home and moved into the Sierra Madre house.
"We've begged in letters, just meet with us and tell us what we can do," Taryn Hildreth, 51, said. "One day it's a code violation and the next day it's a planning issue. They haven't told us what the real issue is."
City officials say the real issue is that the couple's 1999 conditional use permit was voided when they failed to acquire the proper building permit and business license within a year. Since then, they say, Jeff Hildreth has submitted plans but ignored any requested revisions and disregarded demands that he halt work.
Still, over 10 years, Hildreth kept digging. Planning officials say the work went unnoticed because it was underground and often done over the weekends, when City Hall is closed.
"It's been a code enforcement matter that's basically been escalating," said Danny Castro, director of development services for Sierra Madre. "In good faith, the city was trying to work with him. This is a small town. We really do try to reach out."
When a stop-work notice was posted in June 2009, Hildreth finally quit digging. That December, city staffers conducted an inspection of the site and noted multiple code violations.
The next year, in October, Hildreth constructed a deck to protect the cavern from rain. It extended over a public sidewalk. Two months later, Sierra Madre filed an injunction.
A lawyer acquaintance represented the Hildreths pro bono before dropping out because he was unfamiliar with property law. Unable to afford an attorney, the couple are representing themselves. They feel ill-matched against what they believe is a bully with deep pockets.
For the most part, neighbors seem supportive and have stopped by to encourage the couple not to give up. The Hildreths say they're emotionally tapped out but have no choice but to continue because all their money is tied up in the project.
Climbing down a ladder into the hole on a recent morning, Jeff Hildreth stood amid wood planks and construction equipment and listed plans to pave the floor with marble tile and install a chandelier that once belonged to his parents. Pointing out a pair of donated stained-glass windows, he said, "When the sun comes through those, it'll look just beautiful."
In the dark of an unfinished dirt cave, he still sees the dream.