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So far, couple's Hollywood fixer-upper has been a downer

For first-time homeowners John Sullivan and Carrie Dennis, a lack of closet space turned out to be the least of their problems.

September 29, 2013|By Bob Pool
  • John Sullivan and his wife, Carrie Dennis, stand on the porch of their Hollywood home with their twins, Finneas, left, and Atticus. The fixer-upper duplex seemed perfect for the two artists -- until all the hassles with building rules and regulations began.
John Sullivan and his wife, Carrie Dennis, stand on the porch of their Hollywood… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The neighborhood seemed perfect for the two Hollywood artists.

Nestled beneath the Hollywood sign, the duplex that first-time homeowners John Sullivan and Carrie Dennis bought was near the studios he deals with and the Hollywood Bowl where she performs.

The place was built in 1924 by a man who used a mule and gold-mining equipment as collateral, then bought by a woman who had gotten a loan from actress Mary Pickford. When Sullivan and Dennis acquired the home, it was owned by a painter who used one of the units as a studio.

It was a fixer, but the clapboard duplex had a funkiness that charmed Sullivan, a 45-year-old writer, producer and actor, and Dennis, 35, the principal violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

True, their upper-level two-bedroom unit lacked any closet space for them and their toddler twins, Atticus and Finneas. But the lower unit had a rent-paying tenant — something that helped with the bills.

But the lack of closet space turned out to be the least of their problems.

Life for them on Glen Green Street first hit a roadblock when Sullivan set out to landscape the slope behind his house and repair a water-damaged 7-by-10-foot backyard storage room the family used for closet space.

Sullivan planned to plant fruit trees that would tie in to a community orchard that a neighbor, actor Bill Pullman, was proposing at the top of the hill. But another neighbor, actress Jodi Long, objected when she noticed that Sullivan was digging into the slope to create terraces where the trees could be planted. Long's property extends onto the hillside above Sullivan's lot.

"He was cutting into the hill and compromising it," Long said. "I said, 'You can't do that — my property is above you and I don't want to be liable if my property ends up in your house.' He shrugged me off."

When Long complained to the city, an inspector told Sullivan the rail ties could not be used as retaining walls and ordered them removed.

Sullivan complied.

But when the inspector returned to verify that the ties had been removed, he noticed the repairs being made to the storage room. "Where's your permit for this?" he asked.

Sullivan quickly abandoned his do-it-yourself project, hired a contractor and applied for — and received — a $626 building permit for the storage room.

Meanwhile, an anonymous caller complained to the city about the tenant living in the second unit. When officials couldn't find paperwork showing a duplex at the address, they declared it a single-family dwelling and issued a stop-work order on the storage room repairs.

That set in motion a new round of inspections as officials investigated whether Sullivan had illegally turned a single-family home into a duplex.

A few days later, building and safety officials found the 1924 building permit that stated the property was, indeed, a duplex. It "had been misfiled … that effectively closed the case on the illegal use as a duplex," said contractor Kevin Meechan.

But Sullivan's problems were far from over.

In their walk-through, the inspectors spied large overhead beams in the family's living room and concluded that the home's roof had been illegally altered — converted from a gabled roof into a flat one. That meant that Sullivan and Dennis would have to break open the home's interior drywall to expose its structural framing for inspectors to take a look.

The city's "correction notice" stated that "permits for new footing, framing, electrical and plumbing" would be required if the structural integrity of the living room had been compromised by the suspected alteration.

After getting the previous owner to attest that the roof had been flat when she bought the property, Sullivan decided to do his own detective work.

In time, he discovered in city files a handwritten "building description" form that outlined what the property looked like in 1930. In the roof category, the inspector that year had checked "flat."

So far, however, building and safety officials have refused to reissue that permit for the storage room repairs and it is unlikely they will, since they now say the structure is too close to the hillside and questions remain about the integrity of the living room's framing.

To qualify for permission to continue the repair work, Sullivan would need to build an expensive, properly engineered retaining wall at the base of the slope, said David Lara, a department spokesman.

"I feel sorry for him in terms of what he and his family have to go through," Lara said. "But he did work well beyond the original 2012 permit" with his repairs and renovations.

Sullivan and Dennis met last week with building and safety administrators and aides to Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Councilman Tom LaBonge and were told that their best bet is to file an appeal with the Board of Building and Safety Commissioners.

That will require an additional $900 on top of the $3,500 in city fees the couple have paid so far.

"It's upsetting and difficult to understand how this can happen to our home," Dennis said.

Her husband agreed. "We're being bounced around like a pinball."

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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