Thursday, June 11, 2009

Victorian Los Angeles - Part One

What's the urban image that comes into your head when you think of Los Angeles, California? The tall high-rises of Century City? Palm-lined highways with curving interchanges streaming with cars? Low, sleek flat-roofed modern houses? Car-washes and coffee shops with curvy-shaped neon signs spikey pylons? Stucco-faced apartment houses surrounding swimming-pool courtyards?

The Foy House on Carroll Avenue

I bet you don't think of buildings like this.

Even though it's said that Los Angeles destroys its own history, the city still has an amazing collection of some of the finest examples of late Victorian domestic architecture. And you might be surprised to learn how deeply Los Angeles cherishes its late Victorian past.

The Sessions House on Carroll Avenue

This neighborhood high on a hill in Echo Park is called Angelino Heights. One street in particular, Carroll Avenue, boasts over thirty historic homes, beautifully restored - or in the process. Dating from the 1880s they include magnificent examples of Queen Anne, Eastlake, and Italianate architectural styles.

The Phillips house on Carroll Avenue

In 1886 subdivision developers William W. Stilson and Everett E. Hall. began to sell tracts on a hill west of downtown above Echo Park. It was easily accessible from the downtown business district by the Temple Street streetcar, it was appealing to families who wanted to get out of the increasingly noisy and bustling city. It was one of the first examples of a never ending phenomenon - urban flight.

Hall and his wife Nellie lived in this house, built in 1887, on Douglas Street.

A generation later, it was still a desirable neighborhood, and in the 1900s, homes in newer styles, such as Craftsman and California bungalows were built.

The Fonnell House on Kellam Street

Angelino Heights owes its current status to another Los Angeles neighborhood, one that's completely vanished.

Bunker Hill was the first desirable residential neighborhood in Los Angeles, and likewise a hilltop that separated homes from the noisy streets. Beginning in the 1870s, affluent Los Angeles residents built huge mansions and ornate hotels on the sloping streets. The Angels Flight railway ran down the hill, making it easy for the bankers and newspapermen to commute from their workplaces on Broadway and Main Street to their homes on the hill.

Photo from Los Angeles Public Library

One of the finest homes on Bunker Hill was located at 325 S. Bunker Hill Avenue. It was a 20 room Queen Anne house, three stories high, with a porte-cochere on the side of the house, and a tower with a mansard roof. It was the home of a family named Donegan, but its size and grandeur led to its being known as "The Castle."

Just like now, middle class families aspired to home ownership, and found that the further a neighborhood was from the center of town, the more affordable it was. Like many residential developments, Angelino Heights was settled by folks who aspired to elegant living, but couldn't afford the prices on Bunker Hill.

Photo from Library of Congress Historic American Building Survey

As the city expanded, Bunker Hill lost its status, but its decline was more severe, and the city had less tolerance for it. As the wealthy moved out, immigrant working-class people moved in, small businesses and tenement apartment houses were built among the old Victorian structures. The aging buildings, costly to maintain, were labeled "hazardous" by building inspectors. By the 1940s, Bunker Hill was being described as a "slum," "blighted," and harboring subversives. Hollywood noir films like "Kiss Me Deadly" and "Act of Violence" picturesquely exaggerated crime in its dark narrow alleys. 1951's "M" even placed the villian's lair in a Bunker Hill tenement.

Photo from Los Angeles Public Library

By the 1950's Bunker Hill was targeted for urban renewal. City boosters and the L.A. Times promoted downtown redevelopment, and ran stories exposing the unsightly slums. Old buildings and Victorian architecture became identified with crime and degradation - it was to be swept away and replaced by sleek, clean modern city-scapes. The downtown corporate interests and civic leaders envisioned a Bunker Hill crowned with office towers, broad public plazas, and proud institutions of elite culture - and firmly dismissed the idea of including affordable housing.

Leo Politi painting from Los Angeles Public Library

The first stage of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project cleared the houses, and graded the land. Only a few voices of opposition spoke against the project - among them artist Leo Politi, whose 1964 book Bunker Hill, Los Angeles: Reminiscences of Bygone Days includes his paintings of vanished Bunker Hill houses.

Photo from Los Angeles Public Library

The structures attracted many artists, and intrigued many others, and a small but vocal group of historians and preservationists fought to save these pieces of L.A.'s heritage. The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board was founded in 1962 in response to these activists, and designated the Castle as one of the City's first Historic Cultural Monuments. A court fight to save the structure kept the bulldozers at bay.

Photo from Los Angeles Public Library

This photo from 1968 shows The Castle, alone in a deserted landscape, contrasted with the new Union Bank building. The Recreation and Parks Commission had donated land where the rescued structure could be moved, and restored by the Cultural Heritage Foundation.

Sounds like a happy ending, huh?

Photo from Los Angeles Public Library

Sadly, while The Castle awaited restoration at its new location, it burned to the ground, along with another rescued house, the Saltbox. Vandals - perhaps vagrants looking for a place to sleep, or kids a place to party - lit a fire inside.

Perhaps this loss changed some people's minds. Angelino Heights residents began to realize the treasure they had. Interest in historic restoration grew. In 1983, their neighborhood was declared the first historic preservation overlay zone. Some thirty homes here are designated Historic Cultural Monuments by the City of Los Angeles.

The restorations are so successful these houses have attracted movie and TV producers, for use as locations. This house was used as the home of the heroines in "Charmed."

This house, with its witches-hat turret and fish-scale shingles, is a favorite.

Though Bunker Hill is lost, perhaps its loss spurred the preservation of Angelino Heights. And so there's our happy ending. Angelino Heights is a living, breathing, neighborhood, with its historic homes intact and appreciating in value.

To find out what the Cultural Heritage Foundation did after the loss of "The Castle," standby for Victorian Los Angeles - Part Two


kcinnova said...

You just made my day! I can now say I learned something useful, despite my foggy state of mind.
I love old houses.
Looking forward to Part II...

DaisyDeadhead said...

Fantastic post, love it... the Sessions house looks like the funeral home in "Six Feet Under" fact, several of these look like they were used for movie settings. (they probably used a set for the "inside"--as they do for most southern homes used in movies)

Gilly said...

I just love the exuberance of those Victorian houses! So like English Victorian houses, but more so, plenty more so!

I think it must be because you have more space, more sun. The decorations probably last longer, and don't have bits falling off! They are truly marvellous. And the Sessions House, - well, if you've exhausted the Victorian bit, why not add on a bit of the east??

Absolutely wonderful!