When Los Angeles decided to start preserving its past, it was spurred by the loss of a unique historical neighborhood in the center of downtown. Bunker Hill had been the residential neighborhood of the wealthiest and most elite founding fathers of Los Angeles - and then it became a dilapidated slum of aging Victorian rooming houses and tenements.
The Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project, begun in 1955 and still continuing to this day, cleared aging structures and replaced them with buildings to house government, corporate, and institutional pride.
Only a few people protested, and tried to rescue some of the historic structures. Finally, the City's department of Parks and Recreation donated land for relocating these structure to the Cultural Heritage Foundation.
Two structures, the Salt Box - built approximately 1880, and The Castle, a fantastic example of elaborate Queen Anne excess, were saved from the bulldozers and moved there, awaiting funds for their restoration.
Sadly, while awaiting restoration, both structures burned to the ground from a fire set by vagrants.
Despite that bitter loss the Foundation recovered, and followed its main mission - saving - on a shoestring budget. The Museum, now safely fenced, is home to nine structures in varying stages of restoration. It's located at the end of a quiet residential street just next to the 5 Freeway and the L.A. River. Drivers zipping past can see the fantastical structures, and wonder what they are. For a ten dollar fee, you can take a docent-led tour inside the houses. Photos are only allowed outdoors.
The Hale House, above, was built in 1887, only a few blocks away on Pasadena Street. It was donated to the Foundation in 1970 and moved here. It is considered a superb example of Queen Anne and Eastlake architectural styles.
Hallmarks of the Eastlake style include applied decoration such as the carved wooden panels and railings. Queen Anne style features assymetrical shapes, like the turret on the side and the small corner balcony; large wrap-around porches, and alternating textures like the scalloped shingles, inset panels, and decorative brickwork.
It's fully restored inside, and furnished as it would have been in 1899. The brilliant colors were reproduced from chips of the original paint found during restoration.
The Perry Mansion was built in 1876 in Boyle Heights, and features both Greek Revival and Italianate architectural styles. William Hayes Perry was a lumber tycoon, banker, and City Councilman.
The Perry Mansion is closest to the Museum's nearest neighbor, a small single-family bungalow. This rooster from next door is a frequent visitor.
The Valley Knudsen Garden Residence is an odd little house - a tiny cottage with an ornate mansard roof that looks like it belongs on a grander structure. The style was popular in France during the reign of Napoleon III, and much used by the architects who redeveloped Paris in the mid-Nineteenth century. This little house was moved from Lincoln Heights. The docent leading the tour told us that when it was moved from its foundation, they discovered a cache of empty liquor bottles stashed under the porch!
The Ford House was moved from downtown Los Angeles, and really isn't terribly unique as a structure - except for the amazing carved wood decoration. Lots of Victorian houses had applied wooden decoration, much of it factory produced and mass-marketed. The decoration at the Ford House, however, is one of a kind. The owner, John Ford, was a woodcarver and did all the woodwork on both the interior and exterior of the house himself, by hand.
The outside of the house is in beautiful shape, and it's set in a garden designed to be typical of a residential garden of its era - roses cover a trellis archway and lead to a family vegetable garden. The interior of the house awaits restoration. Walls and partitions dating from its days as a rooming house have been torn down, and the original plaster and lathe walls are exposed.
The other unique structures on the property include a late Victorian-gothic wooden church, an old horse barn, a train depot and an octagonal house. In the last, the old kitchen and bathroom are in their original unrestored state - which certainly gives you much food for thought about how our ancestors lived.
It's wonderful that the Foundation is doing such work, but at the same time, the place feels a little lonely, compared to Angelino Heights, which is home to real living families. Here, the historic houses sit silently, fenced away from their neighbors - whose small turn-of-the-century bungalows show the kind of haphazard alterations that were stripped away from these homes after they were donated to the museum. I wondered as I walked to where we parked - what if there were some way to help the owners of these small houses beautify them, and make the whole neighborhood an example of real historic preservation?
Victorian Los Angeles is all around us. We don't need to go to a museum to find it - or appreciate it. If you drive through the neighborhood, you'll find structures that look just as great candidates for restoration as the houses in the museum - like this example on nearby Glendale Blvd, with its elaborately carved gable in the Eastlake style, ornamental iron and shingled bay windows. Who knows what's beneath that asphalt siding?
Here in Echo Park, just at the foot of the hill Angelino Heights is built upon, is this house - a cottage similar to the Valley Knudsen Garden house, its mansard-roofed turret still sporting fish-scale shingles.
If you're in Los Angeles, go visit Heritage Square. They need your support.