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Greene & Greene for under $1 million, and why it may be a tough sell

June 12, 2010 |  6:02 am

Greene_1

What's thought to be the only remaining house in Los Angeles designed by the Craftsman stars the Greene brothers is for sale. It's beautiful, yes. It has four original leaded glass light fixtures. It's been lovingly restored over more than 20 years.

And it's listed at $775,000. By comparison, the much larger Greene & Greene-designed Spinks House in Pasadena — site of the architects' gems the Gamble and Blacker houses — was on the market last year for $4.6 million.

So why is this one, the Lucy Wheeler House, on the market even long enough for a story to be written and published?

Click here to see our photo gallery of the house. You'll find the full story after the jump.

 
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For one thing, although the historic status of the house might net the buyer tax savings under the Mills Act, it also means the owner can't choose the living room paint colors or replace the original kitchen sink. For another, the house is in West Adams, a neighborhood near downtown that is loved fiercely by its defenders but that demands its newcomers to be, if not pioneers, at least residents ready for some scruffiness.

Greene_6 The Lucy Wheeler House "is a great opportunity for a person who doesn't have the means" to buy a Pasadena Greene & Greene, said David Raposa, the real estate agent selling the house and a West Adams activist who has restored more than 20 homes.

The 2,620-square-foot house, designed in 1905 and expanded in 1917, sits on Cambridge Street in the area of West Adams known as Harvard Heights. It is on the market because its owner, Martin Eli Weil, a restoration architect and founding member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, died last year at age 68.

When Weil bought the two story bungalow in 1985 — for $135,000, Raposa believes — it had been divided into two or three units. A second entrance had been cut into the front.

"It was in pretty bad shape," said Randell Makinson, an authority on Charles and Henry Greene who said fewer than 100 of the architects' homes remain.

The bookcases built in at one end of the living room, the sort of detail for which the Greenes are known, had disappeared, so new ones were constructed, copying the old. "Almost miraculously," the golden-colored glass lantern light fixtures and a matching window survived, Raposa said. An expert in color, Weil removed layers of wallpaper and paint, using a microscope to determine the exact color that would have been put on the walls a century ago.

Greene_5 As Weil worked, it became clear that the interior of the house was among the best examples of a phase in which the brothers used bold colors, Makinson said. "Martin uncovered in that process colors that were unusual for Greene & Greene. As they moved forward they muted their colors."

Weil — who worked on the restorations of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Storer House in the Hollywood Hills and the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard — did much of the work himself and didn't quite finish, said his brother Jesse, a physicist in Budapest, Hungary, who came to the house recently to help inventory the contents for a private sale to Weil's friends and colleagues.

"Martin didn't have a lot of money, and he was a perfectionist. He'd rather do it himself," Jesse Weil said. Over the years his brother also gave advice to neighbors who wanted to restore and protect their homes.

The brown redwood-shingled house with orange trim has three or four bedrooms, depending on whether a downstairs room becomes a kitchen or a bedroom. The yard is full of lavender, rosemary and roses, but the Greene & Greene influence is perhaps most evident inside: the wooden curtain rods, the built-in benches, the cutouts in a cedar wall of the foyer.

Throughout, the ceilings have been restored to their original golden yellow. Downstairs, the walls have been painted forest, pea soup or olive green, the colors the Greenes chose.

The exterior of the house is protected by Historic Preservation Overlay Zone restrictions, and by an "exceptionally detailed" historical conservation easement, which protects the interior as well — one of 27 such agreements with the L.A. Conservancy, said Mike Buhler, the organization's director of advocacy.

The idea was to find a middle ground between protecting the house and allowing the buyers to have a life in it, Raposa said.

So while the colors in the entry and dining and living room can't be changed, the new owners may choose the upstairs colors. (The original hues have been documented, however, should the buyer choose to be that committed to history.)

Greene_8 The original kitchen, which seems rustic enough to suit an old ski cabin, has to stay. But, Raposa said, the new owners may add a modern kitchen in an adjacent area that's part of the 1917 addition.

The house was among the first in the neighborhood, which became home to middle and upper-middle-class families moving to the edge of the city. Just blocks away were larger, more fashionable homes owned by wealthier people, Raposa said.

Wheeler hired the Greenes to build a house for her, her sister and her mother. She was one of the first public stenographers in L.A. and one of the state's first female notaries, according to the book by John Steven McGroarty, "Los Angeles From the Mountains to the Sea." Among her clients was the Greenes' architectural firm.

Greene and Greene built other homes in Los Angeles, Raposa said. One, just south of the Wheeler home, was demolished in the 1970s to make way for an apartment building. Another was moved decades ago from Wilshire Boulevard to Beverly Hills.

"It's never too late to save" what remains, said Raposa, who is restoring a wreck of a cottage in Jefferson Park that was built in 1888 as a dairy farmhouse. The West Adams Historical Assn., in fact, awarded Raposa its Martin Weil commemorative award last month, given for "significant voluntary" work to further preservation.

And residents of West Adams are among the city's most active preservationists, Buhler said. More than 100 city landmarks are in the district, which is slashed by the 10 Freeway.

It's not an easy neighborhood. It lacks a commercial center with the cafes and shops that can be a beacon to prosperous urban home buyers. Raposa cites cafes at the edges of the area. And there is a new Wellington Square farmers market, a West Adams mothers club, regular house tours and holiday parties.

"Change happens slowly," Raposa said. But that has its advantages.

Ken Bernstein, manager of the L.A. office of historic resources, agreed. Harvard Heights is one of the city's 25 HPOZs, most of which are not in wealthy neighborhoods, he said.

"What's really heartening about the HPOZ movement is that it hasn't resulted in rapid gentrification, rapid displacement," Bernstein said. The gradual pace often means that lower-income residents are not pushed from their homes.

Change has come house by house, some meticulously cared for, others covered in stucco and fronted by cinderblock walls or chain link fencing.

Weil's house has iron bars on the windows. Raposa said Weil wanted to take them down and that other residents have done so, some replacing them with screens equipped with alarms. Across the street is a house whose promise is obscured by broken windows and peeling paint. But in another direction, there's a beautiful hefty Mission Revival house.

Maggie Navarro, a real estate agent who handles historic homes, said the buyers who would like to live in such homes often cannot afford them. A low price may make the purchase possible, she said, but restrictions on historic properties sometimes make them "not relevant for the way we live today."

It's a tough balance — a modern life that preserves the past.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo credits: Exteriors of the Lucy Wheeler House by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times; interiors by Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.

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