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How One Quirky Museum Preserves LA's Victorian Houses

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The Octagon House prior to its move to the museum. Photo courtesy Heritage Square Museum.

Just before the Avenue 43 exit on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, amidst the working-class homes and small businesses of Montecito Heights, sits a small, shabby but picturesque Victorian village. A clutch of nineteenth-century houses, a massive Carpenter Gothic church, a red trolley car, a shingled mustard colored depot. Blink and they're gone. The assembled buildings are the Heritage Square Museum, a "living history museum" that has been quietly working to preserve LA's Victorian architectural history, without the assistance of big donors or crowds, for more than 40 years.

Heritage Square Museum was established in 1969 by the Cultural Heritage Board. The board itself was a response to the rapid destruction of Los Angeles's historic landmarks and neighborhoods; the five-member panel was given the authority to designate Historic-Cultural Monuments in the city of Los Angeles. Surprisingly, given LA's dismal preservation track record, it was one of the first of its kind in the country, predating New York's Landmarks Preservation Law by three years. At its first meeting, the board designated five Historic-Cultural Monuments, all threatened with demolition. These included the "Salt Box," a famous mansion atop the once grand neighborhood of Bunker Hill.

Over the next few years, more and more historic buildings were threatened with demolition. These included many that had sprung out of the first LA land boom of the 1880s. Some of these structures stood nearly alone in neighborhoods, like Bunker Hill, which had been razed to make way for modern developments. Others no longer fit in with their neighborhoods, like the Palms Depot that sat condemned behind a furniture store. Still others had been converted to boarding houses or apartments by the 1930s and were later abandoned—the Perry Residence was "almost smothered" by weeds. The board had limited time to figure out what to do with the buildings. Even when they succeeded in designating structures as monuments, this only meant that a no-funds "hold" was placed on them for one year, nothing more than a stay of execution.

The Cultural Heritage Board, in particular long-time executive assistant Nancy Fernandez, worked with private cultural groups to find a permanent refuge for some of these buildings. In 1969, the LA Department of Parks and Recreation leased them a rather unremarkable 10-acre parcel of excess parkland adjacent to the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Heritage Square Museum was born. The goal was to move structures facing demolition to the site, restore them, and open them to the public.

Early articles about the museum looked to the day when Heritage Square would be another Colonial Williamsburg, but with a "western spirit." Williamsburg, VA, was the gold standard of "living history" open air museums, which had become somewhat of a phenomenon in twentieth century America. Founded in the 1920s and funded by John and Abby Rockefeller, Williamsburg is a collection of restored and painstakingly recreated colonial homes. It features tours given by historically dressed orators with stentorian voices, craft demonstrations, and an interactive immersion in period history. Other early living history museums include Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Michigan, which features notable buildings like Thomas Edison's laboratory and the house where Noah Webster wrote his first dictionary. There are now museums of this kind in virtually every state; they include Old Salem in North Carolina, the Farmer's Museum in New York, and Alabama's Constitution Village. Today, Heritage Square continues to attempt to follow the "living history" model—on a recent tour, the guide was a teenage boy in a top hat and tails.

From the start, the Heritage Square Museum seemed to be facing an uphill battle in its quest to recreate the past. In March 1969, Donegan's Castle and the Salt Box, the last remaining houses on the once magnificent Bunker Hill, were moved to the museum. In October of that same year they were set on fire by vandals and destroyed.

[The Salt Box on fire. Photo via the Los Angeles Public Library.]

With no Rockefeller or Ford in sight and little to no funding from the city, the museum began again. The board faced little resistance from the community when they chose to move a building, since the context in which the building had been built was no longer there. Most of the structures would have simply been destroyed. Nor did many in the community at large seem to care about preserving these structures. By 1976, the museum was years off schedule. According to one project coordinator, many volunteers became discouraged and quit. The city offered the museum no financial support, "reflecting," as the LA Times put it, "the sluggish historical consciousness for which the region is noted."

So the Museum painstakingly raised money for each individual relocation and renovation needed to save these structures. Most of these buildings had exteriors layered with stucco and interiors virtually obliterated by years of hard use. There are now eight historic structures at the Museum, in various stages of continuous repair. Built between 1876 and 1899, these disparate buildings are a fascinating look into an infantile Los Angeles without an architectural identity. Constructed in the decades between the abandonment of the adobe by newly arrived Anglos and the emergence of the California Craftsman, the Spanish Colonial Revival, and the "California lifestyle" movement, these structures harken back to a city that architecturally looked more like Cincinnati or St. Louis than the Los Angeles of our imaginations.

Taken out of the context of their original neighborhoods, these buildings seem in a way like beached whales from different parts of the sea. But there is also a great advantage in viewing them in such close proximity to each other. It allows visitors to see the different architectural styles that were prominent during the era we often simply blanket as "Victorian."

A perfect example is the beautifully restored Hale House, often called "the most photographed house in Los Angeles," and definitely the crazy aunt of the bunch. It was originally built in 1887 at the base of Mount Washington by real estate developer George Morgan. This multi-colored, turreted, upper-middle class house has been called "picturesque eclectic," and is a mixture of the Queen Anne and Eastlake styles of architecture. The house was moved to 4425 N. Pasadena Ave. (now Figueroa Street) early in its existence, and bought by motorman James Hale and his new bride Bessie, a farm girl from Nebraska who had been working as a waitress at the Pico House. The couple separated, and Bessie converted the richly ornamented home into a boarding house. Many of the house's original interior features are still intact, including wainscoting in the foyer that is pressed paper made to look like embossed leather.

[The William Hayes Perry residence at its original location in Boyle Heights, via the Los Angeles Public Library.]

Another standout is the 1876 William Hayes Perry residence (also known as Mount Pleasant House), considered by many to be the first proper "mansion" built in Los Angeles. Perry was a self-made lumberman and a great friend of William Mulholland. He hired Kysor and Matthews, the revered architects of Pico House, to build the two-story Greek Revival Italianate at 1315 Mount Pleasant, in the then-fashionable suburb of Boyle Heights. The outside aesthetics have often been compared to a tiered wedding cake, and the rather dark interior features a fine marble fireplace and rich wood floors. Photos of the house at its original location show a mansion high on a hill, lined by magnificently landscaped trees. Today it sits flat near the entrance gates of the museum, next to a dented chain link fence that separates it from a small tract house.

The museum also includes the John J. Ford house, a Downtown, middle-class tract house of combined Italianate and Queen Anne styles. This house features ornate hand-carved woodwork by John Ford, a renowned carver known for his work at the Capitol Building in Sacramento. The gothic Palms Depot, originally called "the grasshopper stop," serviced passengers traveling from Downtown LA to the sea. There is also the delightfully feminine Valley Knudsen Garden Residence, a middle-class house built in Lincoln Park in the atypical Second Empire style, featuring a French Mansard roof. A low, false roofline conceals the second story of the 11-room house, a style that evolved in nineteenth-century France to help homeowners avoid higher taxes on two-story homes.

[The Octagon House prior to its move to the museum. Photo courtesy Heritage Square Museum.]

Amongst all this ornamentation and fuss is the stark but lovely 1893 Longfellow-Hastings Octagon House, one of the two examples of this strange, fad architecture left in the state. Conceived in the 1840s by amateur architect and scientific quack (he was the country's leading phrenologist) Orson S. Fowler, the octagon house plan enjoyed a brief heyday in the East and Midwest in the years before the Civil War. These eight-sided houses, featuring flat roofs and wraparound verandas, were believed to be healthful and cost efficient, letting in more natural light and cheaper to construct and heat. Their popularity had died out by the 1860s, but one man held firm in his belief in the power of the octagon.

That man was Gilbert Longfellow. In 1893, the 68-year-old farmer brought his remaining family from Maine to Pasadena to escape illnesses that had claimed many family members. On the coast of Maine, the family had lived in an octagon house of Longfellow's construction, and he quickly set about building another with just two carpenters to help. He constructed a three-story house where his family continued to live a simple and frugal life for generations. Fortunately for us, this means that the interior, though in advanced disrepair, still boasts treats such as delightful swatches of original wallpaper and patterned floors. A look up the spiral staircase that leads to the top floors is worth the price of admission to the park alone.

[The floorplan of the Octagon House. Image courtesy the Heritage Square Museum.]

Has the museum's aesthetically inharmonious location, with the modern city penetrating the attempted old-time ambience, affected donations and patronage over the years? The landscaping is lovely, and dedicated volunteers tend to a small garden. But the city encroaches via the freeway, and tagging is visible through the chain link fence. The museum lacks the uniform historical accuracy of the bigger living history museums like Williamsburg, or even smaller ones, like the elegant Frontier Culture Museum in Stanton, VA. Given its location, it is not surprising that, over the years, security has been an issue at the museum. Caretakers have lived in upstairs rooms of Hale House, and in the 1980s two rescued guard dogs were fired from their jobs after they were discovered playing with a group of teenagers who had broken into the museum's grounds.

Restoration and maintenance continues slowly, provided by an assortment of volunteer carpenters, masons, architects, and occasional paid laborers. Special events like Halloween Mourning tours, evenings of Victorian enchantment, and vintage fashion tea shows raise money for the restoration, along with money from regular weekly tours, which cost $10 per adult. The museum's uneven funding is obvious—as of December 2013, the museum was attempting to raise several thousand dollars to fix the Perry House's leaky roof. Yet the "Colonial Drug Store," the square's one new structure (donated by the family of George A. Simmons) features a recreation of an early twentieth century drugstore and boasts state of the art exhibition tools and shiny counters. It seems out of place. It is too new and too shiny, surrounded by valiantly preserved ghosts of a Los Angeles that existed briefly, before architectural innovation and the cars that whiz past swept almost all of it away.

Heritage Square Museum is located at 3800 Homer St. Tours are available 12-3 pm Friday through Sunday and most holiday Mondays.
· Heritage Square Museum [Official Site]
· Curbed Features [Curbed LA]