Becoming a historic district can revitalize a community, bring neighbors together and occasionally stir
things up.
By DAN GORDON, Special to The Times
With its mountain views, mature trees and distinctive architecture, Garfield Heights seemed to special-
effects artist Aprile Boettcher like a movie set that she and her colleagues might create.
In this quaint neighborhood northeast of Pasadena’s Old Town, some of the most noted Southland architects
from the late 19th and early 20th centuries had left a signature of wood-framed homes using native river
rock from the Arroyo Seco for retaining walls, chimneys and porch foundations.
But shortly after Boettcher, her husband and their three children moved into their 1906 bungalow, they
feared that the set was about to be torn down.
In 1997, Boettcher learned of plans being considered by the city to put up new subdivisions throughout her
neighborhood. As president of the Garfield Heights Neighborhood Assn., Boettcher spearheaded the type
of grass-roots effort that has become increasingly common in neighborhoods throughout the Southland. In
1999, Garfield Heights was designated a landmark district by the Pasadena City Council, an act that has
preserved and revitalized the area.
“It shows that we have merit as a neighborhood,” said Boettcher. “Now, people are moving in and restoring
homes like crazy.”
Similar scenarios have been playing out in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles, where residential pockets
boast rich collections of Victorian, Tudor, Craftsman, Arts & Crafts, Spanish and other distinctive
architecture, often dating back 100 or more years.
Concerns about changes that compromise the architectural integrity of these areas have led a number of
neighborhoods to seek city recognition as historic districts, thus creating design guidelines and a process
for preventing changes deemed inappropriate.
In the city of Los Angeles, such districts, known as Historic Preservation Overlay Zones, have caught on
dramatically in the past year. Between 1981, when the Echo Park community of Angelino Heights was
established as the first HPOZ, and last March, the city approved nine historic districts. Since March, five
more have been adopted, all in West Adams, the historic area that parallels the Santa Monica Freeway
from south of downtown Los Angeles to Culver City.
HPOZ applications have been submitted to the city by eight other neighborhoods spanning a wide range
of geography and demographic profiles, from Lincoln Heights and Pico-Union to Venice, Los Feliz and
Hancock Park.
“This trend explodes the myth that historic preservation is an elitist concern,” said Ken Bernstein, director
of preservation for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “Ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods see
HPOZs as key to not only their physical preservation, but also their economic regeneration.”
Some Concern About Property Rights
Public hearings to consider designating a neighborhood as historic always include a few homeowners
concerned that their private property rights are being infringed. But they have been greatly outnumbered
by preservation supporters.
While safeguarding the historic fabric of the city is part of the concern, the trend is being driven more by
residents who want some say over what happens within their neighborhoods, according to Herb Glasgow,
city planner in charge of the South Los Angeles unit.
Often, an extraordinary act of construction serves as the catalyst–a flashy, castle-like home built amid a
sea of tasteful Spanish Colonial Revivals, for example.
Pasadena’s first residential historic landmark designation, for the neighborhood aptly called Bungalow
Heaven, was initiated in the late 1980s by residents who considered a homeowner’s decision to replace an
early 20th century Craftsman with an apartment complex the final straw.
“Many of the houses had been stuccoed over in the past,” said Jim Galloway, a longtime resident and
former neighborhood association president. Since the historic designation, he added, a number of buyers
have come in and begun removing the stucco to expose the original shingle and/or clapboard. People who
appreciate the craftsmanship of old architecture tend not to look kindly upon the “stucco lovers” who view
the material as an easy and inexpensive way to reduce maintenance (less painting) while making an aging
home look new.
The promise of protection against such homeowners has made the Southland’s historic districts increasingly
attractive to certain buyers, according to a Realtor who specializes in Victorian and Arts & Crafts
architecture in the West Adams area. “If you were planning to invest $100,000 in restoring your house
over the next four years, you would feel more secure knowing that if 20 other houses on your block were
purchased during that period, the new owners would keep the streetscape intact,” said David Raposa,
broker-owner for City Living Realty.
In addition to aesthetics and history, supporters of the historic district concept point to studies in cities
throughout the nation demonstrating the beneficial impact of historic designations on property values.
Michael Olecki insists that anyone strolling a block or two outside his South Carthay historic neighborhood
southeast of Beverly Hills can immediately notice the difference, both in the streets’ character and in home
“It’s like night and day,” he said.
“In other areas, it’s always great to say a home has a remodeled this and that,” added Kelly deLaat of
Fred Sands Beverly Hills, who is active in South Carthay and neighboring Carthay Circle, which became
an HPOZ in 1998. “But in a historic district, the homes that are in original, pristine condition demand the
highest prices.”
Tres and Susan Tanner, who moved into their 90-year-old Craftsman Transitional house in Adams-
Normandie in October, are among those who appreciate the unique character and level of detail
associated with older homes.
“I value those whose craftsmanship creates something really beautiful,” said Tres Tanner.
“These houses are an endangered species,” said Natalie Neith of Fred Sands Estates Hancock Park,
who sold the Tanners their home. “You can’t afford to have houses built like that today.”
The fact that buyers can get more house for their money in West Adams and many of the other historic
areas of Los Angeles serves as an added plus, Neith said.
Historic-district residents also point to the community pride that comes with the preservation effort.
In California Heights, one of Long Beach’s 13 historic districts, a number of residents have chipped in
$500 apiece to restore lampposts that had been originally installed in the 1920s and ’30s, but had lost much
of their decorative trim over the years. That sense of community was one of the intangible benefits that
appealed to architect Tracy Stone, who bought in Angelino Heights in 1991.
“I liked that there were people here who were interested in the neighborhood, above and beyond their
own house,” she said. Stone was also pleased to find a more diverse population than she had seen in other
“You have white-collar professionals moving in and restoring homes side-by-side with recent immigrants
who are here because of the affordability of the neighborhood,” she said. “This brings people together
across cultures and interests, and makes for an interesting environment.”
Largest Concentration of Victorian Homes
Angelino Heights, located between the Hollywood Freeway and Sunset Boulevard west of Dodger
Stadium, was the first Los Angeles neighborhood designated an HPOZ, in 1981. Developed in the 1880s,
it includes the city’s largest concentration of Victorian architecture, as well as classic Craftsmans added at
the turn of the century.
In her role as a member of the neighborhood’s HPOZ board, Stone reviews requests for any new
construction, demolition or exterior alteration, making sure the change will not negatively affect a home’s
historic character. (Interior changes do not require approval.) The five-member HPOZ panel works in
conjunction with the city of Los Angeles Planning Department. Replacing windows, adding walls or fences,
changing paint colors and altering landscaping are among the most common requests to go before HPOZ
The potential for neighbor-versus-neighbor acrimony is one reason that some cities prefer not to have
residential boards reviewing design requests. But the process is mostly harmonious, said Olecki, who
serves on the South Carthay HPOZ board.
“People who are attracted to a historic neighborhood generally want to do the right thing,” he said.
Certainly, there are exceptions–instances in which homeowners circumvent the process, knowingly or not, by
replacing their vintage wood windows with aluminum sliders, for example.
Concerned neighbors who fail to talk the violators out of their action can bring them to the attention of the
HPOZ board members or city planning officials overseeing the historic preservation process.
Ultimately, enforcing the ordinance falls to the Department of Building and Safety. But preservationists
complain that enforcement can be erratic.
Historic district overseers say they would rather focus on education and prevention anyway.
“The best strategy is to welcome new homeowners to the neighborhood, make sure they know this is a
historic district where everyone’s goal is to protect the character of these houses, and explain that there
are regulations they need to follow,” said Ruthann Lehrer, neighborhood and historic preservation officer
for the city of Long Beach.
Historic neighborhoods typically promote awareness of their status through newsletters, signs and home
In Angelino Heights, the HPOZ board attempts to send letters to all Realtors who put up “for sale” signs
in the neighborhood advising them of the area’s HPOZ status, as well as “welcome” letters to new owners.
But in a district with some 1,500 properties, Stone admitted, some are bound to slip through the cracks.
A neighborhood’s historic status is considered a disclosure item in real estate transactions, but some
Realtors, particularly those who are less familiar with the turf, fail to bring it to buyers’ attention.
Some of the more vigilant historic-district residents take it upon themselves to make sure prospective
buyers and their agents are informed.
Carol McCafferty, a 14-year resident of the Drake Park-Willmore City historic neighborhood of
turn-of-the-century homes in Long Beach, became frustrated after two new homeowners began putting
stucco over their clapboards and replacing their vintage wooden windows shortly after buying. McCafferty
began calling Realtors who list in the district to make sure they were disclosing the zoning restrictions to
potential buyers.
“If we can catch them, we can stop the stucco jobs,” she said. “But it means walking and walking and
Efforts Are Not Without Controversy
The aggressive efforts to preserve historic neighborhoods aren’t without controversy. A home sale fell
through in the Carthay Circle district last year after the would-be buyer’s inquiry about building a fence
around the perimeter of the property–located on a busy intersection–was rebuffed by the HPOZ board.
“The house had a lot of character, but it needed a tremendous amount of work,” said Mickey Kessler, an
estates director at Fred Sands Realtors, who represented the interested family.
Kessler felt he had secured ideal buyers–the man was a contractor who had no intention of changing the
structure. But the house had no backyard, and before purchasing the home, the couple had wanted
assurance that their three kids would be safe to play in the front.
“Historic districts serve a valuable purpose in maintaining the architectural integrity of our city,” Kessler
said. “But it’s also important to be sensitive to changing neighborhoods. It’s true that there weren’t fences
when that area was developed, but there wasn’t a need for them because traffic wasn’t so heavy.”
Many home buyers, whether motivated by convenience, the promise of less maintenance or simply
personal taste, prefer a more modern look. That’s fine with preservationists, as long as these buyers are
duly steered away from the historic areas. “These are special neighborhoods, hidden pockets that people
might not see every day,” said the L.A. Conservancy’s Bernstein. “They have a distinct look and feel to
them, and a historic character. They are definitely worth preserving.”