The Stucco Wars: an Easy Fix or Eyesore?
COLUMN ONE Plastering of vintage bungalows sparks clashes between preservationists and struggling home buyers trying to cut maintenance costs.
October 04, 1997
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Dale Trader's heart sank when he looked across his shady Pasadena street one day and spotted workers wrapping a classic California bungalow in layers of chicken wire and thick, black tar paper.
Another house was about to be stuccoed.
Trader rushed across the street to dissuade his neighbors from covering their home's wood siding. "It's a shame you are doing that," he told the Vietnamese-born couple, who listened politely before allowing workers to smear a layer of stucco over their 80-year-old cottage.
"We lost another [house]," Trader said later in an interview, "and it's probably not ever going to be brought back."
The exchange between Trader--a film executive as well as a preservation activist--and his neighbors on Rio Grande Avenue is only one minor tiff in a much broader conflict being waged in older neighborhoods across metropolitan Los Angeles.
Here in these mostly working-class enclaves, passionate preservationists are clashing with a rising number of lower-income immigrant home buyers. At issue is the area's dwindling inventory of Craftsman-style bungalows and Victorian cottages--humble abodes that offered an earlier generation a chance to live in single-family homes on a scale never before seen in this country.
Today, sheathed in redwood siding and shingles, these architectural relics stand out in a Southern California landscape awash in stuccoed tract homes and mini-malls. But the upkeep can be so costly that stucco is seen as a good way to cut down on maintenance expenses.
In some ways the struggle against stucco echoes the battles waged decades ago in eastern cities over the installation of aluminum and vinyl siding over old brick houses--a covering widely derided as declasse.
Stuccoing is "a tremendous atrocity," said Rafael Garcia, who has spent nearly 40 years trying to save turn-of-the-century Victorian-style homes near USC. "I hate people who stucco."
Although there is no accurate record of how many bungalows in metropolitan Los Angeles have been stuccoed, preservationists believe that the number runs in the thousands. Local building permits are required to stucco a house, but approvals are granted routinely.
As a result, preservationists and their allies have launched concerted efforts to save neighborhoods from the stucco make-overs.
They have distributed bilingual brochures titled "Deberia Emplastar Mi Casa de Madera?" (Should I Stucco My Wood House?) in the heavily Latino neighborhoods of Highland Park, Pasadena and Long Beach.
Their answer: an emphatic "No" in both languages. Instead, the brochure says that a properly maintained house with wood siding will look better and sell for more money than one that has been stuccoed.
The anti-stucco campaign has also illuminated--and in some cases magnified--the differences in race, culture and class that cut across many Southern California communities. The demands of upper- and middle-class residents to preserve old homes often comes across as condescending and meddlesome to many immigrant homeowners.
"How do you expect them to bring [older homes] back to life when they don't have the cash?" said Robert Silva, office manager for Las Casas Realty, which sells many homes to Latino immigrants in Highland Park and South-Central Los Angeles. "It takes money to restore these homes."
Old homes have been stuccoed for decades by different groups of people, but the issue has come to a head in recent years as one by-product of the influx of Latino and Southeast Asian immigrants into the Southern California housing market. Plunging prices during the recession made homes far more affordable, and immigrants could find old, two-bedroom homes for under $80,000.
Most of these homes, quite modest in size and design, have little chance of ever being designated historic landmarks. However, some architectural historians argue that they create a unique historic environment and ambience worthy of protecting when clustered in communities such as Echo Park, Angelino Heights and South-Central Los Angeles.
Built by the scores of thousands, mostly before the Depression, these bungalows and cottages permitted people of modest means to own a single-family home, according to architectural historians.
Factory workers could afford a tiny version of a Colonial-style house--complete with Roman-style columns on the front porch and arched windows over the front door--in South-Central for as little as $500 down.
"That's what set Los Angeles apart," said Christy McAvoy, managing partner of the Historic Resources Group, an architectural preservation firm. "Working-class people [in other major cities] didn't have the opportunity to have their single-family house" on such a large scale.