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Behind the battle to preserve LA's historic Lummis Home

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The City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks is looking for a new caretaker to help make the historic Lummis Home more self-sufficient. That might mean ousting the Historical Society of Southern California, which has been headquartered in the building since 1965.

In the past year or so, cracks appeared on both inside and exterior walls and are growing beyond the society's ability to pay for repairs.

"On the corner of this wall, this chimney is part of the fireplace, and there are some cracks over here," Lummis Home curator Ariel van Zandweghe told KPCC during a recent tour. "Eventually, if it’s not fixed, if not reinforced, the chimney can fall."

The Historical Society of Southern California wants to fix the problem and restore the home, but without a long-term lease, the group says it cannot get grants to diagnose the damage or to reconstruct the building to the high standards needed for a state landmark that's also on the National Register of Historic places.

The historic house — built by adventurer and former Los Angeles Times city editor Charles Lummis in 1896-1910 — was  donated to the Southwest Museum in 1910 and then sold in 1943 to the state of California, which transferred it to the city in 1971. 

The Historical Society of Southern California took occupancy in 1965 and has renewed its city lease in 1971 and 1989, but it's been without a long-term lease on the structure since 1999, operating on a month-to-month agreement, van Zandweghe said. It is open to the public about 12 hours a week. The rest of the time, it serves as offices for the society.

The relationship between the society and city is as fractured as one of the famous home's hand-built stone-and-mortar walls.

The Lummis Home sits above the recently re-christened 110 Arroyo Parkway (formerly the 110 Freeway)  at Avenue 43. It’s a rustic mini-castle, hand-built of Arroyo stone and cement mortar. Lummis built the house himself between 1896 and 1910, using stone hauled up from the Arroyo Seco riverbed.

The house is a hybrid — a Craftsman design, crossed with the curved plastered adobe walls Lummis saw on homes in New Mexico. The house has a stone tower and a curved stone wall with a bell thought to be from the San Gabriel Mission.

Lummis called it El Alisal, for a giant sycamore tree that once stood in the courtyard. He was a writer and his home became the city’s first salon that brought important people together to exchange ideas.

By the time of Lummis’ death in 1928 — his ashes are interred behind a plaque in a wall of the house — some 7,000 people had signed his guest book, many of them celebrities of the era. Will Rogers used to perform on the courtyard's small concrete stage, twirling rope and telling stories.

City Recreation and Parks spokeswoman Vicki Israel said the city has tried to work with the Historical Society, offering to collaborate on grant applications.

"They’ve had all these years to do improvements and really establish the Lummis Home for public access, for the public to see and learn all about the history, and I don’t think it was their main focus," Israel said.

Israel said the city offered to collaborate with the historical society to seek grants, but without success. Israel said the organization has been able to obtain grants that it uses for purposes other than upkeep of the Lummis Home.

Van Zandweghe said a grant of $1.2 million it obtained was earmarked for publishing historical works, which is the primary mission of the Historical Society of Southern California. The organization claims it has been spending about $90,000 per year on the Lummis Home, primarily on the curator's salary and repairs.

The city is  searching for another nonprofit to run the house under new rules that will make it financially self-sufficient. Parks spokeswoman Israel said the city wants a group that will open the house to the public for more hours,  put on fundraising events and rehab the property.

Van Zandweghe predicted if the Historical Society vacates the Lummis Home and the city is unable to find a new tenant to make necessary repairs, the place will deteriorate and fall victim to vandalism. The group expects to be out of the house by the end of this year.

Proposals from prospective tenants are due March 11.

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