Inside Preservation: A Grassroots Effort Pays Off

by Michelle Gringeri-Brown

40feat1“Preservation in Orange is about saving the houses,” Paula Soest says of the 600-plus Arts and CraftsÐera homes in her Southern California city. “The second my husband, Steve, and I started driving up and down these streets, I just fell in love with the whole thing. And by encouraging preservation, these houses are now very valuable.”

Originally part of Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, Orange was founded in 1871. Fifteen years later, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe railroad was running three blocks from the center of town, helping fuel the fruit-packing and produce industries. Building booms in the 1880s raised much of the downtown commercial district, followed by residential expansions in the early 1900s and then again in the ’20s and ’40s.

“Since our area has been on the National Register, home prices have doubled,” Paula says. “In 1997 we paid $236,500 for our bungalow. Last year, one sold down the street for $500,000, and this year it’s probably worth more. That’s a lot for something to go up in six years. If a house has good bones, the fact that it’s on the Historic Register helps make it valuable — and the more you fix them up, the more valuable they are.

“Some 1,230 buildings in the city were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Almost half are bungalows and other period homes, making up a one-square-mile area called Old Towne Orange, the largest historic district in California according to the Old Towne Preservation Association (OTPA). The city conducted a survey of pre-1940 structures in the early 1980s and determined that certain areas were worth conserving, including its central plaza commercial district, which joined the National Register in 1982. But saving Orange’s historical fabric wasn’t quite a slam dunk.

“By the time I got married in 1968, Old Towne was referred to as a ‘blighted area’ by the city,” says Tita Smith, a lifelong resident and cofounder of OTPA. “To our young eyes, it looked beautiful. My husband and I did not want to live in a tract house, we wanted to live in an old house we could refurbish.

Old Towne’s families had been here for many years — it was a comfortable, clean, quiet neighborhood. But what started to bring it down was in the 1970s it was rezoned R-2, and demolition began and apartments started going up. Realtors touted that you could get more for your property if you developed it into apartments.”

In 1985 the city wanted to demolish four historic properties to make way for a parking lot, and Tita and her neighbors banded together to fight city hall. They took the issue to the press, spoke up at numerous city meetings and vowed to elect only people who would pledge to help preserve the neighborhoods. It came as a surprise to the upstart group when the city agreed the houses would stay. But six months later, Chapman University, the local college that abuts Old Towne, proposed to build a seven-story structure across the street from single-family homes. Those residents came to Tita’s homeowner group for advice on what to do. In the process of helping with that second fight, OTPA was officially launched.

Shannon and Frank Tucker, who are in the midst of their fourth Old Towne house renovation, joined the group in 1988. By the early ’90s when Shannon was its president, OTPA began the process of working for Historic Register inclusion.

“We invited the State Office of Historic Preservation down to give us some guidance on what we needed to do for the National Register application,” Shannon explains. “It took about four years to produce the application, which was the size of a phone book — 400 pages long, three revisions. The state commission was in awe that we did it without any support from our local government, since we couldn’t even get letters of recommendation,” she remembers.

Although OTPA worked hard to let residents and city officials know the pluses to a National Register designation, the city wouldn’t endorse their efforts. “There was a small but loud group who were frightened that people were going to dictate what color they could paint their houses, or tell them what kind of fencing they could have,” Shannon says. “There were around 2,700 notifications to property owners about the proposed district, and 100 or so said they didn’t want to be included.”

Even now, OTPA is focused on changing misconceptions that people have about its goals, contends Trace Weatherford, a three-year resident of Old Towne. “Years ago some members were overzealous and would tell people that they had the wrong plants in their yards, that kind of thing,” she says. “Recently the city was called about a front-porch remodel in the historic district, and that was erroneously attributed to the OTPA board as well. We want the neighborhood to realize that we don’t care to police those kinds of things; we want to educate people about preservation issues — what can and should be done — and still allow them to live in their homes and have their own lifestyles.” Those unique lifestyles are perhaps most evident inside the Craftsman bungalows, Victorians, Spanish Colonial Revivals, Prairie School homes and cottages that make up the Orange historic district.

Trace had driven the streets of Old Towne pulling real estate brochures for years, never dreaming she could afford to live there. But when she found a small bungalow whose only visible interior attributes were a river-rock fireplace and a clawfoot tub, she jumped.

“It had been a rental for decades and was very nondescript — carpeting, popcorn ceilings, painted apartment beige from floor to ceiling,” she says. She had the Douglas fir floors refinished, removed the cottage-cheese ceilings, gutted and remodeled the kitchen, added wainscoting and a pedestal sink in the bath, and painted and landscaped. “I didn’t want a purist version of a bungalow interior, but I did want it to be rich colors, warm, with a Mission flair.”

2Neighbors Paula and Steve Soest had another take on a bungalow-appropriate interior look. They were coming from a 1954 house with mid-century modern furniture and their newly purchased Craftsman bungalow had pink carpet, pink walls and pink woodwork. “We didn’t know anything about Arts and Crafts until we moved here,” Paula says. “We were very much into the ’40s, ’50s, Hawaiiana, rattan furniture. But the house really told us what to do.”

They took up the carpet and refinished floors, and had the woodwork professionally stripped room by room. Steve wryly says, “I started in our son Jesse’s room, got about three feet done and realized I could do better just going to work and making the money to pay someone to do it.”

The Soests went through Arts and Crafts books looking for earthy paint colors and chose Bradbury & Bradbury friezes for several rooms. They also sold most of their previous furnishings to fund antique and contemporary Craftsman pieces. Today their home is an appealing mix of Arts-and-Crafts-meets-Hawaiiana.

Steve, a native of Orange, remembers it as a sleepy town in the ’60s and ’70s, not the 24-square-mile city of 127,500 it is today. “Lots of widows lived here, most of the houses needed work, the rents were low and the downtown was in a slow decline,” he recalls. “Now we see people moving in, landscaping, fixing up their houses. I think they see what other people have done in books and magazines, and think, ‘Hey, we can do that.’ It’s a younger group, and they tend to be into preservation.”

“We’re all friends,” chimes in Trace, “but we all have differences of opinion. Some of us fall on the conservative side of preservation, and some on the loosey-goosey side. But still every single one of us agrees on one thing: it’s worth the time and the effort to save a piece of the past and know that you had something to do with its preservation.”

3Sandy and Jeff Frankel would never be placed in the loosey-goosey category. They took their time locating a 1915 Craftsman-style house that met their requirements for intact original details — in fact, their previous home sold three times, always with a replacement-residence contingency. The Orange bungalow they chose had been vacant for four years, and with the previous owner wheelchair bound, no one had lived upstairs for quite some time. It was in very much as-is condition: ancient curtains; filthy, dark brown carpet from the ’50s; a leaking upstairs toilet; peeling and cracked plaster; a curiously chopped-up orange, yellow and green kitchen; and other rooms with only one or two coats of paint due to long deferred maintenance.

“The house was so dirty and rundown that our friends just looked at us like, ‘What are you thinking?’” Sandy says. “But they didn’t have our vision to see what was underneath it all.”

After spending four years restoring the home’s interior — which included replacing systems, stripping woodwork, plaster repair, taking the kitchen back to near-original condition, two bath renovations and researching the bungalow’s original paint colors — the Frankels have a showplace full of Arts and Crafts antiques and collectibles.

“We ended up with a couple of Stickley rockers, several J.M. Young pieces, a Limbert stand and a piece from the Michigan Chair Co., but almost everything else we have is generic,” Jeff says. “It’s nice to find signed pieces if you’re reselling, but we’re not reselling.”

The Frankels are ardent OTPA-ers, with Jeff currently serving as the president of the 365-member organization. “The property-rights group that was very active before we moved here in 1998, has sort of faded away,” he says, but he still wishes for increased support from the city. “Chapman University is working with the community more, and some of our city council members are sympathetic to preservation concerns. But if you go to any of the California preservation conferences and see how other local governments embrace their historic resources, our efforts are pretty stagnate.

“We would like to have a perfect process with the city,” Jeff continues, “where the homeowner would have checklists that tell what’s required, they’d prepare material samples for design review, the DRC [design review committee] would love what they’re doing and it would end right there. If things could occur this way, it would save hours of city staff and OTPA time.”

For her part, Sandy Frankel stresses education: “By showing good examples, people will see how important it is to preserve homes. If one handle to a teacup is broken, then the tea set is ruined. A house can be like that: if you keep taking pieces away, pretty soon you don’t have anything.”

4The property-rights group Jeff mentions is still indelibly engraved in Tita Smith’s memory. “They argued that if they wanted to demolish their old homes and put up four-unit apartment houses, that was their right,” she remembers. “They called themselves OTPA, too — Orange Tax Payers Association — and would back the developers. We had major battles with this group for about 10 years. Most of the time we lost.”

Since then, things have improved on the preservation front. OTPA worked with the city to turn the existing design guidelines into ordinance, and in 1992 Tita was appointed to the Orange planning commission. Another member of OTPA sits on the design review committee, and a former president was elected to two terms on the city council.

“Now, if you want to hold office in Orange, you have to be something of a preservationist,” Tita asserts. “The residents have come out very clearly to say that they love the Old Towne area and want to see it preserved.”

Shannon Tucker takes a pragmatic stand on preservation versus new development: “Some of the city staff are now extremely informed about historic preservation issues and how they can be used in positive ways as urban planning tools,” she says. “It can create a really balanced community. Today the city takes on renovation projects at an energy level I never could have imagined 10 years ago. I ask myself, ‘Is this the same city we were fighting on every little thing?’ ”

“For a conservative town with conservative politics, the city has really gone a great distance to support preservation,” Tita adds, “but the effort still comes from the grassroots level. The key thing that has not changed is the zoning. We could breathe easier, sleep better at night if it were rezoned to ensure the historic architecture would be maintained.

“OTPA has tried to maintain the historic fabric of the neighborhood,” she continues, “and look what it’s turned into. It’s like finding your great-grandma’s diamond engagement ring tarnished in the drawer, and you polish it up, and suddenly it’s an heirloom that is worth so much. That’s what people in Old Towne have done.”

Lovingly preserved or tarnished diamonds, these houses continue to draw impassioned residents to the area. “I’ve always said they’ll have to pull my cold, dead body out of here,” Paula Soest semi-jokes. “And I’ve now added ‘old’ to that — not to tempt fate too soon. They can offer me a million dollars and I’m never moving. You’re getting more than a house here; you’re getting a neighborhood.”

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