Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"The Landmark"

Dr. M knew someone who lived there. This was back when she was just M, and, after getting her Masters in Film, she worked as a personal assistant to a movie producer. The woman who lived there worked at the same studio, and they sometimes carpooled together.

They call it a Craftsman Bungalow. You can look it up. They’re beautiful. Especially the top-of-the-line versions, like the “Gamble House” in Pasadena. I can’t describe it. Look at the pictures. Gamble is the Gamble from Procter and Gamble. I think they make Tide.

If you like old houses that are built with the skill and precision of nineteenth century sailing ships, you’ll like craftsman bungalows. If you don’t, what’s wrong with you?

The bungalow in which the woman Dr. M knew lived was kind of a knockoff of the great bungalows. The “Gamble House” was designed by Greene and Greene. This one was more Greene and Brown. A cousin and a new guy. But they’d studied the plans.

Dr. M and I lived in a condo two blocks north of the bungalow. The bungalow at the time was inhabited by several separate groupings (pairs and otherwise) of humanity, a karate teacher (who lived in the garage) and a prodigious number of cats.

The bungalow’s owner, an elderly lady around ninety, resided in a home with other elderly people. The bungalow, her former home, now served as a rental property. The place had not been scrupulously maintained. (Read: raw sewage and – shiver – rodents.)
But it had its fundamental charms.

Dr. M has an eye for quality architecture, as well as for underlying potential not apparent to the general populace. She married me. Say no more. One day, she took me to meet her friend, but her real purpose was to show me the bungalow.

She wanted it.

The house had a number of original touches. Two magnificent stained-glass windows. A brick fireplace. One room featured a built-in desk, and built into the built-in desk was a built-in bed. There was a closet with a sink in it.

The place also had a magnificent ocean view. (It’s four blocks from the Pacific, on a hill, providing the view, but, hopefully, not the tidal waves.) I love the ocean. It’s calming. Pacific actually means “calm and tranquil.” Those ocean namers knew what they were talking about.

Of course, the bungalow included some less wonderful stuff. Seventeen people, and a cat for each of them. There was also an unpleasant…let’s be generous and call it…mustiness.

So okay. Dr. M. is excited about the bungalow, and I get what she’s talking about. But it’s not for sale, so that’s that.

Then one day, Dr. M comes racing into the condo. “The old lady died! There’s a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of the house!” Her enthusiasm caught me off-guard. We didn’t know the woman, but it didn’t seem quite right getting so excited about her kicking off.

The good news was followed shortly thereafter by discouraging news. No, the old woman had not made a comeback. Some developers had quickly put a bid in on the property. (The bungalow sits on a double-sized lot, and their plan was to build as many condos as would fit on it, probably eight.)

When developers have hopes of making big profits down the line, they can afford to bid considerably more than people hoping to just live in the place. The developers’ offer was too high for us to reasonably compete. That was my view in any case, although, I admit, I’m traditionally the “No” person in the couple. Every couple needs a “No” person. Otherwise, you wind up eating in Ethiopian restaurants.

Though she dearly wanted the place, Dr. M reluctantly agreed that we couldn’t compete. So once again, that was that.

Or was it?


Not with tenacious Dr. M on the case. Rather than giving up, which I like to do, so things’ll get back to normal, which may not be perfect, but at least you know what it is (am I giving away too much here?), Dr. M, along with her friend, Ruth, a neighbor and a highly-respected artist (and later, the Dean of Art at a major university), concocted a plan. It was a long shot, but if it worked, the house would be spared from demolition. (In the case of this bungalow, demolition would have required no more than a fairy tale wolf with powerful lungs.)

The plan was this: Dr. M and Ruth would mount a campaign to have the bungalow declared a historic landmark, the argument being that it represented one of the last remaining examples of the craftsman bungalow in Santa Monica. If they were successful in getting the bungalow declared a landmark, it could then – by law – not be torn down.

Our neighbors flocked to sign the petition, delighted to back the preservation of a house over the construction of still more spirit-squelching condominiums. Letters were written by architectural historians who specialized in craftsman bungalows, as well as by the architecture critic of our local newspaper, attesting to the fact that, in their expert opinions, the bungalow was worthy of landmark designation. A background study of the bungalow was also included, reinforcing its historic significance to the community.

The entire package was submitted to the Santa Monica City Council (actually, some committee who reported to them).

And then we waited.

A hearing was held before the City Council. The committee had approved the proposal. Though the estate’s heirs’ attorney argued against landmark certification because it would damage the value of his clients’ inheritance, the city council voted five to four in favor of protecting the bungalow.

The long shot had come through. The bungalow had been saved.

(Although I was pleased with the outcome, I don’t know, is it really okay for the government to require people to lose money on their own property? I hope that never happens to me.)

The bungalow would survive. Someone would get to live in it. But it was far from certain that “someone” would be us.

With the developers – now prohibited from knocking down the house and building condos – no longer interested, bidding was re-opened on the property. Because this was a probate sale, a particular procedure had to be followed. Sealed bids would be submitted to a judge. The bidders would show up in court. There, the judge would unseal the bids and announce the highest bidder. If anyone wanted to bid higher than the announced bid, they had to increase the offer by seven per cent. The bidding would then proceed from there.

Dr. M and I decided on our bid. We also decided we would not bid any higher. If there was a bidding war, it would proceed without us. (This may, again, have been more my decision than hers, but Dr. M agreed.)

The appointed day arrives, and I’m sitting in a courtroom, dreading the possibility of having to go home and tell Dr. M that we didn’t get the house. Sitting beside me is the real estate agent representing the sellers. The woman is not in a cheerful mood. Her developer buyers have long since flown the coop, and she’s stuck with a house whose sales price is considerably lower than the price its pre landmark-designation would have brought in. The target of her vituperation is my honey, Dr. M herself.

“That (Dr. M’s first name and last name)”, which, at the time, was different from mine. “She’s the cause of all this trouble. What a terrible, terrible woman!”

You can understand why I went to the court that day instead of Dr. M. Her presence might have incited the first real estate lynching in history. In the meantime, I had to sit there helplessly while my favorite person on the planet got talked about in a far from flattering manner.

The judge arrives, the proceedings proceed. The judge opens the sealed envelopes and announces the highest bid. It’s ours. The judge then calculates that seven per cent above our bid would be such-and-such. Is anybody willing to bid that amount?

My heart is pounding. My throat closes up. It’s like Emmy night all over again. Except instead of a statue, you get a house.

Nobody bids higher. The bungalow is ours.

Today marks the twenty-sixth anniversary of our having moved into that craftsman bungalow. It was a long, hard battle to get here (and an even longer one to get the place in shape, which I’ll tell you about another time), but there’s at least one sign that this house was always meant to be ours, though it took quite a while for us to notice it.

The numbers of our address are the same numbers as my birthday.


R.A. Porter said...

Hey now! Ethiopian is one of my favorite cuisines!

Great story. And you showed remarkable restraint not sticking it to that realtor in court. I would have.

Tim Susman said...

Wow, that's a terrific story! And you got a house out of it as well.

Jessica said...

Interesting story, your wife has great character.

Reena Agrawal said...

Wow.. nice story.. n congrats for finally getting the house.. :)