Restoring Turn-of-the-Century L.A., Part 1

Echo Park wasn’t the best part of Los Angeles in 1975 when a young couple moved to their Angelino Heights Victorian home. As the sun set on the Thornberg’s first day in their new home, helicopters circled overhead while popping noises were heard outside.

 

exterior of the house

The exterior of the house is painted in a deep green, high-gloss oil paint because the California sunshine will fade the color within a few years. The Thornbergs used Victorian colors; the brick-red color highlights the architectural details of the wood trims.

 

No, the sounds weren’t from fireworks, as Barbara had thought, but rather gunfire. Still, despite the dangers of the neighborhood, the Thornbergs stayed in the house and started renovation of an 1888 Victorian that had been stripped to bare walls.

“We were in our 20s, and we didn’t have a lot of money,” Barbara recalls. “We knew when we moved in we were going to have to do a lot of the work ourselves, but we were happy with that.” Looking back, Barbara says with a laugh: “You have to have a strong marriage to work on a restoration project like this together!”

It wasn’t easy to get a mortgage in Angelino Heights at that time. The area had been zoned as “R4,” which meant that if a developer tore down one of the many Victorian homes, there was nothing to stop them from putting up a condominium complex. These once-beautiful vintage homes had been turned into boarding houses after World War II, when there was a housing shortage, and by the mid-’70s were not only dilapidated but also threatened by fires caused by old electrical wiring.

 

The Thornbergs’ house

The Thornbergs’ house is a Historic-Cultural City Monument, and their block of Carroll Avenue is on the National Register of Historic Places due to its high concentration of Queen Anne and Eastlake homes.

The Thornbergs were undeterred. One of the first things Barbara did was to set up the Carroll Avenue Restoration Foundation, or CARF, a nonprofit, educational charity organization that would preserve the architectural integrity of the street and its homes. For at least 10 years, Barbara organized home tours to raise money and awareness for CARF, bringing visitors to see inside the homes and enjoy barbershop quartets, vintage cars and other entertainment on a street that looks more like San Francisco than Los Angeles.

Today, the 1300 block of Carroll Avenue is on the National Register of Historic Places, as it has the highest concentration of Eastlake and Queen Anne residences in Southern California, and is the only place where you can get a true sense of how Los Angeles looked at the turn of the last century.

The Thornberg home is listed as a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural City Monument, singling the house out as a significant and cherished local resource. Barbara herself could be seen as such, not only because of her work with CARF, but she has also been instrumental with the Los Angeles Conservancy.

 

complementary style

The mantelpieces are original to the house, and this fireplace’s tiles were also intact. The hearth tiles needed to be replaced, which the owners did in a complementary style. The house’s fireplaces were intended to be gas only, although Barbara wishes she could burn real logs in them.

Angelino Heights is perched on a hilltop, and the Thornberg house has three stories plus an attic. The basement holds an office and a media room for the cinephile couple; the ground floor features two parlors, the kitchen and the dining room; and the second floor contains the bedrooms and a study. The attic, with its 8-foot ceiling, is what Barbara calls “the final frontier.”

“After 35 years, I’m ready to tackle it,” she says. “I’ve always wanted a walk-in closet, and there will be plenty of room for a guest bedroom and bathroom.”

by Jennifer Myers

Photography by Mark Tanner

 

 

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