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Owner Lisa Henson defends renovations on historic Venice bungalow compound

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The bungalows were built by the chauffeur and confidant of Venice founder Abbot Kinney

Movie producer and Hollywood executive Lisa Henson and her husband, artist Dave Pressler, are renovating the historic Venice bungalow compound that once belonged to Irvin Tabor, the onetime chauffeur and confidant of Venice founder Abbot Kinney.

That has drawn the ire of neighbors and some of Tabor's descendants, who protested the work over the weekend, questioning the project's permits and arguing that the compound—one of the first in Southern California developed by and for an African-American family—should be granted landmark status.

The California Coastal Commission, meanwhile, told Curbed that the work may have run afoul of its requirements for either a coastal development permit or a coastal exemption by the city of Los Angeles; it said it has referred the matter to the city for further action.

It all mystifies Henson, chief executive of The Jim Henson Co. and a producer of such films as Lethal Weapon and 1989's Batman. "I think there may be some kind of misunderstanding that it's being torn down," Henson told Curbed, adding that she and Pressler are fully aware of the compound's historical significance.

Westminster Place

The couple purchased the 10,410-square-foot compound in December for $2.7 million, property records show.

By that time, Henson said, four of the eight bungalows had already been extensively remodeled and modernized. The work underway now is intended to bring the remaining four bungalows up to code and to match the previously renovated ones, she said.

"We're making the four cottages that were derelict essentially look pretty much like the four that were already renovated," Henson said. "And it does look ugly right now, because one of them is down to the studs ... And so I think maybe the neighbors are alarmed that they saw something that was ... really just a frame of what it used to be. But all the footprints will be the same as they have been historically."

Henson added: "It's not a historical restoration, because that would be an entirely different project. But they are being made to match the four that were previously renovated, and then the footprints of the whole property is the same, and the size of the cottages is the same. It's really modernizing them so they can look pretty and be liveable."

The goal is to rent out the bungalows, she said.

But neighbors are concerned about the extent of the renovations and the nature of the work permits.

Protest organizer Sue Kaplan told Curbed that the renovations "pull apart the basic structure of the original buildings." She has submitted an application for historic cultural monument status for the buildings.

Louisiana native Irvin Tabor (or Irving, as he was sometimes called) drove for Abbot Kinney, the cigar magnate who developed the neighborhood known then as the Venice of America at the turn of the 20th century, according to the Los Angeles Times. Tabor eventually became such a friend to Kinney that the developer deeded him his residence.

But before that, Tabor built the compound of bungalows on Westminster Avenue in the Oakwood neighborhood, using wood from an old pier boat house and amusement park, and brought his family from Louisiana to live there.

"Irvin Tabor ... and his cousin, Arthur Reese, who was Abbot Kinney's designer, were instrumental in the building and the design of Venice of America," Kaplan said. "And it is extraordinary, because these two were African-Americans at a time when they were very limited in what they could do and where they could stay. And Irvin Tabor was one of the first African-Americans to buy property, and he bought it to house family, who were coming up from Louisiana to also work at Venice of America ... It was the first intentional African-American community in Los Angeles."

Because the compound is in the coastal zone, the Coastal Commission has a say in what work takes place, Noaki Schwartz, a spokesperson with the agency, told Curbed.

"In working with the city, we found that there was no coastal exemption or coastal development permit on file," Schwartz said. "The property owner obtained building permits from LA Department of Building and Safety, but they still need a coastal exemption or local coastal development permit from the city of Los Angeles Department of City Planning."

Schwartz added: "We received reports of demolition and referred the matter to the LA Department of City Planning. Upon our referral it appears city planning instructed [the department of building and safety] to inspect the site for compliance. Both determined that the work requires a coastal development permit."

It's unclear what happens next. A spokesperson for the city planning department told Curbed it had no record of the request from the Coastal Commission. A spokesperson for the building and safety department did not respond to Curbed requests for further information.

And Henson said she has heard from neither the commission nor the city about any further permits or inspections, nor has she received any request to halt work on the renovations.

"When that protest was happening, I had no idea there was any issue with this project," Henson said. "We were debating such mundane matters as whether the bungalows need air conditioners or not ... We had no idea there was any problem going on anywhere." But, she added: "We are law-abiding people, and whatever has to happen will happen."