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Train lines and kit houses made Jefferson Park the textbook streetcar suburb

Historic Jefferson Park is a thoroughly modern invention. The quaint neighborhood of bungalows and cottages in South LA, just west of the University of Southern California, was a 20th-century bedroom community centered on streetcars and trolley stations. Its homes were also the product of the steamships and the railways and affordable cookie-cutter “kit-houses” purchased from a catalog and assembled by the homeowner.

More than 100 years later, it’s a case of history repeating itself. A new wave of residents—lured by the early-19th-century bungalows, new transit lines, central locality, and relative affordability—are moving into this old streetcar suburb.

Before it was 50 square blocks of streets and approximately 2,500 charming homes, the land that is now Jefferson Park was, during the Spanish and Mexican eras, both rancho and common public land used for raising cattle. In the second half of the 19th century, the area was populated with farms that grew corn, hay, grapes, and citrus.

Most well-known of these early post-statehood pioneers is the Texas-born Joseph L. Starr, who owned Estrella Dairy. The Starr home still stands, built in 1887 in the folk vernacular Victorian style, at 2801 Arlington Avenue. There was also a popular beer garden and the sprawling Vienna Park, which was later subdivided and sold as part of the Hopper and Sons Western Avenue Tract in 1905, according to the highly informative Jefferson Park: Historic Resources Survey Report, which was prepared for the city of Los Angeles by Architectural Resources Group Inc.

During the boomtime 1880s, there were attempts to develop a residential subdivision in the area, but due to lack of public transportation it didn’t meet with much success. As the century turned, however, grand suburban mansions began to rise on Adams Boulevard, which constitutes the northern border of Jefferson Park, surrounded by lush green lawns with stately carriage houses in the back.

As transportation improved across the country, working- and middle-class residential neighborhoods began to develop around trolley and train stations. These “streetcar suburbs” adapted upper-class country living to middle-class environments, affording modest Americans fresh air, green space, and private homes away from congested and crowded city centers. By 1903, streetcars were running south from Downtown Los Angeles along Adams and Jefferson boulevards, and development in what is now know as Jefferson Park began in earnest. According to the historic resources report:

By 1913… service along Santa Monica [Red Car] Air Line between downtown and the Jefferson Park area had increased to every 60 minutes. Even the Red Car, however, played only a minor role in Jefferson Park’s development. It took the arrival of the streetcar to jumpstart residential development in Jefferson Park. The Los Angeles Railway Company provided streetcar service along Adams Street west to Arlington as early as 1899. By 1905, the Los Angeles Traction Company was running a streetcar along Jefferson Street, also as far west as Arlington.

In the Jefferson Park area, a variety of developers began selling former ranchland in relatively uniform residential lots, with an average frontage of 45 feet and a depth of 125 feet, according to the historic resources report. Deed restrictions prohibiting nonwhite residents were placed on some real estate tracts in the area, but not on all.

Old, pastel-colored homes and skinny palm trees line a wide street on a sunny day.

From the start, these small lots were promoted as affordable for the average working family. The West Adams and Jefferson Street Tract was registered in 1903, and owned by Joseph L. Starr, Joseph Burkhard, W.R. Brady, and A.S. Bixby. The syndicate pointedly touted the cheapness of its lots, the plethora of available public transportation, and the tract’s proximity to the upper-class neighborhood of West Adams (“right near Adams Street Mansions!” read one ad). Mod-cons including concrete walks, concrete curbs, and mountain water piped to each lot were also touted. The ads appear to have been highly effective. By March 1903, the syndicate had sold almost $40,000 worth of lots costing as little as $385 each.

The largest tract was the Jefferson Street Park Tract, registered in 1906 by the Artesian Water Co., owned by May Knight Rindge, the indomitable “Queen of Malibu.” The company mounted an aggressive advertising campaign in the local papers praising the tract location by calling it “Jefferson St. Park on the Great Boulevard to the Sea.”

Ads also touted the Jefferson Street Park Tract as “the ideal Bungalowland.” But what ads didn’t say was that lot owners were usually required to build their own family bungalow on their newly bought land.

“Almost 1,500 different people are identified on a building permit as Jefferson Park owners. Many building permits listed only an owner with no architect or builder identified,” wrote the authors of the historic resources report. “The likeliest explanation for the consistency and quality of Jefferson Park’s housing stock is the use of plan books, also known as pattern books, and kit houses.”

The early 20th century was the golden age of the fabled kit house. Also known as “ready-cut” and “cut-to-fit” homes, mail-order houses were the result of the transportation revolution that brought Americans the streetcar suburb. Trains could bring building materials across the country at a great speed, and at a rate much cheaper than had previously been available. Because of this, the historian Mike Davis has called these structures “democracy bungalows.” Plan books, which included detailed architectural house plans and instructions for as low as $10 each, were also popular at the time.

Rebecca Hunter, author of Mail-Order Homes: Sears Homes and Other Kit Houses, explains that the lot owner who bought a kit house from a catalog could expect to receive complete architectural plans and thousands of building materials, including paint, trim, screens, and every nail needed. Walls were most often of yellow pine, with oak floors for the formal rooms and fir and maple for the others. Add-on built-in cabinets and shelves were extremely popular, and plumbing upgrades were extra.

Although Sears, Roebuck & Co. is the name most associated with kit houses today, most of the mail-order homes in Jefferson Park came from Pacific Ready Cut Homes Inc., originally incorporated in Los Angeles in 1908 as the Pacific Portable Construction Co. According to the Los Angeles Times:

From 1908 to 1940, Pacific Ready-Cut sold 37,000 ready-to-assemble homes based on 1,800 plans, plus some custom-designed ones, as practical California bungalows replaced fancy Victorians. Although most of the company’s houses were one story, it also produced two-story homes, duplexes, bungalow court apartments, hotels, gas stations and offices.

Wood for these homes was cut in the Pacific Northwest and shipped to the firm’s lumber mill in Huntington Park. Owners were responsible for constructing their new houses, and family and friends often banded together to raise a home. This kept labor costs down and gave new homeowners opportunities to customize their houses.

Most of the kit houses in the Jefferson Park area represent the most popular styles of the time but scaled smaller: Vernacular Victorian, American Foursquare, and especially the Craftsman bungalow inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. During the 1920s, revival styles, particularly Spanish and Colonial, became very popular. Kits for these homes could be remarkably cheap. In 1911, a two-room Sears cottage kit cost $146.25.

By 1930, 90 percent of the homes in Jefferson Park had been constructed, according to Hunter. The neighborhood was a mix of working- and middle-class Angelenos, with 40 percent of households having at least one foreign-born member. There was a large Jewish population and two synagogues.

Along Western Avenue, black-owned businesses flourished, including the original Fatburger (then Mr. Fatburger), opened by Lovie Yancey in 1947. The flagship Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building opened two years later, designed in the late Moderne style by Paul Williams. Rising behind Golden State Mutual was the famous Sugar Hill, where black celebrities such as Hattie McDaniel lived in old Victorian mansions.

Black culture thrived in the neighborhood due in part to librarian Vassie Davis Wright, founder of “Our Authors Study Club” at the local library. According to the Los Angeles Sentinel, she was also a local real estate broker. The library was renamed in her honor in 1984.

Quite a few Louisiana transplants also moved to the small cottages of Jefferson Park in the ’50s. They included people like Leon Aubry, a larger-than-life barber who styled the hair of both Mayor Tom Bradley and Nat King Cole. In 1969, Belle and Harold Legaux Sr. opened the legendary Harold and Belle’s Creole Restaurant, which serves New Orleans-style food in a fine dining setting to this day. This would lead to the area being known by some as “Little New Orleans.”

A blue home with wood siding is tucked behind a hedge.

By the early 1960s, the trolley and streetcar system had been dismantled. By the 1970s and ’80s, the area was hit by lack of investment, poverty, and increasing gang crime. Many of the bungalows and cottages were in disrepair as the economy slumped into the worst recession since the Great Depression in the early 1970s.

In 1984, Jane Suren Harrington began selling real estate in the West Adams and Jefferson Park areas. Long aware of the beauty of the neighborhood, Harrington says she found herself selling former drug houses and homes that families could no longer afford after decades of ownership.

“When I first started talking to homeowners, they were skeptical that their home was actually historic,” she says. “They considered that upgrading them would be to stucco the wooden siding and rip out the woodwork or paint it and remove clawfoot tubs.”

Harrington and fellow realtors worked hard to help homeowners realize the importance of preserving architectural details that made the structures so unique.

Many of her early buyers were in the artistic and LBGTQI communities. “Saving an old house doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Harrington says. “Saving a neighborhood has to happen at the same time. As people moved in to save these houses, they became activists starting block clubs and removing drug houses and abandoned buildings. Involving the whole community has been a big part of maintaining a diverse and engaged neighborhood.”

During the past decade, the neighborhood’s popularity with middle- and upper-middle-class Angelenos has exploded, due to its relatively lower priced homes. Prices have doubled, jumping from a median of $272,256 in 2010 to $772,500 in 2019. In 2011, a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone ordinance (commonly called an HPOZ) was adopted for Jefferson Park. A year later the Expo lines arrived, and more realtors came in. “The Expo line has been a game changer in many ways,” says Natalie Neith, who has sold hundreds of homes in the West Adams/Jefferson Park area over the past three decades.

“Many of the bungalows are being snapped up by flippers and totally redone… as a historic preservationist, I have mixed feelings about that,” she says.

Tyler and Thea Golden, both film industry professionals, had a hunch that Jefferson Park, was the family-friendly community they had been dreaming of. The 1,135-square-foot cottage they moved into in the spring of 2019 sealed the deal. “When we first pulled up to our house we fell in love with its classic ‘California bungalow’ style,” Tyler says. “The fact that all the houses on our street have a similar architectural style, but at the same time are unique, is what by far excites us about our street.”

The Goldens have worked to become part of the Jefferson Park community, starting a Buy Nothing Group for the neighborhood on Facebook, and getting to know their neighbors. According to Harrington, Jefferson Park homeowners have mostly embraced new arrivals. “One the best parts about selling in this area has been how long-time residents have welcomed newcomers, and how newcomers have integrated into the existing community,” she says.

But the influx of newcomers to the neighborhood is a mixed bag for longtime residents. “I like the recent changes,” says Tonette Lansdowne, who lives in a 1920s bungalow. “I’m quite happy about it, especially the walkability.” Ganine Arnold, who lives in the home she grew up in, worries that “the prices of the houses are so out of range for middle-class African-American families.”

Arnold remembers her childhood in the 1960s, when Cimarron Street was filled with kids playing, and women from the neighborhood babysitting the younger children while their parents worked or did errands. “Some of the families moved. Some of the children sold the homes,” she says. “But there are some of us left.”

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