A SurveyLA Field Day in Toluca Lake

By David J. Barboza

Christine and Robby discussing the degree of alteration in a property. Author’s photo.

Remember that bus tour of the southern San Fernando Valley I wrote about back in April? That was part of the reconnaissance for SurveyLA’s Group 4 surveys. Recon also includes the driving of every street in the survey area and quickly identifying things that appear to merit more scrutiny. Once this is done, survey teams go out and give each property a closer look. That’s what I got a chance to do last week with Christine Lazzaretto and Robby Aranguren, Principal and Planning Associate respectively at Historic Resources Group (full disclosure: I also work part-time for HRG).

Our destination was Toluca Lake. Specifically, a residential area south of Riverside Drive and north of the Lakeside Golf Club. The club is aptly named, since it does indeed sit beside the lake that gives Toluca Lake its name. The district’s buildings are all detached houses of varying styles and ages on large blocks, linked by a mesh of narrow, often curving streets.

This map shows the approximate area of the Toluca Lake Residential District. Similar aerial images at varying scales are available to survey teams in the field through FiGSS. Source: ZIMAS.

The day had one overriding goal: to figure out if an area called the Toluca Lake Residential District will make the grade as a historic district as part of SurveyLA. Remember, SurveyLA isn’t going to directly result in any historic designations (i.e. the formal legal recognition and protection of a historic resource by some level of government). Instead, SurveyLA is a planning tool, that can be used for many purposes, including nominating significant properties or districts for designation.

The Toluca Lake Residential District is an area that was identified in the recon phase as a potential historic district because of its Period Revival style architecture, connections with the entertainment industry, and because of the way it illustrates automobile suburbanization. The team defined a tentative period of significance for the area as well: 1923 (the date of subdivision) to 1945 (the last year of World War II). The survey team’s job was to finish checking each of about 150 properties in the district to determine if each is a “contributor” or a “non-contributor” to the potential historic district.

To be a “contributor” in this case means being historically significant along the lines above and having enough historic integrity to convey that significance. According to the Secretary of the Interior, historic integrity refers to how the location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association of a property convey (or don’t convey) its historical significance. To use an analogy, Sherlock Holmes is to historic integrity as Professor Moriarty is to alterations. If a property has too many alterations, it loses its ability to convey its significance, and will not contribute to any potential district identified as part of SurveyLA. Properties built outside the period of significance are not recorded as contributors.

The Survey Process

The process of documenting the district followed three basic steps. Public outreach and recon precede these steps:

1) Photographing a group of buildings, sometimes repeatedly in search of the best possible shot and uploading those digital photos to the Field Guide Survey System (FiGSS) GIS application on the portable computer in the car. Sometimes trees, light/shadow issues, fencing, or vehicle/pedestrian traffic can complicate survey photography. Please note that the photos used in this post were shot by the author, and were taken more quickly and at lower resolution than the actual survey photos.

Robby taking photos. Author’s photo.

2) Discussion and documentation. In this step the team compares ideas for styles or building materials that are tricky to identify, then enters data into FiGSS. Some properties were entered both as individually significant resources and separately for their status as district contributors or non-contributors. To determine contributor or non-contribuor status, much attention is paid to the degree of alteration in the structure. Properties that are entered as individual resources have more detailed architectural descriptions that include information on the following: setting, facade composition (degree of symetry), plan (shape as seen from overhead), construction (materials used on the underlying structure), cladding (material covering wall surfaces), roof type (e.g. hipped or front-gabled), roof material, roof features (e.g. dormers), porch, door and fenestration (window arrangement, style and materials).

Christine entering data into FiGSS. Author’s photo

3) Office research at a later date if necessary (e.g. to check historic Sanborn fire-insurance maps to see if a tricky property has a later addition). Follow-up documentation then occurs based on the office research.

Notable Finds

The team entered descriptions for several interesting properties that appear to be individually significant. All properties entered as individually significant are also district contributors. Some examples follow, see the captions for details:

This Tudor-style house was entered as an individual resource. Author’s photo.

Streamline Moderne is a rare style for houses, so this one was a delightful find. Author’s photo.

Pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart lived here just before her last flight. Author’s photo.

The legendary singer and actor Bing Crosby once called this house home. Author’s photo.

This house (1948) was designed by J.R. Davidson as an update and slight modification of his design for Case Study House #1 (1945), which was never built. Author’s photo.

This Early Modern house was designed by Henry C. Berge, an award-winning local architect (USC, class of 1935) who was also an academic. Author’s photo.

Other Happenings

For lunch we kept things local at Sweetsalt on Riverside Drive, which was just outside the district we were surveying. I had the Champagne Chicken Salad, which was pretty interesting because it was a vegetable-based salad with grapes in it. Good stuff, but I digress 🙂

Another thing that came up in the field was “the green layer.” That’s the informal name for the information people submit to SurveyLA, which survey teams use in the field. It shows up as green polygons on FiGSS maps. We got a chance to use the green layer at the William Klump House. Thanks to data we got from the public, the survey team had rich background information on Klump, who was an important developer in the San Fernando Valley, especially around Toluca Lake. This house was documented individually.

The William Klump House, documented with the help of information from the public. Author’s photo.

At one point we came across a house that was clearly being renovated. So, how does SurveyLA approch documenting properties that are being altered at the moment the team sees them? The team photographs the property in its current state and makes a note in FiGSS that it should be surveyed at a later date. However, it is sometimes possible to tell on the spot that the alterations have compromised the building’s integrity.

At another point, we had a run in with the law. An LAPD officer drove by in his patrol car and asked us what we were doing. This is something that comes up in field work from time to time. It can look a bit suspicious when people are documenting a property, taking photographs, and making notes for several minutes (don’t worry, we’re harmless!). When asked, survey teams explain that they are conducting an architectural survey and will provide official letters from the City of Los Angeles describing SurveyLA upon request. Survey teams do not enter private property. All survey work is done from the public right of way. Because survey teams are contractors, they don’t have City of LA ID cards. Once we explained our business, the officer was even kind enough to tell us about a nearby neighborhood with properties he thought we shouldn’t miss!

It was great to get out in the field and see the survey in action. If you have any information that could help survey teams evaluate properties, please let us know!

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