Whither the Peabody-Werden House?

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Earlier this month, concerned by social media chatter about trespassers and trash around the Peabody-Werden House in Boyle Heights, we renewed our attempts to get someone at ELACC, the low-income housing developer that moved the house two years ago, to update us on their plans for the property.

It turns out there’s been a lot of turnover on ELACC’s staff, and our past inquiries slipped through the cracks. A meeting with ELACC was arranged outside the house on a misty, warm morning, also attended by local historian-activists Shmuel Gonzalez and Dapper Dyke Vivian Escalante.

Across 1st Street, a victim of the flames

Across the street, a cute little bungalow that had been the big house’s neighbor for a century was open to the sky, having recently caught fire. But over on the Metro lot, the Peabody-Werden house was sealed up tight, with concentric rings of chain link fencing, plywood over the windows and a motion detector sniffing for trouble. On the porch above, a mummified cat stood silent guard.

What’s the plan, we asked? It’s slowly coming together, they told us. Restoration and activation of the historic house is tied to a new housing development on the west side of Soto Street, and that project is several years from completion. The general plan is for the old house to remain on the Metro lot, where it can serve as a community arts center, though it could also be non-profit offices or serve some other public use.

We’re encouraged by the increased security around the house and by ELACC’s interest in preserving it. Now that communication lines are open again, we’ll keep the conversation going, and post updates as we have them. Until then, please keep a watchful eye on the big blue Victorian at the corner of 1st and Soto Streets. She’s got a lot of life left in her, and it’s up to all of us who care to help keep her standing strong until the plywood come off and she becomes a part of Boyle Heights’ living history once more.

 

Seen in Boyle Heights: the incredible historic preservation power of social media

Esotouric's Meme that saved the Peabody Werden House

On September 10, 2015, I read the transcript of a short KPCC radio piece about 20 Boyle Heights families facing eviction from their rent-controlled apartments by low-income housing developer East L.A. Community Corporation (ELACC). Residents had been organized by Union de Vecinos to protest the loss of their homes. I shared the news with my husband Richard Schave, who hosts an occasional tour about the cultural history of Boyle Heights.

On September 26, while running errands in the neighborhood, Richard and I stopped to see where residents were fighting to save their homes. Although the eviction fight and planned demolitions had received quite a bit of news coverage that month, we were startled to discover that one of the threatened properties was a very handsome double-width, half-timbered Victorian house. Why had none of the reporters mentioned that this wasn’t just an eviction story, but an historic preservation story, too?

After taking some photos of the run-down house from the sidewalk, I went home and researched the history of 2415 East 1st, learning it was built circa 1895 and had been an early mixed use development: residential below and commercial above.

Concerned that nobody had sounded the alarm about the demolition threat to a unique historic structure, I spent half an hour designing a simple image meme showing the vintage building contrasted with its proposed modern replacement. The text read: “SAVE ME! Q: With so many vacant lots in Boyle Heights, why does affordable housing developer ELACC want to tear down a 120-year old mansion?.”

Then late on September 27, I posted the image on Esotouric’s Facebook account with the suggestion that anyone concerned about the house share it and send an email to developer ELACC. Dozens of people shared it overnight.

My own September 27 email to ELACC read: “I am writing in regard to the 1895 half-timbered double house at [2415 East 1st], which is slated for demolition under your proposed redevelopment project, Cielito Lindo. This is a rare example of Tudor-style architecture on the East side of the river, and is also unusual due to its scale and its retention of glass, wood and stone details. It has great bones, and deserves another chance. I urge you to explore options for moving this 120 year old community landmark, rather than destroying it.”

On September 28, ELACC President Isela C. Gracian President replied, with a message that was refreshingly different from the demolition plans that had been reported in the Los Angeles Times, Eastsider L.A. and Boyle Heights Beat.

Gracian thanked me for my interest in the property and continued, “Let me just start off correcting information, this building is not slatted (sic) nor has it been for demolition. This is incorrect information which has unfortunately been disseminated.We at ELACC support the preservation of historic places and [this] is a building we are working to preserve by moving it to a different location. The preservation of the building has been at the forefront since we acquired the property.”

The time elapsed between my initial email to ELACC and ELACC’s reply? Just thirteen hours and 52 minutes. But in that short window, dozens of people shared the image meme and sent their own emails of concern.

In late October, Richard and I took Ms. Gracian up on an invitation to participate in a discussion about possible future uses for the building, where we learned that an empty MTA lot directly across 1st Street might be available as a new home for structure, which ELACC had nicknamed The Blue House or The Peabody Werden House in honor of early residents. (see Attachment B – Peabody-Werden House Relocation Site Plan.)

And this Thursday, June 30 (8:00AM – 2:00PM), after 121 years facing south, the structure will be moved directly across 1st Street to its temporary, north-facing home. And Richard and I will be there to watch the show, tickled to know that because we stopped to take a look, and shared our concerns with the preservation-minded Los Angeles social media community, ELACC responded with a respectful plan to preserve a piece of Boyle Heights history for future generations. Won’t you join us?

And it’s a happy ending for the residents, too, as Union de Vecinos negotiated right of return for evicted tenants to go to the top of the list to move into the new development.

So what’s next for The Peabody Werden House? Metro is granting a one year license to stage the historic house on their vacant lot during construction of the approved Cielito Lindo project. which requires its removal. ELACC is exploring options for its future use, including restoring it as a community space for residents of the proposed Los Lirios development slated for the vacant lot. (see 1st_soto_board_report). Stay tuned to the Esotouric blog for updates as we get them.

Updated to add: watch the house moved here.