Famous Windsor Hills and Ladera Heights Home Builder
by Dan Steinbrocker
(Continued from home page)
RAISED ON A TENNESSEE FARM
Born in 1902, Homer Valentine and his 2 brothers and 3 sisters learned how to build and fix most anything on the family's Jackson, Tennessee farm – from the basement to the roof and from the main house to the outhouse.
A natural tinkerer, he became an expert telegrapher by his late teens and parlayed that skill into a job with the local railroad. When he had saved enough money he attended business school during the day and worked for the railroad at night.
Homer put his business education to use by opening a successful Tennessee general store, selling soap to saddles. The coming of World War II impacted everyone and made it difficult to stock a decent supply of many basic items.
THE WESTWARD MIGRATION
He took his family and left the war weary population of Jackson, Tennessee in 1944 for the West. He probably drove his 1941 Chevy fairly slowly, as there was a wartime rationing of gasoline.
The family rolled up to the Inglewood Motel and began their new life. They soon moved into Homer's sister-in-law's Inglewood house. Homer's eleven-year old son Lynn became a student at Audubon Junior High School, in Leimert Park.
It was a time when people gathered around their Philco table radios listening to the latest war reports and then finding relief hearing Bing Crosby crooning "I'll Be Seeing You", the Ink Spots and Ella Fitzerald singing "I'm Making Believe", and the Andrew Sisters and Bing Crosby harmonizing on "Don’t Fence Me In".
OPENING UP THE WINDSOR HILLS
AND LADERA HEIGHTS AREAS
Valentine put his Tennessee farm construction skills to work in L.A. rehabilitating Windsor Hill homes and selling them. It was the original version of "flipping" houses. He did all his banking at the 54th and Crenshaw Boulevard Bank of America.
The builder did not know it, but when he was introduced to Reuben F. Ingold of the L.A. Investment Company, his life would change.
Ingold and L.A. Investment Company were pivotal in selling large expanses of vacant land in View Park, Ladera Heights, and other areas to builders like Valentine. The land was a mixture of dirt and native plants. But Valentine and a few other builders, together with talented designers, turned bare land into exciting new neighborhoods.
High on a hill, above Stocker Street at 4400 Mount Vernon Drive, is a beautiful running track with a solitary bronze plaque and a LA. County Parks Department sign, both with Ingold's name misspelled. There is no mention of Reuben Ingold and L.A. Investment Company's roles in the creation of View Park, Ladera Heights and other areas of Los Angeles.
Valentine started buying dirt lots from Ingold and constructed a large number of homes in View Park, beginning in 1946. "There was vacant land above Valley Ridge Avenue, and that is where we started building," Lynn recounted.
"L.A Investment Company would open a street a year and sell lots to builders," Lynn Valentine explained. "Dad bought many of his lots from them. He built on Olympiad Drive, Valley Ridge, a bunch on Fairway, on Kenway and on other View Park streets. He even built a home for Reuben Ingold, in View Park.
"When I was young, we planned to move in to one of the homes my dad built, but they always sold too fast." Lynn commented. "Dad finally got around to building a home just for us at Fairway Boulevard and Valley Ridge Avenue in View Park."
Cal Worthington lived two houses down from Valentine. Back then, the famous car dealer had a Slauson Avenue location in Huntington Park.
"Dad was building some two-story houses in View Park in the 1950s," Lynn remembered. "We usually put in a 3-car garage, with the main entry on the lower level. On the other side was a recreation room, living room, and bedrooms. Upstairs is where people wanted a living room, dining room, master bedroom and family room."
"When Ladera Heights land was opened up to builders, dad started building just one-story homes, Lynn said. We tried to get all the corner lots in a new tract, as well as in other areas. We often put in four-car garages in those corner homes."
Springpark Avenue, in lower Ladera, was the last street opened up by L.A. Investment Company. " Reuben Ingold had sold us so many lots, he had to act as a referee with all the builders." Lynn recalled, "So, we were limited to buying lots on just one side of Springpark."
BRILLIANT MARKETING CONCEPT
Valentine always tried to be innovative, so his houses would stand out.
"Dad was kind of inventive in his own way. After the war when the building boom started, the developers and builders never landscaped the new houses," Lynn said. "He realized people wanted to move in to a completely finished home, both inside and out. He came up with a complete turnkey package. He was one of the first builders to sell homes with fully landscaped grounds. Potential buyers took one look and loved it."
He constantly looked for any new breakthrough that would give him an edge in selling his homes. "When dad saw his first remote garage door opener, around 1949, he flipped for it and started putting one in every house. Buyers really went for them. It was a big deal."
Valentine got so busy building homes, it got the attention of the Bank of America manager at the Crenshaw branch. The bank approached the builder to finance new homes in the upcoming new Ladera Heights development.
"Garth Avenue was one of the first streets in lower Ladera that the L.A. Investment Company opened up to builders. So dad, on a whim, bought two adjacent Garth lots at $7500 each in 1954 from Reuben Ingold," Lynn recalled.
GOLF COURSE VIEWS
When Ingold offered Valentine some lots on Wooster Avenue, he went for it. They overlooked the beautiful, sprawling 36-hole Fox Hills golf course. This Culver City course was designed by the famous George Clifford Thomas, Jr. in 1927. Thomas also had designed the Riviera Country Club course and the Bel-Air Country Club course, among 20 different California fairways. Whenever you go shopping at the Fox Hills Mall, you could be standing either on a former green or in a sand trap.
Prospective Wooster home buyers loved the peaceful views of the golf course from Valentine's new Wooster homes. Some people would ask, "How do you know they are going to keep the golf course?" Valentine must have come up with a good answer, because everything sold quickly.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Lynn remembered how his father was there for him, when he was juggling both college and his young family.
"I had gotten married while attending USC and spent three and a half years there. We had a little girl and were renting." Lynn recalled. "Dad felt sorry for us, as we had a very limited income. He said, 'I got those other two lots on Garth.' So he built a house for us at 5857 Garth. A family approached dad to build on the adjacent lot he owned, so he built a house for them."
Lynn recalled, "On other side of 5857 Garth Avenue was a realtor from Inglewood, Terry Mansur. One of his daughters was married to Andy Granitelli, the race car driver. The neighbor across the street had moved out from Michigan. He worked for Ford placing their cars within television programs and as part of movie scenes."
"I remember when the Frank Parent school was built in lower Ladera on 64th Street. We were very happy to see the grammar school open; it was so close to where we lived. My daughter went there the first year," Lynn remembered.
NEW HOUSE EVERY TWO WEEKS
"Demand for new homes kept increasing. "We tried to start a house every two weeks in Ladera," Lynn said. "We had an ideal situation. Never took bids from subcontractors. We used same subs for each and every facet of the construction over and over. We had a crew of carpenters and a crew of painters, electricians, plumbers, and one laborer. They always treated us fairly. I made the rounds of our homes being built every day. I'd roll out of bed, get in the truck, go to a job two minutes away and then go to next one and the next. Picked up lumber or whatever else was needed."
"The biggest challenge was getting permits to start houses. Dad was able to talk the L.A. County permit department into getting permits ready when we needed them. He had a fine reputation."
A LESSON LEARNED FAST
Costs were a major factor to Homer, but he wanted to give buyers a premium product. "We were putting in beautiful three-quarter inch hardwood floors," Lynn said, "Yet, people were putting carpeting down over those lovely floors."
A light went on in Homer's head. "We started putting in plain plywood floors, knowing the buyers were going to put down carpeting. This saved us a lot of money by not adding the finished wooden floors," Lynn explained.
" But when the weekend open house came," Lynn recounted, "It didn't matter how much I smiled at the buyers or offered a good price, they would take one look at the plywood floors and they would walk out. I had to break the news to dad that the unfinished plywood floors were discouraging buyers."
ROLL OUT THE CARPET
Homer was a can-do kind of guy, so he immediately started a long-term relationship with Crenshaw Carpets. "We got that house carpeted during the week, and it sold at the next weekend's open house."
Things were rolling along so fast that Homer started worrying about keeping his new homes from looking to similar.
"To be honest with you, it was kind of difficult to keep the houses looking different from each other." Lynn remembered.
THE ARCHITECTS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DESIGNS
While Valentine had a reputation for quality construction, honesty, and creativity, credit has to go to the designers who gave his homes a distinctive look. The elegant attributes of the exteriors and the spacious, well-planned interiors were major selling points of his homes
A realtor tipped Valentine off about two new young, talented draftsmen working out of a small office in Leimert Park. One of the young draftsmen was Robert L. Earl.
The young draftsman and the seasoned builder met and a 15-year relationship began. Earl created a variety of signature design features for each of the homes.
"I credit Homer Valentine for the expansion of my career, when I was starting out. People would admire the style and design of Homer's new houses and call me to draw up plans for their homes," Earl said. "I still love the Windsor Hills and Ladera Heights areas. The homes and grounds are so well kept up. I grew up in Windsor Hills myself."
"Homer liked to build homes close to where he lived. When he lived in View Park, he built there. When he lived in Ladera Heights, he had his crews there. I often ended up traveling a lot further," the architect said with a smile.
Earl acquired his A.I.A. credentials and went on to build elegant estate homes all over Southern California, Hawaii and across the country, as well as in China, Brunei and elsewhere. His clients have included professional sports figures, Madonna, Nancy Sinatra, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Kardashian, Barron Hilton, and Warren Beatty, among dozens of others. He also designed Reuben Ingold's home and that of Ingold's son-in-law and daughter.
A Robert L. Earl designed home sold for $17.5 million in 2011. Another reportedly sold more recently for $50 million.
"I remember when I started getting a little career traction many decades ago. Two men walked into my office. One of them, a Baldwin Hills lot salesman, introduced me to the famous German rocket scientist and aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun."
Von Braun went 180 degrees in his career, from being the leading developer of World War II Nazi Germany rocket technology to becoming the architect of NASA's Saturn V launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.
"Von Braun wanted me to design a house on his newly acquired Baldwin Hills lot," Earl said.
"I picked up the phone another time and a sonorous voice said, 'Hi, this is Vince Scully.' I couldn't believe it was the Dodger famous play-by-play announcer. I almost fell out of my chair."
When Earl designed several hundred houses in Palos Verdes for upscale developments, a lot of deep pockets took notice of his handsome designs.
"That's how Donald Trump found me out," Earl noted. "He was building his Rancho Palos Verdes golf course and asked me to create a few homes. Then he changed his mind and told me to design homes on the whole street. Donald was and is a gifted marketer. He wanted potential buyers to view a whole avenue of nothing but pristine, spanking new estates without any unfinished construction sites to spoil the moment."
HOMER VALENTINE'S UPSCALE BRAINSTORM
"We had been selling $60,000 to $70,000 homes," Lynn remembered. "That was a solid price in those times. Dad wanted to test the waters on a higher priced model. He sought out a respected architect with a great design esthetic, Charles W. Wong."
"Dad had Wong draw up a house at 61st on a corner in Ladera Heights. The design was totally different in architecture than anything we had ever done. It was expensive to build. The flat roof was raised in the middle, above the family and living room. We put the new design on the market on a Sunday. It was $97,500, which was a lot of money then. It had a four-car garage and a pool. This was the first house in Ladera Heights sold with a pool."
"I held the Sunday open house and opened the front door at 1pm. I'll never forget it. Dad came by, anxious to see what was happening. People were pouring in – we were swamped."
"Dad was flabbergasted by the size of the crowd. He said, 'You can't have all these people in the house. You're going to close the front door.' At 4pm Dad and I told all the people the home was sold. He manned the entrance so no one else could get in. All this happened in the first 3 hours on the market. I had a list of potential buyers."
PLUSH PLUMBER FLUSHES COMPETITION
AND BUYS FIRST WONG HOME
"Among the many interesting people who came by, in those three crazy hours, was a repair plumber from Inglewood," Lynn recalled with a grin. He was a flamboyant guy who had a standing reservation for a new red Cadillac Eldorado convertible every year from an Inglewood dealer. He happened to be out for a Sunday drive. He took one look at the house and told me, 'I want it.'"
"That night the plumber called my dad and said he had changed his mind. Without missing a beat, my dad said that was fine, because another buyer was waiting for it. The plumber paused and said, 'You know I just changed my mind again – I'm taking it.' This guy was something else. He'd have the lights on in the four-car garage to show off his fancy cars."
The old price barrier had been broken. Valentine found an additional niche market with the Charles Wong flat roof designs.
Valentine was always looking for an edge over the competition, who reportedly were jealous of his success. This time the Valentine edge was including a pool.
"Dad made sure there was an Anthony pool in each Wong design he built," Lynn commented.
While the more expensive Wong design was a big success, Valentine continued with his proven success formula – the elegant and high quality Robert Earl home designs that buyers wanted during those real estate bull market years. $60,000 to $70,000 for a beautiful landscaped new home was flirting with the high end of the affordable market in the 1950's and 1960's, but the demand was there.
"When Homer got busier and busier buying lots and building all over View Park and Ladera Heights, I think part of him was afraid he'd wake up one day to a cooling housing market. That didn't happen to him. Valentine homes were always in demand." Earl remembered.
The 1950's and '60s years were a modern version of the old west. Men like Homer Valentine rode into town and made themselves known. They staked their claims to the bare dirt in View Park and Ladera Heights. They chose professionals with artistic vision, like Robert Earl and Charles Wong and created lush neighborhoods imbued with timeless beauty for countless generations to enjoy.
Thanks to Lynn Valentine, the son of Homer Valentine, for his invaluable input about his father and to architect Robert L. Earl for his oral history.