Debora Masterson doesn’t remember why she was poking around the city’s Planning Department website back in early 2021 when she came across a historical designation for an old house just six doors from her own home in North Hills.
That was the beginning of her rally around the modest one-story house at 15526 Plummer Street in North Hills, a rare surviving 1914 house once owned by influential early San Fernando Valley farmer John L. Plummer who had 90 acres of land in the Valley and two other houses in the area.
“It was a fluke,” Masterson said. “I have lived here (since 1953), so I said, ‘I have to try and save this.”’
The 108-year-old home is one of the oldest survivors of the early period of development in Mission Acres, now known as North Hills. SurveyLA, a citywide survey, identified it as individually eligible for listing under national, state and local designation as a very rare, intact 1910s-era residence in the Valley.
Masterson learned that Bright Star Schools, a network of nine public charter schools in the San Fernando Valley, South Los Angeles and Koreatown, owns the land and has applied to build an elementary school on the property, and to turn the historic house into administrative offices.
Masterson launched a push to save and restore the Plummer house, re-envisioning it as a small museum dedicated to early California history with an adjacent park where students from nearby schools could enjoy field trips.
She formed the North Hills Preservation Consortium, now with 60 members — some of whom, like Masterson, are teachers. The group raised $5,000 in 2021, gathered 600-plus signatures of support, and hired a historic consultant to help them argue for an official city designation of the house as a historical monument.
“I wasn’t asking for this fight, believe me,” Masterson said. They rallied against the proposed project by Bright Star Schools, arguing that the community has only one park, and the proposed 34,755 square-foot school and its 28 classrooms would be built in an area saturated with 23 schools — 12 of them elementary schools in an era of significant decline in student enrollment at LAUSD.
The operators of Bright Star Schools did not respond to several efforts by the Daily News seeking comment. Bright Star Schools’ mission, according to its website, is to “provide holistic, inclusive support for all students to achieve academic excellence and grow their unique talents so that they find joy and fulfillment in higher education, career and life.”
In August, the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission unanimously approved the 114-year-old Craftsman-style house as a historical monument, a key step to a more formal city-approved designation. A formal designation will likely be considered in mid-November, when the Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote on the Cultural Heritage Commission’s historic designation.
If approved as a historical monument, the house cannot be torn down and the exterior cannot be changed without approval from the Cultural Heritage Commission. Aside from those restrictions, the school operators can use the Plummer house for its needs, and can develop the rest of their 2.1 acres of land.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, who represents the area, has backed the museum concept and the historical designation.
John L. Plummer would probably be intrigued by the debate over the future of his modest, old house more than 100 years later.
During the early history of the Valley’s growth, no water flowed through pipes and into homes. The California Aqueduct hadn’t been built yet, and infrastructure was modest. People dug wells and pumped their own water.
Vast areas of the Valley were farmland, including chicken farms and fields of barley and wheat. The Valley was known for cattle and sheep ranching, and fruit orchards were plentiful. Orange groves helped put the Valley on the map.
That era reflects the history of the influential Plummer family, significant landowners who grew wheat and barley. The eldest Plummer was a Canadian sea captain, and Plummer Park in West Hollywood and Plummer Street in the Valley bear the family’s name.
The Pacific Electric Railway San Fernando Valley Line arrived during this time, connecting the Valley to Los Angeles — including a stop at Plummer Street in 1913, pre-dating the arrival of irrigated water via the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1918. The aqueduct made long-term settlement and large-scale agriculture possible. But during the post-World War II era, the Valley’s population and housing exploded and most of the Valley’s ranching vanished.
Ken Bernstein, manager of the city’s Office of Historic Resources, says the Plummer house “is a very rare and intact example of a residence in the North Hills community from the earliest stages of residential development in the San Fernando Valley.”
Bernstein says the house “really represents that earliest pre-annexation period in the San Fernando Valley that dates … back to when this community was originally developed. It appears this may be the oldest residence from this early period of development, in this part of the Valley.”
He said his office is also actively working to encourage the historic designation of other notable properties that reflect the rich agricultural and political history of the Valley.
Masterson, who is a teacher, says while the Plummer house is seen as historically important among members of The Plummer Street Project, they also sees the generous land around the house — untouched for more than 100 years — as badly needed for the public.
“Most everybody in the neighborhood is against the school going in,” she said. “I’m not against schools, but I think anyone who looks at these two competing projects will see that our project, The Plummer Street Project, is the highest and best use.”
Her organization also cites traffic problems that a school could create on a residential block, including vehicles using the single entrance and exit located in the middle of the block, and heavy traffic when families drop off and pick up students.
“North Hills is park needy,” she says. “We are dying to save this vacant land. There is so little vacant land left. It would be so wonderful to have some open space.”
Bright Star Schools, which operates under the auspices of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has applied for a Conditional Use Permit, commonly referred to as a CUP, to build a 34,755 square-foot project with 28 classrooms for 552 students on the 2.1 acre property.
The envisioned school requires a Conditional Use Permit from the City Planning Commission because Bright Star Schools seeks to build a school in a residential zone, according to a spokesperson for the city’s planning department. It would include two one-story buildings, and one two-story building, and a 4,300-square-feet multipurpose room. Fifty parking spaces are also proposed.
One North Hills resident who opposes the school is Ervin Arevalo, who has been an educator for 24 years and teaches fourth-grade. He has lived in North Hills since 1982 and attended public elementary, middle and high school in the district.
“I feel I am North Hills, because I am here and I don’t know anything else,” Arevalo said. “And being in the (school) district allows me to see that we don’t need another school in North Hills.”
He wants to see a park and historic site, arguing that, “We have a lot of schools (some of which are) under-populated. They need more students, so why create another school? The school where I am has 10 empty classrooms.”
The city’s Office of Historic Resources says the proposed school will not directly impact the historic house because Bright Star Schools is not seeking to alter the exterior of the history-filled home.
A historic assessment would likely be incorporated into the Mitigated Negative Declaration section of the city-required Conditional Use Permit, which includes an environmental review assessment and studies related to air quality, noise, traffic — and a health-risk assessment because the proposed school would be close to the 405 freeway.
Masterson notes that Bright Start plans to use the Plummer house “for administrative offices, and (they) have agreed to retain it.” But it won’t be a public space, she said. “The problem is, they are not going to restore it.”
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