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The house that changed a community

Passing by | The South Seas House is located near the I-10 Freeway, at the intersection of Arlington and 24th Street. The Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks originally wanted to demolish the house and expand the adjacent park, but community members objected over fears that children playing nearby would be too close to oncoming traffic.

Where it all began | The South Seas House was originally built in 1902. The first owner was Joseph Dupuy, but the Dupuy family later sold the house away after Joseph's death in 1922.

Fresh paint job | After a strong push from the local community, the house was rebuilt in 2002 with the help of architect Michele McDonough. It re-opened as a community hub in 2003.

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By Alex Shultz

On the corner of Arlington and 24th Street in the West Adams District is a fenced-off property with a history even more colorful than its bright exterior.

The South Seas House was built in 1902, and for 20 years Joseph Dupuy was its proud owner. But the home changed hands following Joseph’s death in 1922, and things were never quite the same. The South Seas House deteriorated with each passing decade. Soon, it was abandoned, then re-occupied by vandals and squatters. But at its bleakest point, as overgrown trees and bushes covered up an uninhabitable interior full of debris, a curious thing happened — the community stepped in and adopted the home as its own. Eventually, after an arduous rebuilding process nearly 15 years in the making, the South Seas House became a hub of activity for the same people who saved it.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why a grassroots effort to save the South Seas House started, but what’s beyond dispute is that by the early ‘90s, the property was on the verge of being torn down. The City of Los Angeles transferred ownership to the Department of Recreation and Parks for, quite literally, nothing.

“It was transferred to them for zero dollars, which was fairly offensive to everyone in the community,” said Laura Meyers, who helped form the South Seas House Action Committee.

The Department of Recreation and Parks was interested in expanding on a local park at the expense of the house, which didn’t sit well with members of the community.

“We ended up having quite a few community meetings so we could build community consensus,” Meyers said. “(We) ended up agreeing that it was a good idea whereby the house would be restored in a disadvantaged youth job training kind of situation, and that we would try and find programs for youth and run recreation programs out of the house.”

The rebuilding of the South Seas House became politicized—City Council members got involved, and hundreds of people in nearby neighborhoods raised money for its renovation. Others, like the now-deceased John Deaven, took it upon themselves to raise awareness about the project.

“He kept putting up signs because somebody else kept taking them down that said ‘Save our South Seas House,’ day after day after day,” Meyers said.

The community accumulated $18,000, at which point the City of Los Angeles pledged close to $1.7 million to fully fund the project. Local architect Michele McDonough was hired to oversee the rebuilding process in 2000, which she was happy to do.

“I live in the neighborhood, and like all the neighbors, I was constantly driving by it,” McDonough said. “I just thought it was a wonderful house and was really upset that it was being permitted to fall apart the way it was.”

South Seas was reconstructed from 2002 to 2003, with Dupuy’s original design serving as the inspiration for the home.

“It was a great feeling of joy, achievement, relief and pride that we had come together as a community to get this done,” McDonough said.

At the grand re-opening in 2003, the community’s attention turned to the adjacent Benny H. Potter Park, which was nothing more than a popular hangout for local gangs and drug dealers. Guy Leemhuis, then the neighborhood council president, pledged to read a book for an hour a week by the house, and urged his fellow community members to do the same. The plan worked, and a new basketball court, playground area, and other amenities were soon added.

“I think that after the house was restored, the rest of the park followed,” said Carlton Stubbs, who served as facility manager for the South Seas House from 2003 to 2013. “It became a hub for the community and it absolutely changed over the course of the years that I was there. I saw a lot more families coming to the park, less gang activity, so it really did change the face of that community and that park.”

Stubbs organized community events for children, teens and seniors, a tradition that continues today under new Facility Manager Marie Tropet. The house is also equipped with 17 computers, free for anyone to use to apply for jobs or print out documents.

Stubbs looks back on his time at the house with fond memories, and can pinpoint the direct effect it had on youth in the area.

“For summer camp, we had maybe anywhere from 40 to 50 kids there over the course of 10 weeks,” Stubbs said. “So we got a lot of kids from the community, and a lot of those kids sort of grew up there at the park. So when I first started there, the kids that started out volunteering were 12 and 13 years old. Now, many of them are staff there and they’re 22, 23 years old in college seeking professions in recreation as well, so that for me is a very amazing thing to see that come to fruition.”

Stubbs isn’t the only one who looks back on the history of the South Seas House with fond memories. Meyers has a theory about what motivated such a strong outpouring of support from the community.

“This was after the riots, it was not a good time in Los Angeles,” Meyers said. “We had riots, and then we had the Northridge earthquake, the recession was horrible. But we kind of viewed the whole process as, if we could rescue this house, then we can rescue the neighborhood. It became kind of a symbol of a neighborhood out of the ashes, not just a house out of the ashes. And I think we succeeded.”

South Seas House, 1991

Brand new doors | First floor doorways received a major upgrade.

Much needed | The fireplace was replaced after vandals used it to burn wood from the first floor.

Out of service | The second floor bathroom gets a bathtub and a workable toilet.