Friday, November 16, 2012

How the Torgersons Got Their House




By Phyllis Mueller

Dinah and Larry Torgerson bought their “wreck” of a historic home in 1979. They became part of the “second wave” of leaders in the historic preservation movement in Anaheim. (Of course, the first wave was Diann Marsh and Andy Deneau.) The Torgersens are still here today, and because of their vision, their house is still here as well.

In 1978, 28-year-old Dinah was renting a modest 1920s house at 318 N. Claudina Street.  Dinah was a clerk for the OC Social Services Agency and engaged to be married to Larry Torgerson, a 32-year-old button salesman who worked in the garment business in downtown LA.

When Larry visited his fiancée, the couple would often walk to the few remaining businesses in downtown. During one walk in the neighborhood, they noticed a small run-down house at 216 N. Claudina Street that was for sale. It did have a stunning front door, with its dental detailing, applied carvings, and welcoming oval window.  “It was the only redeeming feature of the house,” Dinah recalls.


The original front door

Though they had intended to buy a tract house in a nicer locale, the pair was curious enough to ask the realtor to see the 1906 two bedroom, one bath “fixer-upper.” It was so bad – from the crumbling brick and mortar foundation to the weathered roof – that Dinah said it probably should have been torn down.

Even though the neighborhood was in serious decline, surrounded by numerous shabby houses, gang and drug activity, and transients were commonplace, it was the sales price that made the home alluring. While the going price for a comparable home in a better neighborhood was $125,000, this house was
$47,000. Deneau and Marsh, as well as other friends whom the couple had come to know, strongly encouraged - perhaps some would say pressured - them to buy the house. They thought  Dinah and Larry were just the kind of like-minded people who would be willing to fix up an old house and perhaps bring hope to saving the neighborhood. They were right.

The Anaheim Redevelopment Agency offered them a low interest purchase plus rehab loan, but the catch was if Larry and Dinah applied as a married couple, they would be over the income requirements. The solution was to delay their wedding until Larry, by himself, could purchase the house for a total of $67,000. The day after escrow closed, Larry and Dinah became Mr. and Mrs. Torgerson, and their adventure began.

They did not move into the house immediately; after all, it was hardly livable. While the Torgersons lived in Dinah’s rental, a contractor began work, starting with a new foundation. A new roof was installed; electric and plumbing systems were replaced. The clapboard siding was sandblasted to remove the peeling paint, something they would later regret. Dinah said, “We weren’t old house people – We didn’t know any better.” Larry eventually replaced the pitted and scarred clapboard.

They moved into their house in late 1979, three months after purchase. They tackled other projects by themselves. After working all day at their jobs, they would come home most evenings and toil away on the house. They started with their beloved front door. It was dipped and stripped, removing the gold and green faux antique finish, taking it down to the beautiful natural Douglas fir. With help from friends and family, they tore all the walls back to the original walls and refurbished the hardwood floors. A deck was built in the back and new landscaping was installed. They just threw the entire old kitchen out the back door in a heap and started over. 

“To this day,” Dinah says, “demolition is still my favorite job.”

Larry gained so much technical knowledge by working on his home over the years that he is now considered one of the finest woodworkers in the Colony.

The couple would also make late night raids into downtown Anaheim, where demolitions were ongoing. There, dressed in dark clothing, they would help themselves to old bricks, cabinets, doors, and plaster pediments, which they would use for fixing up their house – but that wasn’t all. With a family that grew to include two children, the Torgersons added 800 square feet upstairs, with two bedrooms and a bathroom, increasing the size of the house to 1,800 square feet at a total cost of about $30,000.

When the Torgersons bought their home, they were young, energetic, and naïve. But with that old house, they made more friends in the neighborhood, got involved with the neighborhood council, joined the Anaheim Historical Society, and later became co-founders of the Anaheim Neighborhood Association. Buying that house and sensing the clear need to do something about their neighborhood changed their lives, as it did with the entire second wave of emerging activists and leaders in the historic preservation movement. The Torgersons have seen many positive changes made in the neighborhood over time, and they live and participate in the community to this day, 33 years later.

(Thanks to Michelle Lieberman and Voytek Dolinski for their help with this article.)

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