A home fit for a president
Built by an early college trustee, the historic Kuns house first needs a serious makeover.
by Amanda Nieto
photography by Pablo Cabrera
Surrounding the square block perimeter of Kuns Park are grand houses, monuments actually, that tell of a different time. Their style and level of beauty unite a neighborhood culture. Each house shines as a proud testament of the owners who work to keep up their appearances; yet, on Magnolia Avenue, there is one house not in step with the others. There is irony in this, given that this house was the first on the block and the home of an early La Verne leader. On the corner of Fifth Street and Magnolia Avenue is the Kuns house, a home that has fallen far from its grandeur. Cobwebs, dust and dirt are caked on its outer walls; its faded yellow hue holds a sad gray tinge. Dirt patches and dead leaves abide in the front yard. A house peak window is boarded up with a stained plywood scrap. The house was built in 1911, and, 101 years later, it is in need of a makeover. Luckily for the Kuns house, University of La Verne President Devorah Lieberman is looking for a place to call home.
“I felt it could be perfect if it didn’t have any asbestos, mold, dry rot, cracked foundation or structural problems; if the chimneys weren’t falling off the sides of the house,” Lieberman says. Her doubt of the house and fears for it being restored to its former glory dissipated once she saw the historical plaque located on the right corner of the property that pays homage to its original creator. Henry Le Bosquette Kuns built the house as a place for his retirement. He was a realtor by trade and knew how to turn land into a profit. After moving to then Lordsburg in 1892, Kuns bought 18 acres of property. With his new land, he built a hotel that would later be known as the David and Margaret Home for Children. He was president of the First National Bank as well as a member of the Lordsburg Academy Board of Trustees from 1905 to 1908. Kuns was an experienced rancher and the mayor of Lordsburg in 1911. He was also the son of David Kuns, one of the four founders of Lordsburg Academy, now known as the University of La Verne.
In 1890, brothers David and Henry Kuns were among the first to settle in Lordsburg. The next year, they were one of the famous “Dunkards” who established the La Verne Church of the Brethren. Lordsburg Academy came into existence that same year. The Kuns family would later further their investments in the Academy by becoming trustee members and donating a significant amount of time and money.
Henry L. Kuns learned from his father and uncle the benefits of a wise business adventure. With his own successful business experience, he was recognized as a leader in financial affairs. As Lordsburg mayor, Kuns made a push to plant trees and highways. Under his term, a highway was built from the west city limits to connect with Pomona, and from Foothill Boulevard to the Pacific Electric Railway and Station to the south.
After Kuns’ death in 1930, property tax bills were left to heirs who were not willing to ante up. In 1938, the Kuns house and park were sold at auction for $200 to the city. Walker W. Downs was the city attorney and secretary of the La Verne Chamber of Commerce when he bid $20 more than the highest bidder from Los Angeles. In 1939, La Verne made it official, purchasing its second official park and in the process acquired what is now recognized as the oldest tree in the city. Kuns planted the Carob tree in 1910 in the northeast section of the park. The same year that the Carob tree found itself in fresh soil also saw the start of the Kuns house foundation. The home is built on a 14,520 square foot lot; 3,962 square feet of that space was used to design a visual Craftsman delight with seven bedrooms, two bathrooms and two fireplaces. The generous front porch alludes to the warm summer evenings Kuns and his family enjoyed while they harmonized with park-like entertainment. The romance of its history takes present day visitors back to its glory days when it sparkled with pride and set the aesthetic standards for many La Verne homes to come.
A weathered present
In present day, the house hides its beauty behind rotting wood and a veil of spider webs. The porch that once hosted family gatherings now entertains creatures of the night. The concrete walkway that leads to the porch is cracked, covered with crunchy leaves and fallen twigs. On the porch a stray black and gray stripped cat warily watches from a ragged red velvet recliner chair. Gray river rock makes up the house foundation. The stone porch displays a gap where broken and misshapen stones now cling. To the left of the porch is a three-dimensional letter “K” that is built into the stone foundation. Stone fireplaces on the north and south sides lean away from the walls, perhaps in hopes of creating distance from the stubborn mess. The remains of a once blooming garden face Fifth Street. Unkempt rose bushes, randomly scattered, persist. There are no flowers now; only a few resilient leaves that refuse to be chased away. An unraveled hose slithers through the dead garden and teases the parched plants with the possibility of a few drops of water that will not come. A slanting bench welcomes visitors with a seat full of stinging splinters.
After Kuns’ death, the house was sold from one family to another and most recently belonged to Donald Hauser, former owner of the Coin Depot on D Street and an ambitious collector of all things antique. Clive Houston-Brown, ULV associate vice president of facility and technology services, says University Advancement representatives early on spoke with Hauser, hoping he would sell. However, he declined the offer and continued to use the house for storing his overflowing artifact collection that did not fit in his store. Hauser died in early March 2012, which put the historic house on the market. “If you look at it, it really hasn’t been taken care of for such a long time, and it’s so sad,” says Don Kendrick, La Verne mayor and owner of Don Kendrick Real Estate. He says when President Lieberman was first touring city areas surrounding the University, he told her that the Kuns house could be converted into the perfect president’s home if one was not going to be built. “As soon as Don Hauser died, I called the University, and I said you need to get on this if this is the home that you want.” The timing coincided with the University’s search for a president’s home, which began in earnest in late 2011 as a Board of Trustees initiated idea. Since, the project has grown with funds made possible by donors apart of the Board. Houston-Brown says that Lieberman specifically wanted a house in La Verne. Through the process of looking, many houses were considered; however, the space to host events and the parking necessary were not two factors that correlated. “This house was attractive because of its location next to the park and its space for events and parking,” says Houston-Brown. Another plus that made it a choice for the president: its short distance to the University. “Ideally, a president’s residence should be on, next to or very close to campus so when the Board asked me what I would see, my answer was I want to be close enough to campus that students can walk over to the house,” Lieberman says. “I want to be in close enough proximity that the students feel that the president’s home is an extension of the campus. That is the critical element for me because it shows a commitment.”
Peggy Redman, professor of education and director of the La Verne Experience, says the purchase of the Kuns House serves as a link between the city and the University. “It is a commitment to the city and University being compatible, and the Kuns House is just one more way that shows this.” The president’s house will serve as an appropriate place for the hosting of special events as well as being a comfortable dwelling for its residents. Redman says that it is an interesting bridge between the house and University. Henry Kuns, a trustee member, built a house that will now be a part of the institution his father helped to create. “It’s come full circle; I’m going to be living in the home of the people who were founders of our original Lordsburg Academy,” Lieberman says.
As of September 2012, architects were walking the property and bidding for the historic renovation. Their assessment plans are being considered by University officials, with anticipated construction set to start between April and May of 2013. An expected completion date is set for December 2014. “The house is in poor shape structurally,” says Houston-Brown. “Modifications have to be done that maintain the look and feel of the house.”
The University’s restoration efforts are being carefully watched by Galen Beery, president of the La Verne Historical Society. He notes that the Kuns house sports a bronze marker that designates it as a significant La Verne structure. “You can restore a house without tearing it down and starting over,” says Beery. “That one [Kuns house] is worthy of being restored, but they [ULV] may not think of that.” Answers Houston-Brown, “We have to work very closely with the city. The University gives plans, and the city gives guidelines. We have to be very strong partners in this because the city realizes that without an entity like the University, the house probably wouldn’t be renovated close to what we’re going to do.” While the house is recognized as a La Verne historic house, it is not listed on the historical registry, which means no permits are requested by the city that are out of the ordinary. Kendrick says the city is not concerned with the University keeping the integrity of the home throughout the restoration process. “I know it will be a pride of ownership property,” Kendrick says. “In the neighborhood, Kuns park is the most heavily used park in the city of La Verne, and right across the street is going to be a very significant looking home that is the president’s home for the University of La Verne.” Says Houston-Brown, “In the end it’s going to be a stunning house that will maintain the look and feel of the city and the house’s structure.” However, Beery says that minor differences from the house’s original construction, such as the type of materials used to restore a structure, take away from its authenticity if not done with care. “It’s like taking the body of a Mercedes and putting it on the frame of a Volkswagen,” he says.
On its campus, the University, with its historic buildings, has a record of fostering the spirit and architecture of the past with its ambitions for the future. University officials say restoration of the Kuns house for President Lieberman contributes toward bringing the city’s legacy into the University’s future. “It’s a crucial little turning point in the history of the house,” says Beery. “An older house and older institution is interesting; it feels right to have that connection,” says Redman.