Karl Rydgren has lived in Santa Monica since childhood and remembers when some of the major streets were unpaved roads. He has been a newspaper delivery boy, a popcorn vendor, a bus driver, police officer and police detective. He has written poetry, raised three children, and installed up-to-date gas heaters in his house. And at age 91, Rydgren is a walking and talking history of Santa Monica.The house Rydgren has lived in since 1937, at 2323 5th Street, is under consideration for landmark designation, at Rydgren’s request. Unlike many vintage houses that have been saved from demolition by the Landmarks Commission’s intervention, the 5th Street house is not endangered. It is a souvenir of Santa Monica’s early days, a two-story structure of whitewashed redwood in the English Colonial style. Tax accessor’s records show the house as having been built in 1930, although Rydgren believes it may have been built as early as 1925. Its builder is said to have been the Hassbaruch Grocery Company (makers of Iris products). The house’s original location was at 562 Pacific Coast Highway, on the “Gold Coast” stretch of beach. As Rydgren tells the story, Santa Monica has his father-in-law to thank for the house’s preservation and for Rydgren and his family having the house.“My father-in-law lived up here in this estate on top of the hill in Ocean Park,” says Rydgren. “That was owned by the McGinleys and he took care of that whole place on top of the hill. [My in-laws] had a little house on 6th Street and when that was torn down, they found it was so cheap to move a house that they found another one — they found this nice home-and my wife lived there with her sisters and brothers.” Later on, Rydgren’s father-in-law acquired the lot at 2323 5th Street and decided to find yet another nice house to put on the lot. Not having a car, he asked Karl to drive him down to the “Gold Coast,” the section of beach at the northern end of Santa Monica, where he wanted to look at houses that might be available.“We went down there and saw this house and it looked so beautiful – I said, ‘You want to put that on your lot?’ and he said ‘Yeah. It would be good. The price is right.’”Actually, it was not the first time that Rydgren had seen the house. At the age of 8 or 9, he had a friend who worked for the telegraph company and allowed young Karl to ride in a sidecar attached to his motorcycle. One day, Rydgren’s friend asked him to deliver a telegram to the occupants of the white house on the beach. Rydgren recalls going inside and finding the occupants “running around the table, chasing each other.” It seemed Rydgren had walked in on the Marx Brothers, who were rehearsing one of their routines. The house stuck in Rydgren’s memory from that time on. He believes the Marx Brothers were merely renters, as were other movie luminaries who may have lived in the house during its years at the beach. (David Niven is rumored to have been another occupant). But in 1937 the house was available-for the asking price of $1,800.When Rydgren’s father-in-law asked if he would like to have the house, Rydgren said: “Are you kidding? I’ve got only $750 in the bank!” The father-in-law offered to split the costs with him — Rydgren would pay for the lot (which cost $1000) and for the foundation, electricity and plumbing. Luckily, Rydgren had a friend in the concrete business who gave him enough leftover concrete to build the foundation on which the house still rests.Moving the house was daunting, as the only route possible was up the California Incline from Pacific Coast Highway. The house was raised up on beams placed on rubber-tired dollies and driven up the incline. “It took three hours to get from the beach to 5th Street,” says Rydgren.No one looking at the house at 2323 5th Street would believe that it survived that arduous voyage. There are no visible cracks anywhere. Every white shingle is in place on the upper elevation and the 23-foot brick fireplace (which was transported on a special beam) is still intact, although Rydgren says it “moved” a few inches in the earthquakes of 1971 and 1994.The house features many characteristics of buildings from the early 20th century. There is molding on the interior walls, an archway between the living room and dining area, and a plaster dining room ceiling, which features the signs of the zodiac etched in the plaster. The house has wrought iron balconies on the upper elevation, and French-style windows downstairs although the side door, originally a French window-door, was replaced at some point by a conventional door.Karl Rydgren was a young married man when he and his wife Alice moved into the house. He was working as a bus driver. “Between Alice shifting sheets and me shifting gears we got [the house] paid for in three years and eight months.”To add to their income, they took in boarders – men who worked at Douglas Aircraft – to help earn the money to make payments on the house. Rydgren recalls that his mother-in-law loaned him money to buy furniture – mostly beds from McMahon’s Furniture Store on 4th Street – so that they could put up the boarders in the spare bedrooms. In those days, in addition to the two downstairs and three upstairs bedrooms, there were two more bedrooms and a small kitchen attached to the two-car garage behind the house. Each boarder paid $7 a week. By 1941, the house was paid off and the Rydgrens had privacy at last.Karl and Alice met when they were both students at John Adams Junior High School (then located on Ocean Park Boulevard and 5th Street ). He recalls walking home from school and seeing her on the lawn of her family’s house, “standing there in a little white dress. I knew then that she was the girl for me – it was love at first sight.” The lovebirds were married in 1934.“She was a great homemaker, mother and wife,” Rydgren says of Alice. “She wasn’t just 100 per cent, she was 1,000 per cent!” Alice’s interests included French cooking (she was French on her mother’s side) and collecting dolls and miniatures. Many of the miniatures are displayed on a shelf in the living room and the dolls can still be found in every room of the house.After losing their first baby in 1940, Karl and Alice Rydgren had three children, a daughter born in 1942, and two sons born in 1944 and 1946. The two boys shared a room upstairs that had its own entrance and outside back staircase (the entrance is now locked but the staircase can still be seen in the back of the house). “They had a cat and it could go in and out through the back,” Rydgren chuckles. Rydgren left his bus driving job for the Santa Monica Police Department in 1941. For years, he walked a beat in the downtown area, then drove a “black and white” in both the “north” area and in Ocean Park. Later, he joined the Detective Bureau. “I loved this job,” he says. “I put guys in prison – who belonged there! I helped a lot of people.” Told by colleagues that he was “the best detective in Santa Monica,” he retired from the force in October 1966, after 25 years.Today, Rydgren still lives in the house he has loved all these years. His granddaughter Alicia has been helping him document the house’s history for the Landmarks Commission and he says that he plans to leave the house to her. He is amused by the suggestion that the house could be a museum offering guided tours, but notes that security would be necessary to guard against thefts. He is glad to show visitors the concrete foundation he himself worked on and the floor gas heater that he installed, garnering praise from the City inspectors who told him “You did a better job than we could have done.” “I’m proud of this house,” says Rydgren. “I think it will last for many generations.”
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