The singers' home may be replaced. The new owner has had enough.
February 16, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer
We've only just begun . . . to learn what is happening to the Downey family home that was made world-famous by the pop duo the Carpenters.
The five-bedroom tract house and a smaller next-door dwelling that was connected to it by an enclosed walkway was where Richard and Karen Carpenter fine-tuned their greatest hits in the 1970s.
The pair lived in the main house with their parents. The adjoining house was something of an annex, where there was an office, rehearsal studio and recreation room.
The Newville Avenue compound became a magnet for fans around the world when it was pictured on the Carpenters' tri-fold cover for their 1973 hit album "Now & Then." It is also where an anorexic Karen Carpenter collapsed in 1983 before dying.
The pair's parents remained in the residence until Harold Carpenter's death in 1988 and Agnes Carpenter's in 1996. Richard Carpenter sold the place in mid-1997.
Tiring of a nonstop parade of fans paying hommage to Karen Carpenter and her and her brother's music, the compound's current owners have torn down the annex and begun construction on a larger house. They've also submitted plans to Downey officials for the replacement of the 39-year-old main house.
Fans are outraged.
"This house is our version of Graceland," said Carpenters aficionado Jon Konjoyan, a 57-year-old Toluca Lake music writer and promoter who is leading a campaign to save the remaining original house from destruction.
"They were such a huge American act in the '70s," he said. "So many people loved them."
The response underscores the enduring draw of the Carpenters, the vocal duo whose soft -- some say saccharine -- songs were in marked contrast to the harder rock acts also popular in the '70s and '80s.
Although some of their music is now relegated to dentists' offices and elevators, the Carpenters continue to have a loyal fan base.
Konjoyan was a young man in 1974 when he and his brother made a pilgrimage to the Newville Avenue home.
From 1981 to 1990, he worked for the Carpenters' label, A&M Records.
"When they photographed the 'Now & Then' cover here in 1973, the house was instantly immortalized," Konjoyan said. "Actually, when the photographer had come to the house to shoot the cover, they didn't know what to do. The photographer said, 'Why not get in the car and drive by?' "
So they did.
"They used Richard's red Ferrari. People thought it was a Pinto," Konjoyan said.
Music fans quickly tracked down the address -- often with the help of the Carpenters' polite neighbors who would direct the devotees through the neighborhood's maze of streets.
In 1974, Rolling Stone magazine reported that a stalker had driven up and down the avenue's short cul-de-sac looking for Karen. "I guess the Downey police are good -- that was the end of the story," Konjoyan said.
By all accounts, the home's current owners have been remarkably kind to Carpenter fans who still flock to Newville Avenue to gawk at the house and point to the upstairs bedroom where Karen collapsed.
Over the years they have patiently invited visitors inside to see the house and the backyard -- which the Carpenter family turned into a lush Japanese garden.
Fans, in turn, have posted photographs of the home's interior and exterior and written accounts of their visits on the Internet.
Last year, the owners held a yard sale, which drew many fans looking for vinyl records and old furniture, including what was said to be "Karen Carpenter's original bed and mattress."
Some fans complained that the Japanese garden had fallen into disrepair -- that its pond had dried up and its quaint wooden arched bridges where Karen and Richard were sometimes photographed were dilapidated.
The homeowners, Manuel and Blanca Melendez Parra, could not be reached Friday for comment.
But their daughter Jessica Parra said fans' interest in the home has caught her family by surprise. At first, the family invited fans inside and even gave away autographed posters and other items that Richard Carpenter had left behind when the houses were sold.
"In the beginning, we let everybody in. But honestly, it became horrible, not only for us but for the neighborhood," said Parra, a 26-year-old law student who says she is not a fan of the Carpenters' music. "People peek in windows and take pictures. They leave flowers on the front porch."
Her father, who is from Cuba, does not have the emotional attachment to the place that fans do, she said. "My dad has said, 'Fine, if they like it so much then buy it.' "
The one-story, three-bedroom house next door was acquired by the Carpenters in 1971, when they were rocketing to the top of the music world. It is being remodeled into a larger, two-story structure.
Downey officials said plans for a new residence on the site of the main house have been submitted. No demolition permit has been issued.
Fans of the Carpenters acknowledge that they may have run out of time to save the house.
Konjoyan's campaign to save the residence calls for it to be privately purchased and rehabilitated at its current location. If that is not possible, he suggests that it could be moved elsewhere.
A community's fate
Other fans have proposed that Downey officials declare the house a historic landmark as a way of encouraging its preservation. They point to the demolition of the famed Firestone Boulevard cruiser hangout Johnie's Broiler as proof that their community's heritage is in jeopardy.
"I urge the Downey City Council to take pride in their community's connection to the Carpenters' legacy and stop the demolition," fan Linda Thibert of Canada wrote last year to the Downey Patriot newspaper.
Music lover Jennifer Byrne, a 31-year-old writer originally from Miami, said she sought out the house on her first visit to Los Angeles in 1998. She said its preservation would help draw attention to the issue of anorexia as well as be a salute to Karen and Richard Carpenter.
"With the first money they made, this is what they bought for their parents," Byrne said. "They didn't buy a big mansion in Beverly Hills. They didn't go Hollywood."
Richard Carpenter, who is in the Philippines performing with Filipino singer Claire de la Fuente before President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, could not be reached for comment. Both Parra and the preservationists said Carpenter has stayed out of the debate.
But the fans vow to persevere and keep their memories of the Carpenters alive because . . . they long to be, close to you.