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Richland native uncovers an unusual legacy after buying a Beverly Hills home built by A Pittsburgher

Saturday, August 18, 2001

By Kevin Kirkland, Post-Gazette Homes Editor

In a career that spanned the first half of the 20th century, George R. Kress Jr. moved hundreds of homes in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. But it was the one he built for himself that moved Rodney Kemerer.

The living room of the George R. Kress House provides a splendid view. (Berger/Conser Photography)

Kemerer, a Richland native, was amazed the first time he stepped into the Tudor Revival house with Germanic and French influences that Kress built in 1931 in the Benedict Canyon section of Beverly Hills. Nearly hidden on a hillside behind 1970s Spanish-style homes, it stood like Stonehenge in Disneyland. Could it be for real?

A walk-through and records search showed that it was. The house's thick stone and stucco walls, leaded windows and tile roof had survived at least five major earthquakes and just two other owners besides Kress -- MGM musical director Georgie Stoll and actress Anna Maria Alberghetti. Its only alterations were removal of a wall between the butler's pantry and breakfast room and a sympathetically designed swimming pool.

"I wondered who would do this -- build a house like this in a virtual wilderness at the height of the Depression?" Kemerer said.

His answer unfolded -- and continues to unfold -- thanks to six years of painstaking research, a few lucky coincidences and a little Hollywood magic. Nearly three years ago, Kemerer and his wife, Lindsay Doran, learned that their home, now called the George R. Kress House, had been accepted for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the process, Kemerer has rediscovered an engineering genius whose company once boasted, "If we had room to work, we could move the world."

In Los Angeles, Kress' company moved 13-story buildings, huge movie soundstages and mansions while parties continued inside. Once a household name for all the landmark buildings he had moved, Kress died a forgotten man in 1972 without even an obituary.

"George's story deserved to be told," Kemerer said. "He changed the face of two major cities, but he never got his due."

Kemerer loves to tell Kress' story and has filled this house with mementos of him, including much of the home's original furniture and Kress' old Chinese silk dressing gown, now hanging in the front hall. There are also articles honoring Stoll and Alberghetti, but, clearly, Kress is his favorite.

Kemerer feels a kinship with Kress, a fellow Pittsburgh native who was, like him, the middle of three brothers. Kemerer, 50, moved to Los Angeles in 1978 and married Doran, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. A designer, Kemerer has restored several older homes, doing a little research on their former inhabitants. But that was nothing compared with the work he's done on Kress.

"The more he found out about the house, the more interested he became in who would put this kind of care into it," said his wife. "It did feel as though he had been consumed by it, but in a good way."

Doran, producer of the 1995 film "Sense and Sensibility," said what drew them to the Kress house was its unique character.

"We weren't looking for a house that was impressive. We wanted something that felt romantic. That's very hard to find here," she said.

Though the house was bigger than they wanted -- with two fireplaces, five baths, five bedrooms and maid's quarters -- they bought it within 24 hours of seeing it. They paid a seven-figure sum not at all unusual in Beverly Hills, but this house was unusual in many other ways.

For one, it was constructed much better than surrounding homes. Its walls are 12 to 14 inches thick, every wall plate bolted to the foundation and every door and window frame bolted to the framing. This has helped the house survive earthquakes but would have made renovation more difficult -- if there had been any.

"This house could have been changed dramatically. Its owners certainly had the means and the egos to do it. The fact that it wasn't proves that it works," Kemerer said.

In addition to the original blueprints, Kemerer has nearly 75 pages of Kress' specifications for the house, including everything from nail size to model numbers for fixtures. Kemerer and Doran have had the electrical system upgraded and restored sconces where they had been removed. But other than replacing a few roof tiles and bricks damaged in an earthquake, they have had to do little more than typical maintenance on a 70-year-old home.

Kemerer has so much information on the house because he was able to track down Kress' only daughter, Dianne Kress Franklin. Franklin, who died on the day the house was named to the National Register, had saved her father's papers, patents, clippings and other items for years.

"Dianne had been despairing of ever getting her history together. For us, Rodney was a godsend," said Selim Franklin, her husband.

The papers provide an outline of Kress' life and career, but his story is best told by his family.

George R. Kress was born in 1882, the middle son of George R. and Martha Kress. He grew up in the Hill District and loved ice hockey, playing on a frozen pond with a homemade stick, according to family members.

George, old brother Alfred and younger brother Fred apparently inherited a mechanical aptitude from their father, who appears in city directories as a seller and inventor of lightning rods and carpet beaters. Two of the four are listed as plumbers in the 1901 city directory.

In 1902, Alfred is listed for the first time as a house mover. He and partner John A. Hanlon drew international attention when they successfully moved a huge oil tank down a river.

Then, in 1904, after other companies turned down the job, they made headlines when they moved H.J. Heinz's 169-ton home and first factory in Sharpsburg down the Allegheny River to the North Side plant. In 1952, it was moved again, in pieces, to the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.

By 1904, young George was working and living with his brother. In 1905, he got married and he and Geneva Kress had one son, Raymond. They moved to Los Angeles in 1913 and soon, George was building his own reputation for mammoth moves.

Over the next 10 years, his company moved hundreds of buildings with elaborate systems of jacks, rollers, tracks and horsepower. Los Angeles was changing practically overnight. Wealthy homeowners could make a profit by selling their property and moving homes to lots in outlying areas.

In 1924, the year he and Geneva divorced, Kress made the newspapers for moving the six-story Alhambra Hotel more than 100 feet. That same year, he moved four sound stages, one with a 70-foot-long side of glass, more than 12 miles. Not long after, he cut the 10,000-square-foot Howard Verbeck mansion into two sections and moved it -- all while a party went on inside.

In 1931, near the apex of his career, Kress and his new wife, Wanda, built their dream home in Benedict Canyon. Though designed by local architect Harry Muck, it was clearly Kress' masterwork. He saved not only the blueprints and exacting specifications but also receipts for most of the furnishings, including locally made Mission-style pieces now known as Monterey Furniture.

"He literally left his legacy in the walls," Kemerer said. In fact, the Kress house will be featured on an episode of HGTV's "If Walls Could Talk" in January.

In 1932, Kress commissioned an oil painting of the house, surrounded by newly planted oak, sycamore and eucalyptus trees. Today, those trees hide the house from its newer neighbors, giving it a feeling of seclusion and serenity, say Kemerer and Doran.

Dianne Kress Franklin, who was born in the house, kept the painting her entire life and gave it to Kemerer and Doran, along with the photo of her and her father standing on the front lawn when she was 4.

In 1935, Kress completed his most famous project, preserving the Commercial Exchange Building in downtown Los Angeles. To widen Olive Street, civic leaders were considering razing the 13-story building or tearing off the front. But Kress had another idea: Why not take 8 1/2 feet out of the center and move back the front portion? Kress' success -- the highest manmade structure ever moved up to that time -- made headlines as far away as London.

"On each job, he was finding new solutions. ... This was a guy thinking in a completely different way," Kemerer said.

Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, his brother's company was showing similar innovation. In 1930, Kress-Oravetz House Moving Co. turned and moved the 6,000-ton Allegheny County Morgue 300 feet, from Diamond Street to the other side of Fourth Avenue.

The 1920s and early '30s were the golden age of house moving. It was still cheaper to move buildings than build new ones. But by the '40s, the business had become less lucrative and more complicated, with a rapid increase in the number of overhead power lines and other obstructions and the rise of unions in the various building trades.

Whether it was these changes or simply the Depression, Kress' fortunes took a sharp downturn, and he lost his beloved house to foreclosure in 1940. He never spoke of it again, his family said.

"He wasn't ashamed -- he never felt shame," said his grandson, Skip Franklin of Seattle. "I think it was more that it hurt so bad, to lose it after working so hard."

During World War II, Kress provided engineering support to launch ships from Los Angeles' Wilmington harbor and later speculated in real estate. He lived with the Franklins toward the end of his life, talking often of his many moving jobs -- and his solutions.

"His real talent was his imagination," said Skip Franklin. "He believed that no matter how tough the problem is, the solution would present itself."

Skip Franklin's younger sister, Pam Marshall of Helendale, Calif., remembers her grandfather building forts and playhouses with them, and teaching them how to use tools.

"He worked not only on the principles of building -- and things like how to toenail -- but how to take care of your tools," she said.

Kress put those skills to use one more time in his 80s, when he built a cabin in the desert, in Newberry Springs, Calif. Working on weekends for about a year, he built the cabin upon a concrete slab, lugging beams and other heavy materials up a ladder alone.

"He was strong and had tremendous endurance," said Selim Franklin. "When he was in his 80s, he could outwork me."

In October 1972, he persuaded his son-in-law and grandson to take him back to the cabin. Though 89 and in failing health, he wanted to live there alone for a few months.

"He was so excited. He really loved the desert," said Selim Franklin. "He got out of the car and was maybe 15 feet from the door when he sort of collapsed in our arms. We laid him down on the couch and he died. He was home, in a sense."

Kress never returned to the only other home he had built, the Tudor Revival in Beverly Hills. But his daughter did, at age 60, 55 years after her family had been forced to give it up.

"The first time she went through, she pointed out so many things," her husband said. "I was dumbfounded by how much a 5-year-old could remember."

In the three years that they knew her, Kemerer and Doran made a strong connection with Dianne Kress Franklin, built solidly on their shared admiration for her father.

"You tell people 'I've spent years and a lot of money researching the man who built my house.' Some people look at you like you have three heads," Kemerer said.

Dianne's oldest daughter, a high school drama teacher, is not one of those people.

"I don't think anything is strange. I'm in theater. It's one of those Hollywood endings."

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