Los Angeles Times photo

Landslides wreck another two Los Angeles homes

Two-thirds of the new homes in the City of Los Angeles are now being built on hillside lots and all of them are potential victims of destruction by landslides.

So says General Manager Gilbert E. Morris of the city building department. For the two $50,000 homes in Pacific Palisades pictured above, the odds ran out in August. Their sudden nocturnal collapse was variously blamed on water seepage and on grading for hillside home sites lower down.

"The only way to avoid home damage from slides is to quit building and subdividing on hills," says Morris. "Southern California rests on thousands of earthquake faults."

Moreover, the hills fringing Los Angeles are composed of stratified earth and rock, interleaved with shale layers. These are firm if dry, but slippery when wet. Homebuilding in the heights, with subsequent seepage of lawn water and septic tank fluids, turns the shale layers into lubricants for strata above — which are often tilted seaward.

Despite the danger, Californians still like hill sites and lenders are happy to finance them.

Morris notes that less risk is involved since the city adopted its unique 1955 grading ordinance. This requires all cuts and fills be made according to code specifications aimed at preventing slides. Since its adoption, says Morris, only two or three of nearly 50,000 new home sites have suffered slide damage.

Worst slide in the LA area came in 1956 at Portuguese Bend near San Pedro. It gradually destroyed 145 homes, has resulted in more than $20 million in law suits. Homeowners who built on leased sites are suing the developer. The developer and other homeowners are suing the county. They contend the slide resulted from a road building project.

There is no legal precedent for such suits in California. But this year in Pittsburgh 11 homeowners whose backyards slid away have won $150,000 from Builders Felice Perri & Sons. The court held that fill was improperly dumped in the yards. As a result it slipped.

Story from House & Home, October 1959, reprinted with permission