DOWNEY - Downey's Rives Mansion is being restored with plans to transform the historic property into an upscale steakhouse and wine garden. Ralph Verdugo, Downey resident and owner of Los Angeles Brewing Company, is behind the restoration effort. He signed a 7-year lease earlier this year (with an optional seven-year extension) and hopes to open the restaurant in time for the holiday season.
Verdugo initially budgeted $750,000 for the restoration but conceded that he is likely to invest more than $1 million into the mansion.
"This is a landmark and as a kid I always wanted to peek inside," said Verdugo, who is 42. "It's really something that needs to be taken care of and preserved the right way."
The mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, which makes extensive renovations difficult. Instead, the plan is to bring out the structure's natural beauty through old-fashioned hand labor, Verdugo said. Layers of paint are being stripped away inside and out, and the original wood floors have been refinished to a high-gloss shine.
"I want this to be more than a restaurant, I want it to be an experience," added Verdugo. "When you pull into that driveway, I want you to forget where you are. It will be its own little paradise."
Here is how Verdugo imagines the mansion when it is complete:
Visitors will enter through an extra wide driveway off Paramount Boulevard, past an automated security gate, and drop off their vehicles with a free valet service. Lush plant life inspired by the Huntington Library will line the front yard, with name tags to identify the different plant species. Speakers will be strategically placed every 10 feet, set to low volume so as to not disturb the neighbors.
Also planned for the front yard is patio seating and a bar with retractable awning.
Botanical gardens will decorate the backyard, where guests can stroll while sipping a wine or cocktail (customers will be alerted via pager when their meal is ready). It is worth noting that the decades-old orange tree, walnut tree and 100-ft. palm tree will be left in place.
The wood-frame barn is being converted into a wine-tasting room, and there are plans for weekly wine tastings - free for Downey residents and $20 for out-of-town guests.
The barn previously housed horses owned by James Rives, a district attorney and superior court judge who lived at the property. Today the barn protects Verdugo's personal 1957 Bentley, which can be used by customers who book the Rives Mansion for weddings or special events.
Restrooms are being constructed in the backyard to eliminate the need for customers to trudge through the house. A retired water well is being re-opened for people to peer down below.
The backyard water tower was leaning about 15 degrees but has already been repaired. Office space will occupy the tower's interior.
Inside the mansion, the home's kitchen is being retrofitted to support a commercial kitchen operation. A pastry chef will work out of the butler's pantry.
The first floor will act as a dining room, complete with functioning fireplace and windows that open from the top down to allow in natural breezes. Central air and heat is functioning again.
On the second floor are five bedrooms that are being converted to private dining rooms. Each room comes equipped with its own 70-inch TV and private bar that previously served as walk-in closet. A set of butlers will service these dining rooms, which can also be rented for poker parties, sporting events, etc.
To the rear of the mansion is the honeymoon suite, a private bedroom and bathroom that can be used by newly-married couples. The suite has a balcony overlooking the botanical gardens, where they are served breakfast on the morning after the wedding. (In a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, the bed sheet comes with a pre-cut hole, a nod to old Jewish and Armenian traditions.)
Although not open to the public, the third floor is being refurbished with refinished flooring and black satin paint with gold trim. Furniture will include black leather couches and big-screen TVs.
Throughout the house original furniture and decor is being used wherever possible, including ivory doorknobs that date to the 1800s. Scrawled on the barn walls are notes and figures from the mansion's early days; those are being preserved.
"I don't want everything to look perfect," said Verdugo, who opened his brewing company in the historic Chapman Building in downtown Los Angeles. "I want it to have that aged look. I want to retain the history."
When it opens, the steakhouse will employ about 50 workers.
Plans for the restaurant still require approval from the Planning Commission but city officials sound excited for its potential.
"The Rives Mansion is considered one of Downey's most unique and historic sites and we are proud to have such a beautiful landmark here in town," said mayor Mario Guerra. "Restoring it will help enhance its true value and we are confident that Mr. Verdugo will do an excellent job. It is definitely a true treasure in our community."
Despite it being a restaurant, Verdugo said he will make the mansion available to local students who want to learn about Downey's oldest historical landmark.
"Goal number one is to restore the mansion and all the buildings on the property so the next generation can appreciate its history," he said. "We plan to make it available for school tours during certain days and hours of the week so that the youth can experience it.
"This property may be zoned for commercial use, but it's a home for all of Downey and I intend to keep it that way."