by Joseph Chavez
photography by Kim Toth
Take a stroll through Claremont and, if you find yourself near Mills and Cucamonga Avenues, you may notice some rugged-looking buildings made from chunks of cement, rubble and rock. They seem crudely made, but look as if they’ve been around for a century or more. They certainly look out of place compared with modern houses nearby. What’s the story about these unique homes?
In the 1920s, a Polish immigrant named Konstanty Stys began building the houses in what is now known as Russian Village. Due to few available building materials, Stys and others who helped him build these houses drew upon whatever they could find lying around. They brought in stones from fields in the alluvial plains, salvaged and recycled materials including the sides from railroad cars, and even used rubble from the aftermath of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. None of the workers was trained in construction, but simply drew upon their own wits and hard work to get the houses built.
The city of Claremont has declared the Russian Village a historical monument. It was registered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Getting into the National Register can be a long process.
“The building, the house, or whatever the site is, needs to be identified locally as something of worth to be able to go onto the registrar,” says John Neiuber, Claremont Heritage president, and history columnist for the Claremont Courier. Therefore, in order to gain national recognition, they must start at the local level.“The Russian Village was in the local Claremont listing of historical places registrar. Once you’re there, you apply to the state registrar…. At that point, it is almost automatically put on to the National Registrar because the National Registrar figures the state already did a comprehensive assessment of the site.”
So what exactly makes the Russian Village important enough to be recognized at the state level? Also why, if Stys was Polish, is it called Russian Village?
“It is an amazing example of folk architecture, which is something we do not see often around here,” says Claremont Heritage Executive Director David Shearer. ”And it’s a great example of using recycled materials such as the rocks and rubble gathered from construction sites, and the aftermath of the earthquake in the 1930s. It was all mostly built by one guy: Konstanty Stys. He actually was not Russian, but Polish. But most people assumed he was Russian, so for some reason it stuck.”
Jeffrey Klein, who lives in one of the Russian Village houses, explains how he came to live there. “We bought it 23 years ago from an old woman whose family was selling the house. She’d lived there since the house was built.” Klein marveled at how unique each house was, internally and externally, but added that, as charming as they may be, those old houses come with challenges.
“We had to make some improvements,” Klein said. “There’s not much storage space, the bathrooms are small and the plumbing was outdated, as was the electrical wiring.” Balancing old with new can be tricky, Klein added, but he likes the house’s charm. “It’s almost as if you’re living in the country when you live here in the Russian Village.”