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August 22, 2003

An act of preservation

Local lawyer plans to renovate historic winery for a law office, information center for Baha'i faith.

Pam Noles, Claremont-Upland Voice

UPLAND Soheila Azizi came to America at 19, fleeing her native Iran as it convulsed in revolution, yet hoping to return one day with skills that could help rebuild her home.

Instead, she remains here, rebuilding someone else's.

As she studied urban economics, Azizi followed reports of the continued persecution in Iran of those who believe in the Baha'i faith and knew her plans to return would have to be put on hold.

She turned to art and became a fashion designer for a while, but was drawn to working on behalf of the oppressed and turned to law. Over time Azizi built a solid practice as a medical malpractice and serious-injury attorney and became increasingly involved in the community. She became a volunteer mediator for San Bernardino County, president of the Upland Interfaith Council and secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Baha'is of Upland. She also helped found Women on the Move, an organization dedicated to promoting equality for women.

Now the Upland resident, who bases her practice in Rancho Cucamonga, is moving into a new arena. When she set out to build the Azizi Law Center, under construction at 10213 Foothill Blvd., she didn't want to add to the parade of new buildings or displace regional history. Instead, she chose to renovate a site.

"We have new buildings going up everywhere in Rancho Cucamonga," Azizi said. "I just wanted a little cozy home for my offices where people could relate to the kind of person I am."

The site, a main house with four cottages, is connected to the area's rich winemaking history. For decades it was the home of grape grower Frank De Ambrogio. His specialty was Zinfandel grapes, 90% of which he shipped to Canada for use by home winemakers.

"I bought grapes from him for the winery when he couldn't sell them in the east," said Rene Biane, whose family operated the Brookside Winery Co. for 150 years before closing in 1982.

According to Wine Spectator magazine, De Ambrogio bought a vineyard at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Haven Avenue after World War II. The area was all vineyards at the time, but eventually the city grew around him. The site remained a vineyard for years, but after De Ambrogio's death it was eventually sold for development. A mixed-use project of apartments and shops is being built on the site of his former Zinfandel field. Work on De Ambrogio's house, on 1 1/4 acres mostly hidden from Foothill Boulevard, will be less drastic. When Azizi started looking for a site for her offices in 2002, she was struck by the "beautiful character" of the De Ambrogio home. The home's interior details, 400-year-old oak trees out back, pond and tree house all appealed to her.

"It was beautiful. From the outside it doesn't look like it. But inside it's beautiful," she said. "I said, 'If I can afford it, sold.' "

Preserving as much of the site as possible wouldn't happen without the cooperation and support she has received from the city, particularly its planning and engineering departments, Azizi said. Adapting the building for use as a law office will cost an estimated $250,000, she said. It will take another $150,000 to $200,000 to restore to house to its former glory.

Various city department staff members "sat down with me for hours" to work out a plan covering everything from basic use to earthquake retrofitting, she said. In the end, the city allowed Azizi to renovate the building in three phases.

"They have been super flexible. They've been most cooperative," she said. "They are sensible, they listen to reason. It really helps."

Not that everything has been easy. There were four addresses on record for the building, and more than once construction materials have been delivered to the liquor store east of the site and to the restaurant to the west.

A shack that once housed workers was too far gone to be rehabilitated and was demolished. But Azizi took photos first and saved the window frames.

"There's just so much history and character that we haven't touched," she said.

Once the first phase is done this fall and her office opens inside, Azizi plans to sublease a quarter of the main house to the Baha'i for use as an information and administrative center for the Baha'i of Rancho Cucamonga, Upland and Ontario. Her ultimate goal is to build an unobtrusive office building out back, place her law offices there, and turn the entire main building over to the Baha'i. "God had something to do with it, because I have a goal to do something for my faith," she said. "My definition of success is not adding to your office size. Mine is going to your bed at night and being able to account for your life."

©Copyright 2003, Los Angles Times (CA, USA)

Following is the URL to the original story. The site may have removed or archived this story. URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/clv/la-clv-azizi22aug22.story


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