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Planaria Price and Murray Burns

Each weekday, Planaria Price rises in the predawn dark of her Victorian mansion, flips on a circa 1887 chandelier, then dresses and drives to nearby Evans Adult Community School on Sunset Boulevard, where she opens her early-morning class to an endless river of adults trying to learn English.

Her husband, Murray Burns, also heads out early from their Queen Anne–style home — one of 30 fantastic manses they’ve restored together — to attend to the plumbing, roofing and other projects in their private renovation mini-empire.

(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)For three decades, Price and Burns have lived near downtown Los Angeles in Angelino Heights, Echo Park’s historic “haunted house” district. They’re not insiders at City Hall or government contractors, yet arguably they’ve done more to help immigrants and turn around once-seedy streets than many so-called experts.

Price isn’t one of those go-along-to-get-along teachers. Author of several books, she is fiery and clear on what’s required to impart English to adults who speak one of 90 languages. Her class is an English-only zone. Evans School, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, awards immigrant adults a sought-after prize: a full, American high school degree (not GED), earned only by passing the California exit exam in English.

Toward that end, Price has taught a staggering 11,000 adults to speak, read and write English. To her Mandarin-speakers, she imparts the good news that they face fewer hurdles because Mandarin tones are similar to English. Yet she tells her Spanish-speakers they face the toughest road of all: Here in L.A., “nobody will speak English to them — clerks, friends, everyone is trying to ‘help.’ ”

So forget about “Latin America Day” — Price teaches U.S. culture, relying on fables from “Humpty Dumpty” to The Wizard of Oz. Each adult student is assigned to read newspapers and clip out such references for freewheeling discussions in broken English. Says Price, “Once they understand the foundation of American cultural ideas, they are much more able to learn the language. They’re in on the jokes.”

During the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal, “the Pinocchio [news clips] they brought me went through the roof.” When the U.S. failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, “the media references were all about the Emperor With No Clothes.”

While Price teaches, Burns — in a not entirely unrelated pursuit — rebuilds neglected homes. At first, she felt he spent too much money. (“He’ll spend $100 on a hinge because it’s the right, historic hinge.”) But Burns had a vision and a market — “a small fraction of people who want to live in beautiful homes and are willing to spend the money to do that,” he says. “And [they] don’t want chain stores.”

The couple first met in 1977, when Burns, formerly a financial consultant, bought a classic gingerbread fantasy house from Price and her first husband. That house, on Carroll Avenue, was used for the outside shots of a supposed San Francisco Victorian on the long-running TV show Charmed.

With Price’s help, Burns has overseen renovation of nearly 10 percent of the hilly district’s historic homes, making him a one-man Community Redevelopment Agency — sans the silly politics. In each of the houses, which Murray calls his “old girls,” he tends to “puzzle over the moldings and strange hardware and think, ‘What was that for?’ ”

One home, in a classic Eastlake style, where silent-film star Gloria Swanson once lived, had been “brutalized,” as Burns puts it. Divided into apartments, it had a kitchen crammed with five locked refrigerators. Murray stared at the house for hours, finally deciding to move the upstairs windows downstairs. Later, he saw historic photos that showed the upper windows were, indeed, originally downstairs.

On another project, Murray was tearing out an ugly false ceiling added in the 1960s, when, behind the plaster façade, he found old crystal chandeliers gleaming back at him. “Beautiful,” he chuckles.

Trained as an economist, Murray Burns today is an expert in historic color palettes. An English teacher, Planaria Price today uses childhood tales to reach adults isolated by language. Together, they live in a storybook house, on a storybook street, putting urban dreams into practice.