Santa Ana home comes with a historic hitch

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Dr. Quynh Kieu’s Santa Ana home is a palace once belonging to the Maharajah of Indore, India, and is now in the Santa Ana Register of Historical Properties. Rooms inside, including the kitchen and living room, show signs of damage by water leaks and require restoration. Kieu has been unable to install a pitched roof due to city regulations.

SANTA ANA – This is the story of a house. A house built by a royal. A house whose leaks have soaked its owners of thousands of dollars.

And it’s the story of two doctors, well known for their philanthropy, who want to stop those leaks. But there’s a hitch. The house has been listed as historic, limiting their ability to make changes that might alter its appearance.

Maharajah House

Owners: Drs. Chan and Quynh Kieu

Location: 2221 N. Heliotrope Drive, Santa Ana

Year built: 1938

Style: Art Moderne, a style popular as the United States emerged from the Depression.The style emphasizes horizontal lines, smooth stucco and such features as porthole windows, to mimic those seen on steamships. The design was more common for commercial building. One other example of the Moderne style on a Santa Ana home is found at 1714 N. Bush St., a city staff report said.

History: The house was designed by architect Donald Beach Kirby of Balboa and constructed by prominent Santa Ana builder Allison Honer for the Holkar family. Yeshwar Rao Holkar, who had been educated at Oxford, was at the time Maharajah of Indore, India. A building permit listed its cost as $40,000, but news reports put the construction cost at $50,000 and the cost of furnishings at $150,000.

Maharajah House stands at the corner of Heliotrope Drive and Santa Clara Avenue in Santa Ana’s historic French Park area, an iconic example of the Art Moderne style of architecture, a fortress-like castle for a royal Indian family.

Massive mirrors line an entry way and surround the living room fireplace, and a glass chandelier hangs above a winding staircase. Their Art Deco etchings take a visitor back to 1938, when the home was built.

The house, built as a sanctuary for his family by the Maharajah of Indore as World War II approached, boasts the classic features of an Art Moderne home – horizontal lines, steel case windows and a flat roof.

A flat roof that’s had a nasty tendency to leak.


Dr. Quynh Kieu and her husband, Chan, both physicians at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, purchased the home in 1988, leaving a custom-built home in Huntington Harbour.

Quynh Kieu remembers they were looking around Santa Ana on a Sunday afternoon and spotted the house, renovated about a year before, for sale. She was drawn to it because its balconies, trimming and bougainvilleas reminded her of her native Vietnam.

“We always wanted to have a little corner of Vietnam here,” she said.

They quickly made a $750,000 offer on the 5,000-square-foot house, which listed at $1.1 million, and got it.

About a half century before, the Maharajah of Indore, a state in central India, had built the home, and lived in the Santa Ana home with his wife and daughter Usha for more than a year. The dashing Yeshwant Rao Holkar had been educated at Oxford and was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the world. When he and his wife returned to India, they left their daughter behind to attend school in Santa Ana. She succeeded her father in 1961.

The Kieus, too, have a story to tell.

Chan Kieu served as a doctor for South Vietnamese airborne troops and received a U.S. commendation for his rescue of a U.S. soldier. With Saigon in collapse, the young couple in 1975 slipped through a fence and managed to board a U.S. cargo flight for Guam, the second to the last flight that got out of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, she said. After about a year in Palm Springs under the sponsorship of an American doctor – cleaning houses to make extra money – they came to Orange County, served their residencies – she in pediatrics at UCI Medical Center, he in anesthesiology at Harbor UCLA Medical Center – and went to work.

“I always felt we were especially lucky,” she said. “We have a lot to give back.”

Crucifixes and images of the Virgin Mary, reflections of their Catholic faith, hang from walls. Awards point to their work with Project Vietnam, which for nearly two decades has taken U.S. doctors and dentists to their homeland to provide free health to children and families – ‘”on the other side of the end of the world,” Quynh says. A massive bronze drum, cast in Vietnam around 300 B.C., sits in a library, where shelves had to be replaced. Toward the back of their nearly one-acre property, landscaped with 19 different types of bamboo and bronze statuary, stands a brick structure with a pitched, tile roof. It’s the 170-year-old home of a tribal village chief in Catholic Quynh Luu District that had resisted communist religious oppression in 1956. The Kieus had it taken apart, shipped, and reconstructed in 2004.

Things at the Maharajah House were fine for the Kieus for the first couple of years after they moved in, but then the roof began to leak. Each time it rained, the family would place buckets around the house to capture water that has damaged ceilings and floors, rusted fixtures, stained walls, carpeting and furniture and left mold. She and her grandson have developed asthma and allergies.

“Keeping it as it is is hazardous to our health,” she said.


Last November, the house needed to be fumigated against termites because of the constant moisture.

“Every single room has something wrong with the ceiling,” she said. “Even the ceiling in the living room fell” – in two places.

Quynh said the Kieus popped up on the city radar when they sought permission 10 years ago to install a pitched roof. The city’s Historic Resources Commission, against their wishes, placed the house on the Santa Ana Register of Historical Properties in October 2003, an action that the City Council upheld in early 2004. Given the strict guidelines the city has in place for altering the exterior of historic structures, the new roof was denied.

“Over the last few years we’ve spent a lot of money on multiple repairs,” Quynh said. “We are ready to maintain the look of it. But this is not a museum. This is not a public structure where people would visit. It should be a home where we can live.”

About two years later, the Kieus, still dealing with leaks, remodeled the second-floor cornice, canopy and balcony areas with stucco-covered Styrofoam trim. The city, contending the unpermitted work didn’t match the building’s architectural style, filed misdemeanor charges. The Kieus brought in an architect who contended that the trim they used was consistent with the original design. The 2007 case was resolved when the commission approved conditions that included reducing the width of balcony trim.

In a rush to get their home ready for the wedding of one of their daughters, the Kieus in November replaced 10 steel casement windows with dual-pane sliding windows – to stop leaks and ward off the chill. Quynh said the custom-built windows, designed to resemble the originals, cost about $30,000 – more than the $20,000 standard windows would have cost, less than the $80,000 that casement replacements would have cost. Quynh said the city sent a notice that she needed permission to install the windows. She plans to seek a variance.

“They can keep it historical, but give me standards that I can afford, and I can live with so that I can keep the house in decent shape so it doesn’t get damaged anymore,” she said.


The Kieus earlier this year filed a request with the city Historic Resources Commission to have their home taken off the city’s list of historical properties, contending that alterations made in the 1990s had affected the style of the house. City staff recommended keeping the house on the register, saying that despite the work of the 1990s, the house retained its architectural qualities, as well as its historic ties to a sitting foreign ruler.

A series of neighbors stood before the commission last month, arguing in favor of a staff recommendation to keep the house on the city’s list, describing it as a treasure, a landmark, “a jewel in French Park.” The Kieus’ request was denied on a 6-0 vote.

“Sometimes the good of the community has to sometimes take the place of the owners’ rights,” said Sean H. Mill, a member of the commission. “This home is truly a historic and cultural treasure to our city….This is maybe the most iconic property, if not in Orange County, certainly in our city.”

Quynh, 63, said she and her husband, who share the house with a 4-year-old grandson and a cocker spaniel named Chop, want to remain in the house, and they’re committed to preserving its historic details whenever possible. Her husband, who is 71, is looking forward to retirement, and using his last year or so of income to pay for repairs that will see them through.

She pulled out her cellphone to look at a list of repairs the past few years aimed at stemming leaks, since 2008 – some $46,000.

Every few years, the roof needs to be resurfaced, at a cost of up to about $36,000.

In November, two balconies comprising about 450 square feet were covered with a protective layer of Styrofoam at a cost of $8,800. It would be possible to coat the entire roof, but it’s nearly 10 times as big. Quynh said that a slightly pitched roof would solve the problem, and save money and further damage to the home in the long term.

“I’m not about changing the look of it,” she said. “Just about trying to fix it in a way that we can still live in it.”

Quynh said that a contractor just finished up another roof resealing, at a cost of $5,000.

She said she wants to seek a variance for the windows that were installed, and if needed, to seek permission to give the roof a slight pitch.

“We are willing to work with the historical commission to maintain the appearance, but we should be given some options to be able to make it feasible,” she said. “So where there is a little bit of an innovation where we can place a little pitch of a roof that no one can see from the outside, and which still maintains the look of the house. That’s something that we can live with.”

$ell SmArt… with Art!