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Maps alter the course of several lives

LOS ANGELES — None of them could have predicted the direction their lives would take when tens of thousands of maps were discovered this fall in a tiny cottage at the top of Mount Washington.

Just ask the librarian, the neighbor, the real estate agent and the retired Air Force man in Las Vegas, whose fates converged around the collection amassed over half a century by John Everett Feathers, who died of AIDS in February.

The cottage was crammed with bound atlases, wall-size roll-up maps and globes. Crates and cabinet drawers were filled with fold-out street maps. A gutted stereo case was even stuffed with maps where its electronic innards had once been.

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The astonishing collection was uncovered by the real estate agent hired by the owners of the 948-square-foot house where Feathers had lived to empty out its contents. Told to throw out whatever he found, Matthew Greenberg instead called the Los Angeles Central Library's Glen Creason.

Creason went to take a look; what he saw would make the downtown library into one of the country's leading map archives and turn his life upside down.

It took weeks to unpack the 220 cardboard boxes that he and a group of movers, library workers and volunteers hauled from the cottage in October. It may take years to sort through all of the maps. Volunteers gathered one Saturday earlier this month and started organizing the maps by geographic area. Eventually each map will bear a Dewey Decimal System number.

Creason is already using Feathers' maps to answer library patrons' questions. One inquiry dealt with the locations of World War II era Civil Defense stations. A 1942 Jack Renie street guide held the answer. Previously, the library did not have any Renie guides earlier than the 1949 edition, Creason said.

"It's been really fun. These maps have attracted so much attention. I've gotten emails from all over the country. People come in and actually know my name," he said, with a laugh. "It's been really positive for the library. It's been a good thing."

Greenberg has found that the maps' discovery was a game changer for him, too. The unwitting public service he performed has given him new perspective on his real estate work and his life.

"Personally, the experience at the house was life changing. Giving away the maps was like the pebble in the lake: There was a ripple effect. It's made me look at things differently. With my work, right now I'm as busy as I could ever be," he said.

Earlier this month he was invited to discuss the maps' discovery at a rare books fundraiser at the downtown library and met several of Feathers' friends. They filled in some of the blanks about the collector's life for Greenberg.

The maps' discovery changed the fate of his listing, too. Greenberg had expected to have the lot subdivided for new homes. But the flurry of October map-packing attracted the attention of Mount Washington residents, among them Maureen Burke, who walked over with a neighbor to see what was going on.

There they met Greenberg, and Burke mentioned she was looking to move out of the small nearby guesthouse she rents and buy a tiny house of her own. When she heard that Feathers' old cottage was being viewed as a tear-down, she inquired about buying it.

Escrow closed earlier this month; and Burke, an advertising makeup artist, plans to move in when renovations are completed in early spring.

"I'd been renting 7 1/2 years on this same street and was being outbid for everything in my price range that I found," she explained. "Without sounding too out there, I'll say that how this turned out feels amazing."

Burke purchased the property from the estate of Walter Keller, who had been Feathers' companion before his own death two years ago. Keller had arranged with his brother and sister, twins Marvin Keller and Esther Baum, for Feathers to stay there rent-free as long as he lived.

"I told Marv I understand why his brother loved living there so much. The views are wonderful, the neighbors are nice," said Burke. "Walter liked to have parties. I told them that after I move in, I'll have a party and invite them."

Baum and Keller were happy with the $450,000 selling price, Greenberg said. "It was a good deal for everybody."

While Burke's purchase was still in escrow, she and Creason found two more boxes of maps that had been overlooked, hidden beneath some stairs.

The enthusiasm over Feathers' maps has made his father look at his son differently.

John Elmer Feathers, now an 82-year-old Air Force veteran and VA retiree who lives in Las Vegas, said he and his son had drifted apart in the last years of his life. "He didn't want to be a burden when he got AIDS," the elder Feathers said.

His son began collecting maps when he became an avid National Geographic reader as a boy, according to Feathers. "All of the magazines came with maps in them. After that, he would pick up free maps at gas stations when we were on road trips. He loved to travel all of his life."

The younger Feathers, nicknamed Jeff by the family, grew up a loner. He was born at an Air Force base hospital in Massachusetts with a cleft palate that caused speech problems that led him to be tagged a slow learner, his father said. In Los Angeles, he worked as a hospital dietitian and spent virtually all he earned buying more maps.

The elder Feathers said his son would be pleased to know that people will be able to use his maps for generations to come.

"It sounds like the library is going to do him up proud. He'd appreciate that."

bob.pool@latimes.com
 

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