Friday, December 30, 2016

Houses: My Mother Grew Up Here

Herself lived here...
This is the house where my mother grew up in Santa Maria, California. Until recently, I didn't know where she had lived in Santa Maria when she was young. I don't think she ever told me, and I'm not sure I ever asked, despite the fact that I lived in Santa Maria from 1949 to 1953, and I spent most summers there from 1973 to 1983.

The picture was taken by the omnipresent Google Street View in 2012, before the house was fairly extensively rehabbed. Though the front porch is enclosed in this image, and the paint color is not likely to have been original (ha), the picture gives a pretty good idea of what the house was like when my mother lived there.

It seems to me to be quite a pleasant place, all things considered.

It's a classic California bungalow built c. 1918. My mother, her mother, and her step-father moved to California from Indiana in 1917, and I'm pretty sure that my mother's step-father had this house built shortly thereafter. In 1920, it was apparently the only house on that side of the street. It was two blocks from my mother's stepfather -- Leo's -- work at the Eugene Rubel Dodge dealership on Broadway.

"A Classic California Bungalow" gives me pause. Our last home in California was in a neighborhood full of "Classic California Bungalows" and I can't say that I was particularly fond of them. They tended to be dark as caves, and if they were in original condition -- few of them were -- they were poorly constructed, rickety, rotting, with unsafe and inadequate wiring, failing plumbing, tiny kitchens, and otherwise barely functional interiors.

They were considered the height of modernity back in the day, however, so much better and simpler they were than the gaudy Victorians they replaced. In California at the time this house was built, the Bungalow was the nearly universal modest home style, and I can well imagine that the family that moved from industrial Indianapolis to idyllic California in 1917 were entranced with the idea of building and living in one.

Leo worked for the streetcar company in Indianapolis. The streetcar company was notorious for its ill treatment and very low pay of employees and for appalling working conditions.  In California, Leo went to work in the repair shop for a prominent auto dealer and worked his way up to service manager. I always thought Leo's heritage was Irish or Welsh, but it turns out he was of German descent, as was Rubel, and he was a member of the Knights of Pythias by which connection he was able to move to California and find work quickly.

The house he built in Santa Maria wasn't large by today's standards, but it was more than adequate for the needs of his small family at the time. It appears to have been lighter and brighter than most bungalows. The front faces south, and the large picture window in the living room must have let in lots of light. There is a large south facing window in the dining room as well, but as it is sheltered by the porch roof, it wouldn't have let in quite as much light. On the other hand, there is a high window on the east side of the dining room that would have flooded the room with morning sun. So much that there is a wood frame for a shade above the dining room window. The kitchen and the breakfast room also face east, so the morning light would have been generous and cheery -- at least when it wasn't foggy.

There are high windows on either side of the fireplace in the living room, and they could have let in abundant afternoon light as they face west. Each bedroom and the bathroom also have windows facing west. In most of the country, west-facing windows are a bane, especially in summer, but on California's central coast, that's often not the case. Ordinarily, the fog rolls in from the Pacific each afternoon, softening or eliminating the heat and glare of the western sun. Even when the sun shines in the west on the Central Coast, it is hardly ever hot.

I had thought that the main entry to the house was on the east wall of the living room, but now I think not. There is an indication that the front door is actually directly across the porch from the door visible in the picture above. It probably did not open into the dining room,  however. In the similar floorplan I found in Keith's Magazine (c. 1916), there is a small vestibule and hallway separating the living and dining rooms, and something like that is what I suspect this house featured.

The dining room would have been smaller than is indicated from the exterior. It may have been smaller, but it had typical bungalow built ins -- a buffet under the horizontal window, and two glass doored china cabinets on either side. The living room probably boasted glass doored book cases on either side of the fireplace.

I don't know whether the ceilings in the living and dining room had box beams, but it wouldn't have been surprising if they did. Pan ceiling lights would also be expected, but and there may have been side lights as well.

The floors would have been oak -- except in the kitchen, bath, breakfast room and screen porch. I expect that all except the bath had linoleum floor coverings; the bathroom probably had tile flooring -- the small hexagon tiles so common in those days.

What kind of bathroom fixtures there were, and whether there was a claw-foot tub or a built in tub, is a mystery. I suspect the fixtures were the most modern, however. The idea of having a house like this was to be as up to date as possible.

A bungalow kitchen sink

The kitchen probably had a row of cabinets with tile countertops. A sink was in the center under the east window. On the opposite wall was no doubt a gas stove. The ice box was probably located on the screen porch the way they were in those days. I imagine there was a "California cooler" at the end of the counter in the kitchen, so the ice box was probably small compared to some. There were no doubt laundry tubs on the screen porch, but I have a feeling that Edna (Mrs. Leo) had a washing machine from very early on as well. She probably acquired a radio and an electric refrigerator as soon as they were reasonably priced and available in Santa Maria. As a side note, Santa Maria at that time was a small rural community dominated by a few pioneer ranching/farming families. They ran cattle and grew fruits and vegetables for market. It wasn't unlike the Salinas of Steinbeck's East of Eden -- with the exception that I think the people of Santa Maria were a good deal nicer, but that's another story.

The rooms in this house not large by today's standards, and I expect the house probably had less than 1,200  square feet in total.

The house would have been considered "neat and tidy" when it was new. My sense is that it always had a stucco exterior, probably without the lower brick veneer seen in the photo. I imagine it was furnished simply. More likely simplicity was the style favored by my mother's parents from their own experience in Indiana. I think they brought a lot of that Midwest simple-living ethic with them to California and never entirely lost it. My mother inherited some of that, too.

I don't know for certain, but I suspect the house was painted barn-red with white trim when my mother was growing up there. I have this notion because that color scheme was one she talked about frequently. She tried to get my father to paint his own house in Iowa that color, but he wouldn't do it. He did, however, have a three-part front window put in to please my mother; she complained that his house was "so dark."

From real estate and other listings I've been able to find, it appears that the house was used as an office building in recent years, primarily for medical and chiropractic offices. But it has retained most of its residential character. After it was last sold in 2014, it was extensively rehabbed -- I wouldn't say it was necessarily remodeled or restored -- and it appears to have been returned to residential use.

My mother got married the first time in 1932, and she moved into a small duplex with her husband -- who was an employee at Eugene Rubel's, an auto mechanic working under Leo. Not long afterwards, Leo sold this house and he and Edna bought an auto court in Willits on the Redwood Highway.

 In 1939, Leo sold that and "invested" all his money in a mining venture in Nevada. Turns out it was a fraud, and he lost everything. I suspect he barely escaped going to jail.

By 1941, he and Edna were back in California where Leo took work as a machinist at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. Edna was ill with the cancer that would kill her by the end of the year. My mother and sister were in Sacramento. My mother would divorce her first husband in 1941 or 42 (I've never known the exact date -- all my mother told me was that she and my sister's father were married "for about ten years.")

My mother and father were married in 1947, divorced in 1949. My mother vowed never to get married again, and never to depend on a man again, and she didn't. It was tough at first, but she made her own way the rest of her life, and I've admired her courage throughout.

I think this Santa Maria bungalow had a very strong influence on the way she came to see herself and the way she wanted to live. Never again would she live in a bungalow per se, but she insisted on living in a house as opposed to an apartment, and when she could, she owned her own houses rather than renting. A surprising number of the houses she lived in resembled this bungalow, as have a surprising number of houses Ms Ché and I have lived in on our own. Indeed, the house we live in now has some fairly strong resemblances.

It's more because the style became standardized than anything else.

As I think about this house and imagine how it might have been when my mother was growing up, I can more and more easily picture it and the effect it had on her. She never indicated to me that she was an unhappy child -- except for one thing: she wasn't adopted by Leo, and she always knew that he wasn't her natural father. She used his last name and she said he always treated her as his daughter, and he was a kind and generous man, but he wasn't her father. And that made for... difficulties that she couldn't control. She didn't know her biological father. He was killed when she was five years old, but he had left Indianapolis years before when she was only one or two years old. The absent father became a theme later in her life.

Leo's failure to strike it rich in Nevada and Edna's subsequent death from untreated cancer (they were Christian Scientists), followed by my mother's divorce from my sister's father led to a period of intense chaos in my mother's life, chaos that only started to settle in the early 50s, and even then, nothing ever quite settled down for her.

She lived an interesting life... ;-)

As a point of reference, this is apparently the Santa Maria bungalow where my mother and her family lived until Leo built or bought the house at the top of the post.

She also lived here...
I say "apparently" because the address of this house isn't exactly the same as the one listed for the family until 1918. It's two numbers off, and houses on this street are numbered by tens.

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