Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Houses Again

This is the sort of-somewhat Mid Century Modern house in suburban Sacramento that I grew up in. Well, "grew up..." Maybe it's a "coming of age" story. Maybe not.

My mother bought the house in 1962 when I was 13 and I moved out in 1968 when I was 19. I moved back in 1973 (with Ms Ché) when my mother went to work in Stockton, and moved out again in 1975 when Ms Ché and I moved to San Francisco.

The house looked a lot like this when my mother bought it (for something like $17,500).

It looks like this now:

In between time, I painted the exterior avocado green. I planted the Japanese maple trees in the front yard. Most of the shrubbery, though, was there when we moved in. The people who bought the house from my mother in 1985 painted it white and it's been white ever since. They also made some slight landscaping adjustments and replaced the garage and entry doors. Other than that, it's pretty much the same as when I lived there. As far as I know, the address board I made in 9th grade shop class is still over the garage door.

The house had three bedrooms and two baths, built in electric range and oven in the kitchen, hardwood floors in the main rooms, a used brick fireplace in the living room as well as a wall of floor to ceiling windows with a sliding glass door to the backyard, but not much else. It was plain to the point of Spartan. There is just over 1250 square feet of living area.

The house was built in 1957 with a vaguely "Japanese" exterior, but there were dozens of other houses with the same floor plan in the neighborhood, and there were three exterior designs to choose from: contemporary, Japanese, or farmhouse. The interiors were all the same; the exteriors were actually more similar than not.

Every once in a while, one of these houses goes up for sale, generally listing between $270,000 and $300,000, and so far, none of the ones I've seen listed has undergone a gut renovation. In fact, most have had only normal repairs and replacement updates. Floors and appliances have been replaced in the kitchens, maybe a built in dishwasher has been added and the original sink replaced. Sometimes the kitchen cabinets and countertops have been replaced along with the appliances, but just as often, the original cabinetry remains. Bathrooms have had vanities installed and perhaps bigger mirrors and better lighting, Central air conditioning has probably been installed. The original aluminum windows have likely been changed out for vinyl. Roofs have been replaced. Decor has changed a bit from the 1950s. But otherwise the houses with this floor plan that I've seen listed were very similar to the one I grew up in.

This kitchen, for example, is almost exactly the same as the one in our house -- but for the newer appliances and the lighter stain or wash on the cabinets.

Even the countertop appears to be the same as in our house or very similar to it. Ours was this pattern Formica (Skylark):

And about that countertop, though installed in 1957, it featured something that's become ubiquitous on the home remodeling shows: a breakfast bar.

Though it doesn't show very well in this picture, the "breakfast bar" was about a 12" extension of the counter with an 8" overhang.

Though there are no barstools in the picture, we had two rattan and wrought iron ones (very popular back in the day) and from time to time we would sit at the counter having... ta da... breakfast. Note, there are no pendant lights over the counter-bar. There wouldn't have been in those days!

The cabinets were oak veneered plywood and had a sort of butternut finish. In this house, it looks like the finish was stripped and a pale yellow wash or bleach was applied. They're not painted. But they are the same cabinets. The hardware is hammered copper and is original. The tile pattern flooring appears to be vinyl and would have replaced stone pattern linoleum -- yes, real linoleum which was still widely available and very popular back then.

The problem we found with this linoleum was that the finish wore off rather quickly. We replaced the linoleum with vinyl asbestos tiles within a few years of moving in. Also a note for those who have pets and would like to have real linoleum floors today: think about it long and hard. Pet urine will destroy the linoleum surface in a twinkling. It cannot be restored. Word to the wise. Pet urine on hardwood floors can be even more destructive though repairs are possible.

The light fixtures don't have the original "space-the-final-frontier" globes, and just like us, the householder has replaced them with plain white spheres. I noted that some houses listed for sale had the original light globes, which I'm sure delighted Mid-Century fans and probably disgusted HGTV fans. The whole kitchen would throw them into a tizzy of horror and disgust. Sixty year old Formica?! Ewww! Must have granite! Marble! Quartz! What is that sink? Must have farmhouse apron sink! And that built in range and oven must date from the '70s! (Can you imagine what they'd think of the original appliances from the 1950s??) Who could stand to use them? They must be gross if they work at all. And electric???! Horrors! Rip it out and put in a Wolf or one of the other high end "dream" free-standing gas range. Those cabinets are soooooo dated. Rip them out too. Subway tile and open shelves are much better above the counter, and those lower cabinets are soooo ugly! How could any body live that way! Need recessed lighting, crown molding, and PENDANTS!!! over the breakfast bar! Stat!

Then the HGTV fan realizes the kitchen is really tiny, barely 10'x10' and there's no room for an island. How can you cook in it! Rip it out to the studs and incorporate the adjacent space (originally called a "family room" but it's only 10'x10' too) to make something at least potentially...something!

Here's a view of the kitchen and "family room" from another angle:

Yes, those false beams were in our house too. There's a built in dishwasher in the picture which would have been added later -  whenever the rest of the appliances would have been replaced. Our range and oven went out in the '70s.  We had a portable dishwasher. The picture makes the kitchen and "family room" look much larger than they are. No, I recall they were very cramped especially when we had parties.

Rip it all out right away! You have to! Can't live like this! [Per HGTV, This Old House, etc.]

The problem is there's no place to expand these rooms without taking space from others. Beyond the double window in the "family room" is a side yard that's barely 6' wide if that. Out the door on the right is the garage. Some homeowners expanded the "family room" into the garage space by six feet or so, but that's about as far as you could go without making the garage too small to accommodate autos. 

There's a laundry area in the garage on the kitchen side of the door in the picture. It was interesting. The electric water heater was on family room side of the door. On the kitchen side, there was just enough space for a washer and dryer, but nothing else. There was no vent for the dryer if you had one (but there was a 240v plug to plug one in on the assumption you'd get one.) The dryer location was on the door side of the space rather than the exterior wall, so a vent had to be installed by the washer, and a vent hose had to be run behind the washer. Once that was done, the dryer vented into an alcove by the front door. Not exactly best practice, I would think.

On the other side of the house was the living room. The picture of this living room is remarkably similar to our own:

The wall by the fireplace wasn't paneled in our house and the far wall in the dining area featured various wall papers over the years. It also had a high capacity room air conditioner punched through the wall high up. 

Sacramento is notorious for hot summers ("But it's a dry heat!" Feh.). Temperatures above 110° are not unusual. Some people got by in those days with swamp coolers, but when the temps were above about 104° they didn't do much of anything; likewise when humidity was above about 25% they ceased to have much effect on temps.  So for about half the summer, the swamp cooler would simply blow hot, wet air around... 

We got a room air conditioner (from Sears, I believe) for our previous (rental) house -- which we left there -- and got a much larger one for this house. A handyman installed it together with the appropriate 220v electric connection. 

Well, it cooled the living room, "family room" and kitchen reasonably well, but it could not cool the bedrooms. Eventually we got another window air conditioner for the master bedroom, but the other two bedrooms had to make do with fans. I remember being unable to sleep some summer nights because of the heat. Often, however, by early morning a sea breeze would come in from the Bay Area and cool outside temperatures down to tolerable levels. Of course  that could cause problems for the air conditioners. They would ice up if outside temps fell too low and would cease working. It could be a constant struggle to balance outside heat and inside cooling. Over time, most locals shifted to central air conditioning -- which was very expensive to install and operate in those days and I imagine still is -- but we never did. In fact, though I've lived in many different houses in lots of warm climates, I've never lived in one with central air conditioning. Hm. How about that? [It can get warm in the summertime where we are now in New Mexico, sometimes over 100°, but we make do with a couple of portable air conditioners and one window unit.]

The pictures distort the size of the living room. It wasn't all that large, though it was substantial. If I remember correctly, it measured 12X23. Toward the end of my stay in that house, the furniture arrangement was very similar to that in the picture. We always had a dining area at the far end of the room, but the furniture arrangement changed repeatedly in the living area as did the furniture itself. 

My mother had a thing for antiques, but sometimes what she bought was... um... inappropriate? Well, anyway, eventually, things settled down to a rather plain and sparse arrangement with some of her antiques and some newer things. I had wall-to-wall carpet installed and painted and papered the room in light colors, and what you see in the picture is pretty much what it looked like the last year or so that I lived there. I wish I had pictures of its Whorehouse Phase, though! 

Red flocked wall paper above paneled wainscot. Persian carpet. Wine red velvet drapes. Heavy Victorian and earlier antiques. Crystal chandelier. Pretty much over the top. It was a phase, mercifully fairly brief, that was inspired in part by TV westerns and a sense of how certain people with too much money were decorating their Victorian houses in San Francisco. 

By the '70s, though, that style was so far out of favor that it seemed gross. When Ms. Ché and I were getting ready to move in after my mother moved to Stockton, the first priority was to re-do the house. It took several weeks, but the results were pretty satisfying.

Some thoughts about living there: 

The neighborhood was new-ish when we moved in. Most houses were built in 1956 and 1957, but by 1962, a whole new section of the development was under construction on the other side of the freeway. 

Our house was across the street from a proposed park that had never been developed. It was a weedy, dusty five acres for years after we moved in, and might have stayed that way forever if it hadn't been for a push by the neighborhood association to get the county to proceed. Finally, late in the '60s grass and trees were planted and a couple of softball diamonds were laid out. Progress!

It was a middle-class neighborhood from the outset. Not fancy. Plain. But nice. There was a pool-and-tennis club on each side of the freeway, an elementary school; a junior high and later a high school were planned as part of the development. I attended the brand new junior high and I was in the first class that graduated from the high school.

Many of our neighbors were military -- either active duty or retired -- mostly air force. There was an air force base a few miles away. My mother had worked at that base as a civilian during World War II -- it's where she met my father who was at the time a training officer in the Army Air Corps -- and she was briefly stationed there after she joined the Women's Army Air Corps in 1944. She was discharged less than a year later -- she said it was because she contracted polio. 

The development was built on part of what had been a transit camp for Japanese American internees. Most of the camp burned not long after the end of the war, and  what was left was demolished. The land was sold off as surplus property and houses were built about ten years later. A freeway (I-80) was run through the middle. 

My mother was adamant about the injustice of Japanese-American "relocation" during WWII. This was partly due to the fact that she, her first husband, and my (half) sister were living in a house on an orchard in Broderick (west across the river from Sacramento) that was owned or leased by the Watanabe family. There's some confusion about whether they owned or leased the orchard as at the time it was difficult or impossible for Japanese people to own property in California, so many leased land from white owners. But my mother thought they owned their land. 

[Note: I've come across some additional information since I first started writing this piece. It turns out the Watanabes were tenants on the ranch/orchard owned by a prominent Anglo family whose residence was also on the ranch. Now that I've seen the information, I remember that my mother had mentioned that family several times as she was friends with the wife and daughter of the owner. How my mother, her first husband and my (half) sister got to the ranch is still something of a mystery. My sister's father was working as an "oil jobber" -- I thought -- but census records indicate he was either a filling station attendant or a mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership in Sacramento. He could have been both.]

My mother said the Watanabes were wonderful people, and when the orders came to remove "Japs" from the West Coast, she was outraged. She said many whites were outraged about it, but there was nothing they could legally do to prevent it. So the Watanabes were rounded up. My mother and her household were evicted. They moved across the river into town. Shortly thereafter my mother and my sister's father got a divorce. [Complicated story that needn't be told here.]

It was somewhat ironic that we wound up living on the site of one of the transit camps. There was a vacant field north west of the park-that-wasn't where I found concrete slabs, fused glass and charred wood along cracked and weed-grown asphalt pavements -- remains of barracks and roads that once formed a section of the camp. When I came upon these remnants, I was fascinated, but I didn't know what they were. Maybe there was a town that burned down? My mother told me what it was, or what she thought it was. She remembered there was a camp where Japanese Americans were held before they were taken to Manzanar or wherever they wound up under "relocation," and the camp wasn't far from the air force base where she worked. She went with me once to look at the ruins, and she said yes, that must be what was left of the camp. She had thought our place was near the camp. She didn't realize that the neighborhood and our house was built on it.

To my mind, it gave the neighborhood a somewhat sad and dark spirit. I could sense it, but at least at first, I had no idea why it was there.

Initially, the neighborhood was all white. A factor of Sacramento and most of California in the '50s and early '60s that I didn't comprehend was that most neighborhoods were segregated. "Whites Only" was the rule. There were exceptions here and there, and until I got to Sacramento, I had always lived in one of those exceptions, in mixed race neighborhoods in Southern California and on the Central Coast. And briefly, I lived in a rural area east of Sacramento that was mostly populated by Japanese-American returnees from the camps. Not so in Sacramento.

This neighborhood, like my previous one, was strictly "Whites Only" by covenant. These covenants were struck down by the Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963, which was countered by Proposition 14 in 1964, which was followed by all kinds of court cases that ultimately ended housing segregation by covenant in California. That's not to say that neighborhoods aren't still very segregated in California -- they are. They say it is so by affinity and preference, but I've seen how real estate agents operate, steering residents into the kinds of neighborhoods where they'll "feel comfortable." By this and other means, segregation is maintained and enforced.

As a test, a black family, headed by an Air Force colonel, bought a house in the neighborhood in 1964. Word got around and when they were ready to move in, some of the white neighbors got together to prevent it. There were a number of confrontations, a cross was burned, sheriff's deputies were called, the house was egged and vandalized. It got ugly. Ultimately, the white supremĵacist hotheads were convinced to stand down. I think this was due in large part because there were so many Air Force families already living in the neighborhood, and the Air Force had long been racially integrated. A colonel, a pilot, was due respect, regardless of race. And so the first black family moved in to the neighborhood. 

They kept to themselves; we hardly ever saw them. There were two daughters, as I recall but they were sent to private school, as I'll bet the family did not want to have them face the kind of hostility they might encounter in the neighborhood's public schools. So I hardly ever saw and never knew the daughters.

I walked by their house every day when I went to the junior high and high school on the other side of the freeway. The pedestrian overpass was just a few doors away from the colonel's house. I could see into their back yard from the overpass. Sometimes, someone would be out in the back yard but rarely.

Most of my friends and their parents were OK with "limited" integration, so long as the integrate-ees were "civilized". Military families usually fit the bill, so the hoo--hah over the colonel's family seemed out of bounds. Needless to say, it was a difficult matter for many residents. 

And then, interestingly, it wasn't. An Asian family moved in. Several Latino families. One or two other black families. Nobody cared much any more, but I noticed some of the early-day white families moving out. They were almost all headed east into the foothills where "whiteness" was preserved, and to this day, so I understand, the former Gold Rush counties of El Dorado, Placer, Calaveras, and others on the western slopes of the Sierras are some of the whitest counties in the country.


While I had quite a few friends at school, not many of them lived in my part of the neighborhood. Sheila, Christine, and Danny lived not too far away, but I wasn't particularly close friends with them. On the other hand, Bob and Tom and Duane and several others that I was close to lived in a different neighborhood altogether, relatively close to my own but built by a different developer for a different sort of clientèle on the other side of the freeway. So when I think about it, I really didn't have close friends in my own neighborhood. 

That made me kind of independent and something of a wanderer as a teenager. I think my world was bigger than that of most teenagers, but it was lonelier too. My situation was not entirely different in my own mind than Jim Stark. [Rebel Without a Cause.

Like Jim, we'd moved many times already;  I think it was ten times by the time we got to this house. Most of the time, I thought we were moving so that my mother could take a better job and make more money so we could live better. But I've come to the conclusion it was much more complicated than that. Not all the moves were voluntary. 

My mother was fired from several jobs, and finding another sometimes meant moving a long distance (such as from Los Angeles County to Sacramento.)The houses we lived in (we always lived in houses, never apartments) were sometimes in bad neighborhoods or had problems with plumbing or electrical issues or what have you that made them... difficult to live in. And there may have been unspoken reasons for some moves....

But that's another issue for another time.

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